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.

• A new exhibition of the works of renowned music photographer Harry Hammond opens at the V&A this Saturday. Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock features more than 60 portraits, behind the scenes and performance shots showing stars including Roy Orbison, Ella Fitzgerald, Cliff Richard and Shirley Bassey. Hammond’s pictures, which are all drawn from the V&A collection, chronicle the jazz and big band musicians of the 1950s like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, visits from American rock ‘n roll stars such as Little Richard and Gene Vincent and early British rock groups – such as the Animals and the Beatles (pictured with Dougie Millings) – of the 1960s. There will also be behind the scenes shots of some of the early days of music television in the 1950s and the exhibition will be accompanied by a soundtrack by the artists depicted. Born in the East End, Hammond was a society portrait photographer before serving as a reconnaissance photographer with the RAF in World War II. It was on his return to London after the war that he started photographing people working in the music business, later becoming one of the primary photographers for the New Musical Express (NME) magazine. Runs until 3rd March next year. Admission is free. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk. PICTURE: V&A Images.

• Still on a musical theme and 1930s cabaret star Leslie Hutchinson (1900 – 1969) has been honored with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former home in Chalk Farm. The singer and pianist, better known to many as simply ‘Hutch’, lived at 31 Steele’s Road between 1929 and 1967. The Grenada-born performer lived in New York and Paris before coming to London where he became one of the most popular cabaret performers of the 1930s – one of his signatures was apparently to arrive at nightclubs dressed like an aristocrat with a white piano strapped to his chauffeur-driven car (this was despite the racial prejudice he faced which saw him being asked to enter by the servant’s quarters when performing at some of Mayfair’s grandest homes). Hutch lived at the Steele’s Road property for almost all the years he lived in London, only leaving two years before his death in 1969. The plaque was unveiled by his daughter, Gabrielle Markes, who only discovered her parentage in middle age and who subsequently proposed that the plaque be placed on the house. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

On Now: On the Road: Jack Kerouac’s Manuscript Scroll. This new exhibition at the British Library centres on Kerouac’s 120-foot-long manuscript scroll of On the Road and explores the development of the novel which, written over a period of three weeks in April 1951 using rolls of taped together architect’s paper, came to define the Beat Generation. The exhibition, which relaunches the Library’s Folio Society Gallery, will show the first 50 feet of the scroll in a specially-designed case. Other exhibits include first editions of other Beat classics such as The Naked Lunch and sound recordings featuring the likes of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Runs until 27th December. Admission is free. For more, see www.bl.uk.