News from Played in Britain

Oldest cantilevered grandstand in Britain listed – but there are two sides to the story

October 21 2013


The oldest reinforced concrete cantilevered grandstand in Britain, opened in Finchley, London, in 1930, has become the latest in a series of buildings to be listed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, following research carried out as part of the Played in London project. In addition to its use of advanced concrete engineering the stand is also one of the very few double sided stands in existence, serving two different clubs.

Announcing the listing at the London Sports Writing Festival at Lord's cricket ground on Friday, Played in Britain editor Simon Inglis expressed his delight that the building now had Grade II listed status.

The Summers Lane grandstand seen from the east

Back to back - the Summers Lane grandstand seen from the east, or rugby side. As can be seen, the original glazed screens have been removed at the near end. (Photo © Played in Britain.)

the Summers Lane grandstand seen from the west

Back to back - the Summers Lane grandstand seen from the west, or football side. The extended steel and corrugated iron canopy on the football side was added in the early 1950s. (Photo © Played in Britain.)

Located on Summers Lane, Finchley, the stand is important on several counts.

Reinforced concrete cantilevered stands – that is stands with column-free roofs – started to appear at French and other Continental racecourses during the early part of the 20th century, the earliest of which is thought to have been a relatively small, narrow stand at the Hippodrome du Tremblay in Paris in 1906. As engineers became more confident using the material, the roof spans, and the number of seats they sheltered, grew steadily larger, from a few hundred to a thousand or more.

Amongst the earliest known examples in Britain, all since demolished, were stands at Epsom Racecourse (1927), the Braintree Recreation Ground (1928) and Northolt Racecourse, in west London, where the noted engineer Oscar Faber designed three cantilevered stands in 1929, one of which contained 2,000 seats.

The stand at Finchley formed the centrepiece of a general sports ground laid out by Finchley Urban District Council. Next door to the ground was a large lido, with two pools, built between 1931-34 (but demolished in 1994). The long term aim was to build a new civic centre on the site also, but this failed to materialise.

Documentation on the grandstand is limited. It is known that the ground and lido scheme were overseen by Finchley UDC's Borough Engineer, Percival T Harrison, but the advanced design of the stand (compared with the traditional Italianate approach taken at the lido) suggests that other engineers may have been involved. Certainly the Council sought advice on the design from Sir Owen Williams, the engineer responsible for Wembley Stadium (1923) and the Empire Pool, now Wembley Arena (1934).

Costing around £3,000, the Summers Lane stand and the ground as a whole was officially opened on Saturday December 30 1930 by the Secretary of the Football Association, Sir Frederick Wall. Percy Harrison kicked off the inaugural match.

20131023-cantilevered-stand-roof

Supporting the double sided roof at Summers Lane are twelve T-shaped ribs set into the spine wall. The seating tier consists of nine concrete terraces, originally fitted with bench seating for 500 spectators. On the rugby side, as seen here, those seats have been replaced by 450 plastic seats recycled from the West Stand at Highbury Stadium, vacated by Arsenal in 2006. (Photo © Played in Britain.)

But what makes the Summers Lane stand more significant is that it is a double sided back-to-back stand, with one tier, originally holding 500 bench seats facing a football pitch on the west side, and an identical tier facing the rugby pitch on the east. The football side was occupied by Finchley FC, founded in 1874, who merged with Wingate FC in 1991 to form Wingate and Finchley. Their neighbours, Finchley Rugby Club, formed in 1925.

In the early 1950s the football club extended the roof cover on their side with a steel canopy supported on four columns. Although compromising the stand's appearance, not to mention spectators' views, the presence of this extension was not deemed an impediment to the stand's listing.

Responding to the listing, Simon Inglis said, 'This is an extremely important building. It has taken a while to establish its exact level of significance and it's true that there have been a number of alterations to the internal layout and to staircases at the front of each side. But I am thrilled that English Heritage and the DCMS have recognised its worth. Pretty much since the 1980s we have taken it for granted that stand roofs should be column free. Yet reaching this point has taken many years of engineering in both concrete and steel, and some of the earlier concrete examples from prior to the Second World War are of genuine architectural merit also. They form an integral part of the evolution of modern sports buildings.'

More on the history of the Summers Lane stand, and of other 1930s stands in the capital (such as at Chiswick and Isleworth), will be featured in Played in London, the next book in the Played in Britain series, scheduled for publication next spring (2014).


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