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The end of a dream

The Temple, home of Thomas Read Kemp, viewed from Clifton Hill. The Anthaeum is on the left of the picture
Artist: George Earpe

No overall control

While the general consensus was that this building was a fantastic achievement, anxieties began to rise within the project. Bishop claims one design fault was that it was not “the section of a perfect sphere, but an oblate sphere”. The principal problem seems to be that all the major players, whilst responsible for their own area of expertise, had no-one in overall control of the project. By now Mr English had decided to do away with further structural braces and purlins around the dome, further compromising its integrity.

Wilds resigned in despair

Alarmed at developments with the project, and particularly the structural alterations, Wilds resigned in despair, followed by Mr Hollis. the chief engineer. Phillips, by now deeply concerned, requested the celebrated civil engineer Sir John Rennie to advise, but Rennie declined to visit. When English decided, two days before the official opening, to dismantle the temporary scaffold that held everything up, the project’s fate was sealed.

A complete disaster

It is not clear just how complete the building was- contemporary accounts vary as to just how much glazing had been installed, but the few remaining illustrations all appear to show the building as fully glazed. After English removed the scaffolding, Phillips worked all next day, under the centre of the dome, on the Aquarium. By six, only the head gardener remained. At 7pm, hearing ominous cracks and groans from above, he ran for his life, just in time, as 500 tons of snapping girders fell and buried themselves in the ground. The ruins would lie there for 20 years, and became a tourist attraction in their own right.

A sad end to an enterprising project

In 1850, just before the ruins were cleared, and Palmeira Square finally occupied the site, Joseph Paxton paid a visit, and the following year built the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park- the last word in glass and iron technology. But Phillips never saw any of that. The trauma had struck him blind. He died in 1840 at his house in Russell Square. As for the true villain of the piece, the contractor Mr English fled the country shortly after the collapse. But he had achieved his desire- he had created the world’s largest unsupported dome, even if it was for just one day.

Part I of this account can be seen here

Part II of this account can be seen here

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