A Brief History of Alexandra Palace

Entertainment, recreation, spectacle and innovation: Alexandra Park and Palace have been on the forefront of popular entertainment for over 150 years.

Ground Plan of the Palace of the People (1859-03-17) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

Palace of the People

Owen Jones, architect of the Crystal Palace drew the first designs for a Palace of the People for the north of London in 1859.

Design for the Palace of the People (1859-02-12) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

The Palace was to serve the burgeoning population of North London as the relocated Crystal Palace served the South.

Alexandra Park Company: Share Certificate (1863-06-24)Alexandra Palace

Over 200 acres of land was acquired and the Alexandra Park opened in 1863.

The Alexandra Park Races (1868-07-11) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

Attractions were added to the park. The racecourse, affectionately know as the 'frying pan' due to its unique shape, opened in 1868.

Building Proposed to be Erected in the Alexandra Park (1864-02-20) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

The First Palace

Reusing materials from the International Exhibition of 1862, Alexandra Palace had been under construction from 1865 and finally opened in 1873.

Volunteer Athletic Sports at Alexandra Park (1868-07-04) by Illustrated TimesOriginal Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The Park and Palace were extremely popular but only 16 days after opening, tragedy struck...

Destruction of the Alexandra Palace (1873-06-14) by The GraphicOriginal Source: Hornsey Historical Society

...a fire started in the central dome of the Palace.

With large open spaces the fire quickly spread.

The Burning of the Alexandra Palace (1873-06-14) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

Its location on the top of a hill proved difficult to get water to put out the flames.

Ruins of First Alexandra Palace (1873-06-09) by The Heliotype CompanyOriginal Source: Hornsey Historical Society

When the fire had burned out little remained of the building with only the porticos salvageable.

Hand Coloured print of Alexandra Palace (c.1880)Alexandra Palace

The Second Palace

Alexandra Palace was immediately rebuilt and opened in 1875, this time as a bigger building but with spaces that could be sealed off and crucially four water tanks on each corner tower.

Collage of Scenes at Alexandra Palace (1875) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

The Palace was equipped with the latest in entertainment and recreation. The organ in the Great Hall, built by Henry Willis, was described as the greatest concert organ in Europe.

Healthy recreation and physical exercise was provided in the park.

For the more high-minded galleries hosted art and museum exhibitions.

The theatre was equipped with latest technologies in stage machinery, featuring traps and flying rigs for performers and quick change sets.

Electric Light on the Lakes at the Alexandra Palace (1880-08-21) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

The latest technology was not limited to the Palace, the park even installed electric lights!

Professor Baldwin at the Alexandra Palace (1888-09-29) by Illustrated London NewsOriginal Source: Hornsey Historical Society

Spectacular Entertainment

Alexandra Palace was known for spectacular entertainment, from the recreation of Pompeii blown up nightly on the lake, to aerial daredevils like Professor Baldwin and Dorothy Shepherd risking life and limb jumping from balloons over the Park.

Great Monkey Show at the Alexandra Palace (1889-06-08) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

The burgeoning zoological collection included an aviary and monkey house in the Palm Court. The Brooke's Great Monkey Show of 1889 held over 1,000 monkeys of different breeds.

Postcard of Alexandra Palace (Monkey House) (c.1900)Alexandra Palace

Many of the attractions are ones we would not consider acceptable today, like the popular Nelson the Teddy Bear.

The Flight of the Barton-Rawson Airship from the Alexandra Palace (1905-07-29) by The SphereAlexandra Palace

Innovators were drawn to Alexandra Palace. Film pioneer R.W.Paul shot 'A Switchback Railway' of the Victorian rollercoaster in 1898

And Dr Barton built an airship in grounds. It eventually flew over the Palace in 1905.

Alexandra Palace from North West (1875/1935)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The scale of Alexandra Palace meant it often faced financial troubles. A small amount of park was sold for housing, and in 1901 the Park and Palace were given to public by an Act of Parliament

Belongings of Refugees around Willis Organ (1914/1915)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

Refuge and Prison

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Alexandra Palace was taken over by the Metropolitan Asylum Board.

Belgian children made orphans by the war (1914/1915) by Underwood & UnderwoodAlexandra Palace

Belgian and Dutch refugees fleeing the German invasion traveled to London and arrived at Alexandra Palace.

Beds laid out in the Great Hall (1914/1915)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The Great Hall held 1,000 beds tightly packed together.

Postcard of Tailor's Workshop (1915/1919)Alexandra Palace

In 1915 the Palace became an internment camp for 'enemy aliens', German, Austrian and Hungarian men living in the UK without a British passport.

Painting of man sleeping (1915/1919) by Charles 'Carl' HolzerAlexandra Palace

Under the Aliens Restriction Act 1914, 3,000 men were interned at Alexandra Palace between 1915 and 1919.

Postcard of Internee Craftmen (1915/1919)Alexandra Palace

Changes were made to the Palace to hold the volume of men, with dormitories, workshops and allotments. It was 1919 before the last internee was able to leave, and 1922 when the Palace reopened

Fashion stage at the North London Exhibition (c1925)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society


Once reopened the Palace returned to its primary purpose of entertainment. The North London Exhibition was hosted from 1925 and brought the latest trends and technologies to the Palace.

Boxing outside Alexandra Palace (1922/1937)Alexandra Palace

Public sport returned to the park with boxing, racing, cricket and football.

Alexandra Palace Theatre from Balcony (1922/1935)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The Theatre was renovated by manager MacQueen-Pope and leased to Archie Pitt, husband of Gracie Fields, to rehearse her shows. Legend has it Gracie coined the name 'Ally Pally'.

Nancy McMillan in “A Country Girl” (1923) by Davey & HackneyAlexandra Palace

Professionals and amateurs performed at Alexandra Palace. Nancy McMillan became the star of the 1920s stage with the Alexandra Palace Operatic and Dramatic Society.

BBC Mast Construction ©BBC (1936-04-08)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

Birthplace of Television

In 1935 the entire East Wing of the Palace was leased to the BBC to be made into television studios, trialling technologies by the Baird Company and Marconi-EMI.

©BBC Adele Dixon on the Opening Night of Television (1936-11-02)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

The world's first high-definition television service was launched from Alexandra Palace on 2nd November 1936. The Studios became the test bed for the latest developments and innovations for decades.

Gardening Outside Broadcast ©BBC (1937-05-01)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

The first outside broadcasts were made, first from the colonnade, then in the Park and on 12 May 1937 from Hyde Park Corner for the Coronation Procession of King George VI.

Television, Bbc, Alexandra Palace (1939-02) by William VandivertLIFE Photo Collection

The television service was suspended in 1939 for the Second World War. However, the mast at Alexandra Palace was used to interrupt the Luftwaffe signal during the Blitz.

In 1940 the Palace became a reception and distribution centre for refugees and troops evacuated from Dunkirk. In 1944 flying bomb exploded north of the building, damaging the Great Hall.

Beryl Hockley (1946)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Vision mixer, Beryl Hockley faded up the returning television service on 7 June 1946.

Muffin the Mule ©BBC (1952-11-30)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

In 1946 the first children's television programme 'For the Children' created a star of puppet Muffin the Mule and his co-star, Annette Mills.

Coronation on Monitors at Alexandra Palace (1953-06-02)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Television's crowning moment came with the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The recording made at Alexandra Palace was taken from helicopter in the grounds to be flown for broadcast in North America

Train Station at Alexandra Palace (1875/1935)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

Changes and Revolutions

The 1950s and 1960s saw major changes at Alexandra Palace. In 1954 the train station was removed from the Palace, and main BBC production moved to new studios at Lime Grove.

Studio B Control Room (1950/1959)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

The BBC Studios became the dedicated home of BBC news.

News and Newsreel Crew (1954-05)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

In 1955 Kenneth Kendall became the first in-vision news presenter, followed by Richard Baker and Robert Dougall.

Great Hall Contact Sheet (1960/1979)Alexandra Palace

The Great Hall was restored in 1957 with a much simpler decoration than the opulence of the Victorian Palace.

Technical Exhibition 1967 (1967-03-13/1967-03-17)Alexandra Palace

The Palace hosted exhibitions and trade shows for organisations, such as the Oil and Colour Chemist Association. At the same time the counter culture revolution was building.

14 Hour Technicolor Dream Poster (1967-04-29) by Mike McInnerneyAlexandra Palace

29 April 1967 Alexandra Palace hosted the seminal psychedelic happening the '14 Hour Technicolor Dream'. It kick-started our gig history, followed by the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead

Children playing on Inflatable (1970/1979)Alexandra Palace

In 1966 the Park and Palace were transferred to the Greater London Council to ensure they remained available to the public.

Centenary Balloons (1975)Alexandra Palace

In 1975 Alexandra Palace celebrated its centenary with events across the Park and Palace.

Ally Pally Pops, 1975, Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society
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The GLC put on a range of music events in contrast the major rock gigs.

Carlo Curley & Friends, 1979-06-25/1979-08-20, Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society
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In 1979 Carlo Curley became the Palace's first dedicated organist in decades.

Wagner's Brunnhilde's Immolation, 1979-03-19, Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society
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Plant a Tree in Alexandra Park (1980/1988)Alexandra Palace

In 1979 the Park and Palace were designated a conservation area and the site was transferred to Haringey Council but shortly after tragedy struck for a second time...

Alexandra Palace on Fire (1980-07-10)Alexandra Palace

The Palace caught fire again, destroying much of the original building, including the Great Hall, Skating Rink, dining rooms and the Grand Willis Organ.

Palace After Fire (1980)Original Source: Hornsey Historical Society

Miraculously the Victorian Theatre and BBC Studios survived. Having spent the last decade broadcasting with the Open University, the BBC finally stopped production at Alexandra Palace in 1981.

Organ Reconstruction (1985/1988)Alexandra Palace

Reconstruction was started immediately, overseen by Dr. Peter Smith. The organ restoration was begun by the decendents of the original builder Henry Willis. The Palace reopened in 1988.

Microphone (2014-09-29)Alexandra Palace

A New Palace

The reopened Palace created a brand new West Hall from the former Italian Gardens, and a more open Great Hall. In 1990 an ice skating rink was installed. Stone Roses played their first major London at Alexandra Palace in 1989 and Blur launched Parklife from the Palace in 1994, continuing the groundbreaking music heritage.

Brit Awards (1993)Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace hosted the Brit Awards for three years from 1993, followed by the MTV Music Awards in 1996.

Jay-Z at Alexandra Palace (2009-11-04)Alexandra Palace

Jay-Z performed the Palace in 2009.

Holland Heineken House: Olympics 2012 (2012-08)Alexandra Palace

For the London 2012 Olympics, Alexandra Palace became the Holland Heineken House celebrating the success of the Netherlands team.

Bjork at Alexandra Palace (2013-09-04)Alexandra Palace

The Palace continues to host iconic gigs and events. In 2013 Bjork hosted the finale of her Biophilia tour, in the round at Alexandra Palace.

Alexandra Palace Theatre (2014-09-08)Alexandra Palace

After the fire, historic areas of the Palace continued to decline into dereliction. In 2015 it was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to restore the East Wing, including the Victorian Theatre.

Alexandra Palace Derelict Space (2014)Alexandra Palace

Continuing its history of innovation, Alexandra Palace has partnered with Google Arts and Culture and an unexpected treasure was discovered as we started moving through abandoned spaces...

A Hidden Treasure (2016-11-01)Alexandra Palace

Credits: Story

The Alexandra Palace Archive is grateful to Google Arts and Culture for support with the scanning our historic materials. The Alexandra Palace archive includes materials from the Alexandra Palace Television Society, Hornsey Historical Society, and private owners; as well as by kind permission of the BBC.

Curator: James White

With thanks:
Simon Vaughan, Alexandra Palace Television Society
Mary Wells
Anna Arca
Sam Neill
Robert Seatter, BBC
John Escolme, BBC
Alan Nafzger, Hornsey Historical Society
Janet Owen, Hornsey Historical Society
Friends of the Alexandra Palace Theatre


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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