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How many of us are old enough to remember the Festival of Britain in 1951 celebrating 100 years of technology since the Great Exhibition of 1851? At the time the organisers wondered what they should do with the old Shot Tower which was built on the south bank of the River Thames in 1826 some 90 yards south of Waterloo Bridge. It had not been used for many years but remained one of London's tallest landmarks.
A shot tower is where shot used to be made for guns. Hot molten lead was dropped from the melting chamber at the top of the tower and by the time it had fallen 120 feet within the tower and reached the water at the bottom it had hardened and formed into perfect balls of shot.
Most of the buildings in that area of London were bombed in the blitz of 1940 and those that survived were pulled down as part of the Festival of Britain preparations in order to provide a better approach to the new Waterloo Bridge, and the Royal Festival Hall, the National Film Theatre and the South Bank Promenade and Restaurant all to be built as part of the celebrations.
Many people suggested that the tower should be pulled down with the other buildings that were being cleared for the Royal Festival Hall, but others felt it was a pity to pull down this old tower of great architectural interest, so it was decided that it would make a fine lighthouse. An optic, made by Chance Brothers of Birmingham (who also made the glass for the original Crystal Palace in 1851), was placed on the top in a specially made lighthouse lantern and throughout that Festival year it sent out a double flashing beam visible for 45 miles across London on a clear day. The lamp was 3,000 watts with the power of 3 million candles and had an automatic device to ensure that a second lamp could swing into position should the first fail.
There was a radio beacon above the lantern room designed to direct radio signals to the moon and beyond into outer space. However, due to national defence requirements, it was changed to receive and record signals from the stars only. Presumably the government of the time did not wish to offend any extra terrestrial aliens living on the moon - a case of being considerate to our neighbours when throwing a party.
The lighthouse stood only yards from the new Royal Festival Hall and was a brick built circular tower, about seven stories high, tapering to the top. As a shot tower and not a chimney it already had an entrance door, a staircase inside and windows at each level and a gallery at the very top. Visitors were able to see inside the lighthouse. The entrance brought them onto a circular gallery and above them the original spiral staircase wound upwards to the lantern room at the top of the tower and below them in what we would call the basement was the water tank chamber.
The lighthouse operated for twelve months as such and after the celebrations the optic used was sold and bought for Brigand Hill, Manzanilla lighthouse in Trinidad and Tobago, and the tower eventually demolished. As an 8 year old boy living in Cornwall at the time I never got to visit the lighthouse and by the time I visited London in 1953 to see the Coronation of our current Queen Elizabeth the tower had been demolished.
Since writing the above I have heard from Allan who says "You mention that the Shot Tower was demolished on or before June 1953, but I have a photo of it and the RFH which I took on 24 April 1957. It's not particularly good, being taken from a moving train from Charing Cross Station "
It is, in fact, a very good photo (photo on right) - thanks Allan, and thanks for the correction. The photo on the left is what was standing on the site before demolition for the Festival of Britain.