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
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

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 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


He was an ugly man - fat, pompous and unscrupulous.
Blunt: fat and pompous
He was also a gambler whose only desire in life was to get as rich as possible.
Yet John Blunt had two qualities in his favour: he was self-confident and charismatic - a man who quickly gained the ear of the political elite.
He charmed politicians and then exploited them. In so doing, he would instigate one of the greatest financial catastrophes in history.
The countdown to disaster began in January, 1720, when Blunt developed a scheme to eradicate Britain’s crippling national debt.
The South Sea Bubble: an 18th century cartoon
This debt stood at £31million - a staggering sum - and the government was struggling to pay the £1.5million annual interest payments.
Blunt decided to use the South Sea Company, of which he was director, to promote his revolutionary scheme.
You get one, I get three
He was aided by the fact that two of the key figures in the government - Earl Sunderland and Earl Stanhope - knew nothing about finance.
They had deferred financial policy to John Aislabie, the inept Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was to Aislabie that Blunt now presented his grand idea.
It appeared blissfully simple. He offered to take over Britain’s entire national debt - and there was only one condition attached. For every £100 of debt he assumed, Blunt demanded the right to issue £100 of new stock for the South Sea Company.
A big gamble: Hogarth's vision of the bubble
This made no sense to Aislabie. He couldn’t understand how anyone was going to make any money out of such a transaction.
The answer was a neat little scam - one that depended on Blunt being able to artificially raise the market value of South Sea shares.
It worked like this: if an individual held £1,200 of bad Government securities - and wished to convert them into South Sea stock - the company would be allowed to issue 12 new shares at £100 each.
But if the market value of each share could be manipulated upwards to, say, £300, then the company would only have to give the individual four shares, since these would equal £1,200.
Aislabie: a brilliant idea
It would continue to hold the eight remaining shares, which it could then sell at £300 each, netting the tidy sum of £2,400. In one simple transaction, Blunt would make an enormous sum of money. And he promised to make money for the country as well.
Chancellor Aislabie was impressed by the scheme and presented it to Members of Parliament. They were no less impressed. Blunt already had a track record at manipulating the markets: no one doubted he’d be able to artificially increase the value of the South Sea Company shares.
After a long debate, it was decided to give him the green light. Britain’s economy was being placed in the hands of one man - and a highly dubious individual at that.
Everyone expected the national debt soon to be a thing of the past. But there was one serious drawback to Blunt’s scheme: it was little more than an empty gamble whose success was dependent on his ability to keen the price of stock artificially high.
Even the king bought shares
Blunt bribed ministers in order to set the ball rolling and people soon began to invest huge sums of money in the newly issued shares.
The king was no exception: he bought heavily and made £86,000 profit on his investment. He promptly knighted this banking genius.
‘The eyes of the world were turned from the chief ministers of state to this great oracle,’ wrote Aislabie.
The newly knighted Blunt had proved true to his word: now, he found fame and fortune in equal measure.
The speculating frenzy lasted for eight months and involved much of the nation: the value of shares exceeded all expectations, rising to £1,000 in the summer of 1720.
He ruined the nation - but not himself
And then - dramatically - the bubble burst. The share value crashed as people realized the hollowness of Blunt’s promises. Overnight, thousands of families lost their lifetime’s savings. Many were left bankrupt.
‘They have lived their dream,’ wrote Alexander Pope, ‘and on awakening found nothing in their hands.’
John Blunt ran away from the crisis he’d caused. He hid in Kent until he was discovered and ordered back to London. He was stripped of his remaining fortune and left the capital in disgrace.
Yet he had the last laugh. He was given a large allowance - and an even larger house - by his son, who’d made a fortune out of the artificially created boom. 
UK paperback

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

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