The last few weeks have seen League 1 and 2 teams join the remaining non-league sides in the first two rounds of the Football Association Challenge Cup, with clubs hoping that they are starting on their road to Wembley. Exactly one hundred years ago clubs at the same stage would have been starting out on that road for the first time, Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea FC and the Cup Final since 1920, had been dropped by the F.A for a twenty-six-year commitment to a brand new, unseen, rented venue, in rural Middlesex. In November 1922 the actual road to Wembley was unbuilt and the stadium, surrounded by fields, unfinished. The new venue promised modern accommodation for 126,000 spectators, but was served by only two railway stations, what could possibly go wrong?
The original Wembley Stadium or to give it its correct title The Empire Stadium, Wembley, was built as the centrepiece of the British Empire Exhibition, itself originally planned for 1923, but in good British tradition delayed until 1924, leaving the stadium ready to wet the appetite in April 1923. The details of that first final are well recorded, five days before Bolton Wanderers, West Ham United and 200,000 people turned up, the resilience of the stadium was tested by workers and soldiers collectively sitting, standing, swaying, and marching up and down the freshly concreted terraces.
Unfortunately, someone forgot to risk assess the possibility that a large crowd would be attracted by a final with a London club participating, a new wonder of the sporting world and pay on the gate entry. Bolton won that first Wembley final 2-0 and a White Horse led the crowd control during the day, primary sources record the horse as being grey, but because it looks white in b/w photographs and the ‘Grey Horse final’ does not sound as romantic, the name stuck. In the aftermath of the chaos, the tenant (the F.A) blamed the landlord (Exhibition authorities) leading to structural changes at a venue barely weeks old and the end of pay on the gate at future Cup Finals. Wembley was up and running but its next scheduled football match and the Empire Exhibition were still another twelve months away.
The ‘biographical’ details of Wembley Stadium are probably well known to most readers, built in 300 working days at a cost of £750,000 and its main architectural feature being the now much-missed twin towers. Even the stadium’s most famous events are probably easily recounted in quizzes, the 1966 World Cup Final, 1948 Olympics, Cooper v Ali (then Clay), Live Aid, Euro 96 and the Pope and Nelson Mandela, not appearing at the same time I must stress. These events and of course football arguably put Wembley on the world stage and in later life added kudos to Wembley’s unofficial title of the ‘Venue of Legends’. But what else took place beneath the iconic twin towers and now almost one hundred years later, do they really matter?.
After the events of the first cup final, Wembley’s 1923 calendar would be limited to two athletics meetings in July, a British Legion Sports meeting and an Oxford & Cambridge v Harvard & Yale athletics fixture featuring Harold Abraham, later of Chariots of Fire film fame. Images from our archive of both events record sparsely populated terraces and stands and no doubt a better atmosphere would have been generated at any municipal running track, but already the prestige of using Wembley and its versatility and new facilities is evident within the sporting fraternity.
The British Empire Exhibition opened in 1924, palaces and pavilions in the differing architectural styles from across the empire surrounded the stadium along with gardens, lakes, visitor transportation systems and a crowd pulling state-of-the-art amusement park. The stadium itself was the venue for pageants, circuses, tattoos, displays and even an international Scout Jamboree. Boxing would also be staged in the stadium during 1924 but again the crowds did not come, leaving fighters Jack Bloomfield and Tommy Gibbons requesting their fees before stepping into the ring. After a two-year run the exhibition closed in October 1925 and after various sales and transactions the stadium fell into the hands of Arthur Elvin, an exhibition worker who had made enough money from the demolition of exhibition buildings to purchase the site, the Stadium and its two-match football contract.
Installing himself as Managing Director, Elvin and his team set about the task of making the stadium pay its way. Greyhound racing was the first business venture of the new Wembley Stadium Limited and the first meeting took place in December 1927. The opening day brochure shows the now cleared exhibition site all set out for automobile parking and advertisements for fine dining, music and dancing in the Stadium restaurant until late, if Elvin wanted the crowds to come to Wembley he had to give them the means to do so and when they got there he needed them to spend. The roster of Wembley events steadily grew as the twenties gave way to the thirties, Speedway and the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final were both introduced in 1929.
The introduction of a supporter’s club would lock in Speedway fans with reduced admission and other benefits for members. The stadium was also available to hire to anyone who felt they could fill it. The Boys Brigade were early users holding their 50th Anniversary celebrations in the stadium in June 1933, a quick internet search reveals a day beset with bad weather which washed out a Test match and an Air Force Pageant elsewhere and reports from Wembley talk of a ‘deluge of rain turning the arena into a lake, but the B.B stood tall’, in other words faced with a bad weather, refunding paying ticket holders and losing the hire fee, the show had to go on.
With a growing stadium diary consisting of weekly greyhound and speedway meetings and their respective crowds, the parent company switched its attention to the provision of indoor entertainment on the land they owned. 1934 would see the opening of the Empire Pool and Sports Arena now known as Wembley Arena, or in these days of sponsorship the OVO Arena at Wembley. The Empire Pool was exactly that, a swimming pool built to stage the 1934 swimming events of the Empire games, a forerunner of today’s Commonwealth games, but strangely the White City stadium held the track and field events.
During the pre-war summer seasons visitors could spend a whole day at the pool branded as ‘London’s Riviera’ and enjoy the use of sunbathing terraces and a boating lake, both remnants of the old exhibition grounds, which adjoined the rear of the building. In the autumn the tank would be filled in, floored over, and converted to an ice rink for the winter season for which Wembley had two crowd pulling Ice Hockey teams, again with supporter’s clubs in tow. 1937 would arguably be the peak of the pre-war years at Wembley, a glance though our stadium archive for this particular year includes items from the Borough of Wembley Charter Celebrations, London Girl Guides Rally, National Festival of Youth, The Women’s League of Health and Beauty Pageant and Wembley’s own Coronation (Edward VIII) celebrations, all these events packed the stands supplementing the weekly ‘bread and butter’ events.
The dark skies of the second world war would see Wembley playing a different role as evacuees from Dunkirk were housed temporarily in the corridors of the stadium and arena. American servicemen stationed in the area played out Baseball games on the hallowed turf while war-time football resumed with regional cup finals at the stadium but with much reduced attendances, while appeals were made requesting spectators dispose of tickets and programmes for re-use due to paper shortages. Post-war public swimming would never return to the Empire Pool, the 1948 Olympics, originally awarded to London for 1944, would be its last use as a pool although the tank still exists to today, used as storage under the permanent floor.
The stadium would be converted to all seated for the Olympiad with bench seats added to the uncovered end terraces, pre-empting its permanent conversion forty-two years later. One off event’s continued though, the Boys Brigade were back for another rally in stadium in 1953 and other religious organisations were frequent customers. The Catholic Church used the stadium’s facilities twice in the fifties along with the Jehovah Witnesses and American Evangelist Billy Graham on his London Crusades.
The swinging sixties saw the stadium undergo its biggest facelift in preparation for the World Cup when between 1962 and 1963 it was re-roofed with the end terraces covered and press and TV gantries suspended underneath. From 1958 to 1975 the London Gaelic Athletic Association hired the stadium over one weekend to stage exhibition games of Hurling and Irish Football to tens of thousands of fans, equivalent to the current NFL London takeover weekends. The early seventies saw both Speedway and Ice Hockey ending on the Wembley event calendar, music and in particular concerts would become the new bread and butter over at the arena with the Monkees being the first act to stage a single artist headlining show in 1967. The stadium’s first music event would be in the summer of 1972 with the ‘London Rock n Roll show’ and headliners Bill Hayley and Little Richard. Both the stadium and arena would flourish as music venues over the next three decades as a whole host of acts grew from arena fillers to stadium artists alongside an equally diverse range of events ranging from Euro 96, Summerslam WWF and Cricket, yes that’s correct, Cricket, but unlike the Boys Brigade back in 1933 it got rained off!!
The politics, personalities, and financing behind the rebuilding of Wembley Stadium in the early 2000’s fenced it into becoming primarily a football focused venue, after all why provide an athletics capability for a sport which only has two capacity filling showpieces events, which in all probability, would happen only once in any stadium’s lifespan. Not many other sports can regularly fill 90,000 seats and sell hospitality like football can and does. On the downside the rebuilt Wembley cannot really call itself the ‘Venue of Legends’, that title surely resides with the 2012 Olympic Stadium, which predictably had its own legacy struggles post Olympics and pre-West Ham United.
In addition Wembley now has serious competition for concerts and events from other London stadiums boasting better facilities, transport infrastructure but crucially less capacity. New legends always emerge though, already the new Wembley has held car racing, welcomed the Indian Prime Minister, held a National Prayer Day and, how could we forget, the Lionesses’ triumph last year. Wembley’s continued success is based on modern facilities and prestige, but that prestige is interwoven with heritage, events from days gone matter because they ensured the original stadium survived and thrived in its earliest days, without them there would have been no Wembley to host the World Cup Final and Live Aid. Artists, promoters, sportsmen and women and fans still want Wembley for these reasons, in turn it is a marketing officer’s dream venue to sell and has allowed social media channels like @WembleyArchive a centenary of interesting stories and artefacts to unearth.
Written by Graham Cooksley, Curator of @Wembleyarchive
An unofficial archive of memorabilia and artefacts from Wembley Stadium and Wembley Arena from 1921 to date. Our Twitter followers include Wembley Stadium, OVO Arena at Wembley, Club Wembley (Stadium) hospitality and Wembley Park LDN.
Illustrations from the @wembleyarchive, except ‘Grey Horse’ used with permission from @collectfootball
SHOP the official England Empire collection at 3Retro.com