The Royal Festival Hall’s Level 2 foyer spaces are currently being refurbished, as we work to bring you a brand new cafe, bar, shop and Ticket Office. Find out more

History of the of Royal Festival Hall

Skylon Tower in 1951 at the Southbank
Skylon Tower in 1951 at the Southbank

Retrace the history of one of the world’s leading performance venues

Our 2,700-seat concert hall has a story that begins in 1951.

The Royal Festival Hall was built as part of the Festival of Britain, a five-month national exhibition and fair held to help the nation recover after the Second World War. 

It was originally funded and managed by the London County Council and their successors, the Greater London Council. 

The Southbank Centre is made up of the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, across an 11-acre site. We became an independent arts organisation in April 1988, after two years operating as part of the Arts Council.


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


In October, the foundation stone of the Royal Festival Hall is laid by Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The hall, designed by architects Sir Robert Matthew and Dr Leslie Martin, is to be the London County Council's contribution to the Festival of Britain.


On 3 May, after only 18 months and an expenditure of £2 million, the Royal Festival Hall is opened. The new concert hall seats 2,900 people. The orchestra platform can accommodate an orchestra of 100 and a choir of 250. King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth are among those who attend a ceremonial concert to mark the hall’s opening.


The organ is installed in the Royal Festival Hall. Designed by Ralph Downes and built by Harrison and Harrison, this impressive instrument has over 7,800 pipes.


The Royal Festival Hall reopens following an eight-month closure for refurbishment and development work. This includes a new ticket office, the main entrance on the river side of the building and more dressing rooms and offices. Work also begins on two more concert halls next to the Royal Festival Hall.


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


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


In November the Southbank Centre ticket office is computerised and begins selling tickets from what is now one of the largest and most sophisticated ticket office ticketing systems in the world.


With the abolition of the Greater London Council, the Arts Council takes over responsibility for the Southbank Centre. Its Deputy Secretary-General Richard Pulford – who would later become the Southbank Centre’s General Director – begins work setting up the South Bank Board.


The newly created South Bank Board takes control of the Southbank Centre’s concert halls, operating as part of the Arts Council. In May, the Royal Festival Hall celebrates its 35th birthday with six hours of concerts.


In April, the Royal Festival Hall is designated a Grade I Listed building. It is the first postwar building to gain this status. Later in the year, the Arts Council’s Poetry Library moves to the Royal Festival Hall. The autumn sees The Voice Box, a new 77-seat venue for literature and poetry events, open on Level 5 of the building.


In May, the London Philharmonic and the Southbank Centre win the Evening Standard Opera Award for our joint-staging of Messiaen's St Francoise d'Assise, establishing the Royal Festival Hall as London's unofficial ‘third opera house’. 


In January, the London Philharmonic Orchestra is announced as the Resident Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, following a recommendation by the Tooley Committee. 
The committee is headed by Sir John Tooley, formerly the 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.


In September, the front-of-house areas, cafés and bars are refurbished.

The Southbank Centre begins to use one of the most sophisticated computer marketing systems available, BMS, to tell audiences about different events based on their interests.


In June, The Poetry Library welcomes its 10,000th member. Its membership has doubled in the four years since it moved to the Southbank Centre. On 17 September, The London Philharmonic performs the opening concert of its five-year Residency at the Royal Festival Hall.


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

In February, we announce an international competition to select an architect to transform the 1960s buildings on the Southbank Centre site. The winning plans will be the focus of a bid for National Lottery funding. 

In September, the winner is announced: the Richard Rogers Partnership. South Bank 2001, an exhibition of the shortlist, opens in the Royal Festival Hall’s foyer.


In April, a restaurant seating 200 people, the People's Palace, opens in the Royal Festival Hall. It is run by the Levin family and designed by Allies and Morrison.

In May, the new corporate identity is unveiled. Designed by CDT, it refocuses the Royal Festival Hall and the 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, the Heritage Lottery Fund announces a £12.5 million award to SBC to develop plans for refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall.

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


The Royal Festival Hall celebrates its 50th birthday with a special Gala Concert, ‘Total Meltdown’ birthday exhibition and the publication of a souvenir book. A fundraising campaign is launched. Karsten Witt resigns as Chief Executive, and Paul Mason takes over as Acting Chief Executive.


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


The Festival Square Café opens in the summer, and The Poetry Library celebrates its 50th birthday.


Brian Wilson premieres his sixth album, Smile, with a special live performance in the Royal Festival Hall, featuring members of Wondermits and percussionist Nelson Bragg.


In June, Patti Smith and Alfred Brendel give the last concerts in the Royal Festival Hall before it closes for refurbishment. Jude Kelly CBE is appointed Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, a role she will retain until 2018.


The Royal Festival Hall reopens with a special concert from the Southbank Centre’s resident orchestras featuring premieres by Anderson and Birtwistle. The concert hall also hosts a landmark seven-hour Indian gala concert featuring Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar, Dr L Subramaniam and his son, Ambi Subramaniam.


Daniel Barenboim performs a recital of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas to immense critical and public acclaim. Also wowing Royal Festival Hall audiences is Grace Jones, who makes her first stage appearance in some years as part of Massive Attack's Meltdown. 
The same stage also welcomes the UK premiere of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, and sees the final UK recital by Alfred Brendel, and last UK concert by the Alban Berg Quartet.


In March, WOW – Women of the World festival opens at the Southbank Centre for the first time. It is to become the largest women’s festival in the world, taking place on five continents and across the UK. 

Later in the year, we celebrate the 60th year of the Royal Festival Hall by playing tribute to the building’s origins with a revived Festival of Britain.


As the Olympic Games descends on London, we are caught up in the Olympic spirit, hosting Festival of the World in the summer of 2012. Lasting from July to September, the festival features acts from around the world, including singers Bryn Terfel and Baaba Maal, plus conductor Gustavo Dudamel leading the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.


In March, one of our resident orchestras, the London Sinfonietta, gives the world premiere of Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite in the Royal Festival Hall.


In August, our Festival of Love culminates with the Big Wedding Weekend which saw 70 couples, including 15 same-sex couples, married on the Royal Festival Hall stage. 
To mark 25 years of the World Wide Web, we host the Web We Want festival with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The year also sees the inaugural Being A Man festival, focusing on men’s issues.


The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl, an interactive exhibition celebrating the centenary of the children’s author, draws the crowds to Imagine Children’s Festival.


This is the year of Nordic Matters, a 12-month-long festival of Nordic art and culture. It features music and dance, theatre and visual arts, participation, talks and debates, and gastronomy. It also brings the popular interactive exhibition Moominland. 
In the autumn, the London Literature Festival welcomes some very well-known names to the Royal Festival Hall stage, including Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Tom Hanks. The year also gives us a new Chief Executive: Elaine Bedell is appointed in place of the retiring Alan Bishop.