150 years ago, on 20 May 1867, work on the site which was to become the Royal Albert Hall began as Queen Victoria laid the building’s foundation stone.

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The ceremonial stone was laid in a special ceremony held in a vast marquee, erected especially for the occasion, the size and scale of which was not too dissimilar to the size of the Hall that was being constructed.

10,000 people pack the vast marquee, built especially for the occasion
10,000 people pack the vast marquee, built especially for the occasion

The marquee was built to hold 7,000 people, but it is estimated that upwards of 10,000 onlookers packed in to see the ceremony, causing chaos for the police team managing the event.

Queen Victoria arrived on a train at Paddington station with the Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VII following his mother’s death), before being driven across Hyde Park for the ceremony, which one of her very rare public appearances since the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861.

Reports at the time said the Queen spoke “indistinctly, slowly and under great emotional strain”, before using an especially-made trowel to lay the stone, as well as a glass ‘time-capsule’ underneath it containing an inscription and a collection of gold and silver coins. It was at this moment when she famously announced that the building was to be called the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences, in memory of her beloved ‘Bertie’, deviating from its original name, The Central Hall of Arts and Sciences.

jpg(Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone of the Royal Albert Hall
Queen Victoria lays the foundation stone of the Royal Albert Hall

Once the stone was lowered into place, the canvas of the great marquee shook as a 21-gun salute from Hyde Park marked the moment. The Archbishop of Canterbury read the Lord’s Prayer and then the orchestra and band of the Royal Italian Opera in Covent Garden played a special piece of music composed by the late Prince Albert.

Following the laying of the stone, work on the newly-named Royal Albert Hall continued over the following years, with the building being officially opened by Queen Victoria 29 March 1871.

The foundation stone, a block of reddish Aberdeen granite, although barely visible, is still in place; sitting proudly underneath the back row of the Stalls seating at Door 6. If you are ever sat in seating block Stalls K, spare a thought for the very special part of the building lying just metres beneath you.

The time capsule laid by Queen Victoria has never been retrieved and little is known of its contents; the inscription that adorns it is also unknown to us. As for the special ceremonial royal trowel – this was held by the Royal Albert Hall but sadly went missing at some point in the 1980s!

The foundation stone. Photo: J Collingridge, 2013
Stalls K, opposite the stage, the site of the foundation stone