James Wyld's Monster Globe
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If you were a Victiorian lady or gentleman, who enjoyed a stroll through London’s Leicester Square, you might have been surprised, one day in 1851, to find a dramatic change to the gardens there. Previously derelict and not the most salubrious of places, the area was suddenly transformed and dominated by a large circular building, with a huge dome protruding from its roof.
Those who were inclined to examine this strange edifice a little closer would have discovered that inside there was an enormous globe, more than 60 feet in diameter. Inside that, there were staircases and elevated platforms for visitors to climb and view the surface of the earth on the concave inner surface, with the world’s rivers and mountains built to scale from plaster of Paris.
Wyld’s Great Globe – or Wyld’s Monster Globe as it was also known – was the brainchild of James Wyld. A former Liberal Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall, Wyld was a distinguished and prolific map maker. His reputation was best summed up by Punch magazine, saying that if a country were discovered in the centre of the earth, Wyld would produce a map of it as soon as it was discovered, if not before.
Wyld’s plan for a spherical, rather than a flat, map showing the exterior of the Earth on the interior of a huge globe, began as a promotional project for his map making business. His thinking was based on the fact that, from a single viewpoint, it would be impossible to see the whole of the Earth represented on the outside of a gigantic sphere. But if the same countries, continents, seas and oceans were represented on the inside of the sphere, and if people could go inside and look around, then the whole World could be taken in from a single viewpoint.
To quote what Punch said about it at the time, it was: “a geographical globule which the mind can take in at one swallow.”
Wyld’s first idea was to erect his Globe inside the Crystal Palace, which housed The Great Exhibition when it opened in Hyde Park in May 1851. His plan, however, was rejected on the grounds that the Globe was too big and also because the organisers were against any form of commercialism by exhibitors who attempted to use the exhibition to sell their goods or services.
Leicester Square had originally been the proposed site for The Great Exhibition, but was rejected early on because the location was too small. Similarly rejected by the exhibition organisers, Wyld set out to snap up the freehold on the Square’s gardens for his own project. After some opposition from, and protracted negotiations with, owners of buildings surrounding the Square, Wyld eventually secured the land for £3,000 and building began. The Illustrated London News of 22nd March 1851 stated:
The dull and dreary centre of Leicester Square has of late become a scene of great activity in the commencement of the building to receive Mr. Wyld’s large Model of the Earth and surface. Upwards of 100 workmen are busily engaged upon this area. Huge balks of timber have displaced the stunted trees and shrubs; and large trusses have been framed for the support of the capacious structure.
During the period of erecting and placing the trusses to support the dome in their several beds, those fixed have much the appearance of the ribs of a large ship. We congratulate the inhabitants of Leicester Square upon the prospect of having a building which, if the design is fully carried out, will be an ornament to the metropolis.
Within two weeks of the start of building, the workforce numbered more like 300, working by day and by gaslight at night. The building had a diameter of 88 feet with four entrances. Inside, 32 trusses supported the gigantic globe, while vertical timbers supported four galleries. Everything was grounded solidly in concrete as it was thought that the slightest vibration might harm the delicate plaster of Paris modelling inside the globe.
During the building, a statue of George I on horseback had to be removed. It was stated that this would be placed in a pit below the building and reinstated when The Globe was removed. There were also rumours that it had been sawn up and buried or that parts of it had been dismantled, stolen and sold by some of the workers.
The final cost was somewhere around £5,500, more than double the £2,000 that Wyld had planned for, but a lot less than an estimated £13,000 that would have been needed to complete the project if the construction of originally envisaged outlying buildings had not been cancelled.
The Globe was opened to the press and special guests on 29th May 1851 and on 2nd June, it was opened to the public.
On entering any of the four entrances, which faced north, south, east and west, visitors were faced with large reception areas from where turnstiles led to a corridor that ran around the inner circumference of the building. The curved wall on one side of the corridor was the outside surface of the globe, painted blue with star constellations in silver. The opposite wall was hung with maps that promoted Wyld’s business, and the corridor was lit by globe-shaped lamps. The pillars that supported the balconies were decorated with designs copied from the Alhambra Palace in Spain.
From this corridor, the public entered the interior of the Globe through an impressive entrance gate, decorated with Moorish patterns, influenced by Arabic designs.
On entering, visitors fund themselves in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Then, by means of platforms and staircases, they could wander the surface of the Earth, examining various areas of the world in close-up. Around the inner surface, the scale was ten miles to the inch, but vertically, to give more drama to mountains ranges and craters, the scale was only one mile to the inch.
By day, the interior was lit by windows at the ‘north pole’, which also provided a degree of ventilation. By night, the Globe was illuminated by gas light. It was reported at the time that the combination of gas lighting, the heat of the human bodies and the minimum of ventilation resulted in extremely hot conditions. Since heat rises, the conditions were, of course, hottest at the North Pole.
One area not covered was Antarctica, a continent which, at that time, was largely undiscovered and even thought by some to be non-existent. Other than that, visitors were often most impressed – and surprised – at the amount of water in the World, as opposed to dry land. The Illustrated London News of 7th June 1851, reported:
The immense expanse of water in the southern hemisphere is brought out in strong contrast with the wide-spread lands of the northern; and the great chains of mountains which are remarkable features of the Earth’s surface are shown to be ranged in a circle round the oceans and Indian Sea. The water-shed or river-course of every country is laid down and the great areas drained are exhibited.
Mistakes may henceforth be avoided by the advantage of being now able to embrace at one view the whole of the Globe. Much is still to be learned by this means. The Globe in Leicester Square therefore will require to be constantly visited and will repay the student for renewed investigation.
From the day it opened, the Goble was a great success with the public, attracting thousands of visitors, particularly during the period that The Great Exhibition was bringing visitors to London from across the world, from May to October. As the years went on, however, interest diminished. Eventually, after complications with selling the building to a buyer who failed to pay, court cases for Wyld to regain possession and further legal wrangles that involved not removing the Globe from its location at a time previously agreed, Wyld eventually sold the edifice for demolition in October 1862.
By November that year, it was gone and, despite previously made promises to restore the Leicester Square gardens, the area soon reverted to its former state of dilapidation. By the end of that year, there was nothing left of what had once been one of the most remarkable and certainly one of the most innovative structures to have graced Victorian London.
James Wyld, eminent map maker, Member of Parliament and creator of the Great Globe.
Working by gaslight, the trusses of the building are raised in London’s Leicester Square, while the soon to be removed statue of George I stands in the centre.
Exterior of the building which housed The Globe.
A cross-section of The Globe, showing the platforms and staircases that visitors walked and climbed to view the interior.
(Pictures from The Illustrated London News of May and June 1851.)