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The Wheel Turns Full Circle

The London Eye has dominated the skyline of Lambeth for over twenty years. This 135 metres (443 ft) tall wheel has a diameter of 120 metres (394 ft). When it opened to the public in 2000 it was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until it was surpassed by the 160-metre (525 ft) Star of Nanchang in 2006, and has subsequently been relegated by the building of the 165-metre (541 ft) Singapore Flyer in 2008, and the 167-metre-tall (547.9 ft) High Roller in 2014.

However, it is not the first “Ferris Wheel” to have been a permanent fixture in the capital. “The Great Wheel” (also known as the “Gigantic Wheel”) was built at Earls Court. This 308 foot (94 metre) high wheel opened to the public on 17th July, 1895. Construction of the wheel took over a year to complete.

Situated on reclaimed waste ground alongside the lines of the Midland Railway it weighed 1,100 tons and a complete revolution took around twenty minutes. It was powered by two 50 hp steam engines, which in their latter years became rather temperamental and there were several instances of passengers being stuck on the wheel while the engines were repaired, the longest being four hours. The construction of the wheel was part of the Empire of India Exhibition that opened at Earls Court in 1895.

Prior to 1887, the area of Earl’s Court was farmland which was attached to Earl’s Court Manor. With the arrival of the railways in the capital, the building of different lines formed a triangle which became ‘waste ground’. The later introduction of two Underground stations, and a complicated network of rails turned this waste ground into an island amid a sea of steel and subsequently trapped the land rendering it of little commercial value.

British entrepreneur John Robertson Whitley was looking for a site to use for “Entertainment and Education” within London and saw the potential of this parcel of land on which he created the Earls Court Exhibition Grounds.

John Robertson Whitley 1843-1922

Between 1887 and 1892 Whitley put on a number of Nationally themed commercial exhibitions. The first of these was billed as “The America Fair”. Whitley was an acquaintance of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and so the commercial exhibition also included Cody’s “Wild West Show”. Subsequent exhibitions were focussed on Spain, Italy France and Germany, however after the initial success of the American Fair the British public did not greet these with the same enthusiasm. Visitor numbers were low and none of the exhibitions turned a profit. Whitley cut his losses and moved to France where he embarked on the development of the resort now known as Le Touquet-Paris-Plage.

Although Whitley’s project had been less than successful, the potential of the site and the idea that the British public would be more interested in countries within the British Empire inspired Hungarian impresario, Imre Kiralfy to design The Empire of India Exhibition with The Great Wheel as a landmark.

Indian scenery and buildings were reproduced and there were displays which reflected the country’s past and present states. The overall theme of the exhibition was that the modern India could not have been achieved without British genius and rule. The exhibition was a great success and was even visited on a number of occasions by the reclusive Queen Victoria. The exhibition ran for most of 1895 and was then reprised the following year by The India and Ceylon Exhibition.

Kiralfy continued to develop the site, modelling the grounds on the 1893 Chicago World Fair and building the 6,000 seat Empress Hall (now demolished).

The Great Wheel carried the last of its 2.5 million passengers on 6th October 1906 and demolition started at the beginning of 1907. Looking at contemporary maps and overlaying them onto a modern day map, I have estimated where the wheel would have been situated.

The grounds continued to host exhibitions until it was sold in 1935 and the site was used to house the Earls Court Exhibition Centre, which hosted exhibitions from 1937 until its closure in 2014.

Since its demolition in the same year, it has passed through several companies ownership all of whom have failed to see their plans for the site come to fruition. So now in a somewhat sad twist of fate, the area of the main exhibition grounds have after more than 130 years reverted back to waste land, although I expect that the commercial value of the land is somewhat more than back in 1887.

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