One hundred and fifty years old this year, the Royal Albert Hall is a world-famous venue for concerts and indeed all types of events, and is also one of Britain’s most distinctive buildings. With a design based on a Roman amphitheatre, the concert hall is 41 metres high and has a glass and wrought-iron dome made up of almost 350,000 kilos of iron and 280,000 kilos of glazing.

Debt to Albert

The Royal Albert Hall owes its name to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, and was actually part of a much larger project, which was Albert’s own brainchild. In the 1850s, the state bought an enormous estate in South Kensington with the intention of creating a cultural quarter. Albert wanted to extend the influence of science and art on industry. The area, quickly nicknamed ‘Albertopolis’, would eventually also be home to 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. Sadly, Albert died in 1861, aged just forty-two, but the hall was named after him. The still-grieving Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone on 20 May 1867 with a golden trowel.

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Musical Events

The hall has played host to an incredible number of events and activities. Music was very important in the early years. In the days before microphones, 1,000-strong choirs produced a wall of sound. Richard Wagner was just one composer who appeared on stage – he would conduct and then rest in a large armchair… on the stage. In 1891, the world’s first science fiction convention took place, with a fortune-telling dog, followed ten years later by the world’s first bodybuilding contest (one judge was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’ creator!).

Different Sports

In 1909, the hall held Britain’s first indoor marathon, accompanied by a military band and an Italian tenor. The hall has actually seen numerous sports, including tennis, boxing and table tennis. In 1991, it saw the first sumo-wrestling tournament held outside Japan – extra-large showers were installed, and chairs and toilets were reinforced.

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‘The Proms’

In recent decades, the hall has become synonymous with ‘The Proms’, a popular annual eight-week summer season of daily classical music concerts. The tone has become very nationalistic in recent years. Rock and pop have also had their part to play. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin loved the hall, calling it “the Holy Grail” for musicians. Since 1964, Eric Clapton has played there over two hundred times, comparing it to “playing in my front room”. Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath, meanwhile, played there a couple of times in 1971 and 1972 – “But I can’t remember a bloody thing from that decade.” Now there’s a surprise!

an impressive organ

The equally impressive interior is dominated by the Henry Willis Organ, the largest instrument in the world when the hall opened. With a wind system powered by two steam engines, the 150,000-kilo organ is 21 metres high and 20 metres wide, and its 9,999 pipes measure 14.5 kilometres in length. The magnificent interior, however, also had terrible acoustics, as the shocked public discovered during the opening ceremony. There was an echo! A joke was born: “The Hall was the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice”. The problem took almost a hundred years to solve!