Thursday, 26 January 2017

86 The Albert Hall

The Albert Hall

After the American Civil War, a group of African-American singers from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, toured Britain and Europe in 1873 to raise money for university education for freed slaves.  Unlike performers using theatrical make-up to enable a white person to resemble a black person (as in The Black and White Minstrel Show), the Fisk Jubilee Singers were authentic, popularising such negro spirituals as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and singing before Queen Victoria.   Relevant to us is that when the eleven Fisk Jubilee Singers toured Britain again in 1874, they sang before an audience of 1,500 in Swansea. 

That venue still stands, on the corner of Craddock Street and De La Beche Street, and is remembered as The Albert Hall.  It was opened in 1864 as The Music Hall, with tickets ranging from half a guinea to a shilling to attract a wide range of patrons.  When Music Hall and Variety Shows were at their height, performers like Harry Lauder and Marie Lloyd did not need a wide repertoire, having no mass exposure from radio and television.  Swansea’s Music Hall was extended in 1881 to accommodate over two thousand people, and later re-named the Albert Hall in memory of Queen Victoria’s husband the Prince Consort, who had died of typhoid aged 42. 

The hall became a venue for concerts, public meetings and bazaars in aid of worthy causes.  Among those appearing on stage was Charles Dickens, during the popular tours when he gave readings from his books, and Oscar Wilde in 1884.  That year Dame Adelina Patti gave a morning concert to raise money for Swansea Hospital.  She travelled by train from Craig-y-Nos to Midland Station at St Thomas, with crowds lining the route of her carriage through the town.  She also gave a one-night charity concert in 1899, the year the Liberal Party Rally was held there.  David Lloyd George addressed a number of political gatherings, though many were shocked at the rough treatment meted out to protesters of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.  A Pageant of Famous Women was held at the Albert Hall in 1910.

When Swansea was hoping to become the second University of Wales College after Aberystwyth, a fund-raising meeting was held at the Albert Hall in 1882.  However Cardiff became the second college, and Bangor the third, until a meeting in November 1916 with the Haldane Commission at the Albert Hall led to the foundation stone for the fourth college being laid at Singleton.

Before the Swansea Gospel Mission opened in Pleasant Street, Oscar Snelling, a minister without Anglican or nonconformist affiliations, held Christian meetings at the Albert Hall.  Two thousand people were present at his 1889 New Year’s Eve meeting, and H.A. Chapman broke with tradition by holding his mayoral inauguration service there.  Gladys Aylward attended some meetings prior to her missionary work in China.

In 1929 sound equipment was installed as the hall was fitted out for “Talkie Pictures”, with a projection box hung under the front of the circle.  After the Brangwyn Hall opened in 1934 as a prestigious concert venue, the Albert Hall became a regular cinema, with the foyer remodelled in Art Deco style, the original exterior arches removed, and a new canopy added.  Following purchase by the Rank Organisation in 1977, like many other cinemas the Albert Hall changed to bingo, first with Top Rank and then with Mecca.  It eventually closed in April 2007, its demise hastened by the ban on smoking in public places.

It was reported that the building was sold at auction in August 2015 for £100,000 to a London-based person, and there are plans to convert the upper floors into student accommodation, with retail outlets below.  To see this grade II listed building in its present forlorn condition, one could scarcely imagine that so many notable persons once graced the stage of Swansea’s Albert Hall.      

 

 


 

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