London’s skyline would look very different today if some of the plans for towers and skyscrapers that have been proposed in the past two centuries had gone ahead. In 1852 there were plans for a tower in Crystal Palace that would have been the world’s first skyscraper. The summit would have been 100 ft higher than the Shard, currently London’s tallest building. But it was never built.
If you took an omnibus along London’s Knightsbridge in the summer of 1851, you would see an astonishing sight. Glittering among the trees was a palace made of glass, like something out of the Arabian Nights. It was as tall as the trees, indeed taller, because the building arched over two of them already growing there, as if, like giant plants in a glasshouse, they had been transplanted with no disturbance to their roots. A shower of rain washed the dust from the glass, and made it glitter all the more. Nothing like this had been seen in London, ever. It was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The Great Exhibition was the brain-child of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Britain was at peace. The Chartists had meekly delivered their Petition to the House of Commons in three cabs, and gone home. Albert could write to his cousin King William of Prussia, that ‘we have no fear here either of an uprising or an assassination. England was experiencing a manufacturing boom. This was the time to show off, on the international stage.
There were some 100,000 objects, displayed along more than 10 miles, by over 15,000 contributors. Britain, as host, occupied half the display space inside, with exhibits from the home country and the Empire. The biggest of all was the massive hydraulic press that had lifted the metal tubes of a bridge at Bangor invented by Stevenson. Each tube weighed 1,144 tons yet the press was operated by just one man. Next in size was a steam-hammer that could with equal accuracy forge the main bearing of a steamship or gently crack an egg. There were adding machines which might put bank clerks out of a job; a ‘stiletto or defensive umbrella’– always useful – and a ‘sportsman’s knife’ with eighty blades from Sheffield – not really so useful. One of the upstairs galleries was walled with stained glass through which the sun streamed in technicolour. Almost as brilliantly coloured were carpets from Axminster and ribbons from Coventry.
Eventually the building from the Great Exhibition of 1851 was reconstructed in South London, but alas, not as a skyscraper
By the time the Exhibition closed, on 11 October, over six million people had gone through the turnstiles. Instead of the loss initially predicted, the Exhibition made a profit of £186,000, most of which was used to create the South Kensington museums. Those were Albert’s memorial. His Queen commissioned the statue of him, sitting under a gilt canopy opposite the Royal Albert Hall with a copy of the Exhibition catalogue on his knee. When the massive Great Exhibition of 1851 was dismantled, a number of plans for what to do with the temporary prefab structure included what would still be London’s highest skyscraper. Proposed by Charles Burton, the skyscraper would have stood at around 1,000 ft high, and thanks to its elevated location in Sydenham, south London, the summit would be 100 ft higher than the Shard, currently London’s tallest building. “Vertical railways” would have carried people to the summit for the views, while curiously, a giant clock would have been the centrepiece half way up. However, the investors favoured keeping their feet on the ground, and instead re-built the building in south London to be known as the Crystal Palace. Had the skyscraper been attempted, it is likely that the weight of the ironwork would have brought the whole thing crashing down – though a fire would eventually destroy the Crystal Palace. .