ICON SERIES: ARCHIBALD LEITCH
Updated: Feb 4
This article was originally published on January 1st, 2020.
Archibald Leitch is not a name that many sports fans around the world would know. This could be expected, since he died in April 1939.
However, for many, he is the man who built British soccer.
Leitch was an architect who designed the stadiums for Rangers, Chelsea, Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, Arsenal, Aston Villa, and many more. At his peak in the late 1920s, 16 out of the 22 clubs in the English First Division had hired Leitch's company at one time or another.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland on April 27 1865 in the east end of the city, he was the fourth of six children of blacksmith Archibald Leitch Sr.
Glasgow at the time had earned the title as the second city of the British Empire, providing its inhabitants with a number of opportunities.
Leitch won a place at Hutchesons' Grammar School, from there he would go on to attend Anderson's College, the predecessor of today's University of Strathclyde, where he graduated with a degree in science.
After graduating, Leitch gained employment with Ducan Stewart and Company, a company that provided engine parts to multiple areas of the empire, as a Draftsman. After spending some time at sea as a marine engineer, he would set up his own business in 1896, Archibald Leitch Factory Architect and Consulting Engineer. The business would focus on designing factory buildings, whether that be for tea companies in Sri Lanka or shipbuilding in Glasgow, the company left a footprint across the empire.
Moving into Stadiums
Leitch's first foray into the world of soccer stadiums came in 1899 when he designed and built the main stand at Kilmarnock's Rugby Park.
In the same year, Leitch would receive a commission to build a new home stadium for his local team Rangers.
The club had been playing in a rather basic timber stadium, that could only hold 25,000 spectators and were eager to expand. The rapid growth of the city had allowed for the working and middle classes to gather disposable income to develop soccer into a new phenomenon. Club chiefs were eager to try to cram as many fans into their new stadium.
Leitch would design the new Ibrox Park with a capacity of 80,000. At the time it was the largest soccer stadium ever constructed, and Leitch took no fee from Rangers for his work, due to it being the team that he supported.
However, on the first time, the stadium received a capacity crowd, in a Scotland vs England game, in April 1902, disaster struck.
A short section of timber terracing behind one of the goals gave way, sending 25 fans to their deaths.
Leitch attended the match and witnessed the disaster first hand. In what should have been the proudest day of his professional life had turned into his worst nightmare.
An inquiry was held into the deaths and it was found that inferior wood had been used on the terracing.
The inquiry had discovered that yellow pine was used at Ibrox instead of the superior red pine and this was blamed for the disaster. With the blame falling on timber merchant Alexander MacDougall having apparently billed Rangers for the higher quality red pine despite supplying the inferior yellow pine.
Leitch still distraught about the incident would write a letter to the chiefs at Rangers begging them to re-employ him instead of one of his rivals. He would state "if you sack me then you will effectively be saying that I am guilty." Going on to add "I need hardly say what unutterable anguish the accident caused me, surely the most unhappy eyewitness of all."
He would eventually manage to persuade Rangers to give him another chance and fix the previous mistakes and does what every good engineer would do and goes back to the drawing board. The result was a patented form of terracing which is formed by solid ground, effectively earth banks, to make them stronger.
Following the Ibrox disaster, wooden frameworks on steel frames were discredited and replaced throughout the United Kingdom by his new reinforced terracing.
Rangers who had won four consecutive Scottish league championships prior to the disaster invested heavily in the redevelopment of the new stadium. Choosing to sell a number of their best players to raise funds. Rangers would not win another championship until 1910.
The support Leitch received from Rangers after the disaster helped to protect his career. Leading him to focus on revolutionizing the design of stadium terraces, setting the standard for the following decades after his death. His designs became systematic and precise.
For a large part of the 20th century, the terrace would be an inseparable part of British football culture. Leitch’s terraces had fixed steps, designated aisles, and his own patented steel crush barriers. Terraces were now stronger, safer, and better suited for viewing soccer matches.
The first grounds to benefit from his new designs were Fulham's Craven Cottage and Chelsea's Stamford Bridge, which were finished in 1905.
Leitch's designs gathered a reputation for being functional and budget-conscious. Something that conservative soccer chiefs appreciated. Despite clubs unwilling to take design risks in their new stadiums, Leitch managed to refine his designs as he moved from club to club.
His designs would dominate British soccer until the late 1980s when the Taylor Report following the Hillsborough disaster accelerated the replacement of many of his stands. Forcing the change from standing sections to all-seater stadiums. One of the most notable casualties of the redevelopments would be the Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park, considered one of his best works, which was demolished in 2000.
His work can still be seen at a number of stadiums around the UK. However, each year this number gets smaller with Tottenham's White Hart Lane the latest casualty.
The best examples still around are at Rangers' Ibrox Stadium where the Bill Struth Main stand still stands with the other best example being Fulham's Craven Cottage, both buildings are category B listed buildings. (This means the buildings are of regional or more than local importance, or major examples of some particular period, style, or building type which may have been altered).
In 2002, Fulham decided to replace their current Leitch built Craven Cottage stadium, with a redeveloped stadium that would meet Premier League requirements. The team would move out of the stadium and share Loftus Road with Queens Park Rangers until the redevelopments were completed.
The move caused a huge uproar with fans, many of whom subsequently decided to only attend away games as a form of protest.
Eventually, the fans got their way and the club decided to refurbish the 1905 Leitch designed stadium, with the main stand and the Pavilion remaining untouched. The stand is now the oldest football stand in the Football League system and along with the Pavilion, it is the most iconic part of Craven Cottage.
This is undoubtedly an indication of how highly Leitch’s work has been valued by clubs, more than eight decades after his death. Craven Cottage remains one of the smallest stadiums in the Premier League but as the fans will attest, it is not the size, but rather the ambiance and history that make it so loved, and Leitch has quite a lot to do with it.
Archibald Leitch died in April 1939, two days short of his 74th birthday, without a single obituary in any newspaper.
However, his legacy will be remembered in the memories, legends, and the carnage of the terraces of British soccer.
A list of the stadiums Leitch designed:
1899 - Rugby Park, Kilmarnock
1899 - Ibrox Park, Rangers
1900 - Bramall Lane, Sheffield United
1902 - Old Trafford, Manchester United
1903 - Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough
1904 - Craven Cottage, Fulham
1904 - Ewood Park, Blackburn
1905 - Stamford Bridge, Chelsea
1906 - Anfield, Liverpool
1906 - Ewood Park, Blackburn Rovers
1907 - Park Avenue, Bradford A.F.C
1908 - Goodison Park, Everton
1908 - Valley Parade, Bradford City
1909 - White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur
1910 - Leeds Road, Huddersfield Town
1910 - The Den, Millwall
1911 - Hyde Road, Manchester City
1913 - Highbury, Arsenal
1913 - Douglas Park, Hamilton Academical
1913 - Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday
1913 - Roker Park, Sunderland
1913 - Tynecastle Park, Heart of Midlothian
1914 - Villa Park, Aston Villa
1920 - Somerset Park, Ayr United
1920 - Home Park, Plymouth Argyle
1921 - Dens Park, Dundee
1921 - St James’ Park, Newcastle United
1921 - Deepdale, Preston North End
1923 - Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace
1924 - Molineux, Wolverhampton Wanderers
1925 - Starks Park, Stranraer
1925 - Fratton Park, Portsmouth
1925 - Dalymount Park, Bohemians
1926 - Baseball Ground, Derby County
1926 - The Dell, Southampton
1927 - Hampden Park
1928 - Upton Park, West Ham United
1929 - Celtic Park, Celtic
1930 - Windsor Park
1936 - Recreation Ground, Chesterfield