This week we teamed up with Islington Local History Centre and Museum as part of the wider Explore Your Archive campaign to connect local archives with one another and the wider community. For this post, BPMA Archivist Helen Dafter and Islington Local History Manager Mark Aston discuss the importance of the Royal Agricultural Hall during the First World War: censoring POW parcels while continuing to host exhibitions, fairs and shows.
The foundation stone of the Agricultural Hall (or ‘Aggie’), Upper Street, Islington was laid on 16 November 1861 and the following year, the hall was officially opened. Originally built for the Smithfield Club as a venue for livestock and agricultural shows, the hall hosted a wide variety of displays, entertainments and sporting events. It was so well patronised by royalty that from 1885 it became the Royal Agricultural Hall (RAH).
During the First World War, it was largely ‘business as usual’ for the Aggie as it continued to stage exhibitions and present shows, despite the conflict brought to the home front. The complex, however, had not gone unnoticed by the government and Gilbey Hall was requisitioned by the War Office for official use in June 1916.
Work inspecting parcels for Prisoners of War was transferred from the Northern District Office on nearby Upper Street to the Gilbey Hall. This was due to space constraints that the Northern District Office which were made worse by the census of Prisoner of War parcels at this time. Gilbey Hall was regarded as being particularly suitable for this work because of its proximity to Mount Pleasant sorting office. It was also conveniently located for railway termini and had sufficient space to store parcels if onward routes were suspended.
By August 1916 concerns were expressed over the other demands on the RAH. Horse shows required the full use of the complex, including Gilbey Hall. The RAH were keen to know the Post Office’s intentions with regard to this building. A letter written at this time states ‘It is a pity that if the part is wanted the whole should not have been taken, as I understand this was contemplated. Instead of which the authorities chose to build a great place in Regents Park at enormous expense.’ (POST 56/245). The ‘great place’ referred to was the Home Depot.
Livestock, dairy and horse shows continued to take place at the RAH throughout the early years of the First World War. In October 1914, the British Dairy Farmers Association held its 39th annual show at the hall, at which King George V won a silver medal in the pigeon section. Two months later, the King was awarded prizes for cattle breeds at the hall’s Smithfield Club Show. December that year also witnessed a horse show and the World’s Fair, which featured a circus, a fun-fair and animal shows. The next few years followed in similar fashion: livestock and horse shows, trade and business fairs and entertainments, with the ever-popular World Fair continuing to attract huge crowds.
On 15 November 1918, just four days after the armistice, the aftermath of the war came to the RAH with an exhibition of German military aircraft. For a one shilling (5p) entrance fee, the public could view what the newspapers described as ‘samples’ of enemy aircraft, not ‘trophies’. Upon its opening by Lord Weir, Secretary of State for the Air, six airships and an entire squadron of Handley Page bombers flew in formation over the RAH, while all day an observation balloon hovered above the exhibition.
Among the ‘samples’ on show was a twin-engine Gotha that was “brought down” recently during a raid on London. In fact, the aeroplane was created from parts from a number of shot down aircraft. Other planes included a AEG reconnaissance aircraft, a Friedrichshafen bomber, the latter accompanied by three metre long bomb weighing over half a ton, and a red, single seat Fokker bi-plane, once belonging to the ‘Richthofen’ circus. One of the main attractions was an Albatross fighter plane in which Prince Charles of Prussia was forced down and captured in March 1917.
A military presence continued at the hall in 1919 with a series of auctions of government service motor vehicles and accessories. And, in true RAH style, the event was hailed as the “largest auction sale of motor accessories ever held!”
Islington Local History Centre holds the archive of the Royal Agricultural Hall Company Limited, which contains deeds and maintenance records, correspondence, ledgers, cash books, letting agreements and exhibition programmes and posters (c1861-1999).