London would be a flatter place without Lifts: Liveryman David Cooper

The first skyscraper (for present purposes, a building over 100 metres in height) within the City of London boundary was the original St Paul’s Cathedral, the spire of which was 150 metres tall and the tallest building in London from 1310 to 1666 when it succumbed to the Great Fire of London.

After a short hiatus the tallest building in London then became The Monument – a mere bungalow compared to its mighty predecessor at just 62 metres tall. It was surpassed 6 years later by the church at St Mary le Bow at 72 metres tall. It wasn’t until 1710 that London would see a building over 100 metres high – fittingly it was to be the new St Paul’s Cathedral with the top of its dome standing 111 metres above the ground.

But for London, like all cities, to be able to use high-rise buildings for office space, the problem of rapid vertical travel had to be overcome. Many of London’s early lifts were powered by the London Hydraulic Company’s water pressure system which surprisingly still provided power until 1977. The system was steam-powered and incorporated short-term storage provided by hydraulic accumulators, in the form of large vertical pistons loaded with heavy weights.

Accumulator Tower
One of London Hydraulic Company’s Accumulator Towers
Accumulator Tower
Operational Principles of the Accumulator Tower

The most significant development in the lift industry was probably in 1853 when Elisha Otis demonstrated the operating of the safety gear he had designed at the New York World’s Fair. He stood on an elevated platform and cut the ropes holding it up. The safety gear engaged preventing the platform descending uncontrollably. This gave people far more confidence in using high rise lifts, and was the key enabler of the skyscraper as an attractive space for living and working.

It was explained that “a call”, the term used when you push a button for a lift, is derived from the days of attendants driving lift cars and users having to shout to get their attention.

In the City of London, skyscrapers came into vogue in the 1960s and then dropped out again only to have a more recent resurgence. In the 1960’s three were built (Citypoint, Drapers Gardens & St Helens). Drapers Gardens is the only skyscraper in London to be demolished and replaced with a smaller building.

In the 1970’s five were built including the Barbican trio of Cromwell, Lauderdale and Shakespeare towers which are all residential. By the 1980’s the recession had hit and only one, The Nat West Tower (now Tower 42), was erected in the shape of the bank’s logo, if seen from the air.

The 1990’s were fallow, investors preferring Canary Wharf for more attractive returns. But since 2000, the demand for high rise buildings in the City has bounced back with many built from 2010 onwards and others under construction or in planning.

Even the London Livery Halls are not immune from these renewed development opportunities and the Clothworkers’ Company has received planning permission for a new 35-storey green-facade skyscraper at 50 Fenchurch Street, incorporating a new Hall.

But remember the lift engineer, creating safe, rapid vertical transportation, without which these ambitions to build high would not be viable.

Liveryman EurIng Professor David A. Cooper

(based on his talk to the Worshipful Company of Engineers on 23rd June 2020)

Image Credit: John Canning photography