On St George's Day, April 23rd, 1924, King George the Fifth of England and Emperor of India, travelled through fog and drizzling rain from his castle at Windsor to the hitherto undistinguished north London suburb of Wembley Here, amid scenes of nearly hysterical patriotic fervour, he pressed a button on a golden globe to open the British Empire Exhibition.
Of the fifty-eight countries which at that time composed the British Empire, fifty-six were taking part, Gambia and Gibraltar being the only absentees The Exhibition was the largest and most ambitious ever staged anywhere in the world It was the culmination of five, years of delay and uncertainty, it had cost #12 million, most of which had been borrowed, and upon, it the nation had pinned its hopes for a bright future on a singularly depressing present.
Few Britons at the time foresaw the almost total dissolution of the Empire which has taken place in the past four decades The Empire, in fact, was seen as the country's one enduring and reliable asset, and the British Empire Exhibition conceived after the First World War as the first step towards a great Imperial revival But before the project had any hope of advancing beyond the realm of words, two elements, conspicuously lacking were required. One was money and the other leadership.
The wartime coalition government, surviving under Lloyd George, burdened with debts it could never pay, spoke bravely but dared do no more than guarantee the Exhibition against loss to the extent of #100,000. Even this cautious support was conditional upon #500,000 being guaranteed from other sources, Once these guarantees had been obtained, the plan was to borrow actual money from the commercial banks. The result could hardly have been more disastrous, and the loss which The Times in a sanguine editorial proclaimed as 'almost inconceivable became inevitable.
The King consented to be the Exhibition's patron, there was an Executive Council of 120 members, and an ex-civil servant called Ulick Fitzgerald Wintour was appointed General Manager Wintour was a flamboyant personality whose plans for the Exhibition were grandiose in the extreme He scornfully rejected the original proposal that it be held in the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace might have sufficed for Prince Albert, but in Wintour's schemes ranked as little more than a hut He envisaged a vast Imperial city in which every Empire country would have ns own quarters and buildings There would be extensive gardens, lakes, restaurants, dance halls, an amusement park on the seale of Coney Island and the biggest and best stadium on earth for spectacles and sporting events.
To find land for such a concept it was necessary to look beyond the boundaries of central London Wembley, linked by Baker Street and Marylebone seemed ideal, and Wintour made an offer, which the owners accepted with alacrity, of #100,000 for 216 acres of farmland at Wembley Park.
A year elapsed after the purchase of the Wembley site, and there was little to show for it except magnificent paper plans. The only direction in which startling advances were made was in the estimates of costs. At least #1 million, the government announced, must now be guaranteed before building could commence. The likelihood of getting it seemed remote.
It was at this point that a charismatic leader emerged in the person of the young Prince of Wales, who accepted office as the Exhibition's president. The Prince's concern was not so much for the Empire as for the two million unemployed, especially the jobless ex-servicemen he called his old comrades, for whom the Exhibition would provide work.
By January, 1922 the #1 million target had been reached, but it was clear that the Exhibition could not possibly be ready for its planned opening date in April, 1923. This was revised to April, 1924. Meanwhile, it was decided to concentrate upon building the stadium which had been designed by Michael Ayrton and was to b: constructed almost entirely of reinforced concrete.
In October there was a general election. The Liberals were defeated and the Conservatives returned for the first time since 1905. More significant, however, than the Tory victory, were the gains made by the Labour Party which nearly doubled its strength to become the second largest party in the House. The new government was faced almost immediately with demands for an enquiry into the management of the Wembley Exhibition. There were criticisms of Wintour's cavalier behaviour and veiled hints of corruption in high places. As a result of a Board of Trade enquiry, Wintour was sacked, or, rather, bought off, and replaced by Sir James Stevenson, head of the Johnny Walker whisky firm.
The stadium was completed in time for the 1923 Cup Final, a chaotic event which attracted the largest football crowd ever recorded, and. by the end of the year the Wembley workforce had grown to twelve thousand, Although, according to The Times , the site still resembled a battlefield after a severe bombardment, it was now possible to gather some idea of what it would all look like when, and if, it were ever finished. Well advanced was the Palace of Engineering, the largest concrete building in the world. Nearby, almost as large and equally hideous, was the Palace of Industry. The self-governing Dominions were expressing their status in neo-classical architecture, while in place outside the British Pavilion were the six lions which supported the portico. These lions, designed by F. C. Herrick, were to become the Exhibition's symbol, embodying, according to the official guide, the might, dignity, power and prestige of the British Empire.
At 11 a.m. the Prince of Wales, dressed as an Admiral, arrived in a limousine. Then the Royal trumpeters, seven abreast, ushered in the state coaches, the last, with its six richly caparisoned brown horses, bearing the King and Queen. The Prince's speech, welcoming his father and humbly requesting him to open the Exhibition, was scarcely audible; but when the King; rose there was not, according to The Times 'a whisper or even a stifled cough as His Majesty, in rich, clear tones, delivered a stirring message of friendship and unselfish effort for the common good'. On a pedestal in front of the throne was a golden globe resting on four lions, and within the globe an enamel button which the King pressed. All over the Exhibition, lights flashed; the trumpeters sounded a fanfare; the Royal Horse Artillery fired a twenty-one gun salute; and Boy Scouts perched on the summit of the stadium unfurled the flags of every nation in the Empire.
Despite the splendid send-off, there followed a period of anticlimax when interest in the Exhibition sagged, and it was not until the summer, when the emphasis shifted from serious purpose to fun and games that Wembley really got going and the descriptive verb 'to wemble' became part of the living language.
The relatively low attendance figures in the first months led to demands for Sunday opening. The Lord's Day Observance Society vigorously resisted, as did the residents of Wembley whose suburban tranquillity the Exhibition had destroyed. Apart from traffic congestion, the town was fast becoming a slum with ramshackle stalls in the streets, disreputable hawkers and late night roisterers. Sunday remained the one oasis of comparative peace. When the Exhibition closed on Saturday nights, a two hundred-strong security force under the command of a retired major took possession of the grounds. 'To break into the British Empire Exhibition', pronouncedThe Times , 'would be a task few criminals would care to attempt.' Nevertheless, one did attempt it and got clean away with diamond and sapphire jewellery from the Indian Pavilion.
A highlight of the Exhibition was the Pageant of Empire, which was a chaotic success. Fifteen thousand amateur actors took part, and the non-human cast included 300 horses, 500 donkeys, 1,000 doves, 72 monkeys, 730 camels, 3 bears and a macaw. Although the performers were supposed to be drawn democratically from all classes, it was astonishing how the best parts went to volunteers with titles or influential relations. An Admiral was selected to play Drake, while the plum female role of Elizabeth the First was shared by Mrs. Asquith and Lady Irene Curzon. The pageant ran throughout August, and was followed by a military tattoo which was even more popular. Every night it attracted a larger audience than that of all the West End theatres put together.
However deplorable and contrary to the original intentions, the public demanded light entertainment. Wembley, which had started life as a cure for the nation's ills, had become merely the antidote, a Roman circus where the populace could release its frustrations and seek a refuge from reality.
As the Exhibition entered its final month, it became increasingly obvious that the Labour government was also near its end. Defeated on a censure motion, MacDonald resigned. Two days before Wembley closed there was another general election at which the Conservatives were returned with a massive majority. The excitement of the election inevitably stole a great deal of Wembley's thunder, and the close-down was a subdued affair. It was pouring with rain, and the ceremony, conducted by the Prince of Wales in sombre morning dress, had the forlorn atmosphere of a funeral.
But after the funeral came the wake. That night, undeterred by the icy rain, thousands flocked to the dance halls and the amusement park for a final wemble. It was like another Armistice night as total strangers linked arms and danced in the rain, singing wartime songs and the Exhibition's own popular ballad 'Wembling at Wembley with You'. Many were in tears, crying 'Good old Wembley!' 'Goodbye, dear old Wembley!' It was not until dawn that harassed attendants managed to eject the last sentimental reveller into the bleak Sunday morning streets of the once pleasant little town the Exhibition had ruined.
By Kenneth Walthew