From Nina Simone to One Direction, the Royal Albert Hall has withstood the test of time and persisted as one of London’s most exciting performance venues. Designated a Grade I Historical Building, there’s no surprise that it’s brimming with interesting facts and history. Here’s a few to take with you on your visit.
While it may seem hard to believe now, the Royal Albert Hall opened to a programme of just 36 shows in one year. Sure, it was 1871 and things may have been a little slower then, but the growth of its events calendar has been absolutely phenomenal. On average, it hosts roughly 400 events a year – a big jump up from its opening year.
As one of London’s oldest and most iconic performance spaces (besides the Globe of course), the Royal Albert Hall has been a massive fixture in the world of British entertainment. In 2021, it will be its 150th birthday and they’re celebrating in style with a massive project called The Great Excavation. The basic gist of it is that they’re going to be doing a big renovation, though they’re going in the opposite direction from the rest of London and digging down to create a gargantuan basement.
The gigantic glass dome that covers Royal Albert Hall is no small feat and spans over 20,000 square feet. Designed by the team who had previously worked on the iron and glass roof St Pancras station, the project was an ambitious one and would make Royal Albert Hall owner of the largest unsupported glass dome in the world. They first built a test dome out in Ardwick before constructing it in London.
Since the Royal Albert Hall had such an eye-catching roof, enemy pilots used to look out for it to reorient themselves while bombing the capital. During the war, the roof was painted black and it was struck by bombs a few times – while some of its glass shattered and terracotta blocks were destroyed, it remained standing.
If you look up at the top of the Royal Albert Hall, a large white mosaic of scientists and artists lines the hall roof. It’s a gorgeous piece of work that spans 800 feet long and is a marvel in itself, however its architect Major-General Scott RE originally intended for it to be a sculptural mosaic (like the ones you’d see in Rome or Greece). However since money was tight, he had to settle for a flat tiled version.
You’ll have to squint to see this one – at the top of the Hall’s mosaic is a narrow white band covered in text. It reads: ‘This Hall was erected for the advancement of the Arts & 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 twentieth day of May MDCCCLXVII and it was opened by her Majesty the twenty ninth 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.’
The grand staircase at the back of Royal Albert Hall originally had a very straightforward name – the South Steps. However as they were subjected to brutal London weather and the wear and tear of thousands of feet, they were in dire need of an upgrade and finally got one in 2004. In 2013, they were later renamed the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Steps and a ceremony was held which she attended.
The striking Henry Willis organ that dominates the theatre was crafted by (you guessed it) Henry Willis, who rushed its construction in just 14 months in time for the Royal Albert Hall’s opening ceremony in 1871. Between 2002-2004, a 1,500,000 pound restoration project was started to restore it to its former glory as ‘the voice of Jupiter’ well as add some pipes, making it 150 tonnes and 9,999 pipes wide.
Due to the unusual domed ceiling, the Royal Albert Hall actually has terrible acoustics. However back in the 1960s, a team was brought in to solve the problem and they decided to hang 135 fibreglass acoustic diffusers and its notorious echo was solved. (They’ve since cut the number down to 85.) They look like upside down flat top mushrooms, hence their funny nickname.
Back in 1867, a big ceremony was held to celebrate the construction of the Royal Albert Hall. Queen Victoria attended and she was given the honour of laying the Hall’s foundation stone. Befittingly, she used a golden trowel to do the job. If you’re sitting in Stalls K, row 11, seat 87, you’ll still be able to catch a glimpse of the inscribed slab.