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Sir Edward Watkin, chairman of the Metropolitan Railway Board in the 1880s, was a man with big ideas.  His main aim in life was a railway line to connect the north of England with France by means of a Channel tunnel (which was in fact started) but he also owned land at Wembley Park, north of London, which he envisaged turning into grand pleasure grounds.  He wanted the centrepiece of this to be a great tower; bigger, taller and altogether better than the one Gustave Eiffel had recently completed in Paris.

 To realise this vision, the Metropolitan Tower Construction Company was set up and they promoted an international competition, inviting architects of the day to put forward designs for a tower of not less than 1,200 feet – it had to be taller than the Eiffel Tower.  These were eventually published [Descriptive illustrated catalogue of the sixty-eight competitive designs for the great tower for London. 1890.8.495] and it is now fascinating to look through the proposals and marvel at the inventiveness and ingenuity displayed.

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In fact, none of these designs really impressed the judges, but they settled on one that looked remarkably similar to the Eiffel Tower (but 175 feet higher) and set about building it.  The New York Times reported on this with some enthusiasm, telling its readers how “the Wembley Tower crowns an eminence of the beautiful Wembley Park, affording a lovely view of the surrounding country.”  It goes on to inform that “over 150 men are now employed fitting pieces of the tower together, and it is wonderful what rapid progress they make.” [NYT, May 20, 1894]

 Sadly, despite allowing two years for the foundations to settle, the ground could not take the weight of the structure and it began to subside.  Only the first stage of the tower up to the lower platform was built and while it was something of an attraction for a year or so, it was soon nick-named Watkin’s Folly as work was abandoned.  Eventually, in 1907, it was dismantled and the metal work recycled.  However, if you happen to visit Wembley Stadium, spare a thought for the remains of the tower’s concrete foundations, which lie underneath the pitch.