Olympia (London)

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Exterior of Olympia as seen from Kensington Olympia station
The interior of Olympia, hosting a trade fair
Imre Kiralfy's Venice the bride of the sea, performance poster

Olympia is an exhibition centre, event space and conference centre in West Kensington, London, England.

Opened in 1886 as the National Agricultural Hall, it was built by Andrew Handyside and Company of Derby[1] and covered an area of 4 acres (16,000 m2). The Grand Hall, 450 feet (140 m) in length, by 250 feet (76 m) in breadth, was said to be the largest building in the United Kingdom covered by one span of iron and glass.

It now features four event venues and a conference centre. The event venues are Olympia Grand (19,325m²), Olympia National (8,730m²), Olympia Central (formerly Two) (7,850m²) and Olympia West (7,688m²). Together with Earls Court, these facilities are operated by Earls Court & Olympia Ltd.

The nearest railway station is Kensington (Olympia) which is both a London Overground station and on the District line of the London Underground.

Beginnings[edit]

Olympia’s story began in May 1884. John Whitley had created the National Agricultural Hall Company with the aim of building and operating the country's largest covered show centre. The National Agricultural Hall soon changed its name to Olympia in keeping with its ideals and objectives.

Construction[edit]

Having secured the site, the National Agricultural Hall Company commissioned Henry Edward Coe to design the building. He had already designed the Agricultural Hall in Islington twenty five years before and took its barrel-roof form as the basis for the new building. With fixed seating for 9000 people and at nearly an acre in size, the arena was far larger than any other roofed arena in England.

The roof had to be high – 115 ft at the apex – to enable its great weight to be carried down as near vertically as possible. The loads of the 1200 ton iron frame plus 85 tons of glass and 75 tons of zinc are most elegantly carried by ten cast iron columns along either side with a ball and socket bearing at the top and bottom of each to absorb stress. The structure is incredibly strong, with the hurricane of 1987 achieving no more than the destruction of a loose ventilation hatch.

The roof of the hall was erected in twelve weeks in midwinter in 1885. Its non-putty patent glazing ensuring free expansion and contraction of 2500 sheets of quarter inch plate glass. The glass was only replaced in 1991 with a sealed heat treated solar reflective system.

There is a legend that surrounds the ‘Prince’s Apartments’ which is a suite tacked on to the north side of the hall on two floors. This suite appears on the original plans under this name. The story goes that the suite was used by Edward, Prince of Wales (and future King Edward VII) for his amorous liaisons before he became King in 1901 – he had a notorious eye for the ladies. The block was rebuilt in 1937 as management offices and meeting rooms but is still known as the ‘Prince’s Suite’.

The other building of note was the stunning Minor Hall, long since renamed as the Pillar Hall. This is a sumptuous oak-panelled banqueting room with marble columns and a richly moulded and decorated ceiling. It is one of London’s least known public rooms.

Early shows[edit]

Olympia opened its doors on 26 December 1886. The management of the venue were sure that the Royal Tournament would move from the Agricultural Hall (now the Business Design Centre). However, this did not happen which put Olympia in financial difficulty. They were dealt a lucky break when the Paris winter venue of the Hippodrome Circus was closed for repair, and a London fixture was just what they were looking for.

The Paris Hippodrome – 1886/7[edit]

Despite the success of the Hippodrome event, the National Agricultural Hall Company was still in some financial difficulty.

The Hippodrome event had been followed in 1887 by a Sportsman’s Exhibition, an Exhibition of Sporting Dogs by Mr Charles Cruft, a national gymnastic meeting and a horse show. The Irish Exhibition in 1888 was the first of Olympia’s set piece recreations featuring aspects of Irish life, work and industry.

The company managed to pay off its debts but events were still thin on the ground. However, shows in 1888 included, the First Great Horse Show and a Kennel Club dog show, both of which still frequent EC&O venues today.

In 1889-90, the circus returned to Olympia with Phineas T.Barnum’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. The showman bought his show over from New York and headed straight to Olympia.

After the circus left town, an American roller skating promoter was brought in to fill the gap. £6000 was invested in decking over the entire ground floor with the hope that this huge rink would revive the craze for ‘rinking’.

The International Motor Exhibition was also held annually at Olympia from 1905 to 1936. The "Olympia Aero Exhibition" organised by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders was held for the first time in 1909.[2]

On July 16, 1914 the highly ballyhooed international heavyweight boxing contest between France's Georges Carpentier and America's Gunboat Smith was staged at the Olympia and sold in the neighbourhood of $90,000 in tickets, one of the largest gates for a sporting event at that time.

World War I[edit]

During World War I, Olympia was requisitioned as a temporary civil prison camp for German nationals and other potential hostile aliens. From 1915 onwards, the hall spent the rest of the war as an army clothing store.

After the Zeppelin airships began to raid London, the ensuing panic caused property value to fall. Sir Gilbert Greenhall took advantage of this and bought up West Kensington Gardens which lay between Olympia and Hammersmith Road, gaining rental income from the properties and the opportunity to expand.

Olympia was de-requisitioned in 1919 with its first letting going to Charles Cochran’s heavyweight fight promotion between Joe Beckett and Frank Goddard on 17 June.

The newly renamed Royal Naval, Military and Air Force Tournament returned in June, its cumbersome name being changed to the Royal Tournament the following year.

The Ideal Home Exhibition returned in 1920. It reflected the theme of the 1919 Housing Act which promised ‘homes fit for heroes’ for returning soldiers. Domestic hygiene and labour saving features were key requirements and were reflected in displays throughout the show.

By the late 1920s, Olympia had built a firm base of annual ‘regulars’ in its exhibitions calendar. Aside from those mentioned, additions embraced machine tools, shipping engineering and marine, furniture trades and printing, advertising and marketing, cookery and food, holidays and travel, fashions and hairdressing exhibitions.

Joe Lyons, the official caterer for Olympia, regularly produced luncheons and dinners for thousands but the "Feast of the 8,000" in 1925 remained in the folk memory at Olympia for decades as the peak of organisational perfection. The occasion was a Masonic war memorial fund-raising dinner. The diners came from all over the world, paying 17 guineas a head. They sat at three miles of tables served by 1,360 waitresses, supported by 700 cooks and porters with 86,000 glasses and plates in use – breakages totalled 3,500.

The National Wireless & Radio Exhibition transferred to Olympia from the Albert Hall in 1926. Attendance that year leapt from 54,500 visitors to 116,570 in its new home. It continued until 1939 when the war stopped play. The immensely popular show renamed ‘Radiolympia’ in 1936 returned to the hall after the war until 1950.

The National Hall[edit]

After World War I, the Motor Show’s pressing need for more space was met by the decision to demolish the four most easterly houses in West Kensington Gardens together with the remaining Vineyard Nursery buildings fronting Addison Road, to make way for another Hall.

James Carmichael of Wandsworth was contracted on 23 April 1922 to build ‘New Hall’ for £494,000. It is a smaller and lower version of the main hall but it increased Olympia’s exhibition space by over 9,000 sq. metres to 28,000 sq. metres in all.

The completed hall was first let for a tobacco exhibition in May 1923. ‘The Worlds Greatest Dance Hall’ became a regular event at the New Hall with regular attendances approaching 4,000 at a time.

After a clear run of 17 years Olympia changed hands again in 1929. Olympia (1912) Ltd was bought for £1 million by Philip Ernest Hill, chairman of Covent Garden Properties Ltd. He formed Olympia Ltd, taking possession on 25 March.

Olympia Central[edit]

To increase space, Hill built the four-storey Empire Hall (from 1987 known as Olympia Two, and now Olympia Central) in line with the New Hall. The hall, in the Art Deco style, was built mainly to accommodate the British Industries Fair which moved from White City in 1929. Olympia’s space now totalled nearly 50,000 sq. metres. In 1930 – when the BIF opened – the New Hall was renamed the National and the original main building became the Grand, as it is known as today.

Hill would construct one more major facility at Olympia – London’s first multi-storey car park. It stands on the Maclise Road frontage and opened in 1937, originally providing parking space for a thousand cars.

World War II[edit]

Before the Second World War began, on 7 June 1934 the Blackshirt rally of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists filled the Grand Hall.

Olympia was requisitioned by the War Office on 10 January 1940 as civilian internment camp No. 14. During the Dunkirk evacuation in May/June that year the hall was General Charles de Gaulle’s assembly point for what became the Free French Army. The Royal Army Service Corps then took it over as a transport depot until October 1944 when Olympia became a clothing store, and finally a demobilisation centre, in which role it served until 23 March 1946.

After it was demobbed on 30 June, the place was in very poor condition and had suffered light bomb damage on six occasions. Addison Road Station alongside was badly knocked about in raids in October 1940, closing the line. The station was renamed Kensington Olympia after rebuilding in 1946.

Post-war trading[edit]

Olympia reported 1953/4 to be its best financial year since the war, with pre-tax profits of £220,000.

The first Food fair opened at Olympia in 1950 and ran biennially in even years until 1968. The Hotel, Restaurant and Catering Exhibition which launched in 1948 was another successful biennially event which ran into the 1980s.

The 1953 Motor Show opened early on Police instruction when a queue ten deep doubled back down to Philbeach Gardens. This shows how popular the shows at Olympia were during this time.

Olympia also hosted the first computer exhibition in 1958. The historic British Electronic Computer Exhibition opened on 28 November in the National Hall. Since then, Olympia has become a favoured platform for the industry’s exhibitions.

Olympia had stiff competition from the nearby Earls Court Exhibition Centre.

The birth of EC&O[edit]

In the early 1970s, property tycoon Jeffrey Sterling’s Sterling Guarantee Trust (SGT) had made a bid for Earls Court. His objectives were made clearer a week later when he bought a huge stake in Olympia. The Earls Court bid was accepted on 23 March. SGT then successfully bid £11.4 million for Olympia in March 1973. Sterling had plans to redevelop Earls Court into a more modern mixed use exhibition hall and eventually planned to redevelop Olympia for other purposes. Large events such as the Motor Show and the Tournament were expected to move to Birmingham’s NEC while others could occupy Olympia pending completion of the new Earls Court.

This plan was ready to go when the oil crisis broke. The economy crashed and property values went down with it; Jeffrey Sterling’s scheme was expensively stalled.

Jeffrey (now Lord) Sterling managed to keep the two halls open through the Black winter of 1973/4. He could have ridden out the crashed property market by closing the heavily loss making Earls Court, but it was a live national asset and such action was unthinkable. A property upturn was probably several years distant. Sterling could only move forward by making a go of the halls as show centres. He merged them into Earls Court and Olympia Ltd (EC&O), removed the rigidities that accumulate over time in a sellers’ market, and began to rebuild the business. And so EC&O Venues was born.

The Festival of Mind and Body at Olympia was launched in 1976 and ran on into the 1980s (the Mind Body & Soul exhibition still runs today) The National Cat Show was the largest show of its kind for years with attendances reaching the capacity of the National Hall. The British Designer Shows were in vogue for over ten years from 1976.

Olympia handled the 1978/9 ‘Winter of Discontent’ well by juggling large shows and fitting in smaller ones and generally keeping its head above water.

The National Federation of the WI took over the Grand Hall to present a vast exhibition demonstrating the broadening of interests of members as well as health and leisure opportunities and, they promised ‘half a mile of jam’.

The Arabian Desert came to Olympia in 1986 – tons of it! Saudi Arabia shipped sand over to cover part of the Grand Hall for a Bedouin encampment complete with date palms, camels, goats and sheik’s tent filled with rugs, silver and dark furniture.

A cycle of grand opera began at Earls Court in 1988 with Aida. Harvey Goldsmith’s courageous and visionary gamble caused The Times to reflect that it made the Royal Albert Hall look like a studio theatre. The audience loved it and Goldsmith returned the following year with a production of Carmen and the Aida again in 1998.

Thanks to the oil crisis and to Jeffrey Sterling’s determined reaction, London’s landmark halls have been more than turned around since 1972. A transformation united the old rivals, brought the halls to continental standards of service and performance, increased letting space to 100,000 sq. metres and achieved annual occupancy levels at record highs. Above all, the shows in their infinite variety from so many contributors continue to please and profit the millions of people that visit them each year.

Extracts from the book: [3]

Olympia London[edit]

In 2012, Olympia celebrated 125 years of events by commissioning British artists Peter Blake, Rob Ryan, Sanna Annukka and Paul Hicks to create their interpretations of the venues.

In January 2013, Olympia was renamed Olympia London; and the business was awarded the Best Marketing Campaign at the Exhibition News Awards 2014.

Notable Events[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Cooper, B., (1983) Transformation of a Valley: The Derbyshire Derwent, Heinemann, republished 1991 Cromford: Scarthin Books
  2. ^ "An industry is born today" Flight 20 March 1909.
  3. ^ Earls Court and Olympia - Buffalo Bill to the 'Brits' by John Glanfield, © Earls Court & Olympia Group Ltd, 2003
  4. ^ About SMMT[dead link]
  5. ^ Stefan Dierkes. "British International Motor Show: Locations and Dates". Pietro-frua.de. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Port Glaud
Miss World Venue
1999
Succeeded by
Millennium Dome

Coordinates: 51°29′47″N 0°12′35″W / 51.49639°N 0.20972°W / 51.49639; -0.20972