Although initially mocked in some quarters as Prince Albert’s ‘folly’, the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park was a triumph. But the agreement had always been that the great glass gallery, which had become known as the ‘Crystal Palace’, would be removed after the fair was over, and the parkland setting then restored. But as the Earl of Carlisle wrote when that time approached, ‘the destruction of the Crystal Palace would be as perverse and senseless an act of vandalism as could be perpetuated’. Moving the building to an ‘open and accessible spot’ outside the city seemed the most sensible solution, but one man had other ideas…
In May 1852 The Builder magazine ran a feature entitled ‘Proposal for the Conversion of the Great Exhibition Building into a Prospect Tower 1000 Feet High’. The author was Charles Burton, who called himself an architect, although he seems to have made his living as an artist. Burton proposed that a tower could be constructed from the materials of the Crystal Palace, giving an opportunity to erect a ‘gigantic tower at so comparatively trifling a cost’. There would be a conservatory at ground level, and four ‘carriages or ascending rooms’ would run on a steam-powered ‘vertical railway’ to take visitors to the top. The tower terminated with a glazed gallery as well as an open platform for the more adventurous.
Burton had produced lithographs giving aerial views of the Crystal Palace, having developed a passion for bird’s-eye views after travelling by balloon over London, and also over the Niagara Falls when he lived in America.
It is not clear how seriously anyone took Burton’s idea, but it was widely discussed in the newspapers. The Kendal Mercury informed its readers that the tower ‘would be as high as St Peter’s, St Paul’s and the Nelson Column, one stuck on top of the other!’.
Burton ended his proposal with the important note that ‘Messrs Fox and Henderson have expressed their conviction that the project could be carried out’. Fox and Henderson were the civil engineers who constructed the Crystal Palace, and who were contracted to take it down. They were presumably pleased that Burton’s plan was rejected, for they received the lucrative contract to rebuild the vast structure at Sydenham (they also received knighthoods).
Revisiting the story some decades later in 1889 a Birmingham Weekly Mercury reporter thought an opportunity had been missed to create a ‘marvellous and beautiful sight’ and he was clearly miffed that France had taken the glory when Gustav Eiffel proved that ‘these giant edifices were possible’. The patriotic paper concluded that ‘it stands to reason that if there are to be great towers in the world England must have one, but a chance of leading the way was lost in 1851’.
Charles Burton remains something of a mystery. He does not seem to appear as an ‘architect’ anywhere except in connection with the tower, and the Charles Burton (1805-1866) who called himself ‘artist’ in the census returns of 1841-1861 is probably our man. When the tower proposal was published in 1852 he was newly-returned to England after a period in the United States. Ironically, his ideas for a building 1,000 feet high might have been better received in America, which in only a few decades would become famed for the development of skyscrapers.
Of course England did later become home to a number of Eiffel Tower lookalikes, of which only the grade I listed Blackpool Tower, constructed in the last decade of the 19th century, survives.
Built in the same period was the tower at New Brighton on the Wirral Peninsula. It was the tallest building in Britain at that date, and built atop a grand Cheshire chateau housing a ballroom. The tower was taken down after the First World War, and the ballroom sadly destroyed by fire in 1969.
Also contemporary, and by far the most ambitious, was the tower planned by Sir Edward Watkin to attract people to the developing London suburbs. This was the first of the British responses to the Eiffel Tower when work began in 1891. The tower was to rise to over 1,000 feet, deliberately out-doing the Parisian original, and it was to be the centrepiece of a grand park. But work was abandoned after only the lowest section was complete, and the site is now home to the Wembley Stadium. The story of the tower featured in Metroland, John Betjeman’s celebration of the suburbs, produced by Edward Mirzoeff. Serendipitously, the film is being shown on BBC4 on Sunday 26 February 2023 to mark the 50th anniversary of its first broadcast. There’s more here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00cyyqw
Looking at the London skyline today Charles Burton was clearly a man way ahead of his time – the Shard, London’s tallest tower, is 309.6m, or 1016′ high, and was completed around 160 years after Burton’s proposal.
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