Tag Archives: Earls Court Exhibition

On the border 4: roads, railways and the ghost of a canal, 1983

After a bit of a hiatus we’re returning to the photographs of itinerant surveyor Bernard Selwyn and this time we’re following him on a walk around the rail tracks which partly follow the course of the old Kensington Canal, which at one time ran down the western side of Kensington and Chelsea and ended up at Chelsea Creek, (where you can still see some water). Selwyn was particular interested it seems in the rail line which runs past the station at Olympia (see some of the pictures in this post), alongside Warwick Road and south under West Cromwell Road.

An uncharacteristically quiet view of West Cromwell Road as it rises away from the junction with Warwick Road and curves towards Hammersmith.

Up the hill, with a closer look at those signs.


Below, the railway tracks. A man manages a quiet stroll along a major road on the 30th May 1983. (All these pictures were taken in April or May of that year.). The rail track running below the bridge is part of the West London Extention Railway which was built on the filled-in canal.



That office block ahead is called Ashfield House. Selwyn took a great interest in it.

As you get closer to it you can see it is separated from the main road by more rail tracks, which run by the rear of the building.



The tracks can barely be seen by motorists.



In the distance you can see the roof of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, a massive presence on the skyline in west London. Oddly you don’t always see it from ground level as this picture showing the other side of Ashfield House demonstrates.


Selwyn examined the building from several angles.

Looking west, with an approaching tube train.


And east, with the same train passing him.


This is part of the District Line heading towards Earls Court. You see ahead of the train the tangle of tracks, bridges, a gantry and railway buildings as these tracks move alongside the north-south route.



Here, Selwyn changes his vantage point, looking south west. You can see the cluster of rail-related huts and small buildings.



He then, for some obscure purpose, took a look directly below him.



It doesn’t tell us a lot but it shows the level of his interest. Remember, in the day before digital photography you had to set up the shot, take the picture and wait for the result. The amateur photographer would have to hope for the best. That may be why Selwyn took so many pictures. Or he might just have been a little obsessive, for which we can be grateful, thirty years or so later. London wasn’t quite so tidy in the 80s, and there were still plenty of spaces in the city to capture the attention of urban wanderers whose interest lay in industrial locations and the hidden parts of the city.



This picture shows underground tracks meeting the main line which is just beyond a small fence. On the left you can see the rear of St Cuthbert’s Church (the roof and spire are a little hard to make out in this picture ). On the right of the picture is that other prominent landmark of west London, the distinctive but somehow obscure Empress State Building. You can see the church spire clearer in the view below, looking straight down the line showing the wide space between the tracks and the various buildings at the rear of Philbeach Gardens. More of the canal next week but it was in some sections pretty wide.



Just beyond the track is a road which runs behind the church. If you look back at the post about the church you will find a 19th century picture of the church hall. Here it is in Selwyn’s time.



Now back to his view from the bridge. Or was he closer? Had he found his way to a better vantage point using his skills as a surveyor and/or an urban explorer?


This post has really been a prelude to next week’s, which also continues a series. When I scan pictures for a possible use on the blog I don’t always know at the start of the process what stories are going to emerge from the images. Maybe Selwyn worked the same way.


This post moved back and forth across the border with Hammersmith and Fulham, an interzone which was one of Selwyn’s favourite haunts. He moved from the very north of Kensington to the river edge of Chelsea as we have seen in several posts. Next week’s post is almost entirely inside the boundary of Kensington and Chelsea. So here is a Hammersmith bonus for you.


Where West Cromwell Road met North End Road was this pub, called the Three Kings, next to West Kensington tube station. It’s now called the Famous 3 Kings but for a short period from 1975-1980 it was the Nashville Room (or Rooms?), a music venue, and that is what I thought when I saw the picture. A few of you may have seen some famous bands there. On an obscure personal note I was once told that a doppelganger of mine sold newspapers and magazines at a stall in the station. I never went there to find out.

Wild, wild west: Buffalo Bill in Earls Court

The pleasure gardens at Cremorne were the kind of mass entertainment enjoyed by Londoners in the mid-Victorian period. There was still something of the 18th century about them, something a little anarchic and risky, not to mention illicit. Cremorne lost its licence because of perceived or actual immorality. But the appetite for spectacle and large-scale attractions hadn’t vanished, it had simply moved onto newer forms of entertainment.

The Earls Court Exhibition owed its existence to chance. A triangle of empty land had been created by a confluence of railway lines. One developer tried to build a Catholic Public School there but was defeated by financial problems. There was another scheme for housing, but even in the 1880s developers could see that the land was not especially desirable for that purpose. Finally John Robinson Whitley came up with the idea of the Exhibition. He had intended to put on an American Exhibition showing goods and products along the lines of the Great Exhibition and its successors such as the British Colonial and Indian Exhibition which took place in South Kensington in 1886. He postponed his opening for a year because of that event and many of his partners dropped out.  This worked to his benefit. That year he went to Washington to try and interest President Grover Cleveland in the project, and while he was there he saw Buffalo Bill’s Roughriders and Redskin Show.  He booked them for Earls Court’s first season and changed the nature of the Exhibition completely.

The troupe performed in the original triangle of land accessible from Warwick Road. An open arena and stand were created for them.  A second area accessible from Lillie Road and by bridge from the grounds contained a single long exhibition building. This was connected to a third area where there was a pleasure gardens with a switchback railway, a toboggan slide and a large bandstand.

The shows introduced the idea of the Wild West into public consciousness, in this country at least.

The shows were immensely popular and were even visited by the Queen, the Prince and Princess of Wales and William Gladstone (then in opposition, so he must have had some time on his hands).

You can see from the programme that the show contained all the familiar tropes of the Wild West – Indians attacking the stagecoach, gun battles with cowboys, the Pony Express – but also had a more rounded view of  Native American culture such as buffalo hunting and village life on the plains. Not to mention Cossacks and Gauchos.

(These two images are from one of the later shows).

William Cody himself of course had become a fully fledged media figure.

Along with Annie Oakley who fell out with Cody after the first shows but returned later having established herself as a star in her own right.

The Wild West show came back to Earls Court several times and there were other versions after Cody’s last show such as the Golden West / Red Man Spectacle of 1909. The cowboys look a little more like showmen in this picture:

But we get the idea.

The other well known name from Buffalo Bill’s show was Long Wolf, an Oglala Lakota Sioux warrior who had originally joined the show as part of a group of prisoners of war turned over to Cody by the American War Office.

Long Wolf and his family stayed with the show and came back to England in 1892 but the Chief caught scarlet fever on this visit and died at the West London Hospital in Hammersmith. His doctor had the macabre name of Maitland Coffin. Long Wolf was buried with due ceremony in Brompton Cemetery.

The design on his headstone was based on a drawing he made on his deathbed for what he hoped would be a temporary resting place. He was right. Although he lay amongst strangers for a long time his remains were disinterred in 1996 and moved to a burial place in his ancestral lands.

The heyday of the first Exhibition was as brief as Cremorne’s. By 1914 the Wild West shows had departed, the Great Wheel was demolished and the grounds were being used as a camp for Belgian refugees. The new Exhibition was 20 years in the future. But we can still remember the days the Wild West came to West London.

This picture is of the Deadwood Stage. Now where did I put that Calamity Jane DVD?

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?

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