Victorian Woodcut engraving from 'The Illustrated London News' Hand coloured. (Photo by GSinclair Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Our “Nation’s Village Hall” turns 150

Anna Price tracks the emergence and endurance of Albertopolis, and how the Royal Albert Hall ties it all together

Artillery Row

On the 29 March, the Royal Albert Hall turned 150 years old. That’s 150 years of music festivals, concerts, movie premieres, fundraising events, sporting competitions and societal conventions. Traditionally home to the Royal Choral Society and the Proms, and more recently the ATP Champions Tennis Tour, the Festival of Remembrance and the BAFTAs, the Royal Albert Hall has been fondly dubbed “the nation’s village hall”. It is the nexus of culture, a space to celebrate music and art, sport and science and continues to uphold the societal and cultural values instigated by its eponym.

It is the nexus of culture, a space to celebrate music and art, sport and science and continues to uphold the societal and cultural values instigated by its eponym

As well as tying together these varied elements of British culture in its purpose, the Royal Albert Hall overlooks an area of London that physically manifests Prince Albert’s enthusiasm for technology, education, commerce, design and art. Comprising of the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music, the National History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and Imperial College, this area of South Kensington is dedicated to the display, advancement and celebration of Britain’s most impressive collections. Developed and built over 60 years in the latter part of the nineteenth century, this is Albertopolis.

The concept of displaying Britain’s technological and industrial advancements materialised in Prince Albert’s venture of the the Great Exhibition in 1851. Following its success, the profits gained allowed for the further expansion of Prince Albert’s cultural quest, as it provided the funds to buy and develop the land in South Kensington, leading to the construction of museums that could house more permanent exhibits from the items displayed at the Great Exhibition.

A plan from 1850 not only plots the location of the first Great Exhibition in Hyde Park (top right), but it also identifies the desired land in South Kensington. As the British Library notes, this plan tracks “the boundaries of the four properties comprising the commissioners’ estate […] outlined as follows: Gore House in blue, Villar in red, Harrington in yellow and the Smith’s Charity Estate in brown”. This area of London was not yet considered “central” and it was not overpopulated, as Judith Flanders in The Victorian City notes, by 1851, Kensington housed 16.2 people per acre, compared with The Strand’s 255.5 people per acre. South Kensington had the space to create buildings of impressive architectural design, worthy of accommodating collections and technologies that proved Britain’s prowess as a nation.

Plan of estates in the parishes of Kensington and St Margaret’s Westminster, in the county of Middlesex, purchesed by Her Majesty’s Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, Day and Son, © British Library Board, Maps Crace Port. 10.15, 15

The first building to be constructed at the site was the South Kensington Museum in 1857. Originally called the Museum of Ornamental Art and located at Marlborough House on the Mall, the collections were relocated to South Kensington and absorbed into the South Kensington Museum under the insistence of Prince Albert’s colleague, Sir Henry Cole.

In Grand Designs: Labour, Empire and the Museum in Victorian Culture, Lara Kriegal and Daniel J. Walkowitz explain how “despite its remote location, Cole promised that the new, state-sponsored South Kensington Museum would minster to “everyone in the kingdom” and especially to the working man”. This reveals a further philanthropical element in the aim to combine art and industry, as the desire for accessibility as an element of this cultural endeavour is identified. Furthermore, the Illustrated London News’s (ILN) report on the museum’s opening in June 1857 states:

“The opening of this new “Department of Science and Art” and the sittings of the Educational Conference, are events of kindred interest in the records of the past week. The latter meeting has exclusive reference to aiding the general education of the poor; while the object of the former is to aid in the diffusion, among all classes of the community, of those principles of Science and Art which are calculated to advance the industrial interests of the country.”

“The Educational Collections” at South Kensington Museum (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

This corroborates the intention to expand this cultural development to all of Victorian society and to educate “all classes”, accessibility undoubtedly aided by the development of the railway and the establishment of South Kensington Station in 1868.While perhaps the concept of access for all seems at odds with the modern conception of the distinct Victorian class structure, it does coincide with Prince Albert’s interest in social reform. Furthermore, the words “to advance the industrial interests of the country” suggest a wider motive that corresponds with the purpose of The Great Exhibition: to prove Great Britain as an advanced nation, securing impressions of national pride.

From the V&A to the Natural History and Science museums and Imperial College, accessibility and education in conjunction with celebrating culture and technology remain the central themes in South Kensington. The Royal Albert Hall echoes these ideals, as their vision “is to inspire artists and audiences worldwide, creating life-enriching, unforgettable experiences for everyone”. Across these institutions, there is a clear emphasis on promoting research, engaging a wide audience, and combining studies across science, technology, music and art – the same values with which Prince Albert set out in 1850, proving a sense of timelessness and endurance for generations to come.

It is also arguable that it is because of Prince Albert’s untimely death in 1861 that this area has remained a concrete hub of London’s culture scene

While the values on which Albertopolis was constructed indeed endure, and contribute to the area’s continuing success and appeal today, it is also arguable that it is because of Prince Albert’s untimely death in 1861 that this area has remained a concrete hub of London’s culture scene. Prince Albert lived only to see the Great Exhibition and the completion of the South Kensington Museum and the Science Museum in 1857. The International Exhibition occurred in the Royal Horticultural Gardens in South Kensington the following year, while The Royal Albert Hall was opened a decade later in 1871, named in his honour and while Queen Victoria was present, she was “too overcome with emotion” to speak. Following this, the Albert Memorial was opened in 1872, the Natural History Museum, replacing the Royal Horticultural Gardens, began construction in 1873, the South Kensington Museum was renamed the Victoria and Albert museum in 1899 and the Imperial College of London was founded in 1907 by King Edward VII.

In her grief, Queen Victoria oversaw the development of South Kensington in the forty-five years after Prince Albert’s death. In this outlet of memorialisation, Queen Victoria continued to emphatically realise Prince Albert’s vision, and in doing so not only commemorated his memory, but also his cultural values. Without Prince Albert’s death, and Queen Victoria’s intense public grieving, Albertopolis might not be what it is today.

Albertopolis boasts institutions that are at the forefront of their specialties, but it is the Royal Albert Hall that, over its 150 years, has integrated and incorporated each discipline in its calendar. It is a space that encompasses the multifaceted elements of our cultural society, that proudly overlooks Albertopolis and that ultimately pays tribute to Prince Albert’s vision.

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