Remembering the exhibition palace which soon became white elephant

The Albert Palace was a glass landmark which glittered above Battersea Park from 1885. It was envisaged as a successor to the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. But the attraction, in Prince of Wales Road – now Prince of Wales Drive, Battersea – was soon a white elephant. Within 10 years, it was gone. TOBY PORTER tells the story of one man’s quest to find out more.

When workmen began digging in Battersea Park across the street from his flat in Prince of Wales Drive, author Martin Hedges noticed discarded oyster shells, pottery and other Victorian rubbish.

Presented with his plastic bag of pottery, the chap in the local history library said: “I suppose that they could have come from the Albert Palace. That was around there somewhere.”

And that’s how Martin discovered that once upon a time, before that long line of red brick mansions, there was something magnificent in that corner of London.

Straddling a thin ribbon of derelict land along the south side of Battersea was a truly enormous building.

His bedroom window would have looked into a place of streaming sunlight, of military bands, smells of coffee, cooking and cigars, sounds of enjoyment. In short, a people’s palace, The Albert Palace.

Albert Palace Organ Graphic 1885 13 June

Martin, who had written biographies of John D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie and tales of crooked dealing entitled The Day They Hanged a Banker – had always been fascinated by Victoriana, so he started to find out more.

The building was a smaller scale version of the Crystal Palace, but it was big.

It was a galleried two-storey glass and iron construction more than 600ft-long. At one end was a concert hall which could seat nearly 4,000 people. The auditorium housed the largest pipe organ in Europe, and possibly the world.

It was opened in June 1885, but by September of that same year the founders had declared themselves bankrupt. However that wasn’t the end for the Albert Palace, nor was it actually the beginning.

Almost unbelievably, the Albert Palace in Battersea was second-hand. It had started life as the Dublin Exhibition Palace nearly two decades before, in Dublin.

It had housed two massive – although indifferently successful – trade shows modelled on the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851.

Dublin Interior photo

The debts were mopped up by the Guinness family, but that gave them control of the building. So, when Dublin’s city fathers had the temerity to suggest keeping the structure, against the wishes of the Guinness clan, the Guinnesses sold it out from under the Dubliners.

Then, as only the Victorians knew how, the building was carefully taken apart like Lego and transported by ship and horse-drawn wagon to a spot beside the Thames previously used as an outdoor laundry drying field and grazing for costermongers’ donkeys.

The bricks came from the old Law Courts at Westminster, demolished in 1883 after the opening of the new Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand.

The weather wasn’t kind to the Albert Palace. The week it opened in early June 1885 began with a heatwave, but by Saturday opening day it felt like November.

Straight away critics noticed that there was not a great deal to see and do in the magnificent building. A few paintings, a military band, a glass and china collection and a few taxidermy animals. The Palace staggered on through that summer, racking up losses.

Auction List

The owners thought themselves very clever by collapsing the company, hoping to have first claim on the assets. All they did was spend the next years in and out of courts trying to brush away the Treasury on one hand, which wanted the land back to rent again – and of course the creditors.

The shopkeeper Arthur Liberty, whose oriental department store in Regent Street was at the height of fashion, tried to bring a taste of India to Battersea.

He had his shopfitters build a replica Indian village inside the palace, and ‘imported’ 40 potters, goldsmiths, weavers and other craftspeople all the way from India, along with snake charmers and exotic dancers.

The snakes died and the Indians caught colds and took to wearing thick English coats to keep warm.

The show failed and Liberty abandoned those people to their fate, thousands of miles from home.

Author, Martin Hedges

It was next taken over by the ‘British Barnum’, a larger-than-life entrepreneur theatrical promoter who in later life would singlehandedly invent the British seaside holiday.

His name was Billy Holland. Billy had made a fortune running variety theatres across London with bold advertising slogans such as “Come and Spit on Billy’s Thousand Guinea Carpet” after a costly refurbishment at one theatre.

Even he failed. He lost many thousands of pounds before he went north to Blackpool, to cash in on the seaside holiday aspirations of miners and mill workers.

The building languished for more than a decade before it was eventually sold for scrap.

Among the items was a panorama of the battle of Tel el Kebir – the decisive battle of Britain’s 1882 conquest of Egypt – more than 100 yards long and 50ft-high and costing £1,300 when new.

It went for 30 shillings, or £1.50. All of the ironwork of that huge 4,000 seat concert hall sold for £58.

The site is now taken up by Albert Palace Mansions and Prince of Wales Mansions. Battersea Polytechnic, built in 1893, and York Mansions, built in 1897, replaced the gardens.

Parts of the palace’s organ eventually ended up in Fort Augustus Abbey in Scotland.

Mr Hedges discovered many more stories of the colourful characters who played a part in the rise and fall of the Albert Palace in The Albert Palace: They Demolished a Dream, published in 2021 by Acton Books, priced at £12.99, available via Amazon.

 

Main Picture: The Albert Exhibition Palace Battersea

 

 


 

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