The Skylon: The Spindly Spaceship That Landed On South Bank

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 64 months ago

Last Updated 11 January 2019

The Skylon: The Spindly Spaceship That Landed On South Bank
Wynford Vaughn-Thomas and his BBC crew ascend The Skylon. The Sphere, 7 April 1951 Image © Illustrated London News Group

Spindly, sexy, from outer space...

Not Bowie, but The Skylon — the 300ft-tall spacecraft, which landed on the South Bank two decades before anyone knew who Ziggy Stardust was.

It was, of course, a tingling beacon for 1951's Festival of Britain, itself a bombastic glimpse into a Britain beyond picking through blitz debris and fumbling through ration books to pay for lumps of luncheon meat. In April, BBC commentator, Wynford Vaughn-Thomas braved a cradle ride to the summit of a then-skeletal Skylon, describing the scenes of festival preparation below. A nation was, if not in awe, then certainly curious.

While The Skylon itself was the winner of a £300 architectural prize — scooped by architects Hidalgo 'Jacko' Moya and Phillip Powell from a pool of 150 designs — its moniker was gifted by one Mrs Sheppard-Fiddler. She welded together 'sky hooks' and 'Nylon', to create a portmanteau that still zings with metallic chutzpah.

The Skylon nears completion, Illustrated London News, 7 April 1951. Image © Illustrated London News Group

Where there is cosmic sexiness, there is brouhaha — and not everyone looked fondly on the plans for this alien intruder. Skeptics of this Labour government-led festival crowed that The Skylon's spidery cables-for-legs were "Just like modern Britain — no visible means of support". There were also (well-founded) fears that The Skylon might be a lightning strike hazard, and it was fixed with a lightning conductor. In May 1951, a group of students scaled The Skylon, tying a University of London Air Squadron scarf to said lightning conductor.

Scrapping the Skylon

Winston Churchill: not a fan of The Skylon. Image: Shutterstock

The Festival of Britain and its beacon were a hit with the British public. Up to half the population turned up to see what the fuss was about, anyway. But these were the days before 'legacy' was a buzzword. We can forgive Winston Churchill his brandy breakfasts and swindling ways. But scrapping The Skylon once the festival had ended? Having returned to power in 1951, Churchill, who had considered the entire Festival to be social propaganda, now pushed to have the site torn down.

One of The Skylon's designers, Phillip Powell, decried the scuttling as pointless, due to the small amount of metal they'd retrieve. "It sounds to me like trying to get scrap out of a tin wrist watch," he sighed. A suggested move to the Duke of Bath's home was deemed too expensive. The town of Scarborough hinted they might like to purchase The Skylon. They're probably still kicking themselves for not going through with it.

Footage of the demolition of the Skylon and Dome of Discovery is painful to watch, literally. A construction worker is filmed falling off  — and then back onto — a girder. ("As a matter of fact he got away with only a few cuts," grins a cold narrator, still stuck in second world war propaganda mode).

After six months of ferocious dismantling, it was as if the Festival of Britain might have all been some communal, optimistic dream.

The Skylon lives on

The Skylon lives on in designs for a spaceplane. Image YouTube

Like Euston's doomed Doric arch, The Skylon was rumoured to have been unceremoniously dumped into the River Lee, like the prey of some East End gangster. Then, in 2011, a BBC Radio 4 documentary revealed that many shards of the doomed monolith had been turned into ceremonial paper knives, by scrap merchant George Cohen, Sons and Company (such knives were probably handed out to loyal customers with bottles of whisky at Christmas) .William Dean, headmaster of Highgate Primary School, discovered that his grandfather's watch was made out of Skylon scrap. It's no small irony, given Powell's barbed comments, that parts of the Skylon did indeed end up being made into wristwatches.

Oddly, the BBC is a constant in the story of the Skylon; George Cohen's headquarters in White City were sold off to the Beeb later in the 1950s, where it went on to build Television Centre.

The Skylon model at The Museum of London

The Skylon is remembered now in the name of the Festival Hall's swanky restaurant (how could Mrs Sheppard-Fiddler have ever foreseen her 'Skylon' being used to peddle seared halibut and chateaubriand?). Most impressively, the 1950s folly spacecraft has inspired designs for an actual spaceplane, bearing more than a passing resemblance to its prototype. The Attlee government would be happy to know that the spaceplane is a British design.

On the site between the London Eye and the Hungerford Bridge steps, there is nothing to suggest The Skylon existed. The closest you'll get to seeing it for yourself is the model that glows in a corner of the Museum of London. Like the proposed sequels to The Crystal Palace and Titanic, rumours of The Skylon's return to Earth have not been realised. Maybe it's better that way. As Shân Maclennan, Deputy Artistic Director at Southbank Centre, once said, The Skylon was always meant to represent something intangible.