Maskells Historical Guide to Albertopolis

Following London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 in nearby Hyde Park, Prince Albert, always a patron of the arts, used the event’s proceeds to turn the area surrounding what is now Exhibition Road into one strongly associated with the arts and sciences. As a result, South Kensington is home to the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music and a plethora of educational institutions, foreign language schools and museums. This area is also known as ‘Albertopolis’ - a name you might not have heard before, which is home to some of Britain’s most famous landmarks and visitor attractions, including the Royal Albert Hall, Victoria & Albert Museum, Science Museum and Natural History Museum. This guide explores how Albertopolis has grown and developed since 1851.

The Albert Memorial: This magnificent memorial commemorates Prince Albert who had the vision for developing a cultural quarter of London. Prince Albert was born in 1819 in Saxony, Germany. His family was connected to many of Europe’s ruling monarchs and at the age of 20 he married, Queen Victoria. Together they had nine children. He also became President of the RSA – or the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Through his connections at the RSA he became involved in the Great Exhibition of 1851. The success of the Exhibition gave him the idea to create a part of London permanently dedicated to the arts and sciences; hence this area’s nickname - Albertopolis. 

Princes Gate: This splendid terrace of white townhouses is Princes Gate. Originally there were two terraces either side of a fine mansion called Kingston House. The mansion and the eastern terrace have long since been demolished. The remaining terrace was designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes. Although the fine buildings of Princes Gate were designed as private homes many became offices for cultural and diplomatic organisations. Look along the terrace and you can see various flags. These are all embassies. There are many more around Albertopolis. Meanwhile number 20 Princes Gate houses the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. It is named after Wladyslaw Sikorski, who was Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Exile during the Second World War. One of the most interesting buildings in the terrace is Number 14. This is a particularly good example of a building that has had various owners. Until the end of 2014 it was occupied by the Royal College of General Practitioners. It is now being redeveloped as a private house. 

Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore: This is Lowther Lodge, probably one of London’s finest examples of nineteenthcentury domestic architecture.

It is built in ‘Queen Anne’ style with characteristic red brick, towering chimneys and a sunflower motif. It is named after the diplomat and MP William Lowther, who bought the site in 1870. Lowther commissioned the most outstanding domestic architect of the day – Norman Shaw – to build a ‘country house’ on the edge of town. Since 1913, the building has been home to the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). The Society traces its roots back to 1830, when the Geographical Society of London was founded as an institution to promote the advancement of geographical science. Today the Royal Geographical Society is a leading learned society that promotes research, education, fieldwork and expeditions. The Society tries to bring geography alive through a wide range of innovative programmes. 

Royal School of Mines, Prince Consort Road: This is the grand entrance to the Royal School of Mines, which is now part of Imperial College. Imperial College occupies a substantial part of Albertopolis. In 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, the government founded its first ever technical higher education establishment – the Museum of Practical Geology. This later merged with the Royal College of Chemistry and became the Royal School of Mines. Their grand building was constructed between 1910 and 1913. It was designed by Sir Aston Webb who created many of the buildings in Albertopolis.

Science Museum, Exhibiton Road: When the Great Exhibition was over, many of the exhibits needed a new home. They included examples of industrial and decorative art and a few miscellaneous science collections. In 1857 the South Kensington Museum was built just across the road. The building was clad in sheets of corrugated iron. The structure was soon known as the ‘Brompton Boilers’. In 1899 Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for a range of buildings to replace them. She decreed the site be renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum. During this period the science and art collections were both expanding. It was decided that they should be displayed in separate buildings. So in 1913 work began on the Science Museum. The Science Museum’s original collection included the Great Exhibition displays of Animal Products, Food, Educational Apparatus and Building Materials. There were also examples of machinery from the patent office and a collection of ship models. The Science Museum still has these exhibits but it has grown and kept up to date with developments in science, technology, industry and medicine. The exhibition galleries are regularly changed to illustrate and explain science to visitors. Around 2.7 million people visit the Science Museum every year to see a collection of over 300,000 object.

Henry Cole Wing, Victoria and Albert Museum: Across the road is the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum, known as the V&A. As we’ve already discovered, it was established by Queen Victoria to house art collections. It is now the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. It has a permanent collection of over 4.5 million objects in 145 galleries. The collection comes from all over the world and includes ceramics, glass, silver, ironwork, jewellery, clothes, textiles, furniture, sculpture, prints, drawings, musical instruments and photographs. Some of these objects are 5,000 years old. The Henry Cole Wing is a beautiful and monumental structure. It was first occupied by the School of Naval Architects, then by the Science School, and then by Imperial College. It is another excellent example of how buildings in Albertopolis have had different uses. To the right of the Henry Cole Wing is another one, the museum’s Exhibition Road Quarter. This grand courtyard opened in June 2017 and allows people to enter the museum from Exhibition Road. 

33 Thurloe Square: Prince Albert was the driving force behind the Great Exhibition and its longterm legacy. The other key character was Sir Henry Cole who lived here at 33 Thurloe Square. Sir Henry Cole was a civil servant and a member of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (or the RSA in short). There he met Prince Albert, the RSA’s President. With Albert’s encouragement Cole organised a successful Exhibition of Art Manufactures in 1847 with larger exhibitions in the following two years. Often described in newspapers as ‘Old King Cole’, he is also devised the concept of sending greetings cards at Christmas time. In 1843 he introduced the world’s first commercial Christmas card. In 2001 a card he sent to his grandmother sold at auction for £22,500! 33 Thurloe Square now has a blue plaque crediting Sir Henry Cole's residence and work.

"Little France" Cromwell Place: We are now in the heart of an area known as Petite France or ‘Little France’. Cromwell Place is home to the French Embassy and the the Institut Français. The Institut is the French government’s official centre of language and culture in the UK. It comprises a cinema, multi-media library, language centre and French bistro. It also runs a programme of talks and films promoting French language and culture and to encourage cross-cultural exchange. Also in this block is the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, usually referred to as ‘The Lycée’. It is named after the famous French statesman who took refuge there while in exile from Nazioccupied France during the Second World War. The school now has 3,500 pupils between the ages of 3 and 18 and teaches predominantly in French. It is one of the most academically successful French schools outside of France. There are about two million French people living outside France, with around 113,000 of them in the UK. The French community in South Kensington is one of the largest. In the surrounding streets look out for Parisian-style restaurants and pavement cafés, baguette shops, bars and bookshops.


Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road: After the successful Great Exhibition this site by Cromwell Road was earmarked for similar events. In fact, it was used for the International Exhibition of 1862. This was deemed a success but the building it was housed in was not. So two years later it was demolished. The site eventually made way for the Natural History Museum that we can see today. The Museum’s origins go back more than 250 years to 1753 when physician and collector of natural curiosities, Sir Hans Sloane, left his extensive collection to the nation. Sloane’s specimens originally formed part of the British Museum. Other collections were added, including specimens from Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Australia and New Zealand from 1769 to 1771 aboard HMS Endeavour. As the number of specimens grew, a new home was needed for the nation’s natural history collection. The Natural History Museum opened its doors to the public on Easter Monday 1881. Arguably one of the most beautiful Victorian buildings in London, it was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, a young architect from Liverpool. It is one of Britain’s most striking examples of Romanesque architecture. Look carefully and we can see the museum is decorated with an astonishing series of sculptures of plants and animals. Extinct species are placed to the east and the living to the west. The museum is now home to a staggering 70 million life and earth science specimens. There are items from all over the world divided into five main categories – Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Zoology. 

Darwin Centre, Natural History Museum: This building is the Darwin Centre, a 2009 expansion to the Natural History Museum. It is named after the naturalist Charles Darwin, who formulated his theory of natural selection after a five-year voyage around the world on the ship HMS Beagle. 

The Royal Albert Hall: At the heart of Albertopolis is the Royal Albert Hall. The hall was fundamental to Prince Albert’s vision for the area. It was originally going to be called the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences. As it didn’t open until 1871, a decade after Albert’s death, Queen Victoria renamed it the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences. Look up towards the roof for an inscription written around the building. It starts: ‘This hall was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort’. Below the inscription is a terracotta frieze depicting ‘The Triumph of Arts and Sciences’. There are 16 themes including music; sculpture; painting; workers in stone; workers in wood and brick; astronomy and navigation; pottery and glassmaking; and horticulture and land surveying. The Royal Albert Hall was the venue for four international exhibitions. The final one in 1874 included food and drink - and a large quantity of wine was stored in the cellars. Today The Royal Albert Hall has become one of Britain’s most loved and distinctive buildings. It is probably best known as a music venue including the annual Promenade Concerts. These culminate each September with the famously patriotic Last Night of the Proms. 

Royal College of Music: Within sight of the Royal Albert Hall is the Royal College of Music. Originated from Prince Albert’s proposals for a national music training scheme for young people. Founded in 1882, it is now part of the University of London. The Royal College of Music is one of the world’s leading conservatoires. It provides specialised musical education and professional training at the highest level for performers, conductors and composers. Some of the world’s best classical musicians have studied here. Listen carefully and you may be able to hear students playing inside. Now turn around and face the Royal Albert Hall. Look to the left for an ornately decorated building. This was originally the home of the National Training School for Music.

Great Exhibition memorial beside Royal Albert Hall: We’re just a few hundred metres from where we started this guide at the Albert Memorial and here is another statue of Prince Albert. This is a memorial to the Great Exhibition. Until 1891 it stood in the garden of the Royal Horticultural Society, which used to be on the site of the Royal College of Music. Take a look at the inscription below the statue which sets out how much money was raised from the Great Exhibition. This is the part of our guide around Albertopolis and it is fitting that we end with another statue of Prince Albert. Throughout we have seen how he inspired and shaped this area of South Kensington. From this statue we can see several buildings that stemmed from Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole’s vision for this area. We discovered how Albertopolis all started with the Great Exhibition in 1851, which showcased Britain’s international role in the arts and sciences. From the Exhibition’s success this area south of Hyde Park was established as a long term legacy to celebrate science, technology, culture and the arts. We have seen how Albertopolis is home to some of the world’s leading museums, academic institutions and national organisations. Each one of these is continually evolving and expanding, through their buildings and the people who work in, study in and visit them. More than 150 years later Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole’s legacy is still alive and well. Albertopolis is still at the heart of the arts and sciences. 



Posted on Tuesday, September 22, 2020