Thursday, 13 June 2013

Why it’s important to save a Wembley Lion

Guest blog by local historian Philip Grant
Two lion head corbels, partly cut from
the Palace of Industry walls.
 The last remaining building from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition (“BEE”), the Palace of Industry in Olympic Way at Wembley Park, has now been demolished to make way for a temporary car park. Despite a campaign by heritage enthusiasts, both local and from further afield, its owners, Quintain Estates, were not willing to leave even a small section of the external walls standing. However, Quintain did go to the trouble of removing the decorative lion head corbels from this historic reinforced concrete building, so that Brent Council could keep some of them as a physical reminder of Wembley’s past.

One of the lion head corbels at the demolition site.
[Photo by David Glover, Brent Planning & Development]

 Three of the corbels are in a good enough condition to put on display, but the main problems are where they should be “re-homed” and where the money can be found to pay for this. It was hoped that one of the lion heads would go to Brent Museum, but when it was possible to assess them at ground level they were too heavy and awkward for the museum to deal with. Each one probably weighs between one and two tonnes, and they would need to be fixed and supported in a good location if the public are to be able to view them safely.

Are these ninety year-old lumps of concrete worth the effort? For me the answer is a definite “yes” – at least one of these “Wembley Lions” does need to be put on permanent public display somewhere in Wembley. The BEE in 1924/25 was the event which put Wembley “on the map”, both as a desirable place to live and with its stadium which became world-famous. The lion was the emblem for the BEE and became the symbol of Wembley itself, with the stadium’s speedway team from the late 1920’s, and the ice hockey team whose home was at the Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena) from 1934, both called the Wembley Lions. 

The flag pole base from the dome of one of the
old Stadium’s twin towers in Brent River Park.
A number of Brent councillors and council officers are supporting the idea of putting at least one of these lion heads on display, but most are expressing caution over the possible costs. One of the potential problems, that several council departments need to be involved, has been deal with by the appointment of a “lead officer” (Sue McKenzie, Head of Libraries, Arts and Heritage) to co-ordinate the Council’s efforts. Hopefully the costs can be shared across a number of departmental budgets, as well as funds or practical help from sources other than our Council Tax.

As far as possible locations are concerned, the ideal place for one would be at Brent’s new Civic Centre. It has been built at the southern end of the Palace of Industry site, in the heart of the area where the BEE was held. I have suggested that one lion head corbel should be landscaped into the gardens at its western side, where it could not only be seen by visitors but could easily become an interesting feature that people would like to be photographed beside after weddings or citizenship ceremonies.

The BEE drinking fountains at Barham Park
(with close-up view).
Other possibilities include the gardens at Barham Park, which are already home to two of the lion head drinking fountains from the BEE, and where some funds might be available from the Barham Park Trustees. A second strong contender is Brent River Park, on the very edge of Wembley, which has another piece of sculptural reinforced concrete, a flag pole base which was relocated after the demolition of the old Wembley Stadium (originally built as the Empire Stadium ready for the 1924 Exhibition). King Edward VII Park would also make a good home for a lion head corbel, close to the heart of Wembley.

Do you agree that at least one of these Wembley Lions should be put on public display? If so, please pass on your thoughts on where they should be located or how the costs of putting them on display should be financed, either as a comment on this blog, or by email to your local councillor or direct to the officer dealing with this: .

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