Philip Barker

One hundred years ago this week on a winter’s afternoon at Wembley in North London, a simple ceremony marked the beginning of work on what was to become one of the most famous sporting arenas in the world.

Prince Albert, Duke of York, (later King George VI), dug the first turf before a foundation stone was laid at what would soon be Wembley Stadium, synonymous with football, but also the centrepiece for an Olympic Games in 1948. The Duke "turned the spade as if he meant business," reported the Daily News.

He was accompanied by his equerry and tennis doubles partner, Commander Louis Greig, and welcomed by Lord Morris, chairman of the Committee formed to build the stadium, Lord Southborough, Lord Burnham, Acting Australian High Commissioner Lord Blyth, Comptroller for the department of overseas trade Sir William Clark and banker Sir Richard Vassar Smith.

A crowd of curious spectators also gathered.

"I am one of those who believe in sport," the Duke told them. "Here in this beautiful park will, I hope, be enshrined a permanent testimonial to what the Empire can do in peace. I must confess that one of the reasons that this gives me the greatest possible pleasure is that more work may be found for the great army of men who, through no fault of their own, are suffering distress and anxiety from unemployment."

However, that morning’s Daily Mail newspaper had warned: "Out of work men are advised not to make a fruitless journey to Wembley Park in the hope of getting work as no-one can be engaged on the spot."

Nevertheless, Robert McAlpine, son of the founder of the construction company, presented a gold cigarette to the Duke to commemorate the occasion.

The impetus for the project had come from the Duke’s elder brother, David, Prince of Wales. In a speech the previous year, he called for "a national sports ground." Around £1 million ($1.35 million/€1.2 million) had been raised for its construction and a giant exhibition was planned to showcase the British Empire.

Wembley Stadium hosted athletics competition at the London 1948 Olympics ©Getty Images
Wembley Stadium hosted athletics competition at the London 1948 Olympics ©Getty Images

The stadium was built in only 300 days. Soldiers were then drafted in to test the strength of the terraces by marching.

At the central London headquarters of the Football Association (FA) in Russell Square, a model was put on display. It had been announced that the stadium was to be the new venue for the FA Cup final, the showpiece to end the football season. This was initially to be for a period of 21 years.

Terracing and stands were anticipated to accommodate 130,000 spectators. Publicity of the stadium claimed "a banqueting hall and restaurants behind the chief pavilion will enable refreshments to be obtained at all times."

The 1923 FA Cup Final between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United was to be the first played at the new stadium, but organisers had not designated the match as "all ticket".

The official FA history by sportswriter Geoffrey Green described "the stadium invaded by a multitude, like some tidal wave carried along by its own momentum pouring over the lush green pitch. This indeed was Cup-tie fever out of control."

Mounted Police tried to move the crowd back. Most famous was a white horse called "Billy", ridden by Police Constable George Scorey. Eventually after an hour, the pitch was cleared to enable the match to proceed in front of King George V and over 200,000 other spectators.

The England versus Scotland international, Wembley’s other big regular football occasion, was first held in 1924, the year of the great Empire exhibition.

Among the many ex-servicemen that found employment was Sir Arthur Elvin, who was put in charge of a cigarette kiosk at the princely sum of £4.50 ($6.09/€5.39) a week.

Elvin was astute enough to acquire the demolition rights for the exhibition, an early example of sustainability as fixtures and fittings were dismantled and reused elsewhere. He built up his holdings and was able to convince city investors to finance the purchase of the stadium.

Soon he was managing director and became informally known as "Mr Wembley".

He introduced greyhound racing, rugby league speedway, and, in time, women’s hockey. He was also a key figure when London bid for the 1944 Olympics, welcoming International Olympic Committee (IOC) members to Wembley.

Sir Arthur Elvin became informally known as
Sir Arthur Elvin became informally known as "Mr Wembley" after moving up the ranks to managing director ©Getty Images

Newspapers reported that "after being shown all round by Mr Elvin, [IOC members] decided that with all the alterations and the increased accommodation he had in mind, it would suit their purpose admirably."

London was duly elected as the host city with 20 votes, well ahead of the competition from Rome, Detroit and Lausanne, while British IOC member Lord Aberdare "assured the Committee that the Games of 1944 would be presented in an appropriate manner." 

In a further excursion to Wembley, IOC members watched a pageant organised by the Women’s League of Health and Beauty.

War, however, ended all Olympic thoughts for 1944, though Wembley remained in use throughout.

In August 1945, the IOC Executive Committee resolved to restart the Olympics in 1948. A postal vote on the host city hinted heavily that they regarded London as the preferred candidate, and Elvin announced that Wembley would be at the disposal of the Organising Committee without charge.

An approach road to the stadium later known as "Wembley Way" was built especially for the Games.

Some 26 years after he had taken part in that much simpler ceremony to lay the foundation stone, King George VI declared the Games open.

Wembley hosted the men’s hockey final, won by India, with the sport at that time played on grass.

Football gold went to Sweden in the other major team sport. Only the men played football at those Games. Gymnastics had been scheduled in the stadium, but bad weather forced the sport to relocate indoors to Earls Court.

The Games did end in sunlight, as Mexico won both individual and jumping gold in the stadium as horses were permitted on the famous turf.

The main stadium attraction had been athletics, hosted on a cinder track. Czech runner Emil Zatopek marked his Olympic debut with 10,000m gold and 5,000m silver behind Gaston Reiff of Belgium.

The events open to women were limited, but Micheline Ostermayer of France won both the discus and shot put and bronze in the high jump. Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers Koen, inspired by taunts from journalists that she was too old at 30, won four gold medals.

Two years later she returned to the stadium as stone tablets recording the names of the victors were unveiled by Organising Committee chairman Lord Burghley.

"This was Wembley’s finest hour," Burghley told the gathering. "Many great occasions of sport have been witnessed here on this ground, but none, I believe, had the same deep and significant importance as the two and a half weeks during the Olympic Games. I have pleasure in unveiling these immortal scrolls."

Bobby Moore hoisted the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley Stadium after England won the 1966 World Cup ©Getty Images
Bobby Moore hoisted the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley Stadium after England won the 1966 World Cup ©Getty Images

In the 1950s, the stadium attracted capacity crowds to see see the 1952 Olympic football gold medallists from Hungary play a match against England. Inspired by their mercurial captain Ferenc Puskas, Hungarians struck in the first minute and went on to win 6-3. 

The result sent shockwaves throughout English football and one member of the team took the lesson to heart. 

Sir Alf Ramsey later became national team manager and guided  England to the 1966 FIFA World Cup as host nation. The story of the 4-2 extra-time victory over West Germany has been retold many times. Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick was decisive. Then-captain Bobby Moore stepped up to receive the Jules Rimet trophy from the Queen.

In the late 1970s, another Olympic bid was considered and discounted and, in 1985, Wembley Stadium was the lynchpin of a possible London bid for 1992. "A Northwest London Games based around Wembley Stadium is an attractive and practical proposition," the London 1992 promotional dossier said.

Their bid stalled, though, as the British Olympic Association selected Birmingham as their preferred candidate.

In the 1990s, there was a successful bid for the 2005 World Athletics Championships. A modernised Wembley was to be the venue but plans fell through, much to the irritation of the international athletics world.

The old stadium closed in late 2000 after England lost a World Cup qualifying match against Germany on an appropriately gloomy afternoon. The entire site was demolished, including to the dismay of many, the Twin Towers.

Soon an Olympic bid for 2012 was launched. The IOC Evaluation Commission was taken to see work on the site shortly before the vote in 2005 and the new stadium finally opened in 2007.

At the 2012 Olympics, it set new benchmarks for women’s football. Britain beat Brazil in front of 70,000 fans, later eclipsed by 80,203 to see the United States beat Japan in the final. In the men’s competition, Mexico’s semi-final victory over Japan was witnessed by 82,000 and over 86,000 were there to see them beat Brazil for the gold.

Wembley was also one of the main venues for the 2021 Euros, hosting all the semi-finals and final. The final itself had a dramatic start when England scored inside two minutes. Italy equalised in the second half and later won on penalties at the end of an emotional night. 

It was a fitting way to set the seal on the first century of Wembley sport.