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London's Eiffel Tower

Beneath the pitch of England's national stadium in Wembley, London, lie the foundations of what would have been the city's tallest building in the 1890s and would still, today, be taller than anything in the UK.

The first 150 feet of the intended 1,175 foot tower.
The first, and only, completed stage of the tower.

Inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Great Tower of London was poised to surpass it in height and reach 1,175 feet (358m). To put that in context, England's tallest building today is the Shard at 1,016 feet (310m).

Instead, it never went past the first phase, which came to be known as the 'London Stump.' It was demolished almost 120 years ago, leaving behind an unfulfilled dream and large concrete foundations that were rediscovered in 2002, when the current Wembley stadium was built to replace an older one.

The tower was the brainchild of Edward Watkin, a British politician and railway tycoon. "Watkin was a born entrepreneur and he loved big ideas - the bigger the better," says Christopher Costelloe, an expert on Victorian architecture and an inspector of historic buildings at Historic England.

The Eiffel Tower, which opened in 1889, quickly became a popular tourist attraction and its construction costs were recouped in a matter of months. At the same time, Watkin was looking for ways to attract more passengers onto his Metropolitan Railway - which would later become the Metropolitan line on the London Underground.

The railway passed through Wembley, then a rural hamlet northwest of central London, where Watkin had purchased land to create an amusement park: "It was meant to be the Disneyland of its day," says Costelloe.

What better than a tower taller than the Eiffel to convince Londoners to board a train to get there?

Watkin had the audacity to ask Gustave Eiffel himself to design it, but the French engineer

refused on patriotic grounds. His plan B was an international design competition, with a first prize of 500 guineas, about £59,000 ($80,000) in today's money.

"The winning proposal was a more slender version of the Eiffel Tower. Very similar in its overall profile, but the structure was sort of skinnier," says Costelloe. It was also about 175 feet taller than its Parisian counterpart, which was the world's tallest building at the time.

It was to have two observation decks - each with restaurants, theatres, dancing rooms and exhibitions - winter gardens, Turkish baths and a 90-bedroom hotel. The top of the tower, reached by a system of lifts, was to provide a fresh-air sanatorium and an astronomical observatory, taking advantage of the clearer air offered by the altitude.

Construction began in 1892, and the first stage - approximately 150 feet tall - was finished three years later. Wembley Park had opened the year before and was enjoying moderate success, but the tower still had a long way to go - and there was something wrong with it. It was subsiding; not so badly that they couldn't use it, so elevators were installed. But the view at 150 feet was not as spectacular as hoped and when, 5 years later, Watkins died, the 'stump' was deemed unsafe and demolished.

In 1923, a stadium, which would later be known as the original Wembley Stadium, was erected on the former site of the tower. Its demolition to make way for the current Wembley Stadium eventually unearthed the tower's foundations, when work to lower the level of the new pitch was undertaken. It was a late reminder of the failed tower, also referenced by a pub in the area called "Watkin's Folly."


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