The Olympia Exhibition Halls have recently been sold and new plans drawn up for their future use. It seems a good time to look at their past.
The National Agricultural Hall Company was set up in 1884. The following year the company bought the freehold of the Vineyard Nursery, established in 1745 by James Lee and Lewis Kennedy, and The Grand Agricultural Hall opened on 26 December 1886.
The owners, who included the Earl of Zetland as President and the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Lathom, as Chairman, originally planned for it to be used for “cattle, horse, poultry, dog and implement shows and other agricultural displays” but even then it was also intended for “national and international exhibitions, military tournaments, sports and theatricals.”
Later it was renamed Olympia and its purpose was to “provide healthy amusement and reinvigorate by brilliant demonstrations the national love of athletic exercises and contests of skill; to raise the tone of popular taste by entertainments and displays which shall be of the purest and highest character to educate the masses, aye, and even the ‘classes’ by exhibitions of art, science and industry.”
The Hall’s architect was Henry Edward Coe and its key features are a vast arching roof and a huge domed window supported by ironwork.
During the war, when property prices were cheap, the company took the opportunity to buy West Kensington Gardens which lay between Olympia and Hammersmith Road. The National Hall, on the corner, was completed in 1923 in a similar style to the main hall. The Empire Hall (along the main road) was built in 1929 and was designed by Joseph Emberton. It is a more modernist design, configured much like a department store, and indeed Emberton went on to design Simpson’s in Piccadilly.
The complex had by now become one of the largest exhibition centres in Europe.
The Olympia exhibition halls were listed as Grade II in February 2003.The listing includes all the halls and it notes that “Olympia has played an important role in the history of exhibitions and has been a venue for many important exhibitions and events, notable equestrian shows.”
The first exhibition to be held at Olympia, on 26 December 1886, was a gigantic show by the Paris Hippodrome Circus. Since then, there have been numerous exhibitions and a large collection of show programmes can be found in the library’s Archives and local studies.
There are also some old photographs of these famous shows –
The world’s first major Motor Show took place in 1905. This was perfect timing as the ‘Red Flag Act’ had been abolished days before the show opened. Automobiles could now proceed without a flagman walking ahead. At the time the fastest recorded speed was 10 mph. This photograph was probably taken in 1924.
1906 saw the first performance of the Royal Tournament.
The Ideal Home Exhibition was first held at Olympia in 1908.
The Bertram Mills Circus ran from the winter of 1919/20 to 1965. After the First World War when the Grand Hall had been requisitioned as a temporary prison camp for German nationals, then become an army clothing store, it was the traditional Christmas circus that reopened the Halls.
In the Second World War, Olympia again became a civilian internment camp, then De Gaulle’s assembly point for what became the free French Army, a clothing store and lastly a demobilisation centre.
The exhibitions attracted large attendances and were immensely popular. The Royal Family were regular visitors –
The King and Queen in the Royal Box in 1924
The Duchess of York and the two princesses arriving for the Horse Show in 1934
The Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Tournament in 1950
Churchill in 1958
The present owners, Yoo Capital and Deutsche Finance, announced in 2017 that Heatherwick Studio, in collaboration with SPPARC Architects, would be leading the architectural enhancement of Olympia London. The aim is to create “a world-leading arts, entertainment, exhibition and experiential district whilst staying true to its original heritage as an exhibition business”. In addition, the estate could include a new hotel, theatre and entertainment venues, as well as museums, co-working spaces and innovative new restaurants.
For a full account of Olympia’s history and some wonderful pictures of the exhibitions and artefacts, have a look at John Glanfield’s Earls Court & Olympia: Buffalo Bill to the Brits (2003) in the Archives at Hammersmith Library. It also includes photographs from Keith Whitehouse’s collection of Fulham artefacts.
Hammersmith & Fulham, Archives and Local Studies volunteer