He was the man from Northenden, Manchester, who could have completed the channel tunnel 100 years before it was eventually built. And if Edward Watkin had had his way, Wembley Stadium would have been a replica Eiffel Tower.
Some time ago, and I don’t know where from, but I bought a book called The Diaries of Absalom Watkin. It was really the subtitle that interested me, A Manchester Man 1787—1861. Absalom was born the son of an inn keeper in London, but became a wealthy cotton merchant in Manchester, and was noted for his involvement in the Anti-Corn Law League. More importantly for some, he was instrumental in the founding of The Guardian newspaper. Finally reading the diaries earlier this year, I was intrigued by the few oblique references to his sons, Alfred and Edward. Alfred became Manchester’s first mayor, but it was Edward, I soon realised, who was rather more influential than I had supposed.
Absalom Watkin (1787-1861)
Sir Edward Watkin (1819-1901)
Sir Edward Watkin (1819–1901) was a Member of Parliament and railway entrepreneur, noted for being chairman of nine different British railway companies. He was also an ambitious visionary, and presided over large-scale railway engineering projects to fulfil his business aspirations. Born in Salford, just into his teens, he moved to Northenden, where his father had bought and re-modelled a house in extensive wooded grounds. After a private education, Edward went to work in his father's mill business. In 1845, at the age of 26, he founded the Manchester Examiner, by which time he had become a partner in his father's business.
His family home was Rose Hill, Northenden, a suburb of Manchester, in a house bought by his father in 1832. A relatively late victim of industrialisation and over-population, Northenden has, even now, larger rural areas than most of Manchester, lying as it does in various meanderings of the River Mersey. Yes, that same River Mersey that passes serenely by its final neighbour, Liverpool, as it tumbles into the sea. In fact, Northenden lies to the south of the river, making it historically part of Cheshire, but it was an early annexation by Manchester that incorporated it into the city.
Rose Hill, the Watkin’s family home in Northenden.
When Absalom and Edward lived there, their walk home from the nearest accessible public transport route in Sale took them over open fields, and their own house and grounds, Rose Hill, gave its name to that entire section of the parish.
The workings of the original tunnel were discovered during the construction of the present scheme
Edward Watkin became a household name in England when he conceived the first serious attempt to create a Channel Tunnel, founding the Channel Tunnel Company in 1875. It had the aim of connecting his railways to the railway network in France, and he successfully opened the Great Central Main Line, a purpose-built high-speed railway line which was designed to accommodate the larger continental European trains which would cross into Britain from France. Sound familiar? But the work on a link between England and France caused violent controversy, and a furious mob besieged Sir Edward's house in London. The windows were smashed because the mob thought that England would be invaded if the tunnel were built. Eventually work on the project was halted after two miles had been dug.
Another unsuccessful project was his attempt to build a tower taller than the Eiffel Tower. Among his numerous railway executive appointments, Watkin was chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, an expanding London transport company which was later to become to the Metropolitan line of the present-day London Underground. Watkin was keen to attract more passengers onto his trains and was aggressively extending his railway into Buckinghamshire. He also considered transporting Londoners out into the countryside as a business opportunity and needed a major attraction to lure the crowds out of the city and onto his trains. To this end, Watkin purchased a tract of land near a then rural Middlesex hamlet called Wembley, adjacent to the route of the Metropolitan Railway, with the goal of building an amusement park laid out with boating lakes, a waterfall, ornamental gardens, and cricket and football pitches. The crowning glory of Watkin's amusement park was to be a soaring metal tower which would be centrepiece of the pleasure park and would offer panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, just 12 minutes from Baker Street station. The paying public would reach Wembley Park and its tower by train, arriving at the new Wembley Park station which the Metropolitan Railway constructed specially for the attraction.
Edward Watkin, as depicted by Vanity Fair magazine, 1875
An architectural design competition for the proposed tower was held in 1890, and a total of 68 designs were submitted. The winning entry, number 37, envisaged a tower which would be 45.8 metres (150 ft) taller than the Eiffel Tower.
The Wembley Tower was to have two observation decks – each with restaurants, theatres, dancing rooms and exhibitions – winter gardens, Turkish baths and a 90-bedroom hotel. The top of the tower, reached by a system of elevators, was to provide a fresh-air sanatorium and an astronomical observatory. The entire structure was to be illuminated by electric light. Wembley Park officially opened to the public in May 1894, although construction of the tower was still underway and the first stage had not yet been completed. Nevertheless, the park attracted 12,000 visitors during 1895 and was proving to be a popular attraction for Londoners. In September 1895, the first stage of the tower was completed, standing at approximately 47 metres (154 ft) high. At this time, work was behind schedule, perhaps because Watkin had retired through ill health. It was soon discovered that the structure's foundations were unsteady —and the project eventually went into voluntary liquidation in 1899. Work stopped, and the tower was never completed.
Watkin died in 1901, and with construction halted, the ‘unsafe’ site was closed to the public the following year. The completed section of the tower was demolished using dynamite in 1904 to 1907. Watkin himself was buried in St Wilfrid's churchyard in Northenden, where a memorial plaque commemorates his life.
Despite the failure and destruction of Watkin's star attraction, Wembley Park continued to flourish as a popular recreation venue, offering football, cricket, cycling, rowing, athletics and, in winter, ice skating on the frozen lake. By the end of World War I, over a hundred sports clubs used the Wembley facilities. After the war, Wembley was selected as the site for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition and the park land was purchased from the Metropolitan Railway company. Among the pavilions and halls designed for the exhibition was a grand sports arena, the 125,000-capacity British Empire Exhibition Stadium, later to be known as Wembley Stadium.