Top technologies in sport: number 3

The ingredients for the sports revolution

During Queen Victoria’s reign between 1837 and 1901, the population of Britain more than doubled while the economy grew by over 360% (equivalent to an increase in GDP of 2% per year for over 60 years).  In 1850 and 1878, two acts of Parliament gave factory workers half a day’s holiday each Saturday afternoon and sports participation exploded  (leading to the traditional 3pm Saturday afternoon start for sport in Britain).  During the last two decades of the 19th Century, then, the British population had more money and leisure time than it had ever had and spectator sports were flourishing (the first FA Cup final in 1872 had an attendance of 2,000 while it was 110,820 in 1901).

The pieces for a sports revolution were all in place: the vulcanisation of rubber had created a cheap and plentiful supply of sports balls; the lawn mower had fashioned flat surfaces to play on; the population was willing to pay and ready to watch. The people now needed somewhere to do the watching, cue Archibald Leitch.

Figure 1. Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox Park (Britainfromabove.org).

Archibald Leitch – the modern stadium designer

Archibald Leitch was born in Glasgow in 1865, a month after the death of one of the inventors of vulcanised rubber, Thomas Hancock.  In 1899, he designed and built Ibrox Park for Glasgow Rangers (see Figure 1).  The stadium was innovative in its day, with a capacity of 79,877, creating the world’s largest purpose-built football stadium.

In 1902, however, disaster struck. During a match between Scotland and England, wooden joists gave way, sending 25 people to their deaths on the concrete below.  More than 500 people were injured.  This was the first football disaster, pre-dating Hillsborough and Bradford by 80 years or so.  Leitch’s career in football nearly stalled before it had started; he only just escaped the disaster’s subsequent court case with his reputation intact.  If anything, Leitch was spurred on to ensure that future stadiums would be safe for the burgeoning masses desperate to watch football, installing many of the safety features still seen in football today (Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Leitch's patent for crush barriers for his terraces, used across all his grounds until 1989.
Figure 2. Leitch’s patent for crush barriers for his terraces, used across his grounds until 1989.

Leitch went on to design most of the grounds in Britain including Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Sheffield United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa.  His stands had covered seating for thousands with terracing for thousands more.  His grandstands had balconies with criss-cross steelwork and often a characteristic gabled structure, sometimes containing the press room.  Importantly, spectators mostly had unobstructed views.

Figure 3.  Some of Leitch's classic football stadiums: clockwise from top left - Blackburn Rovers, Everton, Newcastle, Highbury (during the 1929 FA Cup semi-final against Portsmouth).
Figure 3. Some of Leitch’s classic football stadiums: clockwise from top left – Blackburn Rovers, Everton, Newcastle, Arsenal (during the 1929 FA Cup semi-final against Portsmouth).  Images courtesy of Britainfromabove.org

Leitch died in 1939, just before the outbreak of the 2nd World War. He left behind almost 40 stands or full grounds which would last right up until the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, when the Taylor report required most to be converted to all-seater stadia.  It he’d still been around, he might have received 40 more commissions.

The next article in the ‘Top technologies in sport’ takes us on a slightly different journey out of the stadium with a technology that was set to change the whole world.

Further reading

The key source of information about Archibald Leitch is Engineering Archie by Simon Inglis: it’s a fascinating read and I recommend you get it.

Simon Inglis, Engineering Archie, English Heritage, 2005, pp 208.

Mike Huggins, The Victorians and Sport, pub Hambledon and London, 2004, pp 318

*For those of you wondering where you have heard the name Archibald Leitch before, the similar spelt Archie Leach was Cary Grant’s real name.

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About stevehaake

Steve did a first degree in Physics at the University of Leeds before landing two job offers: the first with BT turned out to be in a porta-cabin in the middle of a marsh, while the second was supposed to be image processing but was really smart-bomb design. This left a third option – a PhD in the mechanics of golf ball impacts on golf greens for a person who’d never hit a golf ball. It was a simple choice (the PhD if you didn’t guess) which led 25 years later to being head of a research team of 30-40 looking into similarly unlikely topics. Highlights of the career so far? The early years setting up the ISEA with the likes of Steve Mather, Ron Thompson, Clive Grant and Ron Morgan; the fact that the 1st International Conference on Sports Engineering in Sheffield in 1996 didn’t also turn out to be the last; and getting out the first issue of the first journal on Sports Engineering in 1998. The absolute high point, though, was being in the British Club in Singapore as a guest of the High Commission when the bid for the 2012 Olympics was announced. This has led to the team delivering projects with Olympic athletes that every scientist with a love of sport can only dream of. Steve is now a Senior Media Fellow funded by the EPSRC to encourage the public to engage in science, particularly in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.