A Victorian Day out in Kensington

In February, the Master arranged a ‘Victorian Day Out in Kensington’, which included a grand tour of The Royal Albert Hall and of Kensington Palace, with lunch in the Orangery of the Palace.

The tour of The Albert Hall was superb. The Guide told us about the building’s history since it was built in March 1871 on a lease of 999 years! The Hall hosts concerts, exhibitions, sports, award ceremonies and entertainments such as ball room dancing and brass band competitions. It also has a boxing licence and has held matches for well-known boxers such as Muhammad Ali and the Kray brothers.

The Royal Albert Hall was built for Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert. He envisaged a ‘Central Hall’ to promote understanding and appreciation of the Arts and Sciences to stand at the heart of the South Kensington 86 acre estate, surrounded by museums and places of learning. To help raise money for the build, seats went on sale and people could buy two seats in the stalls for £100 each or a box. This meant you could go to any show for the length of the 999 year lease, and the purchase would pass down generations. Some of these seats were bought back, but many remain privately owned because they became too expensive to buy. It’s estimated that a box could go for up to £1m at auction – a nice investment if you have it!

When you enter the Royal Albert Hall one of the first things you see is an impressive montage of all the people that have performed in the Hall over the years. During our tour we had the privilege of standing in the Queen’s box and looking down at the dress rehearsals of Madam Butterfly. No photos were allowed and we all had to be extremely quiet as the slightest noise could have interfered with the sound, but it was great to watch.

We also went into the Queen’s private suite and Royal retiring room, which are opposite the Queen’s box. Both are amazing rooms, with a unique full colour ceiling and portraits of the Royal family. If you work for the Queen, at whatever level, one of the perks is that you can use the Queen’s box!

The Dome of The Royal Albert Hall has an amazing history in itself. It was built in Manchester and brought to London on horse and cart, all 600 tonnes of iron. With the glazing, the roof weighs 800 tonnes. One of the main challenges of the building was reducing the significant echoing in such a large space – a big problem for music performances! The joke at the time was that if you went to see a Show at the Hall, you would hear it twice! During the Second World War, the glass was broken and it was replaced with steel and glass fibre, thinking this would help with the echoing – but it didn’t. Eventually large circular discs were hung from the ceiling in 1969 and solved the problem.

Following our tour of the Royal Albert Hall, we walked to The Orangery at Kensington Palace for lunch, before embarking on our next tour of the Palace itself. On our way to the Orangery, we passed the building which is filmed as the exterior of Mr Selfridge’s House in the popular Sunday drama. The building is the Royal College of Organists, on the east side of the Royal Albert Hall. It was build between 1874 and 1875 to accommodate the National Training Schoold for Music.

Directly opposite the Royal Albert Hall is Albert’s memorial. It’s one of London’s most orante monuments, unveiled in 1872. It commemorates the death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 42.