Today marks the 15th anniversary of the refurbishment and reopening of the Princess Alexandra Hall, transforming it into the perfect venue for chamber music we know and love today. Read the history of the hall and its origins below.

"14 April was a great day in the history of the Over-Seas League; but it was more than that. History was made at Over-Seas House at 4pm on 14 April 1937. Science, the Postmaster-General and his efficient staff showed us how radio-telephony can play its part in promoting the unity of Empire. For the first at a public function in the heart of the Empire, a London audience was addressed by radio-telephone by the Viceroy of India from Delhi and  the Governors-General of Canada from Ottawa, Australia from Melbourne, New Zealand from Wellington and South Africa from Pretoria."

Thus wrote Evelyn Wrench, founder of ROSL in the May 1937 issue of Overseas. The opening ceremony described above took place in the St Andrew's Lecture Hall of the Empire Centre (now called the Westminster Wing) of Over-Seas House. The hall was named after St Andrew because £3,000 of the £40,000 raised in just three years for the building of the Empire Centre came from Scottish members. Other rooms in Over-Seas House were similarly supported: the Hall of India (now Hall of India and Pakistan) by a gift from the Government of India and the donations of several Indian Princes, and the Empire Newspaper Room and Library (now the offices of the Marketing, Membership and Arts departments) by members of the Ulster branch. These offices retain stained glass window panels of the county towns of Ulster.

Westminster Wing construction

The destruction of Rutland House's ballroom to make way for the Westminster Wing.

Ten years after its opening, in 1947, the Music Circle established a recital series under the banner of the Festival of Commonwealth Youth which provided a showcase for outstanding young musicians. Many of these concerts, which took place in the St Andrew's Hall were broadcast live during the 1950s on the BBC World Service. In order to select artists to appear in the series from the many musicians keen to perform, the Festival became competitive in 1952 with a first prize of £10.

Over the past 65+ years, the ROSL Annual Music Festival (renamed Competition in 1985) has grown in scope and prestige with its final moving from Over-Seas House, first to Wigmore Hall, and subsequently to Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Throughout, the competition semi- and section-finals had been held in St Andrew's Hall, but it was not designed as a concert venue: its tiny, narrow stage being uncomfortable and cramped for anything larger than solo piano or a piano and vocal or instrumental duo. In the 1950s and 1960s, the acoustics of the room were deadened considerably by the introduction of carpeting and heavy soft furnishings. During the same period, intrusive chandeliers were installed, and a corridor with balcony added along the length of the room, extending over the entrance. The effect of these modification was to obscure the symmetry and elegance of the original design.

St Andrews Hall 1987

The hall in the 1980s, showing the small stage and now-removed balcony.

So, in 1999 the ROSL ARTS sponsorship committee identified the improvement of the St Andrew's Hall for musical performance as a future major project. A brief was developed and a number of architects invited to submit plans. The brief specified the creation of a room, the primary purpose of which was the performance of chamber music, with flexible seating and staging configurations, and the technical facilities to accommodate a variety of other uses such as conferences, dinners and receptions. 

Avery Associates Architects, whose re-development of RADA won several prestigious architectural awards, were selected to undertake the project. Their proposals comprehensively addressed all aspects of the brief with an imaginative and adaptable scheme in an unfussy, understated style evocative of the sleek 1930s original. 

The main construction work began in mid-July 2005 and was completed by the end of September when the hall was back in use. The remainder of the work, principally the installation of the curved stage-end wall, stage lighting, and the upgrading of the foyer, was accomplished between October 2005 and January 2006. To meet the costs of the refurbishment, an appeal was launched in 2002 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Annual Music Competition, with a fundraising target on £300,000 (100 times the contribution of Scottish members in 1937). 

PAH opening

HRH Princess Alexandra attending the re-opening of the hall in 2006.

On Wednesday 25 January 2006, 15 years ago today, the grand re-opening of the hall was held, with a concert attended by HRH Princess Alexandra, ROSL's Vice-Patron. The hall was renamed in her honour to mark her longstanding commitment to the club and particularly, the Annual Music Competition. The concert saw a performance of Saint-Saen’s Carnival of the Animals by the great and good of ROSL's musical alumni, including Jennifer Micallef piano, Elizabeth Cooney violin, Juliette Bausor flute, Timothy Orpen clarinet and many more.

Beautiful music making has continued in the hall ever since, even during lockdown. We are hosting a number of livestreamed concerts while the clubhouse is closed for you to enjoy from home. Take a look at what's coming up here. There are also plans to restage Carnival of the Animals later in the year to mark the 100th anniversary of Saint-Saen's death. Watch this space.

St Andrews Hall sign

The original St Andrew's Hall sign survives, but in the slightly-less-prominent position of the ROSL ARTS office.


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