Wembley – an interesting kind of place

One of the more historically interesting places on the Underground is the car park at Wembley Park.

This currently rather unspectacular vision of loveliness, recently graced by a modern train staff building and connecting bridge, was once one of the Underground’s larger station car park with 396 spaces, and prior to that a modest goods yard doing useful service for the good people of Wembley. It closed for goods in 1965 when wagonload traffic was no longer of much interest to the railway network much having already transferred to road; it all died pretty much within a decade. 

Like many London Transport goods yards, day to day operation was latterly in the hands of British Railways, and prior to that the London & North Eastern Railway. Before 1937, the Metropolitan ran its own goods operations and was connected to the yard by a trailing connection from the northbound line. This connection crossed the main line tracks on the level and required special signalling where the Metropolitan could block the main lines from its own signal box while a goods train went in or out. Following transfer of goods operations to the LNER, the connection was reorganized to connect with its own lines instead. The occasion of London Transport getting out of the goods business is often characterized as a dislike by Broadway of pretty much anything Metropolitan; the truth, I feel, is more connected with the need to reconstruct Neasden Depot to cater for the extensive railway expansion scheme (particularly the arrival of Bakerloo trains) and the fact it would have remained very difficult to maintain steam locomotives in the new arrangements. Handing goods over to the LNER who were geared up for such things made sense, and of course the traffic was not gifted but subject to undertaking the work on an agency basis (and north of Harrow along the joint line it made little practical difference). Be that as it may, before 1937 the Wembley goods yard was firmly Metropolitan Railway property.

It was at this very location that in 1892 a rail-connected contractor’s yard was built, in fact pre-dating the station which eventually opened in May 1894. The yard was to facilitate the construction of the great tower, intended by Metropolitan chairman Sir Edward Watkin to dominate the area and bring in the tourists. The tower was to be constructed on a small hill (later the site of the stadium) and to bring materials in it was necessary to build a railway line.

The line took a curiously indirect course to avoid spoiling the surrounding grounds. It took the form of a long siding that began in the yard parallel to the ‘down’ line (there were only two tracks then) and struck out from the northern end, remote from the proposed tower. It then swept away from the railway in a large arc, ending up pointing south in order to run alongside the eastern side of Raglan Gardens (now Empire Way) before veering off east towards the tower site. After examining options the Metropolitan decided to build the three-quarter mile long line itself, and purchased 3000 sleepers for the purpose, while rails were brought down from Aylesbury, having been taken up from the Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway which the Metropolitan had purchased in 1891 and were rebuilding. We do not know how the rails were conveyed as the Metropolitan did not itself reach Aylesbury until September 1892, but for reasons of economy it must be suspected they brought it along its own metals, even if the works were not quite finished. Large timbers were acquired so the line could cross the (then unculverted) Wealdstone brook, which ran parallel to the Metropolitan at the point where the siding began its curve away from the yard.

The line was quite steeply graded in parts and the track, being lightly laid, meant that motive power was restricted to something a little over 20 tons. It is not known for certain what locomotive was used, but the Hudswell Clark 0-4-0 saddle tank, no 100, built in 1886 is suspected, as it weighed only 22 tons (this spent most of its life at Neasden). All materials delivered to the tower came by means of this railway and the trucks were unloaded by steam crane (replaced as construction proceeded by electric winches locally powered by dynamo). Once the tower reached the level of the first platform, and electric lifts had been installed, construction halted as money ran out. There was also suspected shifting of the structure on the London clay, giving rise to concerns about raising it higher. Nevertheless it did open to the public on 30th June 1894. The connecting railway remained in use for some years supplying coal for the boilers used for the generators working the lifts, and this probably ceased around 1902, after which it became derelict. It was briefly restored to life to facilitate the removal of much of the tower around 1906, taking out that which a decade earlier it had brought in. By this time the loco 100 had been replaced by the lighter ‘Nellie’, a former 0-6-0 Manning & Wardle contractor’s engine of 1867 origin used on the Harrow and Uxbridge Railway and purchased by the Metropolitan in 1905.

The Lion Roars at Wembley, a book in my collection about the British Empire Exhibition, refers to the problems with the tower and the need to try and arrest subsidence using molten lead. Much of the below-ground part of the tower’s concrete and steelwork was just abandoned, but became a problem when the later stadium was built. Some of the remaining foundations were blown up with dynamite, but some had to be left. The book refers to tons of steel and lead remaining below the hallowed Wembley turf, as well as the remains of ‘a train engine that was derailed and fell into the excavations’. If true, it is a mystery for we know loco 100 was withdrawn in 1907 and sold four years later to Robert Fraser & Sons for £75, while Nellie was withdrawn in 1915 (but was never actually owned by the Metropolitan). I have accounted for all the other Metropolitan locomotives, except number 1 but see comment shortly. Enquiries continue.

In the light of what has been said so far, it may be a surprise to discover that this temporary branch line, or long siding, became the first part of the Metropolitan Railway to be electrified. An experimental system of electrification took place on the District in 1900 between High Street Kensington and Earls Court, undertaken jointly with the Metropolitan, and this appeared likely to settle the feasibility of a direct current 550 volt 4-rail system (not actually the Metropolitan’s preferred technology). Such a system would have to suit both railways, which, sharing the Inner Circle, were compelled to adopt the same type of electrification. However, the Metropolitan was prevailed upon by one of its advisers to better inform itself by conducting its own experiments. Arrangements were made in February 1899 with Thomas Parker & Co to undertake the technical work and 6350 ft of ‘channel’ type conductor rail was ordered, to be divided between a positive and negative rail and lying on 800 insulators. Two carriages were provided by the Metropolitan, their appearance similar to its new bogie stock but built specially at Neasden works and similar to existing stock made there. These were equipped with eight traction motors, also said to have been built at Neasden and wound using the Eickemeyer principle (for which the Metropolitan paid Parker a royalty).  We do not know how the conductor rails were configured, nor has any photograph been seen. [See note at end about Eickemeyer].

Exactly what happened next is less than clear, but it seems that dynamos ordered from Westinghouse failed to appear and one or two of the traction motors were used as dynamos, suggesting that only one electric carriage was ever serviceable. The power is recorded as having been provided by a withdrawn ‘A’ class tank locomotive jacked up and operating the dynamos by means of a belt drive. The experiments took place during 1900 and were presumably successful as Parker was then appointed the Metropolitan’s consulting electrical engineer. The two carriages afterwards fell into disuse until 1908 when they were pressed into revenue-earning service as carriages 417 and 418 (the latter becoming London Transport 513 and surviving until electrification of the Chesham branch in 1962, after which it was scrapped). Which locomotive was used to operate the dynamo is a matter of speculation as the only ‘A’ class locomotive known to have been withdrawn by then was the original No 1 (of 1864) which was damaged in an accident at Baker Street in 1897; perhaps it was good enough for use as a stationary engine. I have subsequently found that E. Gadsden (in Metropolitan Steam, 1963) came to the same conclusion about use of No 1 as a stationary engine. I have not yet identified the fate of No 1’s remains and for now idly speculate about whether they were connected with those said to be buried under the Wembley turf, a kind of early version of dumping. I’m sure the Metropolitan wouldn’t have done anything like that!

The tower having been (substantially) dismantled, and with no further use as an experimental line, the long siding was in due course recovered (this seems to have been completed in 1909), initially being trimmed back to the north side of Brook Avenue, soon to be the site of house construction. I wonder if the already historic rails found further use; if they did it was probably at Neasden, or perhaps in a new goods yard somewhere. Technically the contractor’s yard was already serving as a goods yard from 1894, but even by 1909 was carrying very little goods into this thinly populated area. The arrival of the Great Central Railway required the Metropolitan to build two new tracks for the newcomer’s exclusive use (it later leased them), and the yard had to be adjusted to accommodate the widening and unusual connection arrangements described at the beginning. Gradually traffic increased and the yard was reorganized to deal with the traffic at first needed by the housebuilders and later the communities that moved into the area. Of the long siding the development of the stadium and the British Empire Exhibition obliterated all traces west of Empire Way, and house construction had a similar effect on the east side. I once thought there might be some trace near the present car park, but, if so, despite investigation, I have as yet been unable to find anything.

The station at Wembley Park was conceived as a two platform affair astride a line already built, but (unusually) before it was ready the decision was made to provide two more platforms in expectation of traffic to be generated by the tower and surrounding attractions. Thus emerged the down (northbound) line with a side platform, the up (southbound) line and a bay road with an intervening island platform, and another bay road and platform next to that; these are the origins of the present platforms 1 – 4. This rearrangement caused some delay, though dispensation was made to open it specially on 14th October 1893, and again on 21st, both for matches at the football ground within the park – clearly the first occasion of many thousands that this station was to handle heavy football traffic and setting a kind of theme. At this time the station really was almost devoid of facilities, and didn’t even have proper shelters. The most interesting thing about the place was that when construction started the remains of both a hippopotamus and an elephant were found (I know not where they went). Perhaps a lion would have been more appropriate.

At one time a great deal of what is now the Wembley Park area was owned by the Metropolitan; some land was necessarily acquired in the 1870s when the line originally pushed through, but another 280 acres were purchased in the 1880s. Some of this was for the pleasure grounds (on which the ill fated tower was located) and the rest available for development. This was the source of much of the housing in the area, though the Chalk Hill estate (once pleasant suburbia) gave way in the 1960s to hideous and unpoliceable tower blocks of the most notorious kind, now thankfully demolished and with proper houses put back.

Although electric services pushed through to Uxbridge in 1905, other northerly destinations all demanded steam haulage and for some years Wembley Park found itself the exchange point where electric and steam locomotives were swapped (loco changes were moved to Harrow in July 1908 and Rickmansworth in 1925). The station became heavily used once house-building and the stadium had established themselves. The original lines to the south were quadrupled by 1915 and developments in outer suburbia caused quadrupling to Harrow in 1931, and a fifth platform. Inconveniently the new fast lines were those on the north-east side of the lines towards London, but the pair on the south-west side towards Harrow, so fast and slow trains had in effect to cross on the level, facilitated by complicated junctions at each end of the station to maintain flexibility. Probably because of the need for slick working a large new signal box was opened with a 93-lever Westinghouse Style L frame. This type of frame had no mechanical interlocking, all interlocking between levers was achieved with electric locks. This is the only use of such equipment on the Underground, though the Southern Railway was keen on it as very large frames could be built without the difficulties of getting everything level and allowing the frame to be erected in sections that were not necessarily in line with each other. In the 1950s it was fitted with mechanical locking, a remote control system using a desk with push buttons, and much shortened, the released parts being used to replace old mechanical frames on the Central Line.

Wembley Park box was also unique in housing the control gear for Stanmore’s signalling, when opened in 1932. This was done by moving route switches on a control panel, the instructions being sent using coded electrical pulses to Stanmore by means of what was really no more than a run of 2-core bell wire. At the other end the signals were decoded and the required route was set up, with coded signals being sent back to signify the equipment had responded correctly. It was an efficient use of equipment, though probably a little slow in operation for anything more intensive, and London Transport soon saw it off with its usual lavish signalling facilities. One could almost regard it as one of the earliest uses of digital technology for controlling signalling anywhere on the Underground.

Another unusual feature of Wembley Park was in its having its own exhibition station. This was provided for the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (but first used for the 1923 cup final). An island platform was built south of the road bridge on the east side of the line, both tracks connected with the fast lines so trains full of spectators could travel to Wembley quickly from Baker Street. This platform had its own station building and subway under North Way and the signboards said Wembley Park Exhibition Station (there was no direct connection with the main station). The 1931 alterations and fifth platform added in the main station resulted in track changes further south, so the exhibition island platform had to be replaced by a single sided terminal platform slightly to the east (but retaining separate booking hall). This does not seem to have been heavily used, but with the 1935-40 new works it was shifted to a slightly more useful position north of the road bridge in the main station in 1937, becoming platform 6; the dedicated ticket hall was lost but station facilities were enlarged. Further changes in 1955 saw what had been a terminal platform converted into the southbound fast platform, as it is today.

The British Empire Exhibition was a bit of a bonus for the Metropolitan. After the tower idea had been abandoned the notionally independent (but in practice closely associated) tower company acquired the estate from the Metropolitan, partly for development and partly to run the pleasure grounds. The exhibition organizers required 216 acres of grounds east of Raglan Gardens (Empire Way), which they purchased from the estate company for £67,000. Of that, £35,000 went straight to the Metropolitan in repayment of the mortgage. This is hard to reflect in modern value but is maybe in £8-11 million range and was enough to pay for two-thirds of the station reconstruction required to handle the expected additional traffic. Exact numbers are difficult to calculate but the exhibition probably increased 1924 traffic by 12½ per cent and with the Metropolitan issuing combined return travel and entry tickets they did very well out of this, carrying more than either the Underground Group or the LNER were able to manage, despite the LNER having its own exhibition station. Notwithstanding the widespread issue of return tickets, the Met braced itself for ticket sales for return traffic by providing 19 ticket windows spread across its divided station at Wembley Park. Public relations was not ignored and the railway had its own stand inside with exhibits explaining signalling and traffic operation and a complete driving motor car for the 1924 season (a locomotive was substituted in 1925). When the exhibition site was later dismantled, we are told the Metropolitan purchased the former Tree Tops cafe for its own use, but not where it went. I would like to know. The Canada pavilion became part of the Cadbury-Fry factory at West Hampstead (shown on 1935-50s OS maps as the Canada Building). This was just north of the Metropolitan Line, and I suspect it may have been on what had once been Metropolitan land as it sat within the Met’s part of the large goods sidings there. I recall the chocolate factory and the building seems to have survived until at least the 1980s. To my annoyance I did not know of its history when I lived up the road or I would have taken more interest. It has all gone now.

The Olympics hit Wembley in 1948 and the station was much enlarged by addition of a central bridge and additional exits to handle the crowds, also very useful for handling football crowds which could be separated from ordinary traffic. The station was further enlarged for the recently rebuilt stadium, planning restrictions making good public transport access central to the redevelopment.

Finally a work should be said about the land next to the station on the north east side, for this, too, was part of the Metropolitan estate. After the Great War this thirteen acres of land was acquired by the Metropolitan Railway and leased to its athletic association on favourable terms. The grounds included a remembrance hall comprising a wooden hut on brick foundations, the hut having previously been an army hut at Summerdown Camp in Eastbourne.  The hall and the cost of laying out the grounds were paid for in part by the proceeds raised by the Metropolitan’s staff for a permanent war memorial (the public memorial was, and remains, at Baker Street station). The remembrance hall was unveiled by Robert Selbie, the Metropolitan’s general manager in 1922. Unfortunately it burnt down on 4 September 1929 and was not replaced. The grounds had the usual pavilion but the association built a club house after the Second World War which became its HQ.

Its earlier history is less clear but it appears that even prior to purchase, the fields had been used by Metropolitan staff for various sporting events, including polo, which was very popular at the start of the twentieth century. Booking Clerk Levi Dring worked at Wembley Park 1900-1906 and on retirement not only recalled how quiet the station was in those days but that among the polo matches played in the ‘next field’ one of the teams sometimes included Winston Churchill, later prime minister. Presumably he represented one of the teams opposing the Metropolitan Railway team: Dring does not say. Churchill learned polo in 1895 when he was a young cavalry officer and was a great enthusiast, terming it the emperor of games and playing until he was 52. One wonders how he compared a field next to an uninteresting railway station in Wembley with the magnificent backdrop of India where he had played probably his most spectacular games. Of course, in the early twentieth century we may reasonably wonder if Churchill, and indeed the team and its horses and other paraphernalia, might have come to Wembley by Metropolitan train.

Sadly diminishing use of this in-house sports ground saw it hard to sustain and it eventually closed; from 2005-2008 TfL sought to sell the land for development amidst much local disquiet, including occupation by protesters whom Brent council had to evict. It is now largely built on and is occupied by Ark academy, or to put it in ordinary language, a school. Fortunately it actually has playing fields, but not of a size on which the playing of polo would be wise. There were those affronted that anything associated with a war memorial should go in this manner, but strictly the memorial is at Baker Street and the remembrance hutment here burnt down nearly ninety years ago. If today’s staff take their exercise in a different way to their predecessors and don’t use any of the sports grounds as they once did, or pay for their maintenance, then the outcome is inevitable, sad though it may be. 

All in all, Wembley Park has had quite an interesting history. It perhaps causes a degree of reflection about how important this station has been in the development of the local area in one way or another. One might conclude that today the wider railway interests have perhaps rather retreated into the present station, now largely devoid of much that is unusual, except, of course, its prodigious size so that it can cope comfortably with today’s stadium users, a job it still does rather well. The task is a tad harder than it used to be since it was once possible for empty trains to be kept ready in sidings to the north of the station and brought in to match the requirements of arriving crowds. The sidings will no longer accommodate full length Metropolitan trains so a little more organization is required, but direct communication between the stadium authorities and the station means that crowds can usually be managed to match the service without too many surprises.

I do hope that the powers that be will be moved to celebrate 120 years of this very useful station next year.  

A note on Eickemeyer system.
Early motor windings were chaotically arranged on the armature making assembly and fault finding difficult and not being very compact. Rudolf Eickemeyer developed a better way of doing this and patented it in 1892. Parker appears to have had some agreement to work the patent but the arrangement soured and lengthy disputes followed, though the inventor died in 1896. Eventually Parker acquired the patent rights though competitors were allowed to use the method for payment of a licence fee and the assembly method was regarded by all as very important for the industry. It is interesting the Metropolitan considered it could successfully make motors and one wonders if they merely assembled them from parts made by others.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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2 Responses to Wembley – an interesting kind of place

  1. J A Flaszynski says:

    A very interesting and absorbing article.

    I would be interested to know the source of your assertion that the Canada Building at West Hampstead was originally the Canada Pavilion building from the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. I can remember the Cadbury Fry distribution depot and recall it as a rather dull, prosaic structure with a covered loading bay facing the Met line. As far as I am aware, all the major buildings on the BEE site were of a ferro-concrete construction, not at all suitable for dismantling and re-erection elsewhere. The exhibition buildings were gradually demolished on site, starting shortly after the closure of the exhibition in 1925. The last structure to go was the remainder of the Palace of Industry building, which was swept away to make way for the new Brent Civic Centre and the area to its North.

    I believe that an early plan to incorporate the twin towers of the original Wembley (Empire) Stadium (also a ferro-concrete construction) within a new stadium structure was abandoned as being technically unfeasible. (As a side note, much of the demolition spoil of the old stadium found its way to Northala Fields, Northolt, adjacent to the A40, to form the artificial hillocks constructed there as a leisure feature.)

    There was indeed (according to Edith’s Streets) a ‘Canadian Building’ in the near vicinity of the Cadbury Fry depot, but nothing to suggest that it was the pavilion building re-sited from Wembley Park.

    I also remember a very large metal Nissen hut style building in the old goods yard nearer to Finchley Road. I think that it was a builder’s depot as there were always builders materials stacked in the yard surrounding it. This was, in all probability, a recycled building of the WW2 era.


    • machorne says:

      Sorry – missed this till just now. Only the largest buildings were of ferro-concrete and many of the smaller buildings were indeed moveable. The Lion Roars at Wembley (1984, Knight and Sabey, pub Barnard & Westwood Ltd) has a list of where quite a few of them went and I commend it. Noting that the Canadian pavilion was one of the larger (concrete) buildings I need to go into what the authors’ said; they use the words ‘removed and became part of the Cadbury-Fry depot to the north of the railway outside Finchley Road station’. Whether they are referring to some internal pavilion buildings (or even hardcore), remains to be determined but it’s on my list for investigation. If I find out I’ll post the information.


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