Leitch, The 1902 Ibrox Disaster & The Changing Values Of Safety
Football and architecture have seldom been happy bedfellows. During their prime the homes of British football were woefully under-appreciated, and this lack of attention has been mirrored over the last two decades with many grounds that meant a lot to thousands of people having been demolished and replaced with new structures that owe little to the history of the game and which will doubtlessly, in the fullness of time, be replaced themselves with newer and shinier structures. Yet the architecture of the football stadium in Britain is part of our landscape, and its shape is instantly recognisable, even if it is starting to die out, at least in the sense in which many of us remember it.
Of all the people that have been involved in the construction of these icons of twentieth century Britain, one name above all others stands out, that of an architect and engineer whose designs were as instantly recognisable as could be imagined. Archibald Leitch was born in Glasgow in 1865, the son of a blacksmith. Brought up in the Camlachie area of the East End of the city and a stone’s throw from Celtic Park, he was grammar school educated and is believed to have travelled extensively before returning to the city in 1890, becoming a member of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland six years later. The tail end of the nineteenth century was a period during which the owners of football clubs in Britain were just starting realise the importance of packing people in to watch their teams. Bigger attendances meant that clubs could pay more money to players, and the formative years of the professional game saw a flurry of activity as clubs sought to maximise revenues for the first time in an era during which “commercialisation” largely meant the strategic positioning of giant Oxo advertisements.
It was in 1899 that Leitch gained his first work within this burgeoning new business. The original grandstand at Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park is believed to have been the first construction built to one of his designs, but it was the other big contract which he picked up that year that was to thrust him into the public spotlight, th0ugh not for the reasons that anybody would have wished. With attendances at matches in Glasgow starting to swell to astonishing proportions, the rights host Scottish Cup finals and Scotland international matches was lucrative and, with Hampden Park – a new version of which had just been commissioned and would open on October 1903 – and Celtic Park also in the vicinity, highly competitive. With this in mind, Leitch was hired to construct a vast, wooden terrace which was formed by bolting wooden planks onto a framework made of iron at the western end of the ground which would hold 36,000 people in an over capacity of 80,000. The new Ibrox Park opened on the thirtieth of December 1899 with a home match against Heart of Midlothian, but within three years British football’s first tragedy would strike at that venue.
On the fifth of April 1902, Scotland played England at Ibrox Park. The Western Tribune Stand had been passed as safe by the Govan Burgh Surveyor just a couple of weeks earlier, but there had already been questions asked regarding whether this timber and steel structure was safe or not. Fifteen minutes prior to kick-off, with parts of the stadium already full to capacity, Leitch inspected the rear of the stand and found that two of the wooden joists had split and instructed the police to keep spectators away from the affected area. Still, though, later that afternoon tragedy struck. One of the fundamental truths of any disaster is that there is seldom any one single cause. A downpour of rain caused hundreds of those on the terrace in the direction of a covered area, which forced many over the perimeter fencing and onto the edges of the pitch. Under this pressure crush barriers installed which resulted in further surges towards the perimeter, and then eventually a section of the south-west terrace collapsed, resulting in twenty-five deaths and five hundred and sixteen injuries.
In an era well before the invention of public address systems, the match was eventually halted, but this came about because of a further influx of people onto the track behind the goal, but after a hurried debate between officials of the Scottish Football Association and the police it was decided that to call the match off might only cause disorder and further danger. The match, with the overwhelming majority of the crowd still apparently unaware of the tragedy that had transpired in its midst, was played out as a one-all draw, although the result was subsequently declared void by the FA and the SFA. Rangers removed the wooden terracing – it had been said at the time, and not just by regular attendees at Ibrox, that wooden structures of this size were not to be trusted – and reduced the capacity of the stadium to just 25,000 people pending reconstruction work. But there was no public inquiry, even though it had been widely reported in the press that there would be. Scottish law at the time only made provision for this in the event of industrial employment or occupation.
In spite of this, though, the matter did end up in court, although it was not Archibald Leitch who found himself before a judge. The man in the dock was William McDougall, the timber merchant who had provided and erected the terrace, who, it had been found, had breached a contract which stipulated wood of a certain quality for the terracing. “Wood of an inferior quality of yellow pine instead of red pine of the best quality” had been used for the construction, and that the joists had also been fitted incorrectly. The trial lasted for three days and called no fewer than eighty witnesses, and Leitch’s still formative reputation was as much on the line as McDougall’s was, to the extent that the defending counsel stated that the case against McDougall was, “as flimsy and insubstantial as Mr Leitch’s design.” Much of the case defended on the merits of the two types of wood used, with witnesses for McDougall confirming that Leitch had been aware of the inferior quality wood being used, whilst the prosecution called joiners who stated that they had never seen wood of such a poor quality as that supplied for this terrace and that it was completely unsuitable for such use. The defence countered by calling Sir Benjamin Baker, one of the foremost civil engineers of the era and designer of the Forth Bridge, who stated that he found Leitch’s design to be “unusually light” and that he would “not approve of it for a moment”, and at the end of the trial McDougall was cleared of all charges against him.
Leitch’s reputation survived to the extent that he was kept on by Rangers as they rebuilt Ibrox again twice in subsequent years, once in the aftermath of the 1902 disaster, rebuilding it back to a capacity of 63,000 by 1910, and again in 1929, with the construction of its distinctive Main Stand – now known as the Bill Struth Main Stand. This impressive, red brick edifice was granted the status of a Category B listed building in 1987, and remains to this day. Elsewhere, Leitch became synonymous with a particular style which became familiar, although less so these days, with his most of the stands that he designed having two tiers, with distinctive distinctive looking latticeworks steel at the front of the upper tier – usually painted in the colours of the clubs that called them home – and pitched roofs. At the time of his death in 1939, his work could be seen at almost forty different grounds in Britain and Ireland, including Celtic Park, Anfield, Highbury, Old Trafford, Lansdowne Road and Twickenham, and so enduring was his work that twenty-seven years after his death, at the time of the 1966 World Cup finals, six of the eight venues used featured his work to some extent.
Yet as his career in football started with tragedy, so it was that his influence upon the football architecture of Britain would start to disappear with it as well. In 1906, he patented the Leitch Crush Barrier, and it was one of these giving way under a weight of people at Hillsborough in April 1989 which played a contributing role in the deaths of ninety-six people that day, although it should be pointed out that this failure was one of neglect rather than the intrinsic design of the barrier itself. In the rush to modernity which followed this disaster, many of his designs were demolished, including perhaps his most iconic work, the Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park, which was replaced in 2001. Some of his original designs, however, do remain. As well as the Main Stand at Ibrox, the South Stand at Fratton Park, the Main Stand at Tynecastle and the Johnny Haynes Stand at Craven Cottage all remain as listed buildings, links with the past of a game which often seems to be in a bit of a rush to disregard its heritage in its charge towards the future.
Perhaps the next generation of architecture in British football will not be so heavily dependent on steel, glass and plastic tip-up seats. Perhaps it will build on the heritage that has passed down over the decades, and perhaps the question that should be asked of the next generation of people that will design these grounds is whether they can combine the improved safety that we undoubtedly have now with the character of so many of the grounds that have been bulldozed in recent years. The safety standards of 1902 would be incomprehensible to modern eyes, and the tragedy of Hillsborough in 1989 was a perhaps inevitable result of years of a toxic combination of health and safety laws which weren’t stringent enough, clubs ignoring the laws that were in place and local authorities who were used to turning a blind eye to it all. With some imagination and vision, we can recreate the character of the past, but this must never come at the cost paid at Ibrox in 1902, Hillsborough in 1989, or any of the occasional lapses into tragedy that British football fell into in the years between those two horrific events.
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