Gigantic: the Earl’s Court Wheel

If you’ve ever been to Vienna you might have seen the Wiener Riesenrad. Or if you’ve seen the film the Third Man you’ll remember Orson Welles famous speech: “in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”  which he delivers while he and Joseph Cotten are riding one of the compartments in the Riesenrad. Constructed in 1897 and miraculously still surviving despite wartime damage and attempts to demolish it the Riesenrad is one of the oldest examples of a Ferris Wheel. The original Ferris Wheel designed by a naval engineer called William Graydon was built for the Chicago Exhibition in 1893. (It was taken apart and reassembled twice in its lifetime the last being at the World’s Fair in St Louis, another film connection although it doesn’t appear in Take me to St Louis.) The European rights to the patent were acquired by Walter Bassett another ex-navy man who was the director of a UK engineering company. It was Bassett’s company that built the Riesenrad and other versions of the Ferris Wheel in Paris, Blackpool and of course Earl’s Court.

The Great Wheel (also called the Big Wheel and my favourite the Gigantic Wheel) was constructed at the Earls Court Exhibition.

The Exhibition grounds had been squeezed onto surplus railways lands west of Warwick Road. They opened in 1887. One of the first attractions was William Cody’s Buffalo Bill Rough Riders and Redskin Show. There were also “national” exhibitions – French, German and Italian – a concert hall and a switchback railway. The spectacles became increasingly ambitious under the new proprietor Imre Kiralfy who rebuilt most of the buildings on the site. It was he who brought in Walter Bassett to create the Earls Court Great Wheel. Construction began in 1894.

 Here is the Great Wheel going up:

The Wheel was open for passengers in July 1895. It was 300 feet in diameter weighed 1100 tons and was propelled by two steam engines. A complete revolution took about 20 minutes.

Here is the Wheel in action seen from the Exhibition grounds:

And here is the view from the railway:

The oddest views are the ones showing the Wheel towering above nearby streets such as this one:

The excitement generated by the Wheel seems to almost exactly like the feelings we had about the London Eye. There is something about the concept of riding high into the air in a closed compartment suddenly seeing the familiar city from a new angle which transcends the barriers of time which separate us from the pleasure seekers of the late 19th century. The Wheel had its detractors who thought it “vulgar”, “foolish” or “insane”. So not much change there. It ran successfully for several years. (There was one incident when the Wheel got stuck for a few hours but the passengers were compensated and came away happy.)

Like many such attractions the Wheel had a limited lifespan. Bassett was brought back to demolish it in 1906-7.

Here it is going down:

The Earls Court exhibition site has been re-modelled and rebuilt several times since the demise of the Great Wheel and a new development is being planned at the moment.  But wouldn’t it be good if the Great Wheel had survived like the Riesenrad and the London Eye had a slightly battered older cousin waving at it from the west of London?


12 responses to “Gigantic: the Earl’s Court Wheel

  • Charmaigne

    What an amazing piece. Thank you for that.

  • yeahyeah

    It’s called a “Riesenrad”, not “Reisenrad” as that would be a travel wheel 😉

  • Carolann

    Anyone interested in the original “big wheel” may be interested in Edward Slow’s poem about a trip to see it and take a ride .I think the poem brings the occasion “alive” far more than any report ever could

  • Nick

    Outstanding information! Do you have any info on the Blackpool wheel?

  • Francis Serjeant

    A bit of a land grab by K&C as in fact wheel situated within LBH&F territory. Hammersmith & Fulham Archives also have a large number of illustrations of the exhibition site, programmes etc.

    • Dave Walker

      Yes, the Wheel itself was on the railway land between the West London Extension and the Midland Railway which puts it just over the border. But Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham have peacefully shared planning responsiblities for the site over the years. The Survey of London deals with the Exhibition and the Great Wheel in its Kensington volumes. And of course Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies hold many illustrations of the whole Exhibition.
      This isn’t the only time we’ve strayed over the border when there are interesting stories to tell and probably not the last. Keep reading..

  • Earls Court and the death of fun in London | The Great Wen

    […] Earls Court will be pulled down early next year and replaced by houses, ending the area’s 120-year history as a place of fun. This history is well known to London nerds, but is worth repeating. The former cabbage field of Earls Court was transformed into a funzone by Yorkhire entrepreneur John Whitely at the end of the 1880s, when he brought Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the newly transformed exhibition site, hemmed in between railway lines. It featured a miniature Rocky Mountains, Native American village, corrals and a cowboy bunkhouse. “The show was a revelation,” write Felix Barker and Peter Jackson in Pleasures Of London. A few years later, the site attracted London’s first big wheel – a 300ft monster called the Gigantic Wheel. […]

  • Sue Whitfield

    Brilliant. Never knew about this although born and raised and lived in nearby Lots Road for 40 years. We have lost so juch of the past wonderful sites like these bring it back. Thank you

  • Big Wheels Old and New –

    […] This structure, from the top of which Windsor Castle was visible on a good day, was open between 1895 and 1906 (hence the green coloured heading – it closed before the Piccadilly line opened,m meaning that the only public transport link would have been the District line). More about this wheel can be found here. […]

  • Round and round it goes….. – Tour Guide

    […] wheel at the Prater. So big, so unique, so original! Distinctive! Mmmhh, think again. The Panoramic Wheel was built by a British engineer – Walter Bassett – who also built three more in […]

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