Wyld’s Great Globe: A 1850s and 1860s London Attraction

Wyld’s Great Globe, also known as Wyld’s Globe or Wyld’s Monster Globe, was a world globe that served as an attraction in London’s Leicester Square between 1851 and 1862. It was constructed based on the ideas of James Wyld, a British geographer and map-seller, who was the oldest son of James Wyld the elder and Eliza Legg.

Wyld's Great Globe - James Wyld

James Wyld the younger. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wyld’s father owned a thriving map publishing business in Charing Cross and when he died, the younger Wyld inherited it. He, like his father, had an excellent reputation as a mapmaker. The younger Wyld was also highly regarded just like his father. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in 1839 and appointed as Geographer to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Wyld was also a prolific map publisher and had an opportunistic approach to business. Unfortunately, not every business venture he became involved with proved profitable and in fact during the railway mania he became entangled in several costly court cases with unsuccessful railway companies. He also printed maps and guides of London railway networks that were inaccurate because the stops were never built. In addition, Wyld held an account at the Royal British Bank and when it collapsed in 1856, he lost an unspecified amount of money.

Despite his various business and financial failings, Wyld was intent on creating a giant globe that when finished would measure 60 feet 4 inches in diameter. Wyld had original proposed that his giant globe be constructed for The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations that took place at Hyde Park in 1851. He presented his idea to the committee as an educational attraction, but he had an ulterior motive. He wanted the enormous globe to help promote his map-making business. Although it was a good idea, organizers of the Great Exhibition immediately saw problems. First, Wyld’s Great Globe was so large it could not be placed inside the Crystal Palace and second, organizers did not want any commercial enterprises that allowed people to sell their goods or services. Wyld was also all about making money and thus the committee rejected his great globe idea.

Wyld then decided to negotiate placement of his globe with the owners of the gardens of Leicester Square. This was the same site that Prince Albert had originally wanted for the Great Exhibition, but it proved too small. Fortunately, for Wyld, he secured an agreement to place his Great Globe there for ten years. The site allowed him to take advantage of the crowds that would visit the Great Exhibition and so he therefore decided his exhibition needed to open and coincide with the exhibition. Thus, Wyld’s exhibit hall and model of the Earth were quickly constructed to take advantages of the exhibition’s dates.

To house Wyld’s Great Globe, an octagonal brick structure topped by a metal covered cupola was built. Of this building The Observer of London reported:

“It has been already stated that the centre of Leicester-square is the spot fixed upon for the erection of a building to receive Mr. Wyld’s intended great globe. After much difficulty, and the payment of no less than £3,000, the arrangement for the ground is now completed. The building is to be of a circular form, 90 feet across, enclosing the globe, of 60 feet in diameter. Corridors for promenade will surround it, and it is to have four covered approaches from the sides of the square. The external elevation at the sides is proposed to be 20 feet high, surrounded by a large bell-shaped roof of zinc. The building itself will be mainly of timber, the inner surface of the globe of plaster of Paris. In the centre of the globe will be a series of galleries, four in number, constructed so as to enable visitors to see every portion of the model. These galleries, it is said, will afford accommodation for 1,000 or 1,500 persons at one time, and are to be approached by spiral staircases in the centre. The entrance is to be south of the globe.[1]

Wyld's Great Globe site

Site where Wyld’s Great Globe was housed. Courtesy of the British Museum.

After paying the entrance fee, visitors first viewed an exhibition of maps before they explored the interior of the giant globe. They found the globe hollow inside and lighted by gas. A staircase allowed customers to climb the stairs and then view the concave surface of the Earth from various elevated platforms. Of this interior view it was reported:

“Upon its interior side were delineated the physical features of the earth, the horizontal surface being on the scale of an inch to ten miles, and mountains, shown by mechanical devices, on thrice that scale. The concave surface was made of some six thousand casts taken in plaster of Paris, three feet square and an inch thick, screwed to beams and joined together, and afterwards painted over. The top of the globe outside was painted with stars. It was surrounded by a large circular building, approached by four loggias opening into each side of the square. The walls of the circular passages were hung with the finest maps, and atlases, globes, and geographical works were displayed upon tables.”[2]

Wyld's Great Globe plan

Wyld’s Great Globe plan. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another description of the Wyle’s exhibition and the globe stated:

“The object of the proprietor is to present at a glance the physical geography of the globe. … The very ingenious ‘raised maps,’ of Switzerland by Bauerkeller, have been long familiar with the public: an admirable specimen of this style of geographical art, was a model by Mr. Carrington, the engineer, of several northern counties: in such models, the elevations and depressions of the earth’s surface are shown to scale that somewhat approximates … to the proportions of the actual objects represented; the hills and valleys, the land and water, being appropriately coloured.”[3]

Wyld's Great Globe - interior

Interior of Wyld’s Great Globe. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wyld’s exhibition was open twelve hours a day from morning to evening. Visitors paid a shilling for access, expect on Thursday and Saturdays when the price was two shillings and a sixpence. After seeing the exhibition and the inside of the globe visitors exited into Wyld’s globe shop where his most recent maps and globes could be purchased.

During its first year of operation, Wyld’s Great Globe was a resounding success and the educational benefits of the globe were regularly praised. For instance, Eliza Cook, an English author and poet, noted in 1851 in her weekly periodical, Eliza Cook’s Journal:

“No method of teaching geography in a summary view has yet been devised more effectual than this extraordinary globe of Mr. Wyld’s. It is geography anatomized and dissected in the most beautiful manner. Its detail of hill and valley lake and river, modeled in relief, and each coloured after nature, speaks to the eye in a way which it is impossible for any map or globe with a flat surface to do. And were it possible to have a similar globe erected in every large town, it could fail to prove eminently instructive to the young as well as the old, in conveying to them, in the most striking manner, a direct and accurate knowledge of the geographical relations and conditions of the great globe on which we live.”[4]  

Wyld's Great Globe - Eliza Cook

Eliza Cook. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides the benefits of the globe, numerous other accolades were also published about Wyld’s instructional exhibition. For instance, in London’s Morning Post in 1857, it was noted:

“Painting has been very happily described by Mr. Ruskin as the ‘pictorial expression of thought,’ and it may be so in the scenic as well as in the higher, and more imaginative departments of the art, the admirable dioramas at Mr. Wyld’s Great Globe in Leicester-square sufficiently demonstrate. In this exhibition (one of the most instructive and interesting in the metropolis) the most striking events in the current history of England are translated in colour with a splendour of effect and rapidity of execution which deserve the highest commendation. The scenes illustrative of the seat of war in India have received some valuable accessions in a series of pictures representing the cities of Lucknow and Delhi from various points of aspect. These views are alike remarkable for boldness and accuracy of drawing, and richness, and harmony of colour. They are executed in the best style of scenic art, and do more than the most graphic letter-press could effect to present vividly to the imagination of the spectator places which possess at this moment an engrossing interest.[5]

Among some of the educational sites described were Mesopotamia, Austen Henry Layard’s Assyrian discoveries, and an “Oriental Museum” that recreated scenes from real life in Turkey, Armenia, and Albania with its dressed rooms and life-size models. Furthermore, Wyld began to closely watch global events and when some “new and striking” incident happened, he would announce a new map. According to The Athenaeum, a journal of literature, science, the fine arts, music, and drama:

“[Wyld] thus led the way in supplying the public with cheap and ready geographical information on the events of the day. He also closely followed the progress of the colonies, and he rendered considerable service to the Australian colonies and to India by the attention he bestowed in thus recording local details. He also popularized geological maps. … by his own example and the emulation he created, kept this country ahead in the records of contemporary geographic information.”[6]

Wyld's Great Globe - advertisement

Advertisement for Wyld’s Great Globe. Author’s collection.

To accompany his exhibition and the globe, Wyld produced a book titled Notes to Accompany Mr. Wyld’s Model of the Earth, Leicester Square. It was 132 pages long, imparted Wyld’s wealth of geographic and historical knowledge, and extolled the virtues of London, Britain, and the Empire. There was information about the globe itself, information about the globe as part of the solar system, the structure and phenomena of the globe, and the continents and islands of the globe. Moreover, his book helped to promote his maps, thereby doubling as a sales catalog.

Example of a map produced by James Wyld. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Visitor numbers to see the globe (although not recorded for the first two years) were second only to those attending the Great Exhibition. Among some of the “distinguished personages” to visit Wyld’s Great Globe were the King of Belgium, the Duke of Wellington, and Prince Albert, to whom Wyld dedicate his project. Nonetheless, from 1852 onward public interest in the attraction waned. That was partly because Wyld faced extreme competition from other educational attractions, such as Madame Tussaud who remarked regularly on the educational benefits that could be attributed to her wax museum and her Chamber of Horrors.

To ensure that Wyld’s Great Globe would continue to attract visitors, Wyld found that he needed to adapt. He thus arranged to exhibit a collection of gold and precious stones discovered in Australia. To do so he joined with prospector John Calvert in 1853 and ordered cases at “considerable expense” and had labels made for Calvert’s treasures. In addition, to ensure that the nuggets would not be stolen Wyld installed iron bars and kept an armed policeman nearby to prevent mischief. Eventually, however, a respected gentleman mentioned to Wyld that he did not believe the nuggets on display were real gold. An examination was made, and it was discovered that not a single nugget was real. In fact, despite Calvert consistently representing them as gold to Wyld, there were discovered to be gilded lead,.

Example of a real gold nugget. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Wyld then sued Calvert claiming that he had been deceived and that Calvert had breached the contract. Calvert maintained that Wyld had known all along the nuggets were fake and had overseen the preparation of the casts. Moreover, Calvert alleged that Wyld had planned to increase his ticket sales with an elaborate publicity stunt that was to be based around a faked robbery of the phony nuggets. Wyld indignantly denied that there was the slightest truth to Calvert’s charges and made a point of condemning Calvert’s character by stating:

“No one but one who had been the associate of convicts for fifteen years would have ventured to suggest such a [thing].”[7]

Ultimately, the jury was unable to reach a verdict, but the publicity from the contentious trial proved beneficial for Wyld. Despite the public differing about whether Wyld had been duped or not, Wyld’s topical exhibitions, like the nuggets, proved to be a clever way for him to reinvigorate his attraction and increase his profits. More people than ever came to see the phony nuggets.

Besides the topical exhibitions, Wyld lengthened the time of his lectures. Current events also became an important topic for Wyld. He thus began to promote and comment on the latest global events happening around the world. He also praised the education aspects of his globe, exhibitions, and lectures and that resulted in Wyld’s scholastic benefits being praised by newspapers like London’s Observer:

“Mr. Wyld has laboured strenuously for several years past to extend geographical knowledge among the people of this country, and his exertions have been crowned with no inconsiderable amount of success. Aided by his great globe, and assisted by numerous well-executed models, Mr. Wyld has converted the study of geography from the dry and repulsive routine of the school into a pleasing and amusing occupation. It is not only that he has depicted the surface of our globe and explained in simple and intelligible terms the distribution of land and water, and the position of the different nations of the world, but Mr. Wyld has carried his instruction a step farther. The kindred sciences of ethnology is now taught at the Great Globe in connection with geography – taught, too, in such a manner as cannot fail to produce a lasting impression upon the minds of both youthful and adult visitors.”[8]

Despite still earning a profit, Wyld was concerned about what would happen to his giant globe when his exhibition ended. He therefore proposed transferring ownership of the attraction to the “Cosmos Institute” to establish a national geographic and ethnological museum. It seemed like a good idea, but Wyld’s right to sell was a stumbling block and eventually his proposal amounted to nothing and was abandoned.

In 1862, Wyld’s agreement expired and the exhibition hall was removed, along with Wyld’s Great Globe that was broken up and sold for scrap. Wyld had promised to restore the gardens after the removal of his globe, but he failed to honor that agreement. Therefore, the gardens quickly reverted to their former dilapidated state. Wyld then sold his interest in the gardens for £1,000 in 1868. Extensive legal wrangling was undertaken the following year to restore the gardens and to determine who was responsible. Finally, in 1874, Albert Grant bought it, redesigned it, and donated it to the city of London. As to Wyld, he died on 17 April 1887 at his house in South Kensington.

Wyld's Great Globe - Leicester Square

Leicester Square in 1874. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] The Observer, “The Great Globe House,” February 24, 1841, p. 7.
  • [2] S. Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography 63 (New York: Macmillan, 1900), p. 234.
  • [3] London As It is To-day (H.G. Clarke, 1851), p. 273.
  • [4] Eliza Cook’s Journal 5 (John Owen Clarke, 1851), p. 174.
  • [5] The Morning Post, “Wyld’s Great Globe,” November 17, 1857, p. 6.
  • [6] The Athenaeum (London: J. Francis, 1887), p. 770.
  • [7] Sun, “Bail Court,” April 24, 1854, p. 4.
  • [8] The Observer, “Wyld’s Great Globe,” August 18, 1856, p. 1.

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