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The Great Globe, site of
Leicester Square, London, UK
The Great Globe, site of
associated engineer
H.R. Abraham
date  March - May 1851
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ297807
photo  Illustrated London News, 1851
The Great Globe was the brainchild of James Wyld junior (1812-87), Geographer Royal to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He had the idea of creating a huge hollow model of the Earth, lined with a gigantic relief map that could be inspected from internal platforms. Realised as part of the Great Exhibition of 1851, it was a popular visitor attraction for more than a decade (demolished 1862).
Prince Albert was the instigator of The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations that took place in Hyde Park between 1st May and 15th October 1851. Wyld was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society from 1839, and Liberal Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall (1847-52 and 1857-68). Keen to use any opportunity to promote his mapmaking business, he had approached the exhibition’s organisers with his idea.
Wyld engaged architect Edward Welch (1806-68) and the first plans were ready in January 1851. However, at 18.4m in diameter, plus supporting structure, the globe was too large for Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace exhibition building. Instead, the gardens on the plot of land now known as Leicester Square were chosen as the site.
After protracted legal negotiations with the owners of the land and surrounding buildings, Wyld secured the freehold of the gardens for £3,000 and a 10-year agreement with the neighbours for its use from 25th April 1851, after which time he would have to remove all structures.
In February 1851, the estimated cost of the globe with outlying buildings, including four theatres, forced Wyld to reduce the scale of his project. He engaged H.R. Abraham as architect and asked Welch to leave. In June Welch sued Wyld to recover his fee of £47 4s (£47.20). Abraham’s scheme omitted the extra buildings and included a supporting wall to the unsupported trusses proposed by Welch.
Construction began in March 1851, with contractor George Myers (1803-75) submitting the lowest tender at £2,755. The statue of George I (1660-1727) on horseback, which had stood in the centre of the gardens since 1748, was apparently "taken down and buried".
The Great Globe was a circular building surmounted by a hemispherical dome, with loggias at the compass points. The northern loggia was the main entrance. The outer wall was of rendered brick, and the exposed parts of the globe were clad in lead. Ventilation chimneys topped the globe, bringing the total height to 20.7m.
Inside, a corridor between the globe’s supports and the circular building's outer wall encircled the base of the sphere. During the day, the globe was lit by a glazed central skylight at the top. At night, gas lamps were used.
The globe’s curved frame consisted of 32 large trusses supported on sleeper walls below the sphere and propped by 32 raking members bedded into the base of the surrounding wall. Horizontal ribs at 610mm centres completed the structural skeleton, which was likely to have been of iron. The plasterwork relief maps of the world were attached in sections to battens fixed to the ribs.
The concave inner surface consisted of some 6,000 map sections, 910mm square, joined seamlessly together and painted in vibrant colours. The horizontal scale was six inches (150mm) to a degree, or 1:633,465 (one inch to 10 miles), and the vertical scale 10 times more at 1:63,345 (one inch to one mile).
However, the world on show did not include the continent of Antarctica — Wyld did not believe it existed, even though separate sightings of its ice shelf and land had first occurred in 1820 and were confirmed by expeditions in the 1840s.
The ground level entrance allowed the visitor to emerge into the southern Pacific Ocean, and proceed upwards through four floors of staging to arrive beneath the North Pole. The top level was 13m high. The 305mm square upright supports for these viewing galleries were held in cast iron shoes inset into the sleeper walls.
The lower half of the exterior of the globe, visible to people walking around the 76m of corridor, was also plastered and decorated with celestial details. The corridor had a Moorish-themed interior, designed by architect G. Jermyn, and Wyld’s maps, atlases and other geographical paraphernalia were displayed prominently.
On 29th May 1851, the Great Globe was opened for a private view. The public was admitted from 2nd June. The entry price was one shilling (5p) per person, though schoolchildren were only charged sixpence (2.5p). The project was a commercial success, recouping its expenses within a year. In 1853, some 1.2 million people visited.
The magazine Punch commented, "… this World is a most beautiful one. It is most agreeable to stand in the centre of the Earth, and to see yourself surrounded by oceans and continents …"
Ironically, the staging that allowed people to be close to the globe’s surface details obscured the whole panorama, making it difficult to appreciate the whole. Its drainage and ventilation also drew criticism, with complaints that the smell was overwhelming in hot weather. The heat was intensified by insufficient ventilation, and Punch remarked, "… the heat of the Globe is equal to that of any baker's oven … the higher a person ascends in the World, the hotter it becomes …"
Four galleries were built later (probably before 1854) between the loggias, encompassing the internal corridor, with a refreshment stall to revive the queue of people waiting for entry. The extended building was some 55m square with external walls about 6m high.
In 1854, Wyld was quick to capitalise on the newsworthiness of the Crimean War, which had begun a year earlier. He displayed a relief model on which was shown the latest positions of the Allied and Russian armies. This was followed in 1859 by an oriental museum showing scenes of life in Turkey, Armenia and Albania, and waxworks of people from various eastern races.
The Great Globe was removed in October 1862. After it had been dismantled, the statue of King George I was "again set up, but minus a leg, and otherwise disfigured". By 1872, it had been much defaced and was sold for £16.
During 1873-4, Albert Grant (1831-99) bought the gardens and converted them into public open space at a cost of about £30,000. A statue of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) atop a fountain was erected in the centre and remains there to this day.
Architects: Edward Welch, H.R. Abraham, G. Jermyn
Resident engineer: Horatio Miller
Contractor: George Myers
Research: ECPK
"London Past and Present: Its History, Associations, and Traditions" by Henry Benjamin Wheatley and Peter Cunningham, John Murray, London, 1891, reprinted Cambridge University Press, February 2011
"Wyld, James, the younger (1812–1887)" by Elizabeth Baigent, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
"Wyld, James (1812–1887)" by Gerald le Grys Norgate, in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Vol.63, Smith Elder & Co., 1900
"Tulk v. The Metropolitan Board of Works" in Law Times Reports, Vol.17, Horace Cox, London, 1868
"The Great Globe-House, Leicester-Square" in The Builder, London, 5th April 1851
"Wyld’s Model Globe" in The Living Age by Eliakim Littell and Robert S. Littell, Vol.30, Living Age Company Incorporated, Boston, 1851
reference sources   BDCE1

The Great Globe, site of