Arts & Culture History

Shot Down

  • January 13, 2023
  • 3 min read
Shot Down

There once was a tower on the South Bank, where the big yellow concrete stairs of the South Bank centre and the Queen Elizabeth II Hall are now, which was built to make shots, for guns and ballasts, and the like. Every day two men, working largely in silence, would take buckets of molten lead up the spiral staircase to the pinnacle and pour it through a copper sieve. The resultant uniformly sized droplets would then free fall the length of the tower, during which time the laws of surface tension, which govern liquids, would force them to assume the shape of a near perfect sphere. A water basin was waiting at the base to catch and cool them. They then would be sorted for size and checked for roundness, by rolling them down a sloped surface. Those that were ‘out of round’ would be put aside for re-melting. The height of the tower dictated the size of the shot it was capable of producing; the higher the tower the larger the shot that could assume the correct shape before hitting the water. One can’t help thinking that though this process was made more efficient with wind pumped through shafts, and eventually was abandoned altogether in favour of tumbling cut pieces of extruded lead wire, the shot tower, invented by William Watts in 1782, was an elegant and exciting thing. It stands amongst other inventions, like the anchor, as singularly obvious and genius at once, and with its square companion on the other side of the Thames, the Lambeth Shot tower was an icon of the river’s bank. In many of Turner’s riverscapes one might catch a glimpse of its silhouette. 

Watts built the first tower of this kind next to his house in Bristol, on the Avon, and hoped this would replace casting shot in moulds, which was costly and time consuming, or tumbling bits of lead sheet in barrels, a process which did not leave the shot sufficiently round. Ironically, we have returned to this latter principle in recent years. The shot tower in Lambeth was built on Watts’s principles in 1826 for Thomas Maltby & Co., to a design by David Riddal Roper.

The tower in Lambeth was out of use by 1951, when the South Bank was cleared for the festival of Britain and the building of the Royal Festival Hall. It was, however, decided that the tower would be kept, as it fit the festival organising committee’s need for vertical features, to draw attention to the site (the Festival Hall’s Skylon being made for this explicit purpose). It also fit the bill in that it illustrated, in these difficult post-war years, Britain’s scientific and technical achievements, and its advanced manufacturing. For the festival the tower was turned into a lighthouse and installed with a large radio dish antenna on an anti-aircraft gun carriage. This initially was going to bounce radio signals off the moon, and visitors would have seen them reflected 2.4 seconds later. This ended up not being possible, due to lack of parts. Instead, visitors saw radio ‘noises’ or atmospherics from outer space on a television screen.’

The tower was eventually demolished in 1962, clearing the site for the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There still exist out-of-use shot towers scattered around the capital, small monuments to this elegant and amusing concept, made defunct by efficiency.

Photo Credit: Shot tower, as was, on the left next to the Royal Festival Hall in 1959


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