Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012


It was the crowning achievement of his career. And it was the beginning of a feud. 
At the 1889 inauguration of his famous Paris tower, Gustav Eiffel was feted as a French national hero.
Watkin: genial but mad
But among the few who did not appreciate his iron skyscraper was a patriotic Englishman named Edward Watkin.
Watkin resented the Eiffel Tower for one simple reason: it stood more than five times higher than Britain’s national monument, Nelson’s Column.
As far as Watkin was concerned, Gustav Eiffel had thrown down the gauntlet. He made a private vow to construct a British tower that would be taller, bigger and more spectacular than anything the French could build.
Declined Watkin's kind offer
Watkin had made his fortune in railways, creating networks in England, India and the Belgian Congo. 

Immensely energetic and deeply ambitious, he also happened to be a proud nationalist.
Ever-the-entrepreneur, Watkin also had his eye on increasing his fortune. He reasoned that if the new British mega-tower was built in Wembley Park - a large area of unused land to the north-west of London - then his own Metropolitan Railway could transport the thousands of annual visitors to the site.
Some crazy designs
Watkin launched his competition to build the British tower within months of the inauguration of Eiffel's rival tower.
‘Anything Paris can do, London can do better!’ was his boast.
By the end of 1889, architects from across the world were working on designs for a tower that would be taller and more spectacular than Eiffel’s.
Watkin’s idea fired the public imagination and his Metropolitan Tower Construction Company became a byword for national pride. The Company offered a prize of 500 guineas for the best designed tower.
With more than a hint of mischief, Watkin even dared to approach Gustav Eiffel and ask if he’d like to submit an entry. Eiffel politely declined.
‘If I,’ he said, ‘after erecting my tower on French soil, were to erect one in England, they would not think me so good a Frenchman as I hope I am.’
The winning design
Soon the designs began to arrive on Watkin’s desk - from Italy, Sweden and Turkey, as well as many other countries.
Watkin quickly realised that most of the designs were frankly preposterous. One, named Ye Vegetarian Tower, was submitted by the London Vegetarian Society. It came complete with hanging vegetable gardens.
Another, the so-called Tower of Babel, was so vast in scale that it had a road and railway leading to the top.
Perhaps the most extraordinary design - of a tower far taller than Eiffel’s - was to be built entirely of glass.
As Watkin flicked through the numerous entries, he realised there was only one design that was actually practical. It was made of open metal lattice work and rose to a point at the top. Standing upon four legs (the original design had six) it was in every respect an exact copy of the Eiffel Tower. The only difference was that it was 87 feet taller.
Watkin's Tower: no need to go to Paris
Building work began immediately. By 1891, the gigantic foundation holes in Wembley Park had been plugged with concrete and work began on the 3,000-ton tower itself.
It had soon reached a height of 62 feet and curious Londoners began to flock to see the fledgling Watkin’s Tower.
Watkin claimed it would be finished by 1894. But when the surrounding park was opened to the public, the tower was still only 155 feet high.
Better go to Paris after all.
Some 100,000 people came to see the stump; most were extremely disappointed to see a partial replica of Eiffel’s French tour-de-force. Only 18,500 bothered to buy a ticket to ascend to the first (and only) level.
At the end of 1894. Watkin’s workmen downed their tools. The Metropolitan Tower Construction Company had run out of money and the general public no longer had any enthusiasm. The tower was abandoned.
For the next 13 years, Watkin’s folly remained as an embarrassment on the London skyline - a rusting and derelict eyesore.
It was finally blown up in 1907, a sorry end to a chapter of Anglo-French rivalry.
Watkin’s only consolation was to have died six years earlier. 
Uk Paperback
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And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

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