Stamford Bridge is one of the oldest football grounds in the country and has been the home of Chelsea Football Club since our formation in 1905.
Stamford Bridge opened as a sporting arena on 28 April 1877. For the first 27 years of its existence it was used almost exclusively for the traditionally popular Victorian pursuit of athletics meetings by the London Athletic Club.
In 1904 the ownership of the modest ground changed hands when Mr Henry Ausgustus (Gus) Mears and his brother, Mr J T Mears, obtained the deeds, having previously acquired additional land (formerly a large market garden) with the aim of hosting a newer sport they had fallen in love with - football - which had swept the north of England and the Midlands and was growing in interest rapidly in the capital city.
The new arena they commissioned on the 12.5 acre site was designed by renowned Scottish football stadium architect Archibald Leitch (as were many others across the land) and included a characteristic feature of his work in the 120-yard long stand on the east side to hold 5000 spectators, complete with a pedimented centre gable on the roof,
The other sides formed a vast, open bowl with thousands of tons of material excavated from the building of the Piccadilly Line underground railway supporting the high terracing for standing spectators..
The capacity was originally planned to be 100,000 and was the second largest in country behind a decaying Crystal Palace stadium in south London - at the time the FA Cup final venue.
Initially the stadium was offered to nearby Fulham FC to play there. They turned down the chance and so instead a new side, Chelsea Football Club, was born in March 1905 and moved into the new Stamford Bridge stadium for the start of the season a few months later.
It was quickly a success with a 60,000 crowd in the first year, promotion to Football League Division One after two, and three FA Cup finals held there between 1920 and 1922.
Why is it called Stamford Bridge?
The name Stamford Bridge is one with great significance in English history, having been the site in Yorkshire of a succesful battle against the Vikings in 1066, immediately prior to defeat by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings.
However the naming of Chelsea Football Club's stadium is all about local landmarks rather than conquest from abroad.
On 18th-Century maps showing the Fulham Road and King's Road area there is a stream called 'Stanford Creek' which runs along the route of the present-day railway line behind the East Stand. It flowed down into the Thames.
Where the stream crosses the Fulham Road it is marked 'Little Chelsea Bridge' which was originally called Sanford Bridge (from sand ford), while a bridge over the stream on the King's Road was called Stanbridge (from stone bridge). It seems that these two bridge names and that of the stream, 'Stanford Creek', together evolved into the name Stanford Bridge, which again later changed into Stamford Bridge, to become the adopted name of the stadium close by.
A bridge taking the Fulham Road over a railway line remains in place today, close to the main Stamford Gate entrance to the stadium site.
After its creation, the stadium remained largely unchanged in appearance until the 1930s when the southern terrace gained a partial covering – a curious structure which would later lead to the nickname the ‘Shed End’.
Ironically, for a name that would become famous in football, the asymmetrical roofing was erected for another sport. Covering roughly a fifth of the terrace area, and designed by the original Stamford Bridge architect Archibald Leitch, it was commissioned by the Greyhound Racing Association who for many decades held dog races on the track that enclosed the pitch. They wanted cover for the bookmakers and their betting customers.
Some 30 years after the structure’s appearance, a letter published in the Chelsea matchday programme from supporter Cliff Webb called for the Fulham Road End of the ground to be known as ‘The Shed’, and for more fans to join a vocal gathering there in order to rival the home end support at other grounds. His requests bore fruit and the stand at the south end which opened to replace the old terrace in 1997 still bears the Shed name today.
In 1939, the north end of Stamford Bridge gained an addition too, and it was also unusually architecturally. There was a pressing need for more covered seating in addition to the original East Stand, so a new construction was commissioned and started in 1939, Archibald Leitch again involved in the design process.
Adjacent to the East Stand, its building was disrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War but when it was opened in 1945, supporters now had the option of sitting in a tier that was raised on stilts over the north-east corner of the existing standing terrace.
Some who used it even reported it shook when trains passed by on the track close behind, but it survived for 30 years until pulled down with the opening of a huge, new East Stand. The now-completely-open-again north terrace remained in use until 1993 when the move to an all-seater Stamford Bridge began in earnest.
In the space of a decade and almost bookending one of Chelsea’s most successful periods, Stamford Bridge acquired new stands along both sides of the pitch.
During the course of 1965, agreement to build, planning and construction of a West Stand took place, ultimately a fairly modest affair seating just over 6,000 fans on what was a reshaping of the old, vast terracing on that side of the stadium. There was a roof, although one supported by pillars in an age when other grounds were building cantilevered stands without, and an area of terracing remained along the front which later also sat supporters on what became known as ‘The Benches’.
At the rear were six rudimentary hospitality boxes, making the Bridge the second ground in the land after Old Trafford to offer such facilities. With floodlights having arrived in 1957, big, glamorous European nights were among the order of the day.
With the West Stand and the team of the day a success, and the original East Stand over 60 years old and moribund, the thoughts of the then Chelsea directors turned ambitiously towards a complete redevelopment of Stamford Bridge into a stunning, 60,000 all-covered, all-seater arena beginning with the east side. That is as far as it got.
The new project was ill-timed as well as burdened by poor decisions, including appointing architects with no experience in stadium design. The impact of attendances dipping was not considered either. Britain's economy hit relegation form in the early 1970s, with a building strike among many delays to the construction, and the new stand was delivered late and over-budget. Combined with a decline in results on the pitch, that brought the club to its knees, leading to the sale of star players, relegation and a close encounter with bankruptcy.
When it opened in 1974, the East Stand’s striking design was not to everyone’s taste and it loomed large over the rest of the stadium, but it brought fans closer to the pitch than ever before, covering the old dog track, and sightlines from the middle and ultra-steep upper tier are superb. In time, recovery on and off the pitch arrived and the stand melded well into the rebuilt stadium where it remains as the oldest part today.
With Chelsea Football Club virtually bankrupt and stuck in Division Two in the early 1980s, it was bought by businessman Ken Bates, ending the long Mears dynasty. However as part of the ownership change, the stadium became owned by a separate company and former club directors sold shares in that to property developers.
Chelsea had an initial right to continue playing at the Bridge but now faced a fight to remain long-term, with the spectre of housing or a supermarket there instead and the team sharing with the likes of Fulham or QPR horrifying fans.
A bitter, expensive and close-run 10-year battle ensued, which put any further ground development on hold and gave birth to a ‘Save the Bridge’ campaign to raise money for legal costs.
A collapse in the property market came to our aid and with an ironic twist it was the developers who were forced into bankruptcy, and in 1992 Chelsea Football Club got our ground back.
It was a close shave at times but Stamford Bridge had survived and in 1993, the process of turning a dilapidated ground with views far from the pitch into one of the most impressive stadiums in the country began, with Bates also introducing the Chelsea Pitch Owners scheme to protect the club from any such threat in the future.
The rebuilding of Stamford Bridge into the current stadium advanced with the redevelopment of the North Stand area. All-seater stadiums were now the requirement across the upper divisions of English football and the old semi-circular terrace that came to house away fans only was demolished
A new, two-tier stand to house home supporters was opened at that end in November 1994 and was renamed two years later as the Matthew Harding Stand, in memory of the Chelsea vice-chairman killed in a helicopter accident whose financial loan helped greatly with its building. A wraparound to join to the west side was later added and the stand remains home for many of the most vocal Chelsea fans.
Next in the redevelopment queue was the Shed End. The old home terrace last saw action on the final day of the 1993/94 league season, to be replaced with temporary seating for a couple of years before work began on a seated Shed End stand. At the same time an adjoining four-star hotel, flats and an underground car park were constructed.
The final piece of the new Stamford Bridge story had one more hurdle to overcome. The lower tier of the new West stand was built on schedule but then problems with the local council over planning permission meant a two-year delay before the rest of the stand could be built.
Finally that last battle was won and work began on completing the biggest part of the stadium, the huge 13,500 seater with many boxes, function halls and suites for all-year use. In was ready for the start of 2001/02 campaign and marked, at last, the completion of an all-seater Stamford Bridge which had begun way back in 1973 with the start of the East Stand.
The current capacity stands at just over 41,000 and the ground has gone from being a huge oval shape to one with all four sides close to the pitch. There is almost no part of the current stadium that hasn't markedly changed in recent years with only the huge old Shed wall remaining from the original stadium. It be can be seen outside of the current ground, opposite the Megastore and box office.
As well as all the work on the stadium itself, much of the remaining 12.5 acre site has seen building work, with two four-star hotels, restaurants, conference and banqueting facilities, an underground car park, a health club, a music venue and business centre all added.
Stamford Bridge has come a long, long way since the original athletics venue was first opened in 1877, as can be seen in the video below, which is one of many features telling the Chelsea FC story in the club's extensive and exciting Museum.