When Earl's Court Had Its Own London Eye

By M@ Last edited 56 months ago
When Earl's Court Had Its Own London Eye

The London Eye has quickly established itself as an icon of London since its erection at the turn of the century. But it's not the first giant observation wheel to grace the skyline of London.

From 1895 to 1907, this enormous ferris wheel was a famous sight in Earl's Court.

The Great Wheel of Earl's Court around 1900. Public domain image.

The 'Great Wheel' was initially built as part of the Empire of India exhibition, though it physically and metaphorically overshadowed any exhibits. At 94 metres tall, the Earls' Court wheel was the largest in the world when first constructed, and the tallest structure in London, other than St Paul's.

A trip on the wheel would take about 20 minutes and cost sixpence. Its 40 cars, weighing four tons apiece, could each carry 40 people, giving it a theoretical capacity of 1,600. Aside from human passengers, the wheel was also a favourite roost for London's feathered population. In 1900, a cleaner found a goldcrest — Britain's smallest bird — perched inside one of the carriages.

Earlier plans would have seen additional restaurants on elevated platforms. (c) the British Library Board.

Things didn't always run smoothly. Shortly after opening, a drive cable snapped, trapping passengers for several hours. A more serious incident occurred the following year, when 60-70 people were stranded overnight. Where today we would send tweets and text messages, the imprisoned passengers dropped notes 'in pocket handkerchiefs, cigarette cases, pieces of paper and innumerable ways — to be telegraphed to their friends'. Upon their eventual release, the unfortunate punters were treated to hot soup and each given ten shillings compensation. This seemed to please most people. Some even joked that it was a profitable way to spend an evening.

(c) Illustrated London News Group.

An even greater reward awaited two passengers in particular. According to a later retrospective piece about the wheel, a man and woman who struck up a conversation during their all-night ordeal on the ride later got married.

(c) The British Library Board.

The steam-powered structure was a true wonder of the age, and Britain's answer to the Eiffel Tower. It was designed by Walter Basset, who drew inspiration from Chicago's original Ferris wheel of 1893. It was constructed in 1894-5 under the auspices of the magnificently titled Gigantic Wheel and Recreation Towers Company, using parts fabricated in Greenwich, and at a cost of £16,000. Construction was much delayed, to the evident joy of newspaper cartoonists.

(c) The Illustrated London News Group.

By the turn of the century, the novelty began to wear off and the wheel slipped into unprofitability. It was demolished in 1907 after carrying an estimated 2.5 million passengers. The steel was then sent to south Wales, were it was converted into biscuit and mustard packaging.

Demolition of the wheel, Jan-Mar 1907, from The Sphere. (c) The Illustrated London News Group.

Archive images via the British Newspaper Archive.

Last Updated 17 January 2017