The Hall is a Grade 1 Listed building; and has been in continuous use since it was opened in March 1871. It was always conceived as a multipurpose building to host not only concerts of music but exhibitions, public meetings, scientific conversations and award ceremonies. It is a registered charity held in trust for the nation but is financially self sufficient: it receives no funding from central or local government.
The list of famous performers and world figures who have appeared at the Royal Albert Hall since it opened in 1871 is unrivalled. Wagner, Verdi and Elgar conducted the first UK performance of their own works on its concert platform, Rachmaninov played his own compositions and nearly every major classical solo artist and leading orchestra has performed at the Hall.
The list of popular music artists includes Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Oscar Peterson, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Sting and Elton John and from a younger generation Jay Z, Kaiser Chiefs and the Killers.
Among leading world figures who have spoken at the Hall are Her Majesty The Queen, Sir Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, His Holiness The Dalai Lama and former President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton.
The Hall has an extensive archive of programmes, posters and other memorabilia but is always interested to hear from people who may be able to fill gaps in its records. Please let us know if you have something that you believe may be of interest by contacting the Hall's archive department on firstname.lastname@example.org.
A great Central Hall, dedicated to the promotion of Art and Science, was a key part of
Prince Albert's vision for the South Kensington estate, which was to be developed on
land purchased with the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851. From the outset the Hall
was intended to be a versatile building used not only concerts but for exhibitions of art
and of manufactured goods, and for scientific conferences and demonstrations. Its
purpose was to enable the population at large to engage with the work of the
surrounding museums and educational institutions.
Plans for the Hall fell into abeyance with Albert's premature death and the construction
of what was to called the Royal Albert Hall in his memory was due to the determination
of Henry Cole, one of Albert's collaborators in the Great Exhibition and who was later to
serve as the first director of the South Kensington museum (now the Victoria and Albert
Museum). The design and robust structure of the Hall were inspired by Coles' visits to
the ruined Roman Amphitheatres in the South of France and to his determination that
the building should be placed in the hands of Royal Engineers as he distrusted
architects. Detailed design of the building was started by Captain Francis Fowke and
completed, following Fowke's death, by another engineer Lieutenant Colonel
(subsequently General) Henry Darracott Scott.
The original intention that the Hall should accommodate 30,000 was, for financial and
practical reasons, reduced to approximately 7,000. Modern Today's fire regulations have
reduced that figure to around 5,500. Much of the money originally intended for the
construction was diverted to the building of the Albert Memorial and work on the Great
Hall was further delayed while Cole raised the necessary money by selling "permanent"
seats in the Hall for £100 each. The Hall was designed to connect at its South End a
large glass conservatory, 265 feet long and 75 feet high, which overlooked the gardens
of the Royal Horticultural Society which stretched down to the Cromwell Road. The
conservatory itself was flanked by two-storey brick and stone arcades, one of which
connected to the underground tunnel from the newly opened metropolitan railway station
at South Kensington. These arcades and the conservatory contained restaurants and
other public spaces and provided the principal access (except for the wealthy who
arrived by carriage) to the Hall itself.
Preliminary work on the Hall by the contractors Lucas Brothers started in April 1867 and
the foundation stone was laid the following month by Queen Victoria.
The heart of the Hall is the vast internal auditorium 185 feet wide by 219 feet long
covered by a glazed dome constructed of wrought iron girders which, at the time of its
construction, was credited as the largest structure of its kind in the world. Other notable
features included the great Henry Willis Organ also, at the time; the largest in the world
although, between 1921 - 1933 it was substantially modified and enlarged by the
Durham-based organ firm of Harrisons. The distinctive exterior of the Hall, inspired by
the architecture of Northern Italy, was built from some 6 million red bricks and eighty
thousand blocks of decorative terracotta. Surmounting the exterior walls and above the
ballustraded smoking gallery, runs a continuous 800 foot long terracotta frieze
composed of allegorical groups of figures engaged in a range of artistic endeavours,
crafts, scientific and other cultural pursuits. Above the frieze runs the following text:
"This Hall was erected for the advancement of the Arts and Sciences and works
of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort. The
site was purchased with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of the year
MDCCCLI. The first stone of the Hall was laid by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on
the 20th day of May MDCCCLXVII and was opened by Her Majesty the 29th day
of March in the year MDCCCLXXI. Thine O Lord is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the victory and the majesty for all that is in the heaven and in
the earth is Thine. The wise and their works are in the hand of God. Glory be to
God on high and on earth peace."
When Queen Victoria opened the Hall she was so overcome by emotion that the Prince
of Wales had to speak in her place and her only recorded comment on the Hall was that
it reminded her of the British constitution. Shortage of time and money meant that, at the
opening, there was little of the interior decorative detail that we see today and rush
matting covered the floors.
A significant echo was immediately apparent, occasioned by the vast enclosed space
and the reflection of sound from interior glass roof above. Early attempts to cure the
troublesome acoustic included the suspension of a canvas velarium, or awning, below
the inner dome, which had the added advantage of protecting the occupants from the
sun. In 1949 the velarium was removed and the glass of the inner dome replaced by the
present aluminium surfaces containing absorbent material. Of equal importance to finally
eliminating the echo was the suspension from the roof of the acoustic saucers designed
by Ken Shearer of the Acoustical Investigation and Research Organisation Ltd in
1968/69 which provided a much earlier reflection of sound and so reduced the
reverberation time. Further improvements of the acoustics and the positioning of these
saucers were undertaken as a result of detailed study during the period 1998-2003 and
as part of major lottery-funded refurbishment and development of the Hall.
There have been many other modifications to the building since its opening including the
replacement of the hazardous gas lighting by electricity in 1888 and significantly, the
demolition in 1899 of the Grand Conservatory immediately to the South of the Hall when
the Royal Horticultural Society, to whom it belonged, moved to Wisley. As a result space
had to be found within the Hall for the public foyer space, lavatories, restaurants,
tearooms and cloakrooms that had been previously been housed in the conservatory
and the adjoining arcades. Accommodating the requirements of over 5,000 audience
within a building never designed for this purpose created a major challenge.
This challenge, and need to meet the growing demands of 21st century shows and
performers, prompted by far the most significant programme of interventions which was
carried out between 1996 and 2004 at a cost of £69.1 million. The key to this
Development Programme, which affected virtually every part of the building, was the
excavation of a three and a half storey basement below the steps and gardens that lie to
the South of the Hall (and which were purchased by the Hall in April 1993). This
excavation now houses a major loading bay whereby scenery, sound and lighting
equipment for a succession of performers can be loaded in from trucks underground and
out of sight and brought up into the auditorium on lifts. The excavation also provided
space for performers' dressing rooms previously housed under the Stalls seating. This
liberated two arena foyers for use by audiences. Additional bars and lavatories were
created and restaurant provision expanded. New function rooms were created at Grand
Tier level and administrative offices and other non-public space concentrated behind the
stage and organ.
With the agreement of Westminster City Council, the road which
previously encircled the Hall was stopped up, enabling the construction in traditional
materials of an entirely new South Porch providing a day-time entrance to the building
where, 130 years before the conservatory has once stood. Fresh air ventilation was
introduced to the auditorium, partially recreating a system designed by the Victorians
that had fallen into disuse and rendered inoperative by fire regulations and other
changes. The Hall's famous pipe organ was completely rebuilt and refurbished, new
decorative schemes and lighting introduced in public areas and a number of investments
made to support the staging and broadcast of the shows themselves.
As a Grade One Listed building every structural change had to be approved by English
Heritage. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is that this extensive programme of work was
carried out whilst the Hall remained operational. It closed for just two periods of four
weeks each so that seating could be replaced at Circle level and subsequently in the
Stalls. Audience capacity was increased by the addition of an extra row in the Stalls.
The development of buildings such as the Royal Albert Hall is a continuing process. In
2008 one of two restaurants at Circle level was completely remodelled and in 2009 the
space above the West Porch that originally housed the West Theatre, the home for
many years of the Central School of Speech and Drama where, among others, Sir
Laurence Olivier, Peggy Aschcoft and Dame Judi Dench trained as actors, will be
converted to provide multi-use space for small-scale performance. As well as music
recitals, lectures and poetry readings and opportunities for up and coming artists who
could not yet aspire to the play the main auditorium, this space will also be used by
children and adults participating in the Hall's important Learning and Participation
programme. Other plans currently being developed include significant investments to
further improve ventilation of the auditorium, to improve the energy efficiency of the
building, to upgrade bars and to extend catering and hospitality facilities both for the
public and for the performers backstage.