Tag Archives: history

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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Night flight 1861: runaway balloon at Cremorne

This is a detail from a James Hedderly photograph. Among the trees on the right you can see the firework platform of Cremorne Gardens, one of the great entertainment attractions of Victorian London now gone almost without trace. There seem to be very few photographs of the place at all although there are plenty of prints on posters and handbills and illustrations in magazines like the Illustrated London News. So we think we know what it looked like and we think we know what it was like to visit the place. Mass entertainment as we know it today began in the nineteenth century in the pleasure gardens and music halls of Victorian cities. 

The staples of Cremorne were music, dancing, variety shows and fireworks. At first these would have been enough to pull in the crowds. But the various proprietors of Cremorne also needed spectacle. Death defying stunts were provided on a regular basis including performers such as the Female Blondin, the Flying Man and the Italian Salamander. I’ll return to those three on another occasion but for our first visit to Cremorne I want to talk about the first great sensational obsession of proprietors and punters alike – balloons.

Balloons were the first invention that got us into the air and although they had been in regular use since the eighteenth century for military and scientific purposes as well as the occasional spectacular public show it wasn’t until places like Cremorne started regular shows that large numbers of people got a chance to see them in action on a regular basis.

Here’s an early poster advertising a balloon event and a later print of a balloon taking off near the fireworks platform.

Of course once you’ve seen a balloon ascend a few times it might start to seem too easy and just not thrilling enough. Mr Green, the Nassau Balloon man livened up proceedings by taking “a lady and a leopard” up with him as passengers.  Later someone asked themselves what if we suspended something from underneath the basket? A horse maybe? Or a cow? How about a woman in classical costume riding the cow while the balloon ascends? She can then represent the goddess Europa whose sacred animal is the bull – educational as well as spectacular. This actually happened and I wonder how they persuaded the woman in question, a Madame Piotevin that it would be perfectly safe to sit on a terrified animal while ascending hundreds of feet up in the air dressed as a Greek goddess.  Other variations on the theme followed including the trip I’m going to describe now.

On July 24th 1861 the aeronaut Mr Lythgoe was scheduled to take paying passengers for a flight in his balloon. Mr Arthur Vivian and his friend Noel Anderson “having been disappointed a month before at Crystal Place” put their 5 guineas down to make sure they would secure a place. But the afternoon of 24th July turned out to be cloudy, windy and looking like rain. By 4.00pm Mr Lythgoe was on his way home, but after “a gleam of sunshine” Mr Adams, the secretary authorised the inflation of the balloon and Mr Lythgoe was summoned back.  The balloon took a long time to inflate and Mr Lythgoe had some misgivings but Mr Adams thought it would be a great climax to the evening’s entertainment if they set off after the fireworks at 10.30pm. “Several bystanders now endeavoured to dissuade us” according to Mr Vivian but despite strong winds and a torrential downpour they set off at 10.45.

Night flights had been done before. The adventurous Mr Green had set off fireworks from above to the general delight of the crowds. On one occasion he ascended at night during a heavy rainstorm. He and all his equipment were soaked. He was blown off course as far as Harrow where he was rescued, dirty and dishevelled by “four young ladies” who had been following the balloon from below.

All went well at first for Mr Lythgoe and his companions. At 1000 feet they could see London laid out underneath them like a map, the streets and squares “distinctly traced by the lines of gas light” and the sounds from below, carriages and carts, human voices and even music strangely clear. They shouted out themselves startling unsuspecting animals and people below. They went higher, up to 8000 feet, now much colder.  They thought they might be 20 miles or so from London as they descended and threw out the grappling iron. They stopped for a moment but with a loud crack the rope to the grappling iron broke. They were swept upward “at a frightening pace”. “Our situation was now anything but pleasant”. Without a grappling iron the only way to land was to descend and “run the balloon against a tree or other sharp object” and burst it. The first time they tried this they crashed into some trees. Vivian was momentarily stunned and regaining consciousness found Anderson gone, flung out of the basket when they touched the ground. The balloon was ascending again “at the most awful velocity” with most of their ballast gone. Lythgoe reckoned they got to 17000 feet before they could regain control and begin to descend. They were travelling through banks of cloud. Vivian thought he could hear water below. Lythgoe assured him they could be nowhere near the sea, but a break in the cloud cover showed that they were in fact above the ocean. After this terrifying realisation there was a moment of relief. They were heading towards the shore. Once over land again a landing was imperative. They climbed out of the basket and clung on to the ropes so they could drop immediately when they were close enough to the ground. The balloon bounced along, the basket hitting the ground only to be pulled up again until Lythgoe saw them about to hit a windmill and gave the order to let go. They landed “comparatively unhurt” and tried to follow the balloon. But after Lythgoe fell into a dyke they sought shelter at a cottage “not far from Southwold”. Once they persuaded the occupants that they had arrived by balloon they were given some welcome hospitality by the farm labourer and his family. At dawn they borrowed some clothes and went out time looking for debris from the balloon. They found Vivian’s umbrella among other items. Back in their own dry clothes by 6 am they made their way to Darsham Station and caught the 7.20 train which connected with the London express. They were in London by 10.00am “without hats and coats, to the great astonishment of many bystanders”. Anderson turned up at 1pm. He had been thrown into a field of beans in Essex and had made his way by omnibus and train back to Cremorne to enquire after the fate of the balloon. The three men were re-united later in the day.

Mr Vivian wrote an entertaining pamphlet about “our balloon adventure” with some observations about future safety precautions. Mr Lythgoe foreswore further night ascents.

It’s an excellent account with all the Victorian virtues, boldness, calmness in the face of adversity and some modesty in the telling of the story. I’m glad Mr Vivian saw fit to record the adventure. I can’t help wondering though if a modern balloon party faced a similar situation, and found themselves reluctantly transported from Central London to Suffolk on a stormy night whether the transport system would get them back by 10.00am the following morning.


Secrets of Avondale Park

Avondale Park is a pleasant but innocuous open space in North Kensington created in 1892 on the site of Adam’s brickfield one of the many light industrial sites in the area in the 19th century. Today it combines sports facilities with a play area and formal gardens. But beneath it lies a big secret .Landscapers working on the site in 2009 investigating the roots of a large tree discovered a set of extensive underground passages. There were several theories of how old the passages were and what purpose they might have served but research by the Parks department in Council Records showed that the passages were an almost forgotten municipal air raid shelter constructed in 1939 and sealed in 1946.

It seemed odd that a shelter which would have held up to two hundred people could have been forgotten. When local people were asked about the shelter many did in fact remembered its existence but almost no-one suspected that it was still there. This may be an example of the strange fog of secrecy that existed in the war years. Today it is hard to keep secrets. Information gets out through news media and over the internet. We forget that in the Second World War it was not only public policy to keep secrets but a matter of survival for the general population as well as the government. Major local events such as the destruction of Sloane Square station went largely unreported and obituaries for people who died in air raids often said simply that the person had died suddenly.  Perhaps this habit of secrecy persisted after the war and the existence of the Avondale Park shelter was gradually erased from public consciousness.

 During the exploration of the tunnels I got the chance to go down there myself and take a few photographs.

The walls of the shelter are concrete in some of the passages steel in others. In the picture below you can make out brackets near ground level where folding benches or beds might have been attached. The whole set of passages a rectangle bisected by a pair of middle passages seems large when you are wandering around it as I was with a group of less than a dozen people.

But imagine it filled with rows of people, just sitting together too close for comfort in the dimly lit passages, some talking quietly, some just listening for the sounds of aircraft and explosions, others just silently waiting for the all clear siren.

Imagine the sense of claustrophobia and apprehension as hours went by, punctuated by the sudden panic when an explosion was too loud or too close for comfort.

Shelters like this one were built in many parts of London where there was no space for individual Anderson shelters or there were no tube stations nearby. (The nearest Underground station would have been Holland Park, quite a distance if you needed to get to safety quickly) Several have survived so Avondale Park is not unique but it is unusual and worth preserving as an insight into life on the home front in World War 2. The Blitz is often associated at least in the popular imagination with east London but Kensington and Chelsea along with the rest of west London also suffered significant destruction and loss of life.

The shelter was cleared out completely in 1946. The toilets, furniture and lighting were removed. There is almost no sign of the many temporary inhabitants apart from this barely legible handwritten notice exhorting people not to spit and a faint drawing of an aeroplane.

But the shelter is quiet enough for you to imagine what it might have been like to spend hours underground uncertain of what you might find when you got out again. The shelter entrance has been closed until a final decision can be made about future use, possibly as an educational resource. The dark corridors are quiet again and remain as a hidden monument to the terrors of the Blitz.


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