The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences is an arts venue dedicated to Queen Victoria's husband and consort, Prince Albert. It is situated in South Kensington in central London - within the area also known as Albertopolis. It forms the practical part of a national memorial to the Prince Consort - the decorative part is the Albert Memorial directly to the north in Kensington Gardens, now separated from the Hall by the heavy traffic along Kensington Gore.
Since its opening on March 29, 1871 the Royal Albert Hall has played host to a multitude of different events and legendary figures and has been affectionately titled 'The Nation's Village Hall'. As well as hosting the Proms every summer since they were bombed out of the Queen's Hall in 1941, the Hall has been used for classical and rock concerts, conferences, ballroom dancing, poetry, keep-fit displays, education, ballet, opera and even a circus (Cirque du Soleil). It has hosted many sporting events, including boxing, wrestling (including the first Sumo wrestling tournament ever to be held outside Japan) and tennis. It also hosts the annual Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance , held the day before Remembrance Sunday.
The hall is oval in shape, measuring 272 feet by 238 feet around the outside, and has a capacity of 8,000 people and has accommodated as many as 9,000 (although modern safety restrictions mean that the maximum permitted capacity is now 7,000). The great glass and iron dome roofing the hall is 135 feet high. Around the outside of the hall is a great terra cotta frieze, depicting "The Triumph of Arts and Sciences", in reference to the hall's dedication.
In 1851 a Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park, London, for which the so-called Crystal Palace was built. The exhibition was a great success and led Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, to propose that a permanent series of facilities be built in the area for the enlightenment of the public. Progress on the scheme was slow and in 1861 Prince Albert died, without having seen his ideas come to fruition. However, a memorial was proposed for Hyde Park, with a Great Hall opposite. The proposal was approved and the site was purchased with some of the profits from the Exhibition. Once the remaining funds had been raised, in April 1867 Queen Victoria signed the Royal Charter under which the Hall was to operate and on 20 May, laid the foundation stone.
Designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Colonel H.Y. Darracott Scott of the Royal Engineers, heavily influenced by ancient amphitheatres, the Hall was constructed mainly of brick, with terra cotta block decoration. This terracotta was made by the famous Gibbs And Canning Limited of Tamworth. The dome (designed by Rowland Mason Ordish) on top was made of steel and glazed. There was a trial assembly made of the steel framework of the dome in Manchester, then it was taken apart again and transported down to London via horse and cart. When the time came for the supporting structure to be removed from the dome after re-assembly in situ, only volunteers remained on site in case the structure dropped. It did drop - but only by five-eighths of an inch! The Hall was scheduled to be completed by Christmas Day 1870 and the Queen visited a few days beforehand to inspect. She was reported as saying "It looks like the British Constitution".
The official opening ceremony of the Royal Albert Hall was on 29 March 1871. After a welcoming speech by Edward, the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria was too emotional to speak, so the Prince had to announce that "The Queen declares this Hall is now open". A concert followed, when the Hall's acoustic problems became apparent. These were not properly tackled until 1969 when a series of large fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs (commonly referred to as "mushrooms" or "flying saucers") were installed in the roof to cut down the notorious echo. It used to be said that the hall was the only place where a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice.
Initially lit by gas (when thousands of gas jets were lit by a special system within 10 seconds), full electric lighting was installed in 1897. During an earlier trial when a partial installation was made, one disgruntled patron wrote to The Times newspaper declaring it to be " a very ghastly and unpleasant innovation".
The Hall has more recently undergone a rolling programme (1996 - 2004) of renovation and development to enable it to meet the demands of the next century of events and performances.