The Gigantic Wheel and Recreation Towers Co., Ltd.

Earls Court Exhibition Grounds.


Alan Sabey

At the turn of the last century there was another Great Wheel in London, and it was at the former Earls Court exhibition grounds near to where ‘Stamp Show 2000’ is being held, the wheel was a larger version of the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago which was open from May 1st to October 30th 1893.

Work began on the construction of the Gigantic Wheel at Earls Court in March 1894 and its location was near the Lillie Bridge Works of London Transport and could be easily seen by looking in an easterly direction from West Kensington Underground Station. For those wishing to locate the site in today’s world, with the many changes made to the road layout in that area after the Second World War, it would be east of where the Great Cromwell Road begins after the traffic lights of the junction of Talgarth Road and North End Road, where the present road bears to the left (if one is heading east) over the railway bridge by a large brick built warehouse, which was formally William Whiteley’s Depositories. From that point if one stands on the opposite side of the road to the depositories and looks across to ‘Earls Court 2’ the wheel would have been right in front of you.

The Earls Court Exhibition Grounds in those days were in three sections separated by railway lines. The western-most section backed onto Beaumont Road and Mund Street heading south down North End Road from West Kensington Station. For postcard collectors this was where the ‘Western Gardens’ (a view often seen on postcards) were. The second section heading east was across the Midland Railway by footbridge and is the section which is now fully occupied by London Transport, this was the location of the Gigantic Wheel at its northern end. The third and eastern-most section was the triangle between various parts of the District Line and the West London Extension Railway, where the present Earls Court Exhibition building was built in 1937. The Empress State Building (the large triangular shaped office building) stands on the middle of the three parts of the Exhibition Grounds.

Eight four foot square and 150 foot high supporting columns were constructed at which level there were two promenade or recreation rooms. The bearings on the plummer blocks at the top were the largest ever constructed and were made by the Tandem Smelting Syndicate Ltd., of Jubilee Buildings, Queen Victoria Street, London, E.C. who were the largest smelter and the greatest experts on anti-friction metals in Europe. These plummer blocks on which the axle rested weighed 11 tons each and the Axle, built in East Greenwich by Maudsley Sons & Field, was in one inch plates. When assembled it was a steel tube which had been constructed in three sections that was 35 feet long and seven feet in diameter. It weighed 60 tons and was brought from Greenwich to Earls Court by road in June 1894, which aroused much interest from the general public en route.

Work on the assembly of the Wheel was slow because of the 1894 Exhibition that was in progress, but this closed early so that the wheel could be built and this was done in four sections each weighing 150 tons and was achieved about the end of June 1895 ready for testing by the Company Engineer, Mr J. J. Wheeler M.I.C.E. on July 3rd 1895.

The total height of the Earls Court wheel was 300 feet this is lower than the Millennium Wheel on the South Bank of the River Thames next to County Hall which is about 450 feet (135 metres) high. There were 40 cars, constructed by Brown, Marshall & Co., of Birmingham, each measuring 24 feet long, nine feet wide and ten feet high capable of carrying 30 passengers each. Thus the total capacity of the full wheel was 1,200 persons. Ten of the cars were furnished as first class at a cost of 100 each, five of these were for non smokers and the other five for those wishing to smoke. the other 30 cars were furnished in a plainer style. There were eight platforms on either side of the wheel for embarking on one side and disembarking on the other side.

The wheel was driven by steam from two 50 horse power Robey engines housed in an engine house at the foot of the towers. The driving mechanism was a pair of chains which were 1,000 feet in length and weighed eight tons. Either chain was capable of driving the wheel so there was said to be no danger of it stopping. However according to the Daily Graphic on May 23rd 1906 the wheel stopped suddenly two days before. 74 people were suspended on the wheel overnight for 15 hours. Some people let down strings in the hope of getting food. Some men climbed the metalwork to reach the lower cars with some refreshments. On their return to solid ground each person was given a 5 note (a great deal of money in 1896) by way of compensation.

Access to the Recreation rooms at the tops of the towers was by a double funicular railway. On a clear day the view from the top of the wheel was over the sights of London in one direction and to Windsor Castle in the other direction. At night there was a double row of glow lamps around its circumference and the cars were lit by electricity. Construction of the wheel was carried out by Mr Walter Basset’s Company, and on Saturday 27th April 1895, Mrs Basset ceremonially screwed the last bolt in each rim of the wheel.

The wheel opened to the public on July 6th 1895 for the ‘Empire of India Exhibition’ and last turned on the closing day of the 1906 Austrian Exhibition. Due to high winds and frost not much headway was made in the dismantling of the wheel until a months contract was made on February 8th 1907, because the wheel company became bankrupt so it had to be dismantled to sell the metal in order to raise funds for the creditors.

Certificate for five shares of The Gigantic Wheel & Recreation Towers Co., Ltd.

It had a life of 11 years but in that time had given visitors unparalleled views over London and the Home Counties, before the days of aircraft.

To summarise The weight of the wheel was 600 tons

The weight of the axle was 60 tons

The weight of the eight supporting legs was 250 tons

The weight of the 40 cars (4 tons each) was 160 tons

Giving a total unladen weight of 1,070 tons

This article was written originally for The Association of Friends of the National Postal Museum, for the stiffener card to be inserted in their special envelope to mark ‘Stamp Show 2000’ at Earls Court. The building being used is on one of the sections of the original Earls Court Exhibition Grounds.


The Wheel was purchased for dismantling by George Cohen, Sons & Co.,

Scrap Iron Merchants, 600, Commercial Road, |London, E.

Alan wishes to record his thanks for information and maps supplied by Christine Bayliss of Hammersmith & Fulham Archives, and to Arthur Smith, who are both members of the Study Group, to Keith Whitehouse for information, and to the staff at the Guildhall Library, London for access to ‘The Times’ of April 30th 1895 and to ‘Engineering’ of May 3rd 1895.

© Exhibition Study Group 2000