Watkin’s Folly and the English game

03 Dec
Watkin’s Folly and the English game

In the late 19th Century an industrialist, railwayman and distinguished member of parliament named Sir Edward Watkin proposed the splendid idea of building a structure, most likely that of a tower, in London to rival that of the recently built Eiffel Tower.

An eclectic range of sixty-eight designs were submitted to Watkins from across Europe and the world. Submissions included one tower that looked like a giant screw, another that featured hanging gardens, the pyramids of Giza and a structurethat mimicked the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The following catalogue contains all of the original proposals and is a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a 19th Century architect or crazy person dependent on the design.

So what has this got to do with football, you may reasonably ask? Well, the proposed site for this tower was to be at Wembley Park in west London, then a rather sparsely populated area. Remember, it wasn’t until 1923 that Wembley Stadium was built (then known as the Empire Stadium built for the ostentatious British Empire Exhibition in 1924). The exact location of the proposed tower was on the very site that Wembley sits on today.

A winning entry was chosen. Number 37 by Stewart, MacLaren and Dunn of London. It was to be a tower 1200 feet tall and contain restaurants, shops and an astronomical observatory at the top.  Foundations were laid in 1892 and work began on constructing the tower a year later. 

Watkin Tower (first stage) in approx 1900

Watkin Tower (first stage) in approx 1900


By the start of the new century, as Tottenham Hotspur were playing Sheffield United at Crystal Palace in front of a baying crowd of 110,000 spectators, the site that would become synonymous with Cup Finals had the first stage of a tower built upon it. If the original planning and designs had been followed through to fruition the huge tower would be 150 feet taller than Paris’ Eiffel Tower.

Unfortunately in 1901 Edward Watkin died, and with him the dreams of building a tower in London. The site was deemed unsafe a few years later and in 1907 it was dismantled, demolished and blown to smithereens by dynamite. This wasn’t entirely an end to this story though, as in the early part of the 21st Century when the current Wembley was being built, the old foundations of this doomed project were re-discovered.

It’s interesting to ponder what would have happened had Watkin’s pulled off this grand scheme. The national stadium would be dwarfed by such a huge structure, or perhaps the national stadium would have been built elsewhere, or not at all. Changing the iconography (if not the history) of English football in a heartbeat. It’s also fascinating to mull over another one of Watkins’ ideas, that of a Channel Tunnel 100 years before Euro Tunnel became a reality. If such a tunnel existed in the early part of the 20th Century perhaps teams from the continent may have been invited to take part in the FA Cup. Teams from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and of course Wales had been invited into the competition on many occasions. There’s no reason why French or Belgian clubs couldn’t also take part.

It’s perhaps a reminder that football doesn’t live in isolation, it doesn’t live in a bubble that the outside world can touch. It’s defined and shaped by the culture from where it originates.

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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in History


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