Alexandra Palace, often referred to as ‘Ally Pally’, celebrates 150 years since it first opened in 1873. The Palace was designed to be ‘The People’s Palace’ and is well-known for its long history as a venue for events and performances, from Gracie Fields to Pink Floyd, as well as its role in the early days of the BBC.
This blog by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archive Officer, takes a closer look at the history of this iconic building.
Alexandra Palace was named after Princess Alexandra of Denmark wife to the future King Edward VII. Built on Muswell Hill, the Palace was North London’s answer to the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. Alexandra Palace was built in a similar style to the Crystal Palace and largely used recycled materials from the 1862 Kensington International Exhibition. It was built with an accompanying railway station designed to go right outside the Palace. Below is the original railway plans from 1866, where the railway line ends at Alexandra Palace.
The Palace officially opened on 24 May 1873 in celebration of Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday. However, the celebrations were short-lived, only 16 days after the opening the Palace was destroyed by a fire. But it was soon rebuilt and made a triumphant return when it re-opened on 1 May 1875.
Despite the Palace’s popularity, it was not all plain sailing. Financial difficulties and shifting owners led to the Palace being sold for development. A local campaign led by Henry Burt was launched to buy the Palace for the people and with enough funds, they secured the Park and Palace by Act of Parliament establishing a trust. According to the 1900 Alexandra Park and Palace (Public Purposes) Act, the Palace was “available for the free use and recreation of the public forever”, a true palace for the people.
This beautiful plan of Muswell Hill and the full estate of Alexandra Park and Palace is from 1900.
Alexandra Palace was at the centre of pioneering television and broadcasting, converting dining rooms to TV studios and the theatre into a prop workshop. In November 1936, the BBC launched their television service from the Palace. The studios created television formats that are still used today including the first cooking shows, gardening shows and election-night broadcasts. In 1946, the studios at the palace made the first dedicated children’s programme featuring its star Muffin the Mule. After 1956, the studios primarily broadcast the news and on the night of the debut of BBC Two, due to power cuts, the only programme able to broadcast was the news from Alexandra Palace. The studios produced BBC news and other programmes for the Open University in the Palace until 1981.
During the First World War, the Palace was requisitioned by the British War Office. At first as a refugee camp for fleeing Belgians but was soon converted into an internment camp after the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act was passed. The Act declared Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians in the UK as ‘enemy aliens’, approximately 3,000 were interned at Alexandra Palace. This usage is even mentioned in a letter from the Lloyd George Papers, refusing to remove the interned Germans unless Alexandra Park and Palace were needed for another purpose.
The Palace had a different role in the Second World War. In 1941, the BBC transmitter which had stopped broadcasting television at the beginning of the War, was repurposed to jam the radio signals and navigational systems of German aircrafts.
One of the most well-known uses of Alexandra Palace is as a venue for stars to perform. In the 1920s and 1930s the Theatre was a home to regular performances by actress and singer Gracie Fields. One of the biggest stars in cinema at the time and most famous for her song ‘Sally’ from 1931 film ‘Sally in the Alley’. She also supposedly coined the phrase ‘Ally Pally’. The palace has featured many rock legends including The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and Queen. In 1967 they hosted the ‘14 Hour Technicolour Dream’ charity concert headlined by Pink Floyd and featured a variety of performances from artists, poets, and musicians.
On 10 July 1980 the Alexandra Palace was almost destroyed by another fire. Thankfully, some of the building survived and work began to rebuild the Palace after the fire … again. Here is a building plan from 1982 of Alexandra Palace with some potential plans, purposes, and leasing for parts of the building. The Palace was eventually rebuilt and officially re-opened on 17 March 1988.
Despite the trials and tribulations both old and new Alexandra Palace has endured. It still puts on music, performances, and events, continuing the purpose and legacy of the 1900 Act, it is truly the ‘People’s Palace’ forever.