First World War centenary: When the Albert Hall went to war

A quarter of its staff enlisted to fight, but there was also important work to be done by the rest...

When Frank Snow left his day job and prepared to fight in Flanders Fields, his colleagues at the Royal Albert Hall were naturally worried that they might never see him again. Frank promised those who remained in London that he would keep in touch – and he kept his word.

A picture postcard from September 1915 shows the young soldier standing bolt upright at his training camp in his army fatigues, rifle propped up on his left soldier. "Just to let you know, as promised, I'm still at the same address, [photo] taken while at camps," Frank wrote. He signed off: "Thanking you."

His picture is just one item, from tens of thousands in the Royal Albert Hall's archives, that has been dusted off and will be on display for the first time tomorrow. The concert hall is holding a one-off event to celebrate its unique heritage and the 40 staff who worked there a century ago. The World War One Centenary Talk – Royal Albert Hall Memories includes programmes, photographs and other documents detailing how staff kept concerts, political events, debates and other rallies going during the troubled times.

Frank, probably an administrative clerk, was one of 10 staff who fought in the war. There is no record of whether he came home but the hall's archivists, Liz Harper and Suzanne Keyte, who have been researching and planning the event, believe that he did.

Archivists Liz Harper (left) and Suzanne Keyte Archivists Liz Harper (left) and Suzanne Keyte "Record keeping wasn't so good back then, but we presume that Frank lived through the war as we couldn't find any trace of his name among the Commonwealth War Graves Commission," Ms Harper said. "Frank's is just one of so many stories from that time, and the role the hall played during the war was very special. The staff that remained were incredibly proud of their colleagues going off to fight and kept their jobs open for them."

One who did not survive the war was cleaner Albert Rumbelow. A father of four who lived a stone's throw from the hall, he joined the army in 1914. Two years later, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for Conspicuous Gallantry. His citation reads that he "exposed himself to machine gun and shell fire when going across the open to rescue a wounded man. Later he went under fire to fetch a stretcher".

He returned to England badly injured and died two months before Armistice Day in a military hospital in Ashford, Kent. He was buried in the local graveyard alongside other military personnel, becoming one of the few soldiers to be buried on English soil (because the government had taken the difficult decision not to repatriate the bodies of those killed in battle). A copy of Albert's DCM, along with his death certificate, will also be on display.

Those attending tomorrow's event will be able to handle an extraordinary range of programmes, almost 100 years old, that remain in good condition. These include one for the 1915 Great Bazaar, at which people bought goods for parcels to be sent to the Front. John Nash and John Singer Sargent were among the artists who donated original items, with the latter sketching caricatures in one of the hall's loggia boxes.

Hall’s heritage: Wartime programmes Hall’s heritage: Wartime programmes Other programmes, such as one entitled Christmas in Wartime, from 1915, and a "special concert to 10,000 wounded soldiers", highlight the patriotic flavour of the events.

Ms Harper said: "This tale of pride, patriotism and personal sacrifice will be illuminated by details that bring home the extraordinary atmosphere in the country at the time, like the blacking out of the building from 1914 – with black cloth covering its roof, and blinds over each of the 98 windows."

In 1914, a personal side entrance for the monarch was completed but the stress of war on the nation's finances meant that it was another five years before the hall's Royal Retiring Room was finally furnished.

Although the public was warned at concerts what to do in the event of an air raid, the music continued – two concerts a week usually. The musical content changed, however, as the grim reality of conflict struck home. "England's Call" and "The Rally Call" were typical of the jingoistic nature of music during the early war years but, with the mood darkening as the death toll mounted, songs became more sombre and cynical. "Oh! It's a Lovely War", with its sarcastic and anti-establishment lyrics, reflected the change.

In October 1917, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and Chancellor, Andrew Bonar Law, arrived on stage to persuade the nation to invest in war bonds. Just over a year later, the war was over. The Royal Albert Hall marked its end with a thanksgiving service attended by royalty and the Victory Ball, held on 27 November 1918, the first ball in the building since 1913.

Ms Harper said: "In many ways, the story of the Royal Albert Hall during the Great War is also the story of Britain: from the grand rallies and parades held at the venue to the often-harrowing experiences of staff who enlisted as soldiers."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent