Although now principally thought of as a centrepiece for British sport, Wembley Stadium was originally envisaged as a centrepiece for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924.
The stadium was rebuilt completely, re-opening in 2007 with Norman Foster’s 133 metre arch providing an iconic replacement for the old building’s twin towers. It remains a focus of sporting and cultural activity.
Before the stadium
The original Wembley Park was a Humphry Repton designed parkland landscape.
Once chosen as the venue for the British Empire Exhibition, it was totally transformed.
The site of the stadium itself had been occupied by the abandoned base of Watkins Tower (a failed attempt to rival the Eiffel Tower), which was levelled before construction started.
The construction of Wembley Stadium, between 1922 and 1923
After the turf was cut by King George V, stadium construction began. Sir Robert McAlpine’s civil engineering firm worked to the designs of architects Sir John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton.
The design took inspiration from the Imperial theme. For instance, the domes of the twin towers were inspired by Mughal Architecture but were built in concrete.
250,000 tons of earth were removed, and the new stadium was constructed with an official capacity of 127,000. It took 10 months and cost £750,000 to complete.
The White Horse Final, 1923
The stadium was completed on 24 April 1923. 4 days later, it hosted its first major sporting event: the 1923 FA Cup Final between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United.
A massive crowd of more than 200,000 people had gathered. Turnstiles were overwhelmed, and chaotic scenes ensued as crowds burst onto the pitch.
Kick-off was delayed. Mounted police were deployed. PC George Scorey’s white horse (named Billy) is memorialised as the face of the challenge, as they and their colleagues patiently edge the crowds off the playing surface.
Bolton went on to win the match 2-0. Lessons learned, all subsequent events were ticketed.
The British Empire Exhibition, between 1924 and 1925
A year later, George V opened the British Empire Exhibition in a ceremony broadcast on BBC radio. While the stadium was a centrepiece, it was just one of many attractions the exhibition had to offer.
The stadium hosted various performances and events, including a Boy Scout jamboree, popular pageants, and concerts by massed marching bands. Edward Elgar’s ‘Empire March’ was written for performance at Wembley.
Other sporting events also took place during this time, including Rugby Union, boxing and another 2 FA Cup Finals.
After the Exhibition
The British Empire Exhibition had been a partial triumph. Despite attracting large numbers of visitors, it had not been a huge commercial success.
The site was sold to a property speculator. Much of the site was cleared, although some buildings were retained and given a new purpose. Demolition of the stadium remained a consideration until 1927, when it was purchased by the Wembley Stadium and Greyhound Racecourse Company.
This saved it for national sporting occasions, including FA Cup Finals from 1926 onwards.
As well as football and greyhound racing, Wembley went on to host many other sporting events, including the Rugby League Challenge Cup and sports like speedway and hockey.
The Austerity Games 1948
Amongst the most notable of Wembley’s many sporting honours was hosting athletic events for the 1948 Olympics.
The Austerity Games took place with very little preparation and on a shoestring budget. It started just 1000 days after the end of the Second World War, in a bomb-ravaged city where rationing was still in effect.
Among the stars of the show was ‘the flying housewife’, whose exploits inspired a generation of women in sport.
Fanny Blankers-Koen was a 30 year old multiple world record holder and mother of two when she wowed the Wembley crowds.
She won 4 sprint gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100m and 80m hurdles), which was more medals than any other athlete at the games.
‘They think it’s all over…’
The 1966 World Cup Final is arguably the most historic sporting event in Wembley’s history.
Having been awarded the hosting rights, improvements were made to the stadium, including a new electronic scoreboard and a roof covering all the stands.
Wembley hosted 9 matches throughout the tournament, as England reached the final. The host nation was well supported to victory over West Germany in a dramatic match, leading to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s now iconic BBC commentary in the closing moments: ‘They think it’s all over… it is now!’
Bobby Moore, the captain that day, remains England’s youngest men’s captain and the only England football captain to have lifted the World Cup.
Wembley’s history goes beyond sport. It has hosted a variety of entertainment spectacles, including Evel Knievel’s motorcycle jump over 13 London buses.
It was also a popular music venue in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and host to a roll call of popular chart acts.
Live Aid in 1985 is perhaps the best remembered musical event. In response to the famine in Ethiopia between 1983 and 1985, a group of prominent musicians came together for a charity concert.
Performers included Bob Geldof, Elton John, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Status Quo, U2 and Queen.
More than 72,000 people came to Wembley to see the acts perform. It was estimated to have reached a TV audience of 1.9 billion people: around 40% of the world’s population at the time.
An ending and new beginnings
Toward the end of the 1990s, Wembley Stadium was starting to feel its age. The old ground closed in October 2000 and demolition started in 2002, with the twin towers being dismantled in December.
Redevelopment started in 2003. After setbacks, the new Wembley Stadium was opened in 2007 on the same site as the old ground.
Designed by Populous and Foster and Partners, the new stadium cost £798 million to build. It is now owned by the Football Association, the governing body for English football.
It has an all-covered capacity of 90,000. The most notable feature of the design is the lattice arch, rising 133 metres high to provide support for the roof.
The Wembley arch is now a prominent feature in the landscape of North London.
It is sometimes illuminated at night to mark special occasions, including an appreciation for NHS and front line workers during the Covid 19 pandemic. In 2022, it was lit up in rainbow colours to promote anti-discrimination.
UEFA European Women’s Football Championship 2022
After having been banned from playing for half a century between 1921 and 1971, England’s women footballers finally roared back in 2022.
England hosted the UEFA European Women’s Football Championship, packing out stadiums up and down the country.
Wembley Stadium hosted the final with 87,000 people in attendance, setting a European record for women’s football. And, of course, the Lionesses won!
The autogyro was being trialled by the Metropolitan Police – it was not owned by them. The caption is misleading.
Thanks for noting this, Andrew.
It does seem wrong that none of the buildings from the British Empire Exhibition was listed. The last one survived until around 10 years ago, having been used most recently as a warehouse; a real missed opportunity.
“and sports like speedway!” If it were not for speedway along side Dog racing, there would have been no Wembley stadium. When the Wembley Lions first started riding there in 1928. They were getting crowds of 50,000 plus for league meetings. From 1946–1951 the crowds increased to 60,000 a week as well as hosting 26 World individual Speedway Championships. Where a crowds of between 80,000 to 90,000 was not unusual. Having seen Wembley’s 100 Years celebration poster, which did not include one reference to speedway, was at best insulting to say the very least. Whoever designed that poster, should of least checked their history. quite ironic!! Maybe he/she only went back a few years! Next time maybe they should use Google! It wouldn’t haven take long to see how speedway was such a big part of Wembley ‘s history
Thank you for your time.
Thanks for your comment, Ian.
My grandmother Idina visited the British Empire exhibition in 1924 with her parents and brothers. They had returned from many decades in Simla India, and this was very exciting. The Flying Scotsman was on display there, as a newly built Doncaster locomotive. Sir John Betjeman explores the remaining buildings in the 1973 film Metroland – there was a church design pavilion, later used for Holiday on Ice. I went to the old stadium, the twins towers should never have been lost, a crime.
It’s nice to see that some of the old Wembley was preserved when it was demolished. Both concrete flagpoles topped with crowns were carefully removed from the domes of the twin towers and sent to the Fawley Hill Estate. This was the home of the late Sir William Mcalpine, great grandson of Sir Robert Mcalpine, who’s building firm constructed the stadium in 1923. They specialised in concrete and the stadium walls were designed to look like Roman arches. Round windows plus cast iron lion details from the towers survived and were bought by architectural historian Charles Brooking. He also bought many other fixtures and fittings that would otherwise have been disposed of e.g. wooden doors, window and section of the royal staircase from the Royal box, fanlight window from the restaurant. The huge timber gates, designed in a Medieval style which provided access to the players tunnel were also saved.
A bust of the old owner of the ground Arthur Elvin is also on display inside the new stadium. Both concrete tops of the towers which the flagpoles were attached survive, one of which is at Toykington recreation ground, not far from the existing stadium. It would be nice to see this being given protection by listing in the future.
Thank you for the excellent article,