History of Royal Festival Hall

Read the story of Royal Festival Hall, from its construction in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, to its pathway to becoming the world’s most-inspiring arts centre.

Royal Festival Hall was built in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, and the concert halls were originally funded and managed by the London County Council and their successors, the Greater London Council. The Centre became an independent arts organisation in April 1988, after two years operating as a constituent part of the Arts Council.

Key dates


Plans are announced by the Labour Government of Clement Attlee to hold the Festival of Britain. It is to be a ‘Tonic to the Nation’ following the ravages of the Second World War. A new concert hall is to be built amidst the temporary domes and pavilions of the Festival, to be a permanent centre for the musical life of London. The site between the Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford railway bridge on the south bank of the Thames is cleared of its derelict warehouses and factories, including the famous Lion Brewery. London has been without a major concert hall following the destruction of the Queen's Hall by an incendiary bomb in 1941.


The foundation stone of Royal Festival Hall is laid by Clement Atlee in October 1949. It is to be the London County Council's contribution to the Festival of Britain. The architects are Sir Robert Matthew and Dr Leslie Martin.


After only 18 months and expenditure of £2 million Royal Festival Hall is opened on 3 May 1951. A ceremonial concert attended by King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth mark its opening. The new concert hall seats 2,900 people and the orchestra platform can accommodate an orchestra of 100 and a choir of 250.


The organ is installed in Royal Festival Hall. It is designed by Ralph Downes, built by Harrison and Harrison and has 7,700 pipes.


Royal Festival Hall re-opens following a closure of eight months to undertake a development scheme, which includes a new ticket office and main entrance on the riverside, extra dressing rooms backstage and offices. Work begins on two more concerts halls adjacent to Royal Festival Hall.


Royal Festival Hall celebrates its Silver Jubilee with a series of celebrity concerts and a major commemorative exhibition on the foyer.


The Greater London Council introduces the radical ‘open foyer’ policy. The foyers of Royal Festival Hall are opened to the public all day, seven days a week, with free exhibitions, lunchtime concerts, evening jazz performances, shops, bars and buffets. Prior to this, the upper levels of the hall remained closed until a few hours before the concert.


Royal Festival Hall ticket office is computerised in November 1984, and begins selling tickets from what is now one of the largest and most sophisticated ticket office ticketing systems in the world.


When the abolition of the GLC is announced, the Arts Council takes over responsibility for Southbank Centre and the then Deputy Secretary-General, Richard Pulford begins work setting up the South Bank Board.


The South Bank Board takes over control of the concert halls from the Greater London Council in April 1986, as a constituent part of the Arts Council.

Royal Festival Hall celebrates its 35th birthday in May 1986, with six hours of concerts.


Royal Festival Hall gains the status of a Grade 1 Listed Building in April 1988.

In the autumn of the same year, the Arts Council's Poetry Library moves to Royal Festival Hall. The Voice Box, a new 77 seat venue for literature and poetry events, opens on Level 5.


The London Philharmonic and Southbank Centre are joint winners of the Evening Standard opera award for the joint staging of Messiaen's St Francoise d'Assise in May 1989. This establishes Royal Festival Hall as London's unofficial ‘third opera house’.


The London Philharmonic Orchestra is announced as the Resident Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall in January 1990, following a recommendation by the Tooley Committee, headed by Sir John Tooley, former head of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The orchestra's first season in residency is to begin in 1992.

In the same year, the artistic team bring four major concert agents to work together for the first time to present the International Piano Series, the first of several new collaborations. The Centre's in-house design team also wins the Apple Business Excellence Award for the quality of its design work, including the relaunched monthly diary.


Front of house areas, cafés and bars in Royal Festival Hall are refurbished in September 1991.

The Centre begins to use one of the most sophisticated computer marketing systems available, BMS, to target specific interest audiences for different events.


The Poetry Library welcomes its 10,000th member in June 1992. Its membership has doubled since 1988 when it moved to Royal Festival Hall.

In September, the London Philharmonic performs the opening concert of its five-year Residency at the Festival Hall.

In October, the Centre is awarded a London Dance and Performance Award for its dance programming and dance/design collaboration.


Architects, Allies and Morrison begin work on the refurbishment and restoration of Royal Festival Hall.

In February, an international architectural competition is announced to select an architect to transform the 1960s buildings on the site. The scheme of the winning practice will be the focal point of a bid for Lottery funding.

In September, the Richard Rogers Partnership is announced as the winning practice. South Bank 2001, an exhibition of all ten short-listed schemes, opens in the foyer of Royal Festival Hall.


In a major overhaul of catering, new contracts begin for Aroma (for the coffee bars) and Sutcliffes Catering (for the riverside cafe, buffets and bars) in February 1995. New banqueting contracts are also agreed.

In April, the People's Palace opens in Royal Festival Hall. The 200-cover restaurant is run by the successful Levin family and designed by Allies and Morrison.

In May, the new corporate identity is unveiled. Designed by CDT, it refocuses Royal Festival Hall and Hayward Gallery as the key venues and ‘twin pillars’ of the performing and visual arts programme. The former identity, the South Bank Centre, is shortened to SBC and retained as a management name only.


In August 1999, Heritage Lottery Fund announces £12.5 million in-principle award to SBC to develop plans for refurbishment of Royal Festival Hall.

In September, the concrete walkway that obscured views of Royal Festival Hall from Waterloo and Lambeth is demolished, funded with the support of English Partnerships.


Royal Festival Hall celebrates its 50th Birthday in May 2001. Gala Concert, Total Meltdown Birthday exhibition and souvenir book published. Fund raising campaign launched. Karsten Witt resigns as Chief Executive. Paul Mason takes over as Acting Chief Executive.


Lord Hollick appointed Chairman. Lambeth grants planning permission for the Royal Festival Hall foyer’s renovation and for the extension building. Heritage Lottery Fund confirms award of £15 million for Royal Festival Hall.


Festival Square Café opens in summer 2003. The Poetry Library celebrates its 50th birthday this year.


Brian Wilson premieres Smile.


In June Patti Smith and Alfred Brendel give the last concerts in Royal Festival Hall before it closes for refurbishment.

Jude Kelly is appointed Artistic Director of Southbank Centre.


Royal Festival Hall, after closing in summer 2005 for refurbishment, stages a reopening concert with Southbank Centre’s resident orchestras featuring premieres by Anderson and Birtwistle. Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar, Dr. L. Subramaniam and his son appear as part of a seven-hour Indian gala concert.


Daniel Barenboim performs a recital of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas to immense critical and public acclaim. 

Grace Jones returns to the stage for Massive Attack's Meltdown with a powerful performance, winning five-star reviews.

Royal Festival Hall stages the UK premiere of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo.

Last UK recital by Alfred Brendel, and last UK concert by the Alban Berg Quartet.


In April the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela presents a series of concerts with conductor Gustavo Dudamel.


WOW - Women of the World festival opens at Southbank Centre for the first time. It becomes the largest women’s festival in the world, taking place in five continents and across the United Kingdom.


Daniel Barenboim celebrates his 60th anniversary by performing at Royal Festival Hall.