Wembley Stadium – until 2000

Capacity76 000
Country England
Build year1923
Retire year2000
Other names British Empire Exhibition Stadium, Empire Stadium
Inauguration 28/04/1923
Construction 1922–1923
Renovations 1962–1963
Cost 750 000 £ (1923)
Design Sir John Simpson, Maxwell Ayrton, Sir Owen Williams
Contractor Sir Robert McAlpine


Wembley Stadium – historical stadium description

How did Wembley Stadium get built?

What was there before Wembley Stadium was built?

In 825, the so-called 'Wemba lea' first appeared in historical sources. This was a clearing north-west of London where a settler named Wemba built his farm. Over time, a settlement named Wembley was established here, which developed into a densely built-up suburb in the first half of the 20th century. As it later turned out, not only was the London borough named after Wemba, but also one of the most distinctive and recognisable stadiums in the world.

At the end of the 19th century, part of the borough was occupied by a park. In the 1890s, the site was purchased by Edward Watkin, a MP and businessman with links to the railway industry. Watkin decided to set up a recreational area on the site for festivals and fairs. Football and cricket pitches were then built here and the Metropolitan Railway, which later became part of the London Underground, was brought in.

A unique part of the so-called Wembley Park was to be a huge tower built in a similar style to the Eiffel Tower. However, it was to be larger than it, becoming the tallest building in the world. Construction began in June 1893 and the first phase was completed in September 1895. Due to financial problems, the so-called Watkin's Tower was not completed and the structure did not reach the desired height. In 1902 the structure was declared a safety hazard. In 1907 the unfinished tower was demolished.

Why was Wembley Stadium built?

After the end of the First World War, the British government wanted to hold a major exhibition on the British Empire, and Wembley Park was considered the most convenient location. It was planned to build pavilions there representing the individual colonies or dedicated to the fields of science and technology and the arts. An essential element of the 220-acre site was a huge stadium to be built on the site of the former Watkin's Tower.

When was the first Wembley Stadium built?

The exhibition buildings, along with the stadium, were designed by architects Sir John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton and engineer Sir Owen Williams. The construction work was carried out by Sir Robert McAlpine. The groundbreaking cermony took place on January 10, 1922 by Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI).

Construction of the stadium itself took 300 days, with over 12,000 workers on site at its peak. The stadium cost £750,000 to build and used 25,000 tonnes of concrete, 1,500 tonnes of steel and half a million rivets.

What was the inauguration of Wembley Stadium like?

Thanks to its completion ahead of schedule (it wasn't due to be ready until 1924, in time for the start of the Exposition), the FA Cup final was played there as early as 1923. The match, which marked the inauguration of the new stadium, took place on April 28, 1923, between first division Bolton Wanderers and second division West Ham United. For both teams, it was the occasion of their first ever FA Cup triumph.

Contrary to initial fears, interest in the match exceeded all expectations. This was influenced by the presence of a London team in the final, as well as the good organisation of public transport, especially rail (two stations were already in operation near the stadium, and a third station was opened on the day of the match). In London, there were also approx. 5,000 Bolton supporters.

Exact attendance figures are not available, the official figure is 126,047 spectators, but it was probably much higher, according to speculation there were between 150,000 and even 300,000 attendees. If the actual number of spectators was close to the upper limit of estimates, this would represent a world record that is still unbeaten today. There were chaotic scenes before the game, with many fans ending up on the pitch (some even on the roof) as a result of the overcrowding, and some remaining outside the stadium.

Police officers on horseback tried to control the crowd. One of the grey horses definitely stood out from the others, and the sight of a policeman riding it became one of the most memorable and distinctive images associated with the final, making it known as the 'White Horse Final' (although the horse was in fact grey – it was later established that his name was Billie and the policeman was George Scorey – it appeared white against the background of the other horses and the crowd, especially in black and white films and photographs).

The match eventually managed to start 45 minutes late. Favoured Bolton Wanderers won 2:0, going into the lead as early as the 2nd minute of the game. The winners were presented with the cup by King George V.

How did the British Empire Exhibition take place at Wembley?

The venue was built for the British Empire Exhibition, hence its initial name British Empire Exhibition Stadium or simply Empire Stadium. The opening ceremony was performed in the new stadium by King George V. The exhibition was organised in two cycles, from April 23 to November 1, 1924 and from May 9 to October 31, 1925, with major displays, parades and re-enactments taking place in the stadium throughout the exhibition. The show was a huge success, recording over 27 million visitors.

How was Wembley saved from demolition?

After the exhibition, the stadium was planned to be demolished, as were the other post-exhibition facilities, as it was assumed that the buildings would be unprofitable. Most of the pavilions were indeed demolished after the expo ended.

The stadium was saved from immediate demolition by the chairman of the exhibition's organising committee, Sir John Simpson, who lobbied for the structure's preservation. In 1927 Arthur Elvin, then a small businessman who saw potential in the facility, managed to gather shareholders and raise the funds needed to buy the stadium.

What events have taken place at Wembley Stadium?

Since the memorable 1923 match, Wembley has hosted the FA Cup final every year. On April 12, 1924, the England national team played at the stadium for the first time, drawing with Scotland 1:1. However, single football matches could not generate enough revenue to maintain the facility.

What was the significance of greyhound racing for Wembley?

Arthur Elvin saw an opportunity in greyhound racing, which began to be held at Wembley with great regularity. This proved to be a hit – the races attracted crowds of spectators and the spectacle of the competition was compounded by the possibility of betting, which in turn multiplied the income of the venue's owners.

Greyhound racing was so important that when England hosted the 1966 World Cup, one of the matches (a group match between Uruguay and France) was moved to White City Stadium because it conflicted with regular Friday races. The most important races held at Wembley were the St Leger and the Trafalgar Cup. The high popularity of racing continued until the 1990s.

What is the link between speedway and Wembley Stadium?

Speedway was another sport that Arthur Elvin brought to Wembley. He set up the Wembley Lions team and the first races were held in 1929. In 1932 the Wembley Lions won the national league title in their inaugural season. The team won a further 7 titles after the Second World War. The team disbanded before the start of the 1957 season, following the death of Arthur Elvin. The club was reactivated in 1970, but after two seasons the team was again disbanded.

On September 10, 1936, the final of the 1st individual speedway world championship was held at Wembley. Since then, the IMC final has been held here every year. The final scheduled for September 7, 1939 did not take place due to the outbreak of World War II. The competition returned in 1949 and the finals continued to be held exclusively at Wembley until 1960. They were later held at other stadiums as well, but by 1981 Wembley hosted nine more finals.

Wembley also hosted the World Speedway Team Championship finals three times (1968, 1970, 1973). The track at Wembley Stadium was 345 metres long and was considered difficult for riders. The last track record was set at the 1981 IMC final by Dane Erik Gundersen (66.8s).

What happened at Wembley during the Second World War?

During the Second World War, after the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, the venue was transformed into a distribution centre for relief supplies. Despite the threat of bombing, it continued to host sporting competitions, such as matches in the so-called War Cup, which replaced regular football matches. Parades and military reviews also took place at the stadium.

The stadium did not suffer from bombing, but due to its size it was a landmark for German pilots. In August 1944, a V1 shell exploded nearby, hitting the kennels where the racing greyhounds were kept.

What competition was held at Wembley as part of the 1948 Olympic Games?

In 1948, London hosted the first Summer Olympics after the Second World War. This was the 14th edition of the modern Games and the second to be held in London (the city first hosted the Olympics in 1908). Wembley Stadium was the main arena for the event. It hosted the opening and closing ceremonies, athletics competitions, semi-finals, third place matches and finals of the football and hockey tournaments, show jumping as part of the equestrian events, and a showcase lacrosse match.

What makes Wembley the 'home of football'?

FA Cup finals and other domestic competitions

The stadium has become most recognisable through football. It has been the venue for the annual FA Cup finals since 1923 (the only exception to the rule was in 1969/70, when a repeat of the final was held at Old Trafford, Manchester). Wembley has also hosted League Cup finals, FA Amateur Cup finals and play-offs for promotion to a higher division.

England national team

The venue became a stronghold for the England national team, although they did not start playing regularly at the venue until after the Second World War (before the war, the English played only seven matches here, all against Scotland).

1966 World Cup and memorable final

When England hosted the World Cup in July 1966, five group stage matches, one quarter-final, one semi-final, a third place match and a grand final were played at Wembley. The final of this tournament in particular was memorable for fans around the world and has been described as the most controversial World Cup final in history.

In the match played on 30 July 1966, England and West Germany faced each other. After 90 minutes it was 2:2 and extra time was needed. In the 101st minute, after a shot by Geoff Hurst, the ball bounced off the crossbar and then off the turf and flew in front of the goal.

The head referee, unsure whether the ball had crossed the line all the way, ran to the line judge, who ruled in favour of awarding the goal to the English. At the end of extra time, Hurst scored another goal at 4:2, completing a hattrick, and England claimed their first ever World Cup.

The key moment of the final was the controversial goal at 3:2 in extra time. Replays still do not give a clear answer as to whether the goal should have been awarded. In 1995, the dispute was attempted to be resolved by academics from the University of Oxford, who leaned towards the idea that the goal had been wrongly awarded.

Regardless, the Soviet referee of Azeri origin, Tofiq Bəhramov, has gone down in history as the most famous line judge in the world. The representative stadium in Baku, in front of which a monument has been erected to him, is named after him.

Euro 1996

In 1996, Wembley hosted three group stage matches, one quarter-final, one semi-final and the final of the European football championships played in England. In the final, after extra time and the scoring of the golden goal, Germany beat the Czechs 2:1.

European club finals

The stadium has hosted five finals of the European Cup (predecessor of the Champions League):

  • 22 May 1963: AC Milan – SL Benfica 2:1

  • 29 May 1968: SL Benfica – Manchester United 1:4 (extra time)

  • 2 June 1971: AFC Ajax – Panathinaikos 2:0

  • 10 May 1978: Liverpool FC – Club Brugge 1:0

  • 20 May 1992: Sampdoria – FC Barcelona 0:1 (extra time)

Two Cup Winners' Cup finals were also played at Wembley:

  • 19 May 1965: West Ham United – TSV 1860 Munich 2:0

  • 12 May 1993: Parma AC – Royal Antwerp FC 3:1

Local teams

Although Wembley did not have a permanent host and its domain was national team matches and major events, there have been times when the stadium has been used temporarily by London clubs, such as Arsenal, who played their Champions League matches at Wembley in the 1998/99 and 1999/00 seasons. In fact, Arsenal were interested in buying Wembley in 1998, but the deal ultimately fell through and the club built a brand new stadium a few years later to replace the run-down Highbury.

What other sporting events have taken place at Wembley?

The stadium has hosted major rugby league matches, including the prestigious Challenge Cup finals and the 1992 and 1995 World Cup finals, as well as hosting rugby union, American football and Gaelic sports competitions. It has hosted car races, equestrian competitions and boxing fights such as the clash between Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Henry Cooper and many other events.

Which music stars performed at Wembley?

Wembley was the venue for many music concerts featuring some of the biggest stars in world music. Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Wham!, Queen, Genesis, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Simple Minds, Guns N' Roses, Bon Jovi, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Spice Girls, Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Oasis - these are just some of the many famous performers who have performed at the stadium. One of the most famous musical events was the Live Aid concert held in 1985 to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.

What were the characteristics of the first Wembley Stadium?

The facility at the time of its construction had a running track around the pitch, surrounded on all sides by high stands. Along the pitch, much of the auditorium on either side was under a roof. The official capacity of the stadium was 125,000 spectators, of which 30,000 were seated.

The monumental building combined features of ancient Roman and Great Mogul Empire (northern India) architecture. Its distinctive features were the two 38 m (126 ft) high white towers located on the sides of the representative façade of the main grandstand, which was located on the north side. On the other sides, the façade was formed by huge concrete arches.

What upgrades has Wembley Stadium undergone?

In 1955 the stadium was fitted with floodlighting. Between 1962 and 1963, a digital scoreboard was built and a new roof covered all the stands. It was completed in time for the centenary of the English football federation and was ready in time for the European Cup final, which was played at Wembley on May 22, 1963. The roof of the stadium was supported by internal supports, limiting visibility for some fans. The final capacity of the arena, after the installation of seats in all stands in 1996, was 76,000 spectators.

What was the atmosphere like during matches at the former Wembley?

Because of its importance to English football, the venue was referred to as the home of football and the Wembley pitch earned the nickname sacred. England's national team matches at Wembley were played in a heated atmosphere. With the installation of a new flat roof that covered the entire auditorium, the venue had excellent acoustics. The uproar that was generated during matches was referred to as the 'Wembley Roar'.

How was the new Wembley created?

More information about the new Wembley Stadium can be found on a separate webpage

Why was it decided to demolish the old Wembley?

Towards the end of the 20th century, discussions began about building a new national stadium for the new century to replace the distinguished Wembley. Eventually, in 1996, the decision was taken to demolish the existing stadium and build an entirely new facility in its place. The complete demolition of Wembley was fraught with controversy, for many it was an undeniable symbol of English football and the distinctive two white towers had been Grade II listed status since 1976.

The stadium was to be replaced by a much more modern arena, fit for the 21st century, which was to open a new chapter in history while continuing the traditions of its predecessor. The new facility was to be dedicated primarily to football, with no running track around the pitch and with stands closer to the playing field. The symbol of the new Wembley was to become a giant arch, so that the roof would be stripped of its internal supports.

What was it like to say goodbye to the old Wembley?

On October 7, 2000, the last match was played at the old Wembley. The farewell to the venue did not go very well, as the England national team lost 0:1 to Germany in a World Cup qualifying match, with Dietmar Hamann scoring the last goal.

When was the new Wembley built?

Due to budgeting problems, the start of work was somewhat delayed. Demolition did not start until September 30, 2002 and was completed in 2003, at which point construction of the new arena began. During the works, the site had to be lowered, with the remains of Watkin's Tower discovered.

Construction took almost a year longer than anticipated and the stadium was handed over to the English federation on March 9, 2007. Two test events were held at the venue later that month and the full inauguration took place on May 17, 2007, when the FA Cup final was played at the stadium.

What is the new Wembley like?

The development of the new Wembley project cost £798m to build and at the time of completion it was the most expensive stadium in the world. With a capacity of 90,000 spectators, the venue is the second largest in Europe, behind only Camp Nou in Barcelona. The stadium has taken over the tradition of the old Wembley as the main home of the England national team, hosting FA Cup finals and hosting concerts and other events. The English football federation has its headquarters here.

A distinctive feature of the new stadium is a huge arch rising to a height of 133 metres. The arch is designed to support the roof of the stadium, so that it has no internal supports. The roof covers the entire auditorium and has been fitted with movable sections for better ventilation and increased sunlight. The facility has no running track around the pitch and the three-tier stands are located much closer to the playing field.




  • Wembley Stadium
    2000 © Chaz
  • Wembley Stadium
    2000 © Chaz
  • Wembley Stadium
    2000 © Chaz
  • Wembley Stadium
    2000 © Chaz



  • Wembley Stadium
    1948 © n/a (kartka pocztowa / postcard)
  • Wembley Stadium
    1948 © n/a (kartka pocztowa / postcard)


  • Wembley Stadium
    1923 © n/a (kartka pocztowa / postcard)
  • Wembley Stadium
    1923 © n/a (kartka pocztowa / postcard)

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