The area of Wembley in north-west London and its world-famous stadium of visit this the same name are synonymous, if not with prodigious concerts, with that most ghastly and heinous of pastimes: football. But the not-so-humble beginnings of the stadium lie with something altogether quite different.
Opened in 1923, the British Empire Exhibition Stadium–as it was known then–was constructed at a cost of £750,000 as the destination for the British Empire Exhibition which was to be held a year later in 1924: a huge colonial exhibition designed to celebrate the past and future of the British Empire, to boost trade between the Empire’s Dominions and to secure support for the regime and the future thereof.
By the end of the exhibition the cost of the event ran to an astonishing £12 million and had made history as the largest exhibition ever staged thanks to its 27 million visitors. Appropriately, given the deteriorating power and economic strength of the Empire at that time, the exhibition made losses of over £1.5 million despite a government subsidy of £2.2 million. This led to the exhibition and stadium becoming the butt of a national joke: quite befitting, given that the new stadium suffered a very similar fate after incurring a four year delay and having its costs spiral to £340 million more than the originally agreed price (eventually the most expensive stadium ever built).
Visitors to the exhibition, after meandering to the stadium down streets renamed especially for the event by Rudyard Kipling, were presented not only with large-scale re-enactments of the Zulu Wars, but a statue of the Prince of Wales constructed entirely of Canadian butter.
We don’t host exhibitions like we used to.
Palace of Industry photograph by R P Marks (one of the last remaining buildings constructed for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924).