Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Leave Some History Standing!


 PALACE OF INDUSTRY, Wembley. And Britain's first ever commemorative stamps.

ONE of the places where I worked when I first came to London was a factory at the back of the Wembley stadium and the old Exhibition Grounds. Coming out of Wembley Park tube station on the way to work you could cross Empire Way and pass a variety of buildings which, including the famous Twin-Towered stadium, were remnants of the 1924-5 British Empire Exhibition. 

In front of the stadium were the remains of a Chinese-style bridge which had stood over an ornamental pond in a garden. I knew this because I'd been able to pick up a set of sepia postcards of the Exhibition from a second hand bookshop in Harlesden. 

Other parts of the exhibition had been built to last, and were in use.  Her Majesty's Stationery Office had a warehouse in one vast hall on Olympic Way, but across the road an even bigger and more imposing building was in use by GEC, who also had laboratories and a bigger factory at North Wembley, and a smaller place near Hanger Lane. I believe their place on the Exhibition grounds was the Palace of Industry. This was half a century ago. Later, during the post-Thatcher years of industrial decline it became a warehouse for imported rugs and carpets I believe. Then that too went.

You could recognise some of these buildings by the recurrent lion motif, and some country's pavilions had their name engraved in stone, but others were very distinctive in their architecture. I remember one charming little half-domed building near Wembley Hill, I think it was the Cyprus (or Malta) pavilion, and I was pleased to recognise it again from the top of a bus passing by, about ten years ago.  Behind it a young fox was crossing a patch of waste ground. Since then that ground has been built on, though with nothing as memorable as the pavilion 

Nowadays the former Exhibition Grounds estate is owned by a company called Quintains, Wembley stadium's highly visible arch has replaced the twin towers as its landmark, and Brent council's new civic centre is among the latest additions to the area. We've commented before on whether this multi-million pound development was what people wanted their money spent on, but we're stuck with it now, and the extras.

 Which brings us to a guest posting by Philip Grant of the Wembley History Society, in Martin Francis' Wembley Matters blog:  
Your recent item on Quintain’s planning application for a 1,350 space temporary car park near the new Civic Centre attracted my attention. When I looked at the details online, I found in the “small print” that it also involved demolishing the remaining part of the Palace of Industry, Wembley’s last remaining building from the 1924/25 British Empire Exhibition (“BEE”). As its “Listed Building” status was removed about ten years ago, this is no longer regarded as a “heritage asset” which requires special consent before it can be demolished, but I believe its external walls should be allowed to remain in place for a little longer.

My reason for this is that 2014 will see the 90th anniversary of the exhibition, for which the Palace of Industry was built as part of the world’s “First City of Concrete”. The BEE was one of the most important events in Wembley’s history, giving us the stadium and bringing millions of visitors to the area, which promoted its rapid suburban growth over the following ten years. One of the main aims of the exhibition was ‘... to enable all who owe allegiance to the British flag to meet on common ground and learn to know each other’, and on an international level the BEE was an important stepping stone on the path from the old Empire to the modern Commonwealth of independent nations. To discover more about the BEE, and many other local history subjects, visit the Brent Archives online Learning and Resources collection at LINK

Since 2010 I have been involved, as a volunteer, in discussions with Brent Museum and Archives about an exhibition and other events in 2014 to mark the BEE’s 90th anniversary. More recently the Arts team for the new Civic Centre (currently nearing completion at the southern end of the Palace of Industry site) have become involved, and although no final plans have yet been drawn up it is likely that these events will take place. It would be a great pity if these walls, which illustrate the scale and architecture of this great exhibition, were to be lost unnecessarily just before that anniversary, when they could be enjoyed by visitors to Wembley during the summer of 2014, probably for the final time.
Looking at the plans, it would not be necessary to demolish the remaining outside walls on the north and east sides of the Palace of Industry building to facilitate the access, lighting and all of the car parking spaces which Quintain are seeking. Only a small part of the outside walls at the north-west corner would need to be demolished, to allow access from Fulton Road. I have therefore written to Quintain and their planning agent, asking them to amend their plans so that these historic walls remain standing to their full height until they are ready to construct the proposed shopping centre which is planned for a later phase of the Wembley City redevelopment.

If you would like to add your support for the walls (not physically, as their ferro-concrete construction means that they can stand up by themselves!) please go to the Brent Planning website at: LINK  then use the "Comment on this Planning Application" link.  Alternatively, please send an email, quoting the reference number 12/3361, to David Glover, the Brent Case Officer dealing with the application, at:  david.glover@brent.gov.uk . Thank you.
You may think I am getting sentimental in my old age, but much as I've been happy to see the back of the British Empire, I would regret seeing the erasure of any trace of the British Empire Exhibition. It represented something in terms of wide world horizons, trade and the development of industry. Apparently the Palace of Industry even housed a working bread factory, showing off mass production and industrialised baking when it seemed the "greatest thing since sliced bread" was er...more sliced bread,

For young people growing up in Brent those ferro-concrete walls are a history lesson of an empire that seemed designed to last, and of the wealth their ancestors produced, whether here in London, in Britain, or the far corners of that empire. That's heritage.

Besides, the council planning documents I have seen speak optimistically of making Wembley a centre for cultural events and tourism. And I can't see tourist buses pulling up just so visitors can look at the car park.  


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At 8:04 PM, Anonymous Ian Mackay said...

Having seen the demolition taking place and reading comments on the net by various people, I have tried to find out why these important buildings were de-listed from English Heritage, it has taken several emails and over a month to get a definitive reply, as I have not seen this information before I thought it may well be of interest to others who are equally concerned, sadly all too late..

Ian Mackay

Dear Mr Mackay,

I have now received the information requested from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and can confirm that we assessed the Palace of Arts and the Palace of Industry for de-listing in December 2003 and submitted our recommendations to the DCMS in January 2004. We recommended that the Palace of Arts should be de-listed on the basis that 'it is hard to argue for the ongoing listed status of a largely demolished building' (please see attached advice report) but that the Palace of Industry should remain on the List. However, after considering our advice, the Minister decided that the latter was no longer of sufficient special interest and should also be de-listed. The DCMS decision letter of the 23 January 2004 states:

The Minister has noted that the EH Listing Inspector’s recommendation for listing in 1997 records that the Palace of Industry had been turned down for listing only 12 years earlier, in 1985. Accordingly, he considered that it was clearly a building on which differing views had already been taken within a relatively short space of time. As such, he considered that it might fairly be regarded as a relatively borderline case for listing.

The Minister noted that the Listing Inspector’s advice to retain this building on the List was based on the view that a combination of factors, which were not in themselves of “special” interest, when added together were enough to make the building worthy of listing. The Minister was not convinced that this was the correct test of special interest, when the policy is that, for the period post-1914, only selected buildings of definite quality and character should be listed.

The Inspector accepted that the application to de-list had “telling points in its favour”, and recommended that the list description be amended to reflect the de-listing applicant’s comments relating to the structural interest and temporary nature of the building, which demonstrated that it was right to reassess the case as there were inaccuracies in the original listing.

Having reviewed all the evidence put forward by the applicants, the advice of English Heritage, and taking into account the policy as set out in Planning Policy Guidance Note 15: Planning and the Historic Environment, the Minister did not agree with the EH Listing Inspector that the Palace of Industry building met the test of special interest. Whilst he accepted their expert advice that the building was of some structural and architectural interest, and had interesting historical associations, its group value was minimal and he did not think that the combination of these factors were enough to amount to ”special” interest.

The Minister has therefore concluded that the Palace of Industry is no longer of sufficient special architectural or historic interest to be included on the Statutory List. It has therefore been removed from the List.

I hope this clarifies the reasons behind the de-listing of these buildings. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions.


Samantha Amos

Casework and Analysis Team


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