London’s Victorian Skyscraper: The Tallest One That Never Was


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.

There was a printing machine that could turn out 5,000 copies of the popular periodical the Illustrated London News in an hour, and another for printing and folding envelopes, a machine for making the new-fangled cigarettes, and an expanding hearse. There were folding pianos convenient for yachtsmen, and others so laden with curlicues that the keyboard was almost overwhelmed. There was a useful pulpit connected to pews by rubber tubes so that the deaf could hear, and ‘tangible ink’ for the blind, producing raised characters on paper. A whole gallery was devoted to those elegant, sophisticated carriages that predated the motorcar, and if you looked carefully you could find one or two velocipedes, the early version of bicycles. There were printing presses and textile machines and agricultural machines. There were examples of every kind of steam engine, including the giant railway locomotives…In short, as the Queen put it in her Diary, ‘every conceivable invention’.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park
Canada sent a fire-engine with painted panels showing Canadian scenes, and a trophy of furs. India contributed an elaborate throne of carved ivory, a coat embroidered with pearls, emeralds and rubies, and a magnificent howdah and trappings for a rajah’s elephant. (The elephant wearing it came from a museum of stuffed animals in England.)
The American display was headed by a massive eagle, wings outstretched, holding a drapery of the Stars and Stripes, all poised over one of the organs scattered throughout the building. Although the general idea of the Exhibition was the promotion of world peace, Colt’s repeating fire-arms featured prominently, but so did McCormick’s reaping machine. The exhibit that attracted most attention had to be Hiram Power’s statue of a Greek Slave, in white marble, housed in her own little red velvet tent, wearing nothing but a small piece of chain. This was of course allegorical. The building itself was the most breathtaking exhibit of all. Paxton’s innovative design used modules of glass and iron, that could be fabricated off site and in due course taken apart again, since the building was only temporary. Work began on 1 August 1850. By December 1850 more than 2,000 men were working on the site. By means of ingenious machines invented by Paxton, 80 men could fix over 8,000 panes of sheet glass in a week. Over 1,000 iron columns supported 2,224 trellis girders, 4,000 tons of iron, 30 miles of Paxton’s newly-invented guttering and 202 miles of sash bar. The 16 vast semi-circular ribs of the transept arch, made of laminated timber, took just one week to fix. The flooring was of boards set half an inch apart, so that machines could sweep the dust through the spaces at the end of each day, but in practice the trailing skirts of the women visitors did the job splendidly.


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. .




About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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