The District’s Exhibition Grounds at Earls Court

The District inherited a large amount of spare land west of Earls Court station. First there was the land in the triangle bounded by railways immediately west of the station. Then there was spare land adjacent to Lillie Bridge works and thirdly there was land owned by the District but in excess of that required by the Midland Railway for its coal yard. For many years these were connected together by bridges and used for holding large exhibitions that were lucrative and drew in crowds.

The idea for provision of an exhibition ground was that of John Robinson Whitley, a businessman, who, whilst in America in 1886, was entranced by Colonel Bill Cody’s ‘Buffalo Bill’ Roughriders and Redskin’s show, and wanted to bring it to London. The Earls Court site seemed perfect. Whitley had already formed a company called American Exhibitions Ltd and used this to lease the Earls Court land from the District. By an agreement of 1 October 1886 he leased 11¼ acres for 16 months. This land included the triangle of land already referred to, and the large additional plots to the west of Lillie Bridge works and abutting the Midland’s coal depot.

The exhibition company was authorized to build a bridge across Lillie Bridge yard and the adjacent WLER to connect these three pieces of land. As part of the arrangement, the exhibition company was required to build a covered way between Warwick Road and the western ends of the District platforms at Earls Court, effectively providing the District with a second entrance. The agreement demanded only a peppercorn rent for the exhibition land but locked the company into allowing the District to issue combined entrance and travel tickets for which the railway was allowed a considerable proportion of the event fee.

This enterprise was certainly not for the faint-hearted. On the triangular land he built an arena that could hold 25,000 people and on the western site he built an exhibition hall 1100ft long. The site (and the new station entrance) was first used from 9 May 1887 for what was described as an American Exhibition and Wild West show. This ran until 31 October. Following this success, Whitley sought to provide a major event each year, though they never quite reached the success of Buffalo Bill (who later performed at Olympia). The western section (near West Kensington station) was laid out as ornamental gardens.

To facilitate new exhibitions, the exhibition company was renamed The National Exhibitions Association Ltd and a longer lease was agreed at £1500 a year minimum rent and revised form of profit share. The first exhibition under the new agreement was the Italian Exhibition in 1888 and that was followed by a Spanish Exhibition in 1889 (which owing to the illness of the general manager was not so good). In 1893 the arena was transformed into a lake on which operated Britain’s first toboggan slide. In 1895 Forbes (the District's managing director) had to report that recent exhibitions had for several reasons not been so profitable and the commercial arrangements were defective; the profit-share element worked when there were profits but in 1894 the season was disastrous and they were unable to obtain their rent from the promoters, a loss of £4000 in addition to lost traffic.

As a result, a 21-year lease had been let to the reputable London Exhibitions Ltd with a requirement to invest some capital. This company was the business through which the Hungarian impresario Imre Kiralfy carried on his very successful business and who made the Earls Court lands a great success for the next couple of decades. The old buildings on the west side of the WLER were swept away and a vast new building, designed by Allan Collard, was erected known at first as the Empress Theatre and later as the Empress Hall. 220ft by 370ft, it was essentially a steel and concrete structure with a bowstring girder roof covered in corrugated iron. The vast space was very suitable for the planned spectaculars but it was not London’s most attractive building. Most of the rest of the land was turned into an amusement park but was available for temporary buildings for future exhibitions.

The Big Wheel

It was Kiralfy who arranged for the giant ‘Ferris’ wheel to be installed to coincide with the oriental exhibition in 1895, the wheel having been inspired by the one at the Chicago Exhibition in 1893, which was designed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. This was an enormous project and ‘The Gigantic Wheel and Recreation Towers Co., Limited’ was created on 8th February 1894 to build and operate it, work commencing the following month. The company had an initial capital of £60,000 divided ino £1 shares and the estimated construction cost was £55,000.

The wheel was similar in general form to that of Chicago, but was larger. At 284ft diameter the top of the wheel was 300 ft hight, commanding amazing views. The whole affair weighed 1000 tons with the cars attached and it took forty minutes to revolve (Chicago was 264ft). It was supported on two towers, 175 feet high, each formed by four columns 4 feet square and themselves weighing 400 tons including the attached platforms and bearings. At the bottom the legs are supported by massive concrete foundations. Each of these four comprises a pyramidal concrete block sunk to a depth of 15ft with ground level dimensions 15ft square and base dimensions 18ft by 19ft. Each block weighed about 250 tons. Eight steel bolts 12ft in length and of 2¼ ins diameter firmly clamped each steel leg to its base.

Suspended between the outer rims of the wheel were forty carriages (of which ten were first class), each with a 30-passenger capacity, each 24ft long, 9ft wide and 10ft high, and built by Brown Marshall, a railway carriage builder. A full load thus comprised 1200 people. The figure of 40 is sometimes seen for capacity and I have not established which is correct, or whether capacities differed between first and second class, or were altered at some date. Reports at the time indicate half the first class cars were for smokers and presumably so were a proportion of the other cars. Exhibition catalogues describes the First Class cars as being: luxuriously furnished with easy chairs, settees etc., and each compartment cost £100 to fit out. 'Seating with tables' appears to have been all that the other cars had. The 1897 guide explained that 'tea, coffee, ices etc, could be obtained on board', but not all guides included a mention of this. It was possible to hire whole saloons, and some guides indicate prices had been reduced to half a guinea (I have not determined what the hire charge was previously).

Near the bottom, on each side, were eight platforms each side of the wheel, arranged to line up with eight corresponding carriages, passengers boarding on one side and alighting on the other. The mode of operation was to load the wheel eight cars at a time which meant the wheel paused five times during its circuit. The normal fare charged for this experience was two shillings for first class passengers and one shilling for others.

The wheel was driven via a pair of 1000ft chains wrapped round the perimeter, each weighing about 8 tons. It had been intended originally to use steel hawsers but there was concern these might slip. The chains were longer than the circumferance and at the bottom they fell away into an engine room underneath, where the drive mechanism was powered by a pair of steam engines (though normally only one was in use). One chain alone could take the whole load. The chains were so long, and so stressed, it was extimated they would stretch as much as ten feet after a short period in service and, indeed, during overhaul after coming into service several feet of chain were removed (more than once) to maintain tension within the design limits. The wheel carried 2½ million people before it was demolished in 1906.

Recreation rooms were planned at the top of each tower and a funicular railway using water and gravity were to give access from ground level. This railway took the form of two capsules, each arranged to climb up one of two of the inboard structural legs, adapted to guide the capsules; it appears one capsule was to act as the counterweight to the other, water being added at top level to the capsule required to go down next. The two recreation rooms and promenades were connected together via the enormous hub around which the wheel was constructed. The hollow hub was 35ft long and had an external diameter of 7ft 2ins; it was so large that people could walk through it without even stooping, a public corridor being formed between two pairs of lattice girders that connected together the wheel supports and which also passed through the hollow hub. This hub was made in three sections by Maudsley, Sons and Field at East Greenwich.

Descriptions at the time make clear the recreation rooms and lifts were incomplete at the time of opening and it was hoped they would be made available for the following season. One was evidently to be the promenade and the other a restaurant. I have not established beyond doubt what actually happened. The structures were built and are clearly visible but they are not referred to in any of the brochures I have examined and no photo has been found showing a lift (one ought to be visible at all times). I rather suspect they were never finished.


Although it was hoped the wheel would be ready for the 1894 season, construction was difficult; even in September that year only the supporting structure had been finished, but the wheel itself had not been fitted. It was claimed wet weather and 'the Scotch coal strike' were responsible for the delay, but slippage was nearer a year and this smacks of over-optimism. The wheel was structurally completed in April 1895, before the carriages were hung. and on Saturday 27 April a small but rather unusual ceremony took place to mark the occasion. This involved the wife of Mr Walter Bassett (the constructor of the wheel) and several other ladies being hauled successively up to a selected point of the structure 285ft above the ground and installing the final two bolts. Each lady was lifted (and later lowered) in a chair suspended by cables, power being obtained from a steam winch. This precarious activity was achieved without anything untoward happening. Mrs Basset was also daughter of company chairman, Admiral Dowell.

The wheel finally opened to passengers on Saturday 6 July 1895, though May had been hoped for. In the week prior to opening the wheel was tested and inpected. On Tuesday 2 July it was blessed by Royalty when the Princess of Wales, her two daughters and various other royals including the Crown Prince of Denmark and Duke and Duchess of Sparta, all travelled on the wheel. The following day a more mundane audience comprised the company directors and friends.

The opening ceremony comprised the official naming of the affair as 'The Gigantic Wheel' followed by a circuit arranged only for the use of invited guests. The naming was performed by the chairman's wife, Lady Dowell, in the manner of the launching of a ship, a bottle of champagne being tethered to one of the cars in such a way that, when released, it would smash against the car. This, unfortunately, did not work, for the bottle rebounded, unbroken. Her husband, Admiral Dowell, then had a go, this time more vigourously, but with the same result. It was finally broken by hurling it against the car's ironwork, producing great cheers before the guest's boarded their cars. Only about half the cars were needed and some of the empty ones carried weights to produce a combined load of 100 tons. The wheel was arranged to run very slowly during this inaugural trip, the press recording about forty minutes on this occasion. However it was stressed that a normal run would take about 25 minutes, including loading and unloading. After the official party left, the wheel was thrown open to the public until well into the evening, some complaint being made about 'exhorbitant prices' being charged that day.

In daylight the wheel looked spectacular but arrangements were made to make it equally spectacular at night, the wheel continuing to operate after sunset. The cars were not only lit by electric lights but the periphery of the cars were externally clothed in electric lamps as well. The effect must have been remarkable. It was necessary to generate the electricity on site and  generating plant was installed by J.G. Statter & Co and electric lights were also installed on the promenade decks and recreation rooms.

The Sketch (25 August 1897) published an illustration of two women at Earls Court after dark, with the illuminated wheel in the background; although no detail is visible the wheel can clearly be identified by the positions of all the electric lamps. The illustration is accompanied by a short ditty:

Twinkle, twinkle huge round wheel,
   Up above us all so high,
I wonder if you often feel
   Inclined to wink the other eye


Above are front and reverse of a small souvenir medallion, apparently produced each year during the period the wheel was in use. This one has been drilled, probably to wear on a chain, but it appears to be an exception. It is about the size of an old penny and survivors suggest they were made in quite large numbers though the arrangements for giving them away or selling them are not known (the exhibition guides do not mention them). This one is made by Spink but other coiners are known.

A problem with the wheel arose shortly after opening and the wheel was shut down for a few days (newspapers on 23 July were reporting it was out of use for repairs). I believe the problem followed the failure of the chain tensioning device (a heavy weight and set of pulleys), following which a design change was called for and needed implementing. This seems to have cured the problem.

Continued in next column

Original Plan

Above is an impression of the original plan for the wheel, the most obvious difference between this and what was built was the drastic curtailing of the restaurants and amenites each side of the wheel.

Under Construction

The image above (from The Engineer) shows the wheel under construction.

Under Construction

The image (above) shows the wheel in the final stages of construction. It may be seen that the outer band, from which the carriages are suspended, is connected to the hub by means of dozens of bars or struts, very much in the manner by which a bicycle wheel is constructed.

Big Wheel

The above image was taken looking from West Kensington towards Earls Court; the tracks in foreground are not District tracks but those of the Midland Railway from West Kensington station leading towards their coal yard.


The above image gives an impression of the wheel close up. It was said that from the top it was possible to see Windsor.

Shortly after opening some difficulties were experienced and it was decided to stiffen the structure by adding additional spokes, requiring the wheel to be withdrawn from service for a while. It returned to service on afternoon of 24 July but difficulties with the drive caused it to fail, trapping passengers for several hours. Once this problem was fixed, the operation of the wheel was thought reliable.

The wheel failed at 9pm on Thursday 21st May 1896 and could not be moved. There were about 300 people on it and although some from the lower cars were rescued, about 60-70 in upper cars were trapped until about midday following day after a very uncomfortable 15 hours or so. The wheel operating company decided to pay £5 recompense to each passenger trapped overnight – an appreciable sum, though the company was quite profitable. It is alleged a man and women stuck overnight (and who had boarded as strangers) became sufficiently interested in each other they later got married. Below is illustration of an escape device subsequently added and occasionally tested by volunteer passengers during 'exhibitions' arranged for the purpose and to whom a fee was paid.


This view (above) shows the escape capsule fitted after the wheel unfortunately stalled one night. It is not apparent beyond doubt how this worked but judging by figure on the roof it looks as though someone had to climb up with a rope and bring up and fix the apparatus (presumably a pulley) allowing the capsule to be raised to meet the carriage door and after loading with however many people it could carry to then lower them to ground level. This would not have been a quick process.


This end view of the wheel shows the wheel to have been used to generate further revenue from advertising. It appears that Price's candles had exclusivity of the wheel, from which promotional postcards were produced.

It was felt necessary at all times to load the wheel evenly and precautions were taken whilst loading to spread the passengers evenly amongst the cars. In cases where cars were unavoidably loaded unevenly, weights were placed in the empty or lightly loaded cars to achieve the same effect. The object of this precaution was to avoid the risk of a heavily loaded quadrant causing the wheel to try and descend under the force of gravity at a rate faster than the chain, with potentially undesirable consequences.

The magazine Engineering adds the following information: The steel used in the construction of the wheel was supplied by Messrs. Beardmore and Co., and was worked into girders and other structural forms by Arrol’s Bridge and Roof Company. We should add that the gigantic wheel is constructed under the patent rights of Lieutenant J. W. Graydon. Mr. Basset, in conjunction with Mr. J. J. Webster, M. Inst. C.E., designed the Earls Court wheel.

Next Section (below) is 'Closure'


The company which built and ran the wheel ought to have been profitable and indeed it was at first, a dividend of 29 per cent was paid after just the first six months of operation. Perhaps inevitably this level of profit did not persist once the novelty wore off and the awful discovery that ridership of the wheel was heavily dependent on the general success of the exhibition grounds in drawing people inside in the first place (and the exhibition numbers were rather variable). To reduce the capital value of the enterprise the directors promoted financial reconstruction, some capital being returned to shareholders with the message that they might do something more useful with it than the wheel's directors could.

The company went into voluntary liquidation on 5 January 1899 and re-emerged on 14 January 1899 as  the London Gigantic Wheel Company Ltd. Shareholders in the new company received one 10 shilling share for each £1 share in the old company, halving its capital which now stood at £30,000. The new company began life in the knowledge that a 2-year lease extension had been granted by the District and subject to certain other factors dropping into place this would probably get another 3-year extension. In 1906 the wheel stood upon the company's balance sheet at over £29,000 but the company could not negotiate satisfactory terms for a further lease and the operation had to close. It was now worth only a few hundred pounds as scrap and is used as an good example of asset valuations bearing no resemblance to reality. The company entered into voluntary liquidation on 1 January 1907 and was finally wound up in 1909.


Eventually, in 1906, the time came for the attraction to be closed and for the wheel to be demolished, a job given to scrap contractor George Cohen who employed the engineering company W.T. Andrews to plan the dismantling which was complex and dangerous. The obvious (and most spectacular) plan would have been controlled demolition by dynamite to get everything on ground level for cutting up. This was ruled out by the congested site and fact one extremity of the wheel overhung the District Railway.

Andrews actually had a wooden model made of the wheel from which large numbers of parts could be conveniently removed and by which means he was able to explain to the men on site what exactly had to be done. Parts on no account to be touched were painted red. A thorough man, Andrews insisted on using his wheel to demonstrate what had to be done to all the men involved in some phase of work, and not just the foremen. A thorough understanding of how the work was to be carried out was the more necessary owing (for some reason unknown) to an absence of detailed plans of the wheel.

The first job was to overhaul the wheel, involving checking for loose bolts and rivets which had to be tightened or replaced. This involved quite a lot of work (there were 20,000 bolts alone) but was felt essential: a few loose parts was not a problem when the wheel was in balance but demolition might possibly involve large loads and stresses being transmitted in unusual directions when structural strength had to be relied on.

The next job was removal of the carriages. This was done so far as possible at the bottom by removing one carriage then turning the wheel a half circuit and removing one opposite, and so gradually removing the cars without ever unloading the wheel unequally by more than one car's weight.

The problem of physically dismantling the wheel was formidable. The engineer in charge considered the wheel to be, in effect, two arches, the whole load of the top one being carried by the lower one, which was inverted and suspended from the hub by the strutting held in tension. The practical effect of this was that dismantling had to start at the top. However if the outer rim was cut at this point the two unconnected quarter-circles would attempt collapse towards the centre as the forces would now be seriously out of balance, a very dangerous situation. To guard against this, before the circle was broken, two very substantantial timber struts would have to be installed, connecting the hub to the outer rim at 45 degrees to the vertical. These would carry the weight of the detached rim and constrain movement. The loads would be immense and it is indicative of the job to be done that the temporary strutting would weigh 200 tons.

Continued in next column


Wheel Demolition

This shows the wheel on 11 February 1907 after the two heavy struts had been inserted to support the apex and demolition of the rim having just begun.

Once this had been done, the upper quadrant of the rim and associated strutting could be removed, starting at the apex, and taken back to the struts. This lightened the structure by about 120 tons and left a 160ft gap. The rim above the struts was now removed, taking out another 30 tons of material and leaving a 200ft gap. The struts having done their job could now be removed as the remaining forces were largely downwards and could be carried by the lower structure.

The remainder of the rim could now be removed working at an equal rate on both sides to maintain equilibrium until the whole of the rim and supporting structure had been removed. Once everything had been detached from the hub, this could be cut up and dropped to the ground and finally the supporting columns could be demolished and associated equipment such as the engine house removed.

The wheel itself took about four months to demolish and for much of the time 200 workmen were employed though up to 400 were necessary at certain times; the majority of this work took only two months but some could not be hurried. Much delay arose from the need to dismantle the structure in a particular order and it was found that many of the thousands of nuts had siezed solid with rust and had to be cut, or 3-inch stays sawn through, each of which might take some hours in awkward conditions. The whole job from start to site clearance was started towards the end of 1906 and took just under six months.

It was rumoured than many firms of engineers had refused to tender for the work on the grounds that it appeared too dangerous. Andrews had some experience of this kind of thing in the far east using native labour and this seems to have stood him in good stead and in fact there were no serious accidents during the work. I should mention one workman did die though, not during a dangerous part of the demolition work (which he had just finished) but because on a very windy day when work had been stopped he was walking along underneath the wheel and was struck on the head by a shackle pin that had worked loose whilst being banged about by the weather and dropped out 150 feet above him.

Wheel Demolition

This shows the Great Wheel nearing final stage of demolition as seen from West Kensington station (the roof of which is seen at bottom)

Location in relation to present depot

The aerial view below shows the original site of the wheel in blue in the context of the present Lillie Bridge depot (the wheel occupying approximately the area covered by the lettering). Somewhere hidden just outboard of this area there presumably lies 1000 tons of the wheel’s foundations.


Any comments, or additional information, will be especially welcome.

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