Escalators at the Exhibitions


Fred Peskett


            There is little doubt that the first escalator or moving staircase in use in Great Britain was the one erected in the Central Transept of the Crystal Palace in 1899. The fare to ride on the Crystal Palace escalator was a penny, a high price for the time. The second escalator was a “Reno” Inclined Elevator installed on the Liverpool Overhead Railway at Seaforth Station during January 1901. This system was more of an inclined moving platform rather than a stepped escalator, but it did have a moving handrail that was synchronised with the platform.

            The first true escalator concerned with exhibitions was constructed on the London Underground System at Earls Court Station and opened on the 4th October 1911 for the Coronation celebrations at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. To ride on the this escalator there was a charge of ½d per trip. The public were somewhat apprehensive about using the new escalator, so a man with a wooden leg known as “Bumper” Harris was hired to ride on the escalator all day to hopefully give some confidence to the travelling public!.

            The Platforms of many of the London Transport Stations were only served by stairs and lifts, so in early 1939 there was a plan to install escalators to all the sub-surface stations. The station at Sloane Square was one of the shallowest stations, never-the-less, two escalators were fitted and opened on March 27th 1940, but both of these were destroyed along with the station by a direct hit bomb during an air raid on the 12th November 1940, Once the debris had been cleared, access to the platforms reverted back to the original staircase from 1888 when the station was built. Sloane Square Station was re-built and the escalators replaced during 1950 in time for the 1951 Festival of Britain, when the Station was used as the starting point for Special Bus Services to the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park and to the South Bank Exhibition and the Science and Victoria and Albert Museums.

            Perhaps, theoretically the longest escalator constructed for any exhibition must be the one in the Dome of Discovery on the  South Bank Exhibition site for the Festival of Britain in 1951. It went from the ground floor to “Outer Space”, however, you did not need to wear a space-suit or become weightless, since the “Outer Space” was a gallery on the top floor near to the top of the roof! When the Festival closed it is understood that this fairly long escalator was installed in Piccadilly Underground Station for access to the Piccadilly Line.

            On some photographs and postcards of the Crystal Palace that show the Central Transept from the Terraces, there is a rather strange looking square column that can be seen between the two staircases that lead to the Royal Box. It is known that these staircases were built during 1910 for the Festival of Empire Exhibition. The column does not feature on any of the views known to have been taken prior to 1910, but it does appear on postcard views published by Bemrose and other printers for the Festival of Empire, so it must have been erected for this event.

            Postcards and photographs taken between 1914 to 1919 when the Crystal Palace was occupied by the Admiralty do not have this structure visible, so it must have been removed or demolished between 1912 to 1914. On most of the views where this column can be seen there seems to be a rectangular black plate at the top, but it is generally unreadable, however, there is one postcard in the OXO Festival of Empire Series that can be deciphered with the aid of a strong magnifying lens, it reads:- “Waygood Lifts” there is further proof in the Bemrose Festival of Empire Guide with a small advert for Waygood Lifts saying  “See our display on the Terraces”. The column may have been a working model lift, it was far too small to be of any functioning use.


© Exhibition Study Group 2012