London’s skyline has changed dramatically over the years, and with it we have lost some impressive (and some not so impressive) landmarks. Today we may see remnants of those landmarks and the secrets that go with them. Here are just a sample of my favourites.
Wembley Stadium 1923 – 2003
The most recent and most controversial of our lost landmarks is Wembley Stadium and most notably the twin towers. Wembley Stadium was built as the heart piece of the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Ever since the great exhibition of the 1800s, exhibitions proved popular and happened every couple of years. This stadium was built as the centre piece and along with its terraces made the perfect place for a national exhibition. But it wasn’t long before it became the home of football, hosting its first FA cup final in April 1923.
After 90 years its iconic status was known across the world and how this ‘listed’ building was ever allowed to disappear from the skyline is anyone’s guess. Today those famous twin towers are buried a few miles west on the edge of the A40 making one of London’s newest parks Northala Fields.
Skylon 1951 – 1952
Before the twisty Orbit Tower of the 2012 Olympics was ever conceived there was the Skylon, this tall floating tower stood in prime place on London’s Southbank was built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain.
The Festival of Britain was yet another of these regular exhibitions and a celebration of all that was great and British, and to signify technological advances of our great country the Skylon was built. It looked a bit like a cigar on spider legs and it hovered 15 meters above the ground to a height 90 meters. It only remained a year on the riverside, before being dismantled and disposed of.
Watkins Tower 1891 – 1907
Heading back to Wembley we discover another lost landmark on this site, or rather the land mark that never was. This was the site of the infamous Watkins Tower; the British Eiffel Tower which was built here in a bid to out do the famous French tower. Planned as a centre piece of a pleasure park on this site, easily accessed by the brand new railway system. However it soon became as a bit of a joke, nicknamed ‘Watkins Folly’, as when the park opened 5 years after the building began, this was centre piece was nothing but a half built tower.
Eventually, following set back after set back including financial, and the death of the designer, the tower was given up on and what was built was demolished in 1907.
London Bridge 1176 – 1831
The most well known of our lost landmarks is London Bridge. In its 600 years it would have been quite a sight to see across the river, and played a key part in London’s history, being one of the Thames’ only bridges for that period and the only way to get from North to South on foot.
By 1358 the bridge was already cluttered with shops and residences. And by the 1500s some of the residences stood 7 stories high and overhung the edges of the bridge. The bridge proved a chronic fire hazard, and was subject to a number of fires. The worse being in 1212 when two fires broke out at either end trapping the inhabitants. Up to 3000 people died, many by drowning after residents jumped in panic into the river below.
The bridge was a bustling thoroughfare, and would have been as crazy to cross as Oxford Street at Christmas. The bridge would have also been a gruesome sight with the heads of executed traitors hung on one end as a deterrent. The most famous heads to decorate the bridge being Thomas Moore and Guy Fawkes.
In the mid 18th century, all buildings on the bridge were ordered to be demolished by an act of Parliament, as new bridges were planned and safety became a key issue. It was eventually demolished and rebuilt in 1831. Although (as is well known) the current bridge is actually even more modern, the 1830s bridge having been demolished and moved stone by stone to America in the 70s.
Tyburn Gallows 1196 – 1783
Each year millions of people pound the pavement of the famed Oxford Street in search of a bargain, however for 6 centuries millions of people pounded this same street for a very different reason; For at the West end of this infamous road stood the Tyburn Gallows, the key execution spot for the city of London. Not only did many criminals meet their grisly end here but many came to watch. It’s estimated that some executions attracted up to 200,000 viewers.
Prisoners used to make their way from the Newagte prison in the north, along the Oxford Street, their last stop being St Giles Church at the east end (which still stands today just next to Tottenham Court Road) where church wardens would take pity and buy them a last beer at a watering hole next to the church.
Among those executed were the famous Jack Sheppard, who was well known for escaping some of London’s most secure prisons in creative ways. He was finally executed in front on huge crowds – no doubt expecting a final break away, in 1724. It is said his autobiography was being sold to the crowds that day, such was his fame.
Another famous hanging to take place here was that of Oliver Cromwell. This famously disliked politician actually died naturally in 1658, but a few years later following the restoration of the monarchy his body was dug up and he was posthumously hung at Tyburn with his severed head hung ceremoniously outside Whitehall. (Although many dispute that it was actually his body that was put through this ritual.).
In the late 1700s, with the area becoming more built up, and home to the richer classes, the hangings were deemed to lower the tone, and create too much traffic on this now busy road. So hangings ended. Today the site of the actual gallows (sometimes known as the Tyburn Tree) lies just beyond Marble Arch, at the junction of Edgware Road is and marked by a plaque in the middle of the roundabout.
White Hall Palace 1530 – 1698
Today Whitehall is famed for its political presence, and its famous Palace of Westminster (Parliament). But back in the 16th century it was equally as important and would have proved a mighty sight with the grand Palace of Whitehall sitting on the banks of the Thames. This magnificent palace was said to be more beautiful than Versailles and the Vatican with over 1500 rooms and extensive recreation grounds, including a cock pit, tennis courts and bowling green. It stretched from Westminster to Trafalgar square.
This palace was also where government met, as well as where the monarch lived. King Henry VIII married one of his many wives here and also died here. Tragically this vast and beautiful place was completely gutted by fire in the late 1600s. Only a few remnants remain, one being Banqueting House which was constructed in 1622, which was used as entertaining quarters, and is today owned by the Royal Historic Palaces. Another area that survived was the tiltyard – an area used for jousting tournaments, which today is known to us Horse Guards Parade.
To get an glimmer of what this great palace may have looked like all those years ago, view today’s Whitehall from St James’ Park.
If you like this read this:
Abandoned Industry on the Thames
A quirky look at the history of London’s public toilets