The Russian Ball in London, held at the Royal Albert Hall on 2 December 2013 to celebrate 400 years of the Romanov dynasty, follows in a long tradition of utilising the Hall’s immense scale and yet intimate atmosphere to create some of the most lavish and visually spectacular events London has ever seen. Whatever the purpose of such events – commemorative, charitable or festive – the costumes, entertainments, and transformation of the Hall have been astounding. Here we tell you stories of just a few of the most unforgettable events.
The first ball ever held at the Hall was The Savage Club Entertainment & Costume Ball on 11 July 1883, held by The Savage Club, a London gentleman’s club founded in 1857, and was attended by HRH the Prince and Princess of Wales. A ticket bought you a Champagne supper and a midnight performance of the Buffalo Dance by club members dressed in Native American costumes.
The press reported that, “The Albert Hall – for capacity, grandeur of line, and beauty of proportion – is unrivalled in the world for the purposes of a fancy ball… The costumes were probably the most varied ever seen together, and many were remarkably artistic, accurate, and splendid.”
Illustration of Guests in fancy dress at the Savage Club Ball, 1883
Probably the most spectacular event ever held the Hall was the 1911 Shakespeare Memorial Ball, held to raise money for a national Shakespeare Memorial. Costumed guests, including over 70 members of royalty, Prime Minister Asquith and Home Secretary Winston Churchill, arrived at the Hall following a state banquet at Buckingham Palace.
Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the decorative scheme, which included trees, vines, green curtains, stone columns, vases of flowers, a starry blue canopy and a grass lawn transforming the auditorium into an English paradise. Tableaux scenes from Shakespeare’s plays were staged by guests.
The press wrote, “The Shakespeare Ball will live in history. Those who were fortunate enough to see it have something to recollect all their lives. For a few all-too-brief hours the magnificence of Tudor England was revived. Never has the effect of a fancy dress ball, taken as a whole, been more wonderful or more complete”
Painting of the Shakespeare Memorial Ball, 1911
The famous Chelsea Arts Club Balls were first hosted at the Hall in 1910 and returned annually until 1958. These New Year’s Eve balls each had a central theme such as ‘Dazzle’, ‘Prehistoric’ or ‘Old English’, and were renowned for their exuberance and extravaganza.
London art schools participated by decorating huge carnival floats, which were driven around the auditorium floor and, which at the stroke of midnight would be destroyed by revellers. Dancing, dining and drinking in fancy dress continued until the early hours.
Chelsea Arts Club Ball, 1920
Balls were often held to support war efforts, celebrate victories, commemorate the fallen and fundraise for the wounded, widowed or orphaned of the First and Second World Wars. Between the wars the Hall saw a number of sumptuous balls held for sheer pleasure, including Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Balls, held between 1930-38, as well as London department stores such as Selfridges, Barkers and Whiteley’s, who held annual balls for their staff as reward and incentive for their hard work.
Selfridges Revel, 1920
Barker Ball, 1931
Costume Balls proved highly popular – The Savage Club returned in 1919, Empire Balls held in 1920, 1924 and 1930 saw guest dress as nations from around the British Empire. The 1919-1921 Three Arts Club Balls, masterminded by artist Augustus John, saw thousands of revellers dress in historic or exotic dress and pose for photographs for the illustrated press.
Ypres Ball & Eastern Revel, 1922
From the 1950s onwards companies such as John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Selfridges, and Freemans hosted balls for their staff annually. Newspapers also began promoting balls at the Hall in order to generate gossip for their readers. From 1947-1949 The Daily Express held annual Film Balls, attended by film stars such as Jane Russell and Sheila Sim. The Beatles appeared at The Daily Mirror’s Golden Ball on 18 February 1965 in which they were interviewed on the night by Des O’Connor. The newspaper also hosted the niche, Gorgeous Girls Gala – the World’s First Mini-Skirt Ball on 21 October 1967 at which Lulu and Tom Jones attended.
The Beatles and Des O’Connor at The Daily Mirror Golden Ball, 1965
From the 1970s-1990s the Airlines Balls ( for employees of major airlines) and Valentine Balls (held on Valentine’s Day) were regular features on the Hall’s events calendar, hosted by the likes of Sam Fox and Liz Hurley.
The Black & White Balls I, II and III, 1994-1996 were a huge shift from these and earlier balls at the Hall. Dubbed as the biggest events London clubland had ever seen, DJs such as Paul Oakenfold and Brandon Block performed in front of specially designed Alice-in-Wonderland themed set, with laser shows and guests mesmerised by the huge sound systems.