Opening the Royal Albert Hall on 29 March 1871, Queen Victoria declared “I cannot but express my great admiration for this beautiful building, and my earnest wishes for its complete success.” The Culture Secretary recently hailed it as one of the “crown jewels” of the nation’s arts sector, but the hall—and plans to celebrate its 150th anniversary this month—has not been immune from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
The history of the Royal Albert Hall stretches back to the first world trade fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition brought together 15,000 contributors displaying some 100,000 objects from Britain, the Empire and beyond in a purpose-built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. By the end of its five-month run, the exhibition had attracted over six million visitors and unexpectedly turned a profit of £186,000 (around £26.5 million in today’s money).
A Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 had been appointed in 1850, with Prince Albert as its president, to plan and promote the exhibition. After the exhibition closed, the royal commission was established as a permanent body to manage the profits and realise Prince Albert’s ambition to “increase the means of industrial education and extend the influence of science and art upon productive industry”. It still exists today, funding around 35 postgraduate fellowships a year in science, engineering, the built environment, and design.
Using money from the exhibition and funds voted by Parliament, between 1851 and 1858 the commissioners bought an 87-acre site in South Kensington, which came to be dubbed ‘Albertopolis’. The site became a cultural quarter, eventually home not only to the Royal Albert Hall, but also the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Imperial College, the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music.
The historian Marcus Binney has noted that the Royal Albert Hall represented two distinct aspirations that emerged during the development of the Albertopolis site: one for a large concert hall and another for a conference centre to be used by learned societies. Prince Albert’s own ideas for the site had included a musical hall and a ‘centre of union’ or meeting hall. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, a committee headed by Lord Derby suggested that a hall might be built as part of the Prince’s memorial. Although a design was chosen in 1863, Lord Derby’s committee decided there was not enough money to build it.
Henry Cole, Superintendent of the Science and Art Department, a government department, was a driving force behind pushing the project forward nevertheless. He managed to secure agreement with the commissioners that they would contribute a quarter of the building costs and lease the land at a nominal rent (one shilling per annum for 999 years) if he could raise the rest of the money—up to a maximum total building cost of £200,000—through public subscriptions. In April 1867, a royal charter established the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences. The subscribers who had invested in the project were granted 999-year leases of individual seats in the hall.
Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in May 1867, announcing: “It is my wish that this Hall should bear his name to whom it will have owed its existence and be called the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences”. The building project was completed by 1871 within budget, “to the unbounded astonishment of all who have ever employed architects or paid builders”, commented the Times journalist who reported on the opening ceremony.
In its first year, the hall hosted 36 events. Over the decades, usage has grown. By 2017, the Royal Albert Hall was putting on almost 400 events in the main auditorium each year and hosting hundreds more in other spaces around the venue.
The need for more room prompted plans for a two-storey, 1000m2 basement extension on the south-west quadrant of the building, designed to provide better backstage facilities and space for visitor groups and archive displays. The project was started in 2017, with a view to completion in 2021 in time for the hall’s 150th anniversary. The large hole dug to accommodate the new basement space has been nicknamed the ‘Great Excavation’, in a nod to the building’s historic links to the Great Exhibition.
Impact of Covid-19
The future of the Royal Albert Hall has been threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic. Coronavirus restrictions meant the hall closed its doors in March 2020 for the first time since the second world war. It reopened in December for a socially distanced Christmas programme, but had to close once more after only three performances. This has had a major financial impact: closure meant the hall lost 96% of its income overnight, adding up to around £30m in lost income by December. The hall exhausted its reserves and had to delay all scheduled works, including projects underway, except those that were crucial compliance work on the Grade 1 listed building. Craig Hassall, the hall’s chief executive officer, said this left one of the nation’s crown jewels “in an extremely perilous position”.
The Royal Albert Hall is an independent charity and does not receive Arts Council funding. It was not eligible for grants under a government rescue package for the cultural sector. Instead, it has taken out loans under government schemes—£5m in November 2020 and £20.7m in December 2020. “This is not how we would have hoped to celebrate our 150th birthday”, said Craig Hassall. But the hall will “rebuild stronger and even better than ever”, he added.
The festivities were due to launch with a birthday concert on 29 March 2021, 150 years to the day since Queen Victoria opened the venue. The event has now been postponed until July, another symptom of the ongoing effects of the pandemic.
Cover image by Ana Gic from Pixabay.