History of Wembley and Tokyngton

Early history
From the 16th century to the 19th century
19th century Wembley
Railways and trams
Wembley Urban District
Wembley Park
The first Cup Final at Wembley
The British Empire Exhibition
Suburban growth
Arthur Elvin saves the Stadium
Industry
The Second World War
The 1948 London Olympics
Wembley Arena
Wembley Stadium
Places of worship
Post-war Wembley
The London Borough of Brent
The rise and fall of the shopping centre
Wembley today
Local history articles

Wembley is in south-eastern Brent, east of Sudbury, north of Alperton, west of Neasden and south of Kingsbury and Preston. Tokyngton is in eastern Wembley, south of the Chiltern Railway Line.

Early history

‘Wemba lea’ is first mentioned in a charter of 825. The name means ‘Wemba’s clearing’. The clearing the Anglo-Saxon Wemba chose, later the large triangular Wembley Green, was situated on and around a 71-metre hill. Wembley village grew up on the hill and on the future Harrow Road south of it. The surrounding area remained woodland for much of the middle ages.

Tokyngton, southeast of Wembley, means ‘the farm of the sons of Toca’. In 1086, at the time of the Domesday Book (which recorded a survey of land in England and Wales), the district was one of the most populated parts of Harrow parish.

Records first mention Tokyngton by name in 1171. By about 1240, there was a chapel there dedicated to St Michael, and there is evidence that it had a vicar. The chapel, which was situated south of the present-day South Way (next to Wembley Stadium Railway Station), provided an easier alternative to Harrow Church, which was a long walk away and at the top of a hill. However, local people needed to go to Harrow to shop at Harrow Market, which begun in 1261 and was apparently held in Harrow Churchyard. It lasted until the end of the 16th century.

Wembley and Tokyngton manors were both sub manors of Harrow and, initially, Tokyngton was more important than Wembley. Tokyngton Manor formed in the late 13th century, from estates owned by the Barnville family. The Barnvilles had a house at Tokyngton by 1400, with the manor house built around 1500. By 1528, the manor had passed to the Bellamy family. By 1759, Tokyngton Manor was still a farm.

Flick through this album of old photos of Wembley and Tokyngton from the Brent Museum and Archives collection:

 Wembley and Tokyngton (BMA)

From the 16th century to the 19th century

By 1536, Page family were leasing Wembley Manor and other estates in Harrow parish. The Reformation in the 16th century helped the Pages become the main landowners in Wembley, and Tokyngton Manor was in their hands by 1609. (The Reformation was a movement across Europe when people challenged the Catholic Church and set up Protestantism.)

In 1547, records show there were six houses at Wembley, which, although small, was now one of the richest hamlets in Harrow. In 1661, Wembley had nine large houses, 23 smaller ones and a population of 160 people. By 1673, there was a mill on the top of Wembley Hill.

Open fields had been enclosed in the district from the 16th century (enclosure allowed farmers to fence off farms and claim common land), but there were still 60 acres of wasteland in 1759.

From 1722, there was a pub on Wembley Hill, later named The Barley Mow. By 1751, it was renamed Red Lyon. By 1785, it was the Green Man, as it is today. The current building was built in 1906, following a fire.

In the early 18th century, the Pages built a house in Wembley Park. They landscaped the Park in 1792. By 1810, Wembley Park had passed to a John Gray.

In the 18th century in Middlesex, there was a shift from crop farming to hay farming, and finally animal farming.

19th century Wembley

In 1801, the Harrow Road became a toll road. By 1826, there were two coaches a day. In 1836-37, the London & Birmingham Railway (later London & North Western Railway) built a line through Wembley. In 1842, Sudbury Station opened (now Wembley Central Station). The station had little effect on development, although buses from other villages connected with the trains.

In 1851, records show that Wembley and Tokyngton contained five farms, Wembley Park Mansion, 26 houses, a blacksmith’s shop, the pub and the ‘Greyhound’ beer shop.

In 1846, two local philanthropists, sisters Anne and Frances Copland, paid for the Church of St John the Evangelist, built north of Harrow Road and west of the railway. Sir George Gilbert Scott designed the church, which made Wembley a separate parish from Harrow. However, like Sudbury Station, the church was thought of as in Sudbury not Wembley. In 1848, the Copland sisters funded a school next to St John’s.

Then, in 1869, the Copland sisters built the Workmen’s Hall in Harrow Road, intended to promote self-improvement, industry and temperance (abstaining from alcohol). In 1871, Anne Copland helped fund Nearby, stood Wembley’s first ‘hospital’ (1871), again funded by the Misses Copland. Wembley at this stage was still almost wholly rural.

Development at North Wembley came early. It was partly created by the railway and partly by the horticultural trade that grew up there. By 1861, a number of cottages existed, as well as a beershop, the ‘Norfolk Arms’. More housing followed, and another pub.

By 1871, the population of Wembley had risen to 444. It consisted of agricultural labourers, railway workers and a few professional men. Wembley’s first Asian citizen was probably His Highness Rajah Rampal Singh, who lived at the Dairy Farm south of the hill for a short while after 1882.

Until 1884, Wembley was dependent for water on wells in Sudbury and Alperton. Thereafter development was encouraged by the availability of piped water. Sewerage followed 10 years later.

Railways and trams

Records show that by 1882, there were shops in Wembley. Before this, people had had to walk two miles to Harlesden to find a shop.

New suburban houses were built from 1895. However, there was significant poverty and overcrowding in some terrace houses.

In 1901, a Roman Catholic chapel and burial ground were opened and consecrated south of Harrow Road.

From 1894 to 1917, a number of developments happened which greatly improved access to Wembley.

In 1894, the Metropolitan Railway, built four years earlier, opened a station at Wembley Park. In around 1900, the country lanes around the green were turned into proper roads.

In 1906, the Great Central Railway opened a line between Neasden Station and Northolt Junction Station (now South Ruislip Station) and opened Wembley Hill Station (now Wembley Stadium Station). Two years later, electric tram services began, followed by the electrification of the London & North Western Railway in 1917.

Wembley Urban District

The Wembley area merged with Kingsbury to become Wembley Urban District in 1894. Kingsbury temporarily regained its independence in 1900.

In 1891, the population of the Wembley district (excluding Kingsbury) was 3,023. This was not a large figure, and, although the population had grown to 4,519 by 1901, population growth remained slow until after the First World War.

In 1895, Wembley received an old fire engine from Harrow. It was stationed in a wooden shed on St John’s Road. In 1910, a police station opened in Harrow Road.

Development on Wembley Hill began around 1906. There were shops on Wembley Hill Road by 1913, and Wembley was described as a ‘beautiful and salubrious [healthy] little suburb’.

By 1920, continuous building work was carried out between Wembley and Sudbury, and Wembley and Alperton. By 1924, Wembley High Road was a popular shopping street.

Wembley Park

In the 1880s, Sir Edward Watkin, chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, purchased land near the railway line with the plan to build pleasure gardens (a type of Victorian amusement park), with bandstands, a boating lake, a wooden Variety Hall and a number of sports facilities. The park opened to visitors in 1894.

The centrepiece of this park would be a 366-metre steel tower that would rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In 1896, a half-finished tower, just 45 metres up, was opened to visitors. The structure was never completed, partly due to the marshland it was built on, with demolition starting in 1904. It became known as ‘Watkin’s Folly’.

In 1894, Wembley Park Station opened. It was built to serve the park, shuttling day-trippers and sport fans from London and surrounding areas, just 12 minutes from Baker Street.

By 1907, the Wembley Park Estate Company planned to develop the area around the park as a residential suburb of ‘high-class residences’. In 1913, Wembley Council bought nearby King Edward VII Park to complement this scheme.

In Tokyngton, south of the Great Central Way, the Oakington Manor Estate was being developed along similar lines.

However, the government halted the plan to make Wembley Park into a garden suburb when they chose the spot as the location for the British Empire Exhibition (BEE) at Wembley, which took place in 1924 and 1925.

Watch this video introduction to the British Empire Exhibition, by Philip Grant:

The first Cup Final at Wembley

The BEE plan included a large sports stadium. The work began on the Empire Stadium (now Wembley Stadium) on 10th January 1922, on the site of the ‘Watkin’s Folly’ tower.

The Football Association showed interest in the Empire Stadium from an early date, and chose it as the venue for the 1923 Cup Final, Bolton Wanderers v. West Ham.

The crowd was larger than had been expected, and the fans completely overwhelmed staff. The official attendance was 127,000 (the capacity of the stadium), but apparently over 210,000 people entered the ground.

With fans spilling onto the pitch, mounted police officers were called in from Wembley Park Road police station to clear it and control the crowds. One of them, PC George Scorey and his white horse, Billy, became household names. The game was nicknamed the ‘White Horse Final’. In the end, 900 were injured (none seriously), and the match was delayed for 40 minutes. Bolton Wanderers won 2-0.

The British Empire Exhibition

The BEE opened in 1924. Wembley Park Station was redeveloped for the exhibition, and a new station was built, Wembley Exhibition Station.

The BEE required a large number of buildings in various styles. To simplify construction, all the structures were built of ferro-concrete. Ex-servicemen, who were previously unemployed, carried out much of the construction work.

These buildings included a Palace of Industry, Palace of Engineering and Palace of Arts, as well as pavilions that related to almost every country and territory in the British Empire.

Many of the pavilions were built in architectural styles of the area. For example, the Hong Kong Pavilion recreated a Chinese shopping street, while the Burma Pavilion had a Buddhist shrine. People from each area performed demonstrations and sold things from the pavilions, including at the Palestine Pavilion, where they introduced Jaffa oranges to England for the first time.

The BEE itself opened in 1924. Visitors to the exhibition could travel on experimental railways, visit an amusement park, shop, inspect a coal mine, travel by rail through the Rockies, walk through an Australian sheep station, see a model re-enactment of the April 1918 Zeebrugge raid, eat at Lyons' restaurants, and more. It was the Disneyland of its day.

Flick through this online exhibition looking at the Hong Kong Pavilion at the British Empire Exhibition, curated by Dr Gary Pui-fung Wong and Brent Museum and Archives:

Two Exhibitions between Two Strikes: Exhibiting Hong Kong at the British Empire Exhibition 1924 and 1925

Suburban growth

The BEE greatly encouraged suburban development.

Many roads in the area were improved. Forty Lane became a main highway, bringing Wembley and Kingsbury together. Traffic signs appeared and bus services began operating.

From 1921 to 1931, Wembley’s population increased by 200%. The success of the BEE increased interest in the area, and building was continuous from 1925 to 1939 (from the end of the exhibition to the start of the Second World War). Building was further encouraged by industrialisation, which brought workers to the area.

The shopping centre increased considerably in the 1920s and 1930s. Social facilities already existed to meet the needs of the growing population. For example, Wembley had a cricket club as early as 1880.

Wembley and Kingsbury were reunited in 1934, and in 1937 became the Borough of Wembley.

The growing suburb was so large that local people needed more shopping areas. In the 1920s, a shopping parade was built at the junction of East Lane and Preston Road, followed by one at Forty Avenue (just north of Wembley Park Station), and a third one south of Wembley Park Station (near Oakington Avenue).

From 1931, flats were built on both Empire Way and Forty Lane in Wembley Park. In 1934, local builders, Haymills, advertised houses on Forty Avenue that ‘capture the modern spirit’, as opposed to the common Tudor Revival style in the area.

Records show that, in 1912, a mission church was set up at Wembley Park, followed by the permanent St Augustine’s Church, which opened in 1926. Tokyngton had a temporary church from 1926 and a permanent one from 1933. In 1925, a Methodist church opened in Park Lane and, two years later, another appeared in Ealing Road.

The 1920s also saw the opening of Wembley Hill School and of a modern hospital. In the 1930s, a proper fire station in Harrow Road replaced the unimpressive wooden building on St John’s Street. There had been a sub-post office at Wembley since 1878, but a new building opened in 1929-30. In 1929, the Majestic Cinema replaced the cottage hospital on the High Road and, in 1937, the Regal Cinema opened near Montrose Crescent.

Wembley Park Station was given an impressive and modern new frontage in 1934-35, including an arcade of shops. In 1932, the Council opened the Vale Farm open-air swimming pool between Wembley and Sudbury. By 1937, Wembley even had an operatic society.

Between 1935 and 1940, Wembley Borough built an impressive new town hall on Forty Lane, in what had been Kingsbury.

Arthur Elvin saves the Stadium

No one had planned what to do with the BEE buildings after the exhibition was over. Most of them were highly impractical and only usable as warehouses.

Jimmy White, and entrepreneur, bought them all, including the Empire Stadium. He employed Arthur Elvin (an ex-Royal Flying Corps officer who ran a tobacco kiosk concession during the exhibition) to get rid of the buildings. Elvin demolished some and sold others. He bought the stadium himself, and at 28, he was the managing director of the Wembley Stadium and Greyhound Racecourse Company Ltd.

From December 1927, there was greyhound racing at Wembley, while speedway began in 1929. In their heyday, the Wembley Lions were one of the country’s most successful speedway teams.

In the 1930s, Elvin decided to stage ice hockey matches at Wembley. For this, he commissioned the Empire Pool, a large covered swimming pool that he transformed into an ice rink. It opened on 27th July 1934.

Industry

There was a laundry in Llanover Road as early as 1892. Larger scale industry had come by 1907, when a motor works is recorded in Lancelot Road.

During the First World War, there was an aircraft factory and a flying ground near North Wembley station. In 1918, the British Oxygen Company opened a plant in the area. In 1922, the aircraft works site, which had gone over to car production, was taken over by General Electric Company.

In the 1920s, light engineering and luxury goods manufacturers took over the remaining, disused concrete palaces made for the exhibition. By 1965, some 70 firms employed 6,300 at Wembley Park.

The Second World War

One of the first buildings destroyed in Wembley during the Second World War was Tokyngton Manor House, blown up in an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) exercise in 1939.

The war initially led to the closure of Wembley Stadium, but the government later reversed this decision, realising that it had a demoralising effect.

During the war, 9,000 bombs fell on Wembley. 149 people were killed, and over half the houses in the Borough were damaged.

Wembley’s citizens came together to fund a Spitfire fighter aircraft and, later, helped to pay for the destroyer warship, HMS Whelp. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was an officer on Whelp when the ship witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.

After VE Day, a Thanksgiving Service was held in the Empire Pool. In the late 1940s, a number of prefabricated (prefab) houses (a type of mobile home) were built along East Lane.

The 1948 London Olympics

In 1948, Wembley hosted the 14th Olympic Games. This was the second time the games had come to London. Olympic Way was built at a cost of £120,000. The Empire Pool, never a great success as a swimming venue, was used for this purpose for the last time.

Wembley Arena

In the 1950s, the Empire Pool became a sports and entertainment venue. This included Wembley Lions ice hockey matches, Disney on Ice shows, Harlem Globetrotter basketball matches, cycling races and more.

Shirley Bassey was the first musical act to perform at the Empire Pool in 1959. Since then, the venue has attracted the biggest stars. In 1978, it was renamed Wembley Arena, and the following year, ABBA performed to packed audiences.

Beyoncé brought her Dangerously In Love tour to Wembley Arena in 2003, and has gone on to perform sold-out shows at the larger Wembley Stadium.

In 2005, the arena was refurbished, reopening in April 2006 to host Depeche Mode. In 2014, Wembley Arena was renamed SSE Arena, Wembley.

Wembley Stadium

In 1963, Henry Cooper, who lived in Preston, fought Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) at Wembley Stadium.

In 1966, England hosted the World Cup. Wembley Stadium held the final between England and West Germany, with England winning the championship 4-2 in extra time.

In 1985, the benefit concert Live Aid was held at Wembley Stadium. The event raised funds for the relief effort for the famine in Ethiopia. Acts performing in London included Queen, David Bowie and Elton John.

Sporting and entertainment stars, including Henry Cooper and Muhammad Ali, are immortalised in the Bobby Moore Bridge Mural. Bobby Moore’s widow unveiled this tiled mural in 1993, named after the England 1966 captain who had recently died of cancer. The mural is on the subway near Wembley Park Station.

In the 1990s, Wembley won the bid to be the home of a new national football stadium. In 2002, the old Wembley Stadium was demolished to make room for a new one on the same site. The new stadium, with its instantly recognisable arch, opened in 2007.

In 2019, BTS made history as the first South Korean K-Pop group to perform at the stadium, which has a capacity of 90,000 people. Their tickets sold out in just 90 minutes.

Flick through this album of photos of the Bobby Moore Bridge Mural from the Brent Museum and Archives collection:

 Bobby Moore Bridge Mural (BMA)

Places of worship

In 1918, only 120 Catholic people were recorded as living in Wembley. By the early 1950s, this had risen to 1,650 people, many of whom were Irish people moving out of Willesden or, in some cases, coming directly from Ireland. The Catholic chapel was far too small to cope with such numbers and was replaced by the present St Joseph’s Church in 1956.

In 1958, the Wembley United Synagogue was built at the junction of Forty Lane and Oakington Lane.

Post-war Wembley

The Borough’s population peaked at 130,800 in 1951 and declined thereafter. This was partly because of a move out to the new towns, for example, Hemel Hempstead. Nonetheless, Wembley was the fourth most populated borough in the country in 1953, mainly because of its large size.

In the 1950s, offices moved out into Wembley from inner London, and, in 1956, the new Torch pub opened near Wembley Park Station. From the late 1950s, there was a property boom. As a result, in the 1960s, flats replaced larger properties, and there was a great deal of reconstruction, including the building of the nine-storied Brent House.

In the 1970s, there were further developments, including the opening of the Wembley Conference Centre in Wembley Park in 1977, and the construction of modern hotels. A new police station was built, and a new post office. An unpopular development was the creation of a Bakerloo Line depot at Tokyngton in 1973.

The London Borough of Brent

In 1965, Willesden and Wembley joined to become the new London Borough of Brent. At this time there remained a divide between the richer, Conservative Wembley, and the poorer, Labour Willesden. Almost immediately, the two groups fought over the plan to build a large council estate at Chalkhill in Kingsbury. Following consultation with residents, the resulting Chalkhill Estate was demolished in 2000 and replaced with low-rise buildings.

In the 1980s, some of the more right-wing Conservatives in Wembley started calling for Wembley to secede from Brent. In fact, by 1971, 50% of Wembley’s population had actually moved there from Willesden.

The rise and fall of the shopping centre

From the end of the 1960s, Wembley’s industry declined, leading to much light industry being replaced by warehouses and DIY shops. These developments had a never effect on the shopping areas. During the same period, many of the BEE buildings were lost.

In 1954, Wembley High Road was ‘the mecca of local shoppers’. Shopping floor space increased greatly between 1961 and 1970. Wembley High Road was perhaps the fastest growing shopping street north of the River Thames.

Parking had become a problem as early as the 1950s. Between 1963 and 1965, a disused railway goods yard next to Wembley Central Station was transformed into an underground car park and an open shopping precinct called Central Square. Architectural drawings show that the architects envisaged a pleasant and lively market place. Economic decline, changing shopping habits defeated these hopes, and today Central Square is a sorry sight.

In 1971, Wembley High Road was voted the 11th best place to shop in London. By 1987, it had fallen to 24th place. Successive plans to improve the shopping centre by building a bypass, making the High Road pedestrian, or building a new shopping plaza have all so far come to nothing. Meanwhile the smaller shopping parades have also fallen on hard times.

Wembley today

In 2019, a brand new theatre opened in Wembley Park. The Troubadour Theatre immediately put itself on the map with a production of War Horse, which is renowned for its amazing use of puppetry, created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.

And for all the changes of the past 100 years, in one or two places, for example near St John’s Church or at the High Street on Wembley Hill, one can still get a feel of the way Wembley must have been before the inter-war building boom.

Watch this video showing how Wembley and Tokyngton has changed over time:

 

Local history articles

Find out more about this area by looking at our local history articles, written by volunteer researchers and members of local history societies:

Archive copies

  • Canterbury: The Industrial Centre of New ZealandA digital copy of an illustrated leaflet from 1924 which sets out details of the manufacturing activities carried on in this New Zealand province in the early 1920s, as well as the living and working conditions of the people carrying on these trades. (The original document is in the Wembley History Society collection at Brent Museum and Archives, WHS/O/1/12/41.)
  • New Zealand: The Land of Opportunity for Sheep & Cattle Farmers A digital copy of an illustrated leaflet from 1924, which encouraged British livestock farmers to emigrate, and provides a detailed picture of New Zealand agriculture in the early 1920s. (The original document is in the Wembley History Society collection at Brent Museum and Archives, WHS/O/1/12/36.)
  • Productive Canterbury: New Zealand A digital copy of an illustrated leaflet from 1924, which gives a detailed picture of farming in the Canterbury region of New Zealand's South Island in the early 1920s. (The original document is in the Wembley History Society collection at Brent Museum and Archives, WHS/O/1/12/42.)
  • The Express Dairy Company Ltd at the British Empire Exhibition (1925) A facsimile copy of the illustrated booklet produced by the Express Dairy to showcase the company's cafe and modern dairy business displays at the BEE in 1925, with notes on the Wembley connections of the company and its founders, the Barham family. (The original document in the BEE collection at Brent Museum and Archives, 19241/PRI/8/3.)
  • Under the Southern Cross: A Tour in New ZealandA digital copy of a booklet, produced for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, which gives a detailed introduction to New Zealand in the 1920s, for potential migrants and tourists. (The original document is in the Wembley History Society collection at Brent Museum and Archives, WHS/O/1/12/43.)

Further reading

Much of the information you have read on this page came from the following resources, some of which are held by Brent Museum and Archives, and available to look at. For more information, contact us by phone 020 8937 3600 or email museum.archives@brent.gov.uk.

Blundell, W.D.G. – Royal Navy Warships 1939 – 1945 (Almark, 1971)
Brent Council – Brent’s War (1995)
British History Online – A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 4 (London: Victoria County History, 1971)
Day, J.R. – The Story of London’s Underground (London Transport, 1974)
Elsley, H.W.R. – Wembley Through the Ages (Wembley News, 1953)
Field, J. – Place–Names of Greater London (Batsford, 1980)
Firth, J.B. – Middlesex (Methuen, 1906)
Fulleylove, J. & A.R. Hope Moncrieff – Middlesex (A. & C. Black, 1907)
Hewlett, G. (ed.) – A History of Wembley (Brent Library Service, 1979)
Jerrold, W. – Highways & Byways in Middlesex (MacMillan, 1909)
Keane, W. – The Beauties of Middlesex (1850)
Low, A.M. – Wonderful Wembley (Stanley Paul, 1953)
Mills, A.D. – A Dictionary of London Place Names (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Pevsner, N. – The Buildings of England: Middlesex (Penguin, 1951)
Snow, L. – Brent, A Pictorial History (Phillimore, 1990)
Spencer, A. – Britain in Old Photographs: Wembley & Kingsbury (Alan Sutton, 1995)
Wadsworth, C. – Traditional Pubs of Brent, Volume 2 Wembley (CAW Books, 1999)