The Royal Albert Hall has hosted cultural luminaries from Einstein to Hendrix. This is its story.

As the iconic London venue turns 150, a look back at some of its more memorable headliners – and the design quirks that make it both unique, and controversial.

Published 28 Mar 2021, 20:50 BST, Updated 29 Mar 2021, 09:33 BST
Rock band alt-J perform at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2019. The iconic venue celebrates ...

Rock band alt-J perform at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2019. The iconic venue celebrates 150 years of hosting performances from rock groups to political rallies. 

Photograph by Christie Goodwin

The Beatles and Bjorn Borg, Emmeline Pankhurst and Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and Muhammad Ali, Sir Winston Churchill and the Rolling Stones – to skim through the cast of characters and acts to have appeared on the stage of London's Royal Albert Hall is to gaze at the cultural and political history of the past 150 years. Britain’s biggest concert hall is also its busiest, hosting more events annually than there are days in the year, and attracting some of the world’s most diverse A-List stars.

The iconic building was the brainchild of Prince Albert, beloved husband of Queen Victoria, who wanted to create a Central Hall for the arts and sciences. This was on the coat-tails of the success of the Great Exhibition, held in Hyde Park in 1851, which he had inspired and helped to organise. In his eyes, the Hall would not simply host concerts, but also be a meeting point for London’s learned societies, a venue where ideas might be discussed and cross-fertilised.

The proposed design of the Royal Albert Hall, as envisioned in the 1860s.

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone: 20 May 1867. The hall was the brainchild of her husband Prince Albert, who died of typhoid in 1861. 

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

The foundations of the Royal Albert Hall take their circular shape in South Kensington in the 1860s.

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

Albert died of typhoid in 1861, long before the first stone was laid, but his idea was pursued by his friend and colleague, Sir Henry Cole, whose other claim to fame was sending the first Christmas card in 1843. Cole oversaw a national fund to finance a memorial for Albert; the original competition was to design both a memorial and a hall, but the funds raised by public subscription were sufficient only to construct the ornate Albert Memorial.

Cole persevered, however, devising a novel scheme to raise the required £200,000 to build the Hall – it would pre-sell seats on a 999-year lease. “There were to be just over 5,000 seats in the hall and just over 1,300 of them would be sold privately in order to raise the money needed,” says Liz Harper, archive manager at the Royal Albert Hall.

Scaffolding supports the interior of the hall during construction in the 1860s.

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

An 1870s illustration of the Royal Albert Hall auditorium and audience. The building was designed to capitalise on natural acoustics – though this would backfire in later years.

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

The modern Royal Albert Hall is in South Kensington, adjacent to the Royal Geographical Society.

Photograph by David Levene / Royal Albert Hall

Queen Victoria was the first person to purchase seats, buying 20 in the Grand Tier, now owned by Queen Elizabeth II as the Royal Box. Many other seats have also remained within families, with 1,268 seats still in private ownership, giving their owners free access to about two-thirds of the events that take place in the Hall in return for an annual maintenance fee of £1,452 per seat. Buying into such grandstand views currently costs £2,750,000 for a 12-seater box, or £300,000 for a pair of seats in the stalls.

A circular concept

It wasn’t just the funding mechanism for the Hall that was new; so was its Italianate architecture. The building’s arched doorway and windows, and huge glass dome, represented a vibrant reaction to the Victorian era’s more formal style.

“Reaction was a bit mixed,” says Harper. “Some people thought it was magnificent and a fine tribute to Prince Albert. Others didn’t think it was quite beautiful enough, mostly because it used terracotta blocks outside, a style that was being championed in the South Kensington area. You can see it on the Victoria & Albert museum built by the same people, the Royal Engineers.”

In 1933, Albert Einstein spoke at the Royal Albert Hall about his fears for growing war in Europe. Four days later he left for Princeton University in the U.S. and would never return to Europe. 

Photograph by Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy

Sporting events have long been a centrepiece of the venue. This programme was for promotor Mike Barrett's International Professional Boxing Tournament featuring Muhammad Ali. Two months earlier Ali had staged a comeback and won the so-called 'Rumble in the Jungle' bout against George Foreman in Zaire, regaining the heavyweight championship.

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

Winston Churchill at 'To You, America, A Thanksgiving Day Celebration in aid of King George's Fund For Sailors’, 23 November 1944.

The Hall was designed by the fabulously named Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Young Darracott Scott, of the Royal Engineers, who created a functional building with an extravagant auditorium at its heart. It was capped by a giant dome, consisting of a 338-ton iron metal frame holding 279 tons of glass. When the nerve-jangling moment came for the engineers to knock away the props that had held up the dome during its construction, the structure dropped just 0.8mm before settling into place.

The dome may have been a triumph of engineering, but it was a disaster for acoustics, with sound echoing off its concave shape. Months prior to its opening, a dress rehearsal concert had found the level of resonance within the empty building be an issue, although a rather sycophantic review in The Times declared that “a certain amount of the resonance is, upon the whole, desirable, since it it always much diminished by drapery and by an audience.”

“It can host everything from Sumo wrestling to a séance, a wedding, body building and sci-fi conventions.”

By the time Queen Victoria officially opened the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences on 29 March 1871 (she had changed its name from the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences when she laid the foundation stone in 1867), a tent-like canopy of calico, called a ‘velarium’, had been suspended across the dome to combat reverberations. Sadly, it also denied visitors a view of the spectacular glass roof.

The velarium proved ineffective in stopping echoes in certain areas of the auditorium, including the seats from where the London press reported on the opening. Their scathing reviews prompted Lieutenant-Colonel Scott to write to The Times, conceding that: “I believed the velarium would stop or disperse more of the sound than it does, and when I discovered my error it was too late to commence its rectification.”

American guitarist Jimi Hendrix was embraced by the British music scene in the late 1960s, and played some of his first UK gigs in 1967 at the Royal Albert Hall – and some of his last, in 1969. 

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

Ella Fitzgerald played the Royal Albert Hall in 1990, supported by the Count Basie Orchestra, in aid of the Price's Trust and the Deaf Association. 

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

The Dalai Lama gave a talk on Universal Responsibility in the Modern World in aid of Tibet Relief Fund in 2008.

Photograph by Chris Christodoulou

His promise that the echo would be fixed by 1 May 1871 proved overly optimistic, leading to the popular joke, says Harper, that the Royal Albert Hall was one of the best value places to hear a concert, “because you could hear it twice!”

Experiments in sound

Attempts to minimise the reverberations continued for a century. In 1941, when the BBC Proms moved to the Hall from the bombed Queen’s Hall, a sound reflector was hung over the orchestra – it’s still there today. In 1949, a perforated aluminium inner dome, designed to absorb sound, replaced the velarium. It was an improvement but far from perfect. Echo-multiplied squeals of Beatlemania fans must have been infernal, and towards the end of the 1960s the Acoustical Investigation Research Organisation surveyed the hall using a starting pistol, bassoon and reflector microphone, before recommending the installation of the the Hall’s famous fibreglass mushrooms. Officially called acoustic diffusers, a total of 135 were suspended from the roof in 1968, noticeably enhancing the acoustics (in a tactic later copied by the Sydney Opera House). Fast forward to the turn of the millennium, and further acoustic testing by the Dutch firm Peutz Associates saw 50 mushrooms removed and the remaining 85 reconfigured as part of major revamp of the Hall.

The endless quest for flawless sound continued, and in 2017 the acoustic architects Sandy Brown, responsible for the sound at Liverpool Football Club’s Anfield stadium, were engaged to upgrade the Hall’s acoustic system. This led to the installation of 465 loudspeakers, creating one of the most flawless set of acoustics of any concert hall. In 2019 the Royal Albert Hall won ‘Venue of the Year’ at the AV Awards.

Not that its variable acoustics have ever held back the popularity of the venue, although it struggled initially to find its commercial feet, especially given its relatively awkward location in South Kensington, which was the outer fringe of 19th century London.

“A lot of the most popular events were huge choral works, like Handel’s Messiah, with choirs of a thousand people,” says Harper. “In the inter-war period, shows like Hiawatha saved the Hall. It would run for two weeks every year and was the biggest musical of the day, with a cast of over a thousand including ballet dancers and the Royal Choral Society. It would have a real camp fire, a real waterfall and a fake snow storm. People from all around the suburbs of London would come; kids would dress up in homemade costumes.”

“The Hall would book anything”

Always eclectic in its bookings – “The Hall would book anything, so long as you paid up and didn’t damage it,” says Harper – the venue became the centre of Suffragette fundraising, before the campaigners for women’s voting rights were banned in October 1912 after a famously incendiary address by Emmeline Pankhurst.

“Those of you who can express your militancy by going to the House of Commons and refusing to leave without satisfaction, as we did in the early days – do so,” she said. “Those of you who can express militancy by facing party mobs at Cabinet Ministers' meetings, when you remind them of their falseness to principle – do so. Those of you who can break windows – break them. And my last word is to the Government: I incite this meeting to rebellion.”

Violence of a more orderly nature debuted at the Hall in 1918, when it began to host boxing. Frank Bruno, the notorious Kray twins and Muhammad Ali are among boxers to have swung a punch in the Hall’s temporary ring.

The physicist Albert Einstein was more peaceful in his approach, making his first ever speech in English at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1933 to raise funds for the Refugee Assistance Committee, which gave financial support to students, academics and scientists barred by the Nazis.

If we want to resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom we must keep clearly before us what is at stake, and what we owe to that freedom which our ancestors have won for us after hard struggles,” said Einstein, to cheers and applause. “Without such freedom, there would have been no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur and no Lister. There would be no comfortable houses for the mass of people, no railway, no wireless, no protection against epidemics, no cheap books, no culture and no enjoyment of art at all…  Most people would lead a dull life of slavery…  It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.”

Scottish electro-pop band Chvrches made an acclaimed performance in 2016.

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

Amongst prestigious headliners and speakers, the Royal Albert Hall has been the setting for quirkier acts – such as the hybrid sport of 'chessboxing' in 2012. 

Photograph by Christie Goodwin

Royal Albert Hall

Photograph by Royal Albert Hall

Despite its awry acoustics, it’s perhaps as a music venue that the Hall has made world headlines; home to the annual BBC Proms since 1941, Sir Winston Churchill’s 80th Birthday Concert in 1954, and The Beatles and Rolling Stones on the same bill no fewer than four times in the 1960s. In 1966 the Stones faced a stage invasion, described as a riot, while topping a bill that opened with Ike & Tina Turner and included the Yardbirds with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

Legendary guitarist Eric Clapton has played at the Hall more than 200 times, including Cream’s farewell gig in 1968 and triumphant reunion residency in 2005 – the latter graced by a standing ovation that wouldn’t stop. Clapton describes performing at the Hall as, like being in someone’s living room – it’s such an intimate place to play…  you can see your friends in the second row of the stalls.”

Celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Hall are currently on ice, due to coronavirus restrictions, although a queue of pop, rock, classical, ballet, comedy and ballroom dancing performances is primed for when the venue can welcome back guests.

The nation's Village Hall

“I love it when I come in in the morning and look in the auditorium and see how it has been transformed,” says Harper. “One day it will be an ice rink and the next a catwalk for British Fashion Awards with the most lavish, beautiful decorations, then a tennis court, and then set up for Swan Lake. It can host everything from Sumo wrestling to a séance, a wedding, body building and sci fi conventions. It’s amazing how transformational it is. It’s like the nation’s Village Hall.” 

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