Behold the Earls Court wheel – forerunner to the London Eye. For just over ten years – 1895 to 1906 – this dominated the skyline at Earls Court in west London. It was a hit with visitors to exhibitions at the nearby large events venue. In one book of photos I have from the turn of the 20th century, there is a hilarious and very Victorian description of the ride I have to share with you:
This gigantic wheel, which forms such a prominent object in the landscape anywhere west of London is extensively patronised by the public during the Exhibitions at Earl’s Court and it matters very little if it is an Indian or Colonial or South African exhibition, the big wheel always has its crowd of patrons who like to experience the exhilarating effects of an ascent into the air minus the dangers attending a balloon and the probability of making an ascent rather higher than they had originally intended and the improbability of landing on the earth again in such a perfect condition. This slowly revolving wheel takes you up to a good height, from which you have a splendid view of bricks and mortar below you; and there is just that touch of danger which always gives piquancy to pleasure, that perhaps it may stop, and refuse to go on, and its patrons may have to be fed on buns and soda water by venturesome sailors until the machinery once more gets into working order and you slowly descend to your despairing relatives and expectant friends with tumultuous applause and you feel proudly conscious of something attempted and (thank goodness) something done.
In a 19th century book from my personal library called Old and New London comes the bizarre tale of Daniel Wildman – bee tamer extraordinaire! This Barnum of the bees put on a show at Jubilee Gardens in 1772 called “Exhibition of the Bees on Horseback”.
At the Jubilee Gardens, late Dobney’s, this evening and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted), the celebrated Mr Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments never attempted by any man in this or any other kingdom before.
Where Wildman rode with bees – now stands Pentonville prison
The experiment would involve Wildman – said to be an American but possibly from the west country (accents can be so confusing!) – standing with one foot on the saddle of a horse and the other on the animal’s neck.
While riding round he would also have a mask of live bees on his head and face. Just to vary things a bit, Wildman also stood upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth and by firing a pistol, he could make one part of the bees march over a table while another part swarmed in the air then returned to their hive. Must have been quite a show!
Doors opened at six and the stinging commenced at 6.45pm. Admittance in the boxes and gallery was two shillings, cheaper seats were shilling and Wildman seems to have sold swarms of bees to punters.
The venue for this weirdness, Jubilee Gardens, was on a site in north London near Pentonville prison. As with many of these entertainment spaces, they tended to slide into decline, get built over and forgotten about. Not even Wildman’s bees could stop the rot.