architecture, belvedere, garden history, London, Observatory, Tower

From Crystal Palace to Crystal Pinnacle: an ambitious idea.

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.

Charles Burton’s ‘Aeronautic View of the Great Exhibition Building’ 1851 ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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!’.

Charles Burton’s original design which was sold at the ‘Gentleman’s Library sale’ at Bonham’s in January 2011. Note the world landmarks added for scale – from a diminutive Stonehenge to the Great Pyramid. Courtesy of Bonhams.

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.

Blackpool Tower. The Folly Flâneuse had an excursion to the seaside, all in the name of research.

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.

The elegant New Brighton Tower on the Wirral in Cheshire (now Merseyside).

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.

The only section of Watkin’s Tower to be completed. It was quickly dubbed ‘Watkin’s Folly’. Source: Wikipedia

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

Image courtesy of The Shard.

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.

Thank you for reading. Comments are always welcome: please scroll down to the foot of the page to share any thoughts or further information.


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10 thoughts on “From Crystal Palace to Crystal Pinnacle: an ambitious idea.”

  1. Peter Brophy says:

    Typo: Metroland is showing on Sunday 26th.
    Many thanks for this. I’d never heard of the New Brighton tower – it and the Blackpool one must have been visible from one another.

    1. Editor says:

      Well spotted Peter! I’ve corrected my mistake. Yes, the two towers must have been rival attractions. The New Brighton tower was so elegant atop the ballroom. Thanks for getting in touch.

  2. John Preston says:

    Watkins is a fascinating character, tried to build a Chanel Tunnel, built the Great Central Railway to continental loading gauge to join to his tunnel, planned a second railway up Snowden, attempted to finish the Welsh Highland Railway with electric trains (the hydro power station was built and remains below Snowdon up from Beddgelert) a man often ahead of his time. I wonder if there is a biography. Thanks for your post.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning John. Yes there could have been a whole post just on Watkin and his tower and civil engineering projects. Pleased you enjoyed today’s story.

  3. Gand says:

    What a shame the whole idea went for a Burton. It would have been truly spectacular.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gand. It certainly would, and I appreciate your play on words!

  4. Moira Garland says:

    No, I’ve never heard of the New Brighton Tower despite a certain familiarity with that area, spending my first 12 years Liverpool.
    Part of me is impressed at the plan for the re-use of the Crystal Palace. Another is slightly disdainful of these masculine competitors for building the tallest buildings only to inflate their own egos.
    Another fascinating story nevertheless. Thank you.

    1. Editor says:

      The ‘my tower is bigger than your tower’ competition continues apace! Thanks for your comment Moira.

  5. Lisa says:

    Fascinating article and great to see how people were inspired by the Crystal Palace.
    William Whiteley visited it in 1851 and it inspired him to open a luxury department store where everything would be under one roof rather than the usual small individual shops.
    Although Whiteley was from Yorkshire he left there and opened his Bayswater department store which traded until 1981.

    1. Editor says:

      I didn’t know this, what a lovely addition to the story. Thank you Lisa.

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