Riling the French has been a national sport since before Waterloo, but no one has taken it to the lengths that Sir Edward Watkin did 150 years ago in Wembley.
In 1869 he proposed constructing a tunnel under the English Channel and had actually started digging when it was pointed out that he lacked the necessary planning permission both in Kent and on the French side.
[U]ndeterred he planned to beat the Frenchies by building an Eiffel Tower – only taller. He established the Metropolitan Tower Construction Company and attracted many anti-Franco loyal subscribers.
He contacted M. Eiffel to design the tower but with the stipulation of making it 150 ft higher than the original, although unsurprisingly the French engineer declined the generous offer.
Sir Edward then announced a competition, with a prize of 500 guineas which attracted dozens of designs for his tower. The submissions came from as far afield as Sweden, Turkey and Australia, and included the Leaning Tower of Pisa – only erect. One bedecked with hanging gardens and with a nod to modernity it was intended to house a community of vegetarians.
The winner designed a copy of Paris’s original and in 1891 work began on 280 acres of the hallow turf that Wembley Stadium now stands.
More than 100,000 people came to see the work in progress, but it quickly became obvious that funds were not available to complete this monument to patriotism.
The tower became known as ‘The Shareholder’s Dismay’ and stopped at 150ft prompting locals to demand recompense for spoiling their views with his ugly stump.
It wasn’t until 1907 that fewer than a dozen people turned up to watch as demolition experts blew up the whole sad assembly.
Rising from the wreckage of Watkin’s folly 16 years later was the Empire Stadium the centrepiece of the British Empire Exhibition. With its twin towers it soon became the shrine to English football until it was demolished in 2003.