Being a country’s tallest building, even for a short space of time, is the sort of literally high achievement that normally guarantees a prominent place in history, as well as the record books. Particularly in a Britain that, until the spate of skyscraper-building in London that has given birth to One Canada Square and The Shard, was rarely known for its ventures into gargantuan architecture.
True, Lincoln Cathedral was (probably) the loftiest edifice on the planet from 1311 to 1548 – until a storm removed the top section of a spire that had grown to 525ft (160m). But for the main part, structures that push way up into the firmament, far beyond the averages of their era, have not tended to be a British thing. Much better a stately palace or an elegant mansion than the Tower of Babel reborn.
It is this relative restraint which makes the story of the New Brighton Tower so unusual. For here was a project which not only abandoned any sense of moderation; it did so, not in a major capital or a cathedral city – but on a windy promontory on the “other” side of the River Mersey. And it vanished almost as soon as it arrived, “enjoying” an existence of barely two decades before it disappeared into the footnotes of the First World War. It has been gone, this year, for an exact century – and little remains of it but faded photographs.
The tale begins in 1830, when Liverpudlian merchant James Atherton bought a 170-acre parcel of land at Rock Point, in the town of Wallasey – the tip of the Wirral Peninsula, which juts upwards, across from Liverpool, on the west side of the Mersey estuary. The Victorian tourism boom that would sweep the coastline of the country was still 30 years away – it would not really gather momentum until the 1860s – but Atherton has his eye on turning an area best known for smuggling and wrecking into a desirable destination. His plan even came with an upbeat name – “New Brighton”, in reference to the East Sussex resort, which had already established a reputation as a holiday hotspot for the wealthy, thanks to the regular visits of George IV during the Regency and later Georgian periods.