Today (May 22) in London History – Trauma and drama 300 feet above London

Drama and trauma 300 feet above London on May 22, 1896 is the subject of this Today in London History podcast.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

So London, this. I’m prepping this podcast just hours after sections of the spectator stands collapsed during a Trooping the Colour rehearsal in central London. A witness said the stand appeared to collapse when people stood for the national anthem. One woman was said to have a terrifying fall. Three people were taken to hospital, five were treated at the scene. 

Now for our purposes here, London’s been here before. It has form in this sort of thing.

I’m thinking about that event on this day – May 22nd – 126 years ago. 1896. A major malfunction of the Big Wheel – as it was known – stopping the thing for 16 hours, stranding the passengers high, dry and terrified.

And there’s something else about that episode that also has London written all over it – this has come up before on a couple of these podcasts – it’s London’s huge, insatiable appetite for spectacle and novelty.

Which they certainly got with the Big Wheel. And got in spades with the Big Wheel on May 22, 1896. 

Some background. 

The Big Wheel was the star attraction of the Earl’s Court Industrial Exhibition, which had opened two years before. That Exhibition, as these things go, was a spectacular.  Numbered its attractions were an art exhibition, theatres, and concert rooms, to say nothing of a winter garden formed with a series of grottoes, a waterfall and backgrounds of mountain scenery representative of England, France, Switzerland and Germany. And of course no end of industrial exhibitions.

The big draws, though, were The World’s Water Show – as it was billed. It featured a Hawaiian female diver who performed 200 foot dives. I’m not sure what the layout of the Exhibition was but given that the Great Wheel was the biggest of its kind in the world – basically it was a humongous ferris wheel – it’s fun to think of passengers 200 feet up eye-balling and waving to the Hawaiian diver as she launched herself off her platform. She was on her way down. They were on their way up. At its top the big wheel was practically up in clouds. Well, it must have felt that way in 1896. It was actually 300 feet high. From the top you could see Windsor. Not as high though, as the Millennium Eye, the late 20th-century version of the Big Wheel. 

But for those who like statistics and hard facts, the Earl’s Court Big Wheel weighed 1100 tons, had 40 cars which carried 1600 people at any one time. It took 20 minutes to make a circuit. 

The wheel was driven by a pair of 1,000 foot long chains wrapped round the perimeter. Each of them weighed 8 tons. It was supported by two towers, each of them 175 feet tall and formed by four columns four feet square and themselves weighing 400 tons. And the towers were fitted with recreation rooms at the top.

What really jumps out at you, though, from those old accounts, is that there were first-class carriages and second class carriages. The Exhibtion catalogue says the first-class carriages were luxuriously furnished with easy chairs, settees, etc. Second class was – well, second class. Just seating with tables. And we’re told that tea, coffee and ices could be obtained on board. And there were smoking carriages.

Anyway, let’s get to the mishap on June 22nd, 1896. Enter Sod’s Law – if something can go wrong it will go wrong. And it did. Mechanical failure. It can’t have pleasant. Passengers were stranded for 15 hours. That’s a lot of discomfort and considerable anxiety. Dare I mention the word bladders, for example. Fortunately, it wasn’t a collapse. Or worse. No one was injured. They will have had a tale to tell their grandchildren. And the company awarded them each £5 in compensation. Anything else? Yes, one couple got to know each other very well thanks to their enforced time together. Their time together high in the skies above Earls Court led to their marriage.

So, yes, today’s Today in London recommendation will almost certainly be the most achingly obvious one of the year – if you haven’t done a trip on the Eye, you really should. It’s a special London experience. Something everybody should do.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

To put that another way, we hold this truth to be self-evident, that all walking tour companies are not created equal. You’re looking for the Rolls Royce walking tour company you’re in the right place. You’re looking for a Ford Escort, you’re in the wrong showroom.

Why the huge difference in quality? Because of another self-evident truth: 

it all comes down to the guiding. 

Those seven words – that’s the common-sense premise London Walks is built on.

Don’t just take it from us. Here’s a review just now put up by walker Laura Hayden:

“What a great tour! Aaron had the perfect balance of presence, professionalism, personality and excellent knowledge of his subject. He was well-organized, well-informed and well-spoken. This is why we come back to London Walks every time we’re in London. We’re guaranteed a great guide and a great walk.” 

Aaron’s a Cambridge University palaeontologist who has another string to his bow: he moonlights as a brilliant guide.

Goes without saying he’s in that London Walks all-star lineup of genuine experts – guides who are well-connected, experienced, accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, palaeontologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City of London professionally qualified guides. Several of whom come trailing the big one, MVP honours  – winners of the coveted Guide of the Year Award. Guides who make the new familiar, and the familiar new. And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.


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