The decision by Quinlan Estates to submit an application to demolish the last remaining building of the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, prompts us to revisit that event, its buildings and the impact it had on the growth of Metro-Land.
An exhibition to celebrate the Empire and the individual countries within it had been mooted before the outbreak of the First World War. The idea was resurrected in 1919 with the stated aim of an exhibition ‘... to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other.’ A site to the north west of central London on the Metropolitan Railway was chosen, Wembley Park. The selected site had already had one great attraction built there, Watkins Tower, also known as Watkins Folly. An attempt to build a London rival to the Eiffel Tower, Sir Edwin Watkins’ (MP and Metropolitan Railway chairman) vision failed due to lack of funds and subsidence. It was abandoned halfway up and demolished in 1907.
The architect chosen to design the scheme was Maxwell Ayrton (1874-1960), a Scottish architect who had been an assistant to Edwin Luytens. His assistant for this project was Owen Williams (1890-1969) who up to that time had worked on a number of engineering projects involving steel and concrete. The exhibition was to feature pavilions for the Government and almost every country from the Empire,(Gibraltar did not take part), as well as pleasure gardens, shops, restaurants and an amusement park. However the centrepieces of the site were to be the Palaces of Industry, Arts. Engineering and Horticulture, and a national sports stadium.
The national sports stadium proved to be the most famous building constructed for the exhibition, the Empire Stadium. Known worldwide as Wembley Stadium, the home of English football, it was designed by Aryton alongside John William Simpson, famous
for his school designs. The stadium and its iconic towers lasted until 2003 when it was demolished to make way for the new stadium on the same site.
The national pavilions reflected each countries architectural styles, with Buddhist temples , Chinese markets and African huts appearing in the Middlesex countryside. The design of the Palaces were much less exotic but just as impressive. When completed, the Palace of Engineering was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world. It covered 13 acres and featured five internal railway lines to help move the exhibits. Like all the buildings in the exhibition, the Palace of Industry was intended to be temporary, but managed to survive until the 1970’s. The Palace of Arts lasted until 2006, when it was demolished to make way for a car park.
A similar threat is facing the Palace of Industry, the only remaining part of the Exhibition. Slightly smaller the the Palace of Engineering, at 10 acres, it is made up of a number of halls enclosed with glazed pitched roofs. The pre-cast concrete was reinforced concrete was partly painted and partly channeled to appear like stone. It was the first building in Britain to use concrete for external as well as internal support, and this despite its classical style, gives it a hulking, modern look.
Until recently it has been a delivery depot, but it now faces the threat of demolition, taking with it the last remaining piece of not just the British Empire Exhibition, but any remnant of an temporary exhibition in Britain from the 19th or 20th centuries. The popular 50th anniversary of the Festival of Britain two years ago showed the enduring fascination with these great exhibitions. How much better would those festivities have been if the Skylon or Dome of Discovery been intact? The 100th anniversary of the British Empire Exhibition is only 11 years away, it would be a great pity if there was no material artefact to remember it by.
The exhibition itself had a great impact on the expansion of Wembley and Metro-Land. Despite grumbles that the site was too far from central London, over 10 million people visited the exhibition in its first 6 months, and nearly 27 million made the journey before the close of the exhibition. For many of these visitors it was their first visit to the Metro-Land suburbs, and was one that helped boost the growth of the North-West suburbs over the next ten years and beyond.