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Archie Leitch: golden boy of football architecture or something much nastier?

Tony Attwood

Archie Leitch’s involvement at Highbury in designing the main stand in 1913 is well documented, and out of the timescale of this site at present, but there are tantalising hints in the records that Leitch was involved much earlier in the improvements to the Manor Ground – the home of Woolwich Arsenal

There’s nothing anywhere that says that Leitch did indeed design or re-design the little stand in Woolwich, but by the time the club went bust in 1910 Leitch had become a creditor of the club, and there are notes in the financial files to suggest that the club had never paid him for his work done at the turn of the century.

In fact it seems that Norris paid Leitch off in 1910, as part of the restructuring deal – which is how the connection started between Leitch and Norris, and hence Leitch and Arsenal.

So the question is, what had Leitch been up to, and why had he designed and overseen the building of a stand somewhere around 1900, and then given the club unlimited time to pay for the job.

I must admit that I am not a student of Leitch in depth, and my initial research in the matter a couple of years back took me to the standard work on Leitch, which hails him as a great hero – the man who built modern football.

As I dug around these early years of his career however he emerged as anything but a hero.

His first high profile job involved building a new stadium for Rangers just outside the Glasgow city limits.  Part of the stadium collapsed causing many deaths. In the subsequent enquiry Leitch was not charged with any crime (partly because the stadium was so carefully placed outside the city) but there was considerable doubt expressed over whether the builders used the right materials.  Leitch had specified a high grade of wood, and was in charge of overseeing that this stipulation was complied with, and the evidence presented in the hearings shows that other than writing a letter or two expressing concern, he was not fully engaged on the issue.  It was beyond doubt because of the lowering of the specifications that part of the terracing collapsed.

Leitch did the job for Rangers for no payment – he was a supporter and a young architect making his way, and it was one hell of a commission to get.

As the nightmare unfolded Leitch left town, and headed for London, and that is probably why he took on another unpaid (or at least much delayed paid) job.  The Woolwich Arsenal connections with Glasgow were at their height around 1900 so Leitch would have known of the club, and would have had an introduction.

There’s no suggestion that the Plumstead stand was not adequate, and it lasted until Woolwich Arsenal moved out of Kent in 1913.  But between its building and the abandonment of the site, Leitch was involved in another controversy.

He was engaged to design and oversee the building of the Chelsea ground in the summer of 1905.  At exactly the same time he was engaged to design and oversee the building of new stand at Fulham.   True the grounds were close, but even so, it is hard to see how he could have done both jobs at once.

As it was the terracing of the ground at Stamford Bridge was a disaster, and much of it had to be rebuilt subsequently as many holes appeared.

Whether all this means we should re-evaluate the work of Leitch is difficult to find out – the propaganda machine in favour of his work has ridden over the evidence from the early years, and I must stress, he was never charged with any wrong doing.

But Norris knew when he could control a man, and he knew a man who would work on the cheap when he saw one.   And that’s really another argument against Leitch – he was willing to work on the cheap for quite a few years.   But it must be said, Fulham seemed totally satisfied with the work undertaking in 1905, Leitch even going so far as to be an expert witness on Fulham’s behalf in a dispute over taxation following the erection of the stand.

In 1910 Norris it seems paid off Leitch’s bill and told him to be ready for the next job… which turned out to be Highbury in 1913.

————————–

There’s a range of features about the early days of Arsenal on this site, including articles on early football corruption, the men who managed Woolwich Arsenal, and of course Arsenal’s record in 1910.

All the main features are highlighted here.

And if you want the full story of how Arsenal went bust and rebuilt themselves in 1910, along with all the information about Leitch and Woolwich Arsenal,  it’s here.

3 comments to Archie Leitch: golden boy of football architecture or something much nastier?

  • Ralph

    Another interesting piece – thanks for that.

    Just wondering about his involvement with building at Chelsea. I was under the impression that Stamford Bridge was a long standing Athletics (and other sports) stadium when Chelsea came into existence. I presume that when it had been bought there was some rebuilding but wondered if you knew what was original and what was rebuilt.

  • Tony Attwood

    Working from memory I thought it was intended to be a coal yard for the railways, but they couldn’t get a deal with the railway company, so decided on a whim to turn it into a football ground with other facilities. The story is told about the owners meeting, and one of the people their being bitten by a dog. Bloody stupid story, but it all seems to point to a site with no use which was then built in a huge rush.

  • Ralph

    No, it was certainly an athletics ‘stadium’ before football.

    http://www.chelseafc.com/page/StadiumHistory/0,,10268,00.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stamford_Bridge_%28stadium%29

    It seems from these as though the whole thing was redeveloped.

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