10 of London’s greatest Victorian projects – 1. Royal Albert Hall…

January 16, 2013

The London Underground’s first railway journey took place on 9th January, 1863, and to celebrate we’re taking a look at 10 great Victorian-era projects in London. First up is Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington.

Royal-Albert-HallOpened on 29th March, 1871 (and in continuous use ever since), Royal Albert Hall was built in fulfilment of Prince Albert’s dream of creating a hall that would stand in the heart of the South Kensington estate and provide a focal point for the promotion of the arts and sciences.

It was on the back of the success of the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851, that Prince Albert, Prince Consort to Queen Victoria, proposed the creation of a permanent arts and sciences precinct in South Kensington and advised the purchase of land for that purpose (the hall is located on land once occupied by Gore House). But it wasn’t until after his death in 1861 that his vision was actually realised.

Construction of the hall – which was to serve as the centrepoint of the cultural precinct which became known, somewhat derisively, as Albertopolis – started in April 1867 (initially to be known as The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, the hall apparently had its named changed to the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences by Queen Victoria while she was laying the foundation stone on 20th May that year – around 7,000 people attended the event). It was designed by engineers Captain Francis Fowke and, after his death, Lieutenant Colonel Harry Darracott Scott, based on concepts put forward by the man described as the “driving force” behind the project, Henry Cole (later the first director of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum). He had been inspired by the Roman amphitheatres he had seen while touring in southern France.

While initial proposals had suggested the hall would accommodate as many as 30,000 people, this was later scaled back to about 7,000 (and today the figure is apparently about 5,500 thanks to fire regulations).

The central auditorium, measuring 185 feet by 219 feet, is covered by a glazed dome constructed of wrought iron girders and was the largest structure of its kind in the world at the time of its building. The hall’s exterior was built from about six million red bricks and features an 800 foot long terracotta frieze showing figures engaged in a range of cultural pursuits. Much of the interior decorative detail was added later.

So overcome was Queen Victoria at the building’s opening in 1871 that Edward, the Prince of Wales, had to speak in her place, declaring it open on her behalf before a crowd which included then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Her only reported comment on the hall was that it reminded her of the British constitution.

The Grade One listed hall – which thankfully only suffered minor damage during World War II bombing raids (the German pilots apparently used its bulk as a navigation aid) – has since undergone substantial modifications including works undertaken to improve the hall’s acoustics, the replacement of gas lighting (electricity was first demonstrated in the hall in 1873) and demolition in 1889 of an adjoining glass conservatory to its south. A massive programme of improvements was carried out between 1996 and 2004 at the cost of more than £69 million.

The list of those who have performed or spoken at the hall reads something like a who’s who – among them are classical composers Wagner, Verdi, Elgar and Rachmaninov, singers and musicians including Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Who, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Adele, and Jay Z as well as sports personalities including boxer Mohammed Ali and tennis player John McEnroe, explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton, world figures such as Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Winston Churchill, former South African president Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and former US president Bill Clinton and other high profile personalities such as Albert Einstein, Alan Ginsberg and Paul Robeson.

Among the other events held in the hall have been a marathon race, Greco-Roman wrestling and two Welsh National Eisteddfod’s (in 1887 and 1909). One of the most popular series of events now held there each year are the BBC Promenade Concerts, known as The Proms they include more than 70 events, which have been held in the hall since World War II.

A Victorian masterpiece. For more on the hall, see www.royalalberthall.com.

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