A group of extinct Irish elk from the Ice Age – part of a series of models of extinct animals created by sculptor and fossil expert Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and Professor Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum, in the 1850s for the park surrounding the reconstructed Crystal Palace, known as Crystal Palace Park. Built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 by Joseph Paxton, the palace had been relocated from Hyde Park to Sydenham, in what was Kent (and is now south London), following the exhibition’s closure. The series of life-sized extinct animals, initially just mammals but later expanded to include dinosaurs, underwent extensive restoration in 2002 and were given Grade I listed status in 2007. There’s a free audio guide you can download while visiting the dinosaurs. PICTURE: Neil Cummings/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0.

Fresh from the success of designing The Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 (see our earlier post here), in 1855 Sir Joseph Paxton came up with the idea of building a covered elevated railway “girdle” which would circle parts of central and west London and alleviate traffic congestion.

Great-Victorian-WayThe proposed 10 mile long, eight track railway – which would feature trains propelled by air pressure (an “atmospheric” system) rather than conventional steam engines and included  “express” trains which would only stop at select stations – was to be constructed inside a vast, 108 foot high glass covered arcade which would also contain a road, shopping and even housing.

The trains would travel at such a speed that to get from any one point on the “girdle” to its opposite point would only take 15 minutes.

Paxton presented his proposal to a Parliamentary Select Committee in June 1855 – he had already shown it to Prince Albert whom, he said, “gives it his approval”.

He estimated the cost of his proposal – which he thought would carry some 105,000 passengers every day – at some £34 million – a figure which parliament, which had initially been supportive of the idea, found a little hard to stomach.

This was especially thanks to the fact they were already dealing with the costs of Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s vast sewer system (see our earlier post here), created as a result of the ‘Great Stink’ in 1858 when the smell of untreated human excrement and other waste in the Thames became so strong, parliament had to act.

As a result, the project – which would have crossed the Thames three times, once with a spur line that ended near Piccadilly Circus – never eventuated but the Underground’s Circle Line today follows roughly the same route Paxton’s railway would have.