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Lost grounds: West Ham Stadium, London


London, Custom House - between Canning Town and Becton, not far from the City Airport. This is the eastern part of town and the ground is West Ham Stadium. It's not West Ham United FC, though. Upton Park is further north. We're near Prince Regent Lane, instead, and today it's all houses and small private roads around. They took over 40 years ago, where one of the biggest grounds in England used to stand out.

Local map, 1940 (left) and today (right).

The inner restaurant, 1965
(ph London Borough of Newham Heritage Service).
The West Ham Stadium was a racecourse ground: greyhound, motorcycle and car racing - and it hosted baseball and football too. A marvellous oval that could accomodate around 100-120,000 fans (the largest in England in its time). And, most of all, the only stadium of its kind designed by Archibald Leitch himselfOpened in 1928, it presented every architectural peculiarity of the time: a solid facade with a regular sequence of doors and windows (in line with the industrial architecture main decrees); iron truss balconies for the two main stands (like many other english grounds of those years - today the one at Goodison Park, Liverpool, is still shining) and a roof over them - with two terraces on the curved sides, standing areas and crush barriers. Like other stadiums back then - particularly from Leitch's design - it also had top class services to the public: the inner restaurant had the finest furnishing possible (and we guess is an innovation nowadays).

The main gate was another classic from Leitch (pictured below). First of all a stadium must be functioning and every part of it, inside, is the right consequence of that. From the outside, though, it must be an architectural example of its time. Like Ibrox, Villa Park or Highbury, the West Ham Stadium entrance had to be something different. That's why the scot engineer decided to build an amazing art-deco portal, with two "blade" elements coming out from the two big pillars, marked by six horizontal flutes framing the thick trabeation beam. Over there we could see the big "West Ham Stadium" sign, typed in art-deco letters, just above the entrance gate (with two other small doors on both sides).




Greyhound and motor racing were so popular between the two World Wars. Imported from Australia and the States, they produced a frenzy speculation, with new grounds built almost everywhere in the country. Oddly, Leitch only worked on this stadium, although he was the utmost ground designer at that time. Investors were growing but not many speedway stadiums had the good fate they hoped for (just a quarter of those grounds would survive).

Even the West Ham Stadium had changing fortunes through the years, especially trying to host different sports. Greyhound racing had a good follow, with an average of 20-30,000 spectators - and 56,000 people on the debut day, 4th August 1928. Motor racing was the hit right then: 82,400 people (never verified) attended the first race against Australia and great teams and some of the finest bikers of their time graced the track. They are remembered today with a street name, where the ground used to be: Atkinson Road, Croombs Road, Young Road, Wilkinson Road, Lawson Close, Hoskins Close.


A motorcycle race, 1940 - the iron truss balcony is well visible on the background.



1928, ph from Britain from Above
It was a very different story when it came to football, though. The businessmen behind the stadium tried to promote the famous ball game creating a new Club from scratch, Thames AFC [1]. A risky decision since the location was so close to other important teams like West Ham FC and Clapton Orient - not to mention Charlton and Millwall. Founded in 1928, the Dockers amazingly went to reach even the Third Division but in the end it was all too much and they were dissolved in 1932. They couldn't attract big crowds (not even average ones, really) and the Club still hold the lowest attendance record for the Football League: 460 fans, the 6th December 1930, against Luton Town... In a 100,000 capacity ground! The only spark of big football probably was in 1964, when West Ham reached the FA Cup final. The team of Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst went to the stadium for training, hoping to get similar conditions as those they would face at Wembley. We could say it was a good decision, as the Hammers went on to win the cup, 3-2 against Preston North End.

The end came in 1972. The ground was sold to investors keen on building new houses on the site. Today everything's gone, even the wonderful art-deco portal. Some memories still remains though, of a time when racing sports were popular and fired up people's passion. Only one stadium of this kind survives in London, today: the Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium (while the other one, the Walthamstow Stadium has been closed in 2008).

[1] Thames AFC must not be confused with Thames Ironworks FC, a 30 years older Club that would go on to become West Ham United FC.

West Ham Stadium during IIWW London bombing, 1940.
*

to learn more:
  • S. INGLIS, Engineering Archie – Archibald Leitch, football ground designer, English Heritage, 2008, pp. 178-179
  • history of the ground and the Hammers racing team, link
  • West Ham Speedway, at defuntspeedway.co.uk, link

* the original version of this article was published on Archistadia.it, here

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