Wheel of fortune

Today we have the London Eye which is rightly regarded as a marvel of modern engineering.

Tall as it is the wheel is not London’s first. In 1895 the World’s tallest Ferris wheel opened at Earls Court.

The Great or Gigantic Wheel (as it is called on the brooch left) stood at 310ft, today’s Eye is only a third taller at 443ft.

[F]orty open air gondolas each holding 30 people with 10 handsomely furnished for 1st class passenger and five were smoking capsules. A total of 1,200 passengers could be accommodated at a time (the London Eye by comparison has 32 capsules and a capacity of just 800).

It was based upon the Ferris wheel at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893 and of the dozens subsequently built by its designers only the Ferris wheel in Vienna which featured in the 1949 film The Third Man remains.

The Earl’s Court wheel was originally planned to have built recreation towers on either side with lifts carrying visitors up to the axle, through which it would have been possible to walk.

When in operation a completed revolution with interruptions, so that passengers could admire the view, took 20 minutes and during its 12 years carried 2½ million passengers its Vanity Fair described it as ‘A revolution of the Graydon wheel will exalt the passengers in its forty cars by 300 feet above the groundlings . . . it can hardly be doubted that we shall all do the circular trip at Earl’s Court – rising as if in a balloon, in a comfortable carriage, without risk and “without exertion”, rising as if in a balloon in a comfortable carriage without risk and without exertion’.

The Builders publications were more critical:

We have as little sympathy with this foolish kind of sensational toy as we have with Eiffel towers . . . it is only a pity that all the ability and cost expended in its construction should not be devoted to some more useful end than carrying coach-loads of fools round a vertical circle.

The wheel was notoriously temperamental and ‘stuck on the wheel’ became an over-used excuse for lateness. But for some sightseers, the ride made them very late indeed.

At 9pm on 28th May 1896, just as passengers were enjoying panoramic views from the top, the drive mechanism snapped and the wheel came to an abrupt stop. It was clear repairs would take some time so sailors from the Royal Navy were called in to climb the wheel with iced buns and soda water for the stranded.

When midnight struck and engineers were still scratching their heads, the Band of the Grenadier Guards assembled at the base to blast out some jolly tunes.

Weary passengers were eventually freed at 7 o’clock next morning and as they disembarked, each was given a crisp £5 note. The next day some 11,000 gathered to ride on the wheel, in the hope of another breakdown. The episode spawned a music-hall song ‘I’ve Got The Five-Pound Note’).

The wheel was pulled down in 1906. Kensington and Chelsea library has a full illustrated account of The Great (or Gigantic) Wheel. Picture: Big Wheel Brooch on Ebay.

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