Mike Perkins


In January this year I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from Alan Sabey reminding me that the 10th of January was the 70th Anniversary of the cutting of the first sod for the building of the British Empire Exhibition. I have copies of the McAlpine house journal for June and October 1973 which contain articles celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Wembley. The following is an extract from these articles describing the construction of the Exhibition (in particular the Stadium).

"At the begining of 1922 a contract was signed, huts were erected on Wembley Golf Course, and McAlpine engineers began driving pegs into the fairways which were to be the site for the first part of the scheme, the massive Sports Stadium".

"The Stadium was sited on the summit of a hill. This meant heavy excavations, for the top of the hill had to be sliced off and the embankments for seating built up with the excavated soil. To set the whole scheme going there was to be an official ceremony at the digging of the first sod. But because part of the area to be excavated was wooded, the first sod was a tree trunk and the digger a steam navvy".

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The start at Wembley Golf Course

"With due ceremony the party arrived, the speeches were made and Sir Lawrence Weaver, the Lord Mayor of London, gave the signal and the navvy driver pulled the lever to raise the bucket and tear the tree from the ground, roots and all. The assembled party looked at the great machine in admiration.......and waited. The signal had been given but the tree root was still in the ground. A few polite jokes were passed in the party as the navvy stood motionless over the tree stump. A few remarks, urgent and much, less polite, were passed on to the navvy driver. But still the machine refused to do the thing they were all there to see it do, so they left. There is no record of an interview between the site management and the driver, who had simply failed to raise enough steam before the group arrived".

"This first small set-back was no ill-omen for the contract, for everything after that went with remarkable speed and efficiency. Within a few days the usual service rails were laid, cranes erected and the necessary plant was arriving on site. The opening of the stadium was planned for April the following year, in time for the Cup Final".

"Night shifts during the summer were running for a few joiners and steel fixers although as far as possible concreting was confined to the day-time".

"As the summer progressed, enormous quantities of material went into the stadium structure, and its vast form began to impose itself on the surrounding district. By the end of that year 7,500 tons of cement had been consumed, together with nearly 40,000 tons of ballast and 1,400 tons of steel. The concrete was poured with one of the most remarkable pieces of

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The Insley Tower

equipment then seen on a building site, the Insley Tower. The Tower, 160 feet high was supported by stays from the ground and carried a sloping chute down which concrete flowed to be distributed up to 400 feet from the

base. Concrete was raised up the tower to the chute in a cubic yard skip. Another skip collected the concrete as it came sluicing off into the shutters. As the stadium was built mainly of reinforced concrete the Tower was rarely idle".

"The date of the 1923 Cup Final approached, and when a writer for "The Engineer" magazine visited the site the work was all but finished. On the day he arrived the structure was being tested. There was a dead load of 300 tons on part of the curved terracing, but the entertainment value of the static testing was nothing to compare with that of the live load. A body of 1280 hefty men were led to the banks of seats immediately behind the Royal Box. Captain F. B. Ellison, the resident architect, then put the men through a series of movements all of which had to be done to time. Then the instructions were to shout and jump about and wave the arm frantically so as to reproduce as nearly as possible the movements of a crowd watching an exciting match. Then the men were marched along the steps until they came beside the portion which was loaded with dead weight. There, further movements were gone through".

"The testing the stadium had on Cup Final day 23rd April, 1923 was far less well ordered than Captain Ellison's parade. The terraces were intended to house a capacity crowd of 100,000. Unfortunatly there were no turnstile barriers to regulate the numbers entering the stadium, whats more, there were no arrangements for even counting them". "The results of this oversight are well known, half a million people turned up to watch the match and 300,000 were allowed in before the gates were shut, treble the number that the stands were designed to take. Crowds massed uncontrolled over the playing area and the match could well have been cancelled had it not been for the famous policeman on a white horse who managed, apparently with little help, to drive the throng onto the terracing. After that near disaster, extensive balustrading was put up in the stands and turnstiles were fitted at the gates".

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In 1922 one of the largest excavators in the world

The Group would like to thank Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons Ltd, for permission to use this article from their House Journal.


© Exhibition Study Group 1992