Above: The south front of the Royal Agricultural Hall, now known as the Business Design Centre.
The foundation stone was laid 1861 for the three acre (1.2 hectare) building, used by the Smithfield Club to house the Smithfield Agricultural Show and costing £50,000 which does not sound like a great amount of money today but it was at the time. The design of the building had been inspired by the larger building at Crystal Palace. The vast building, designed by Frederick Peek of Maidstone, was erected on land which had been had been used by herds of cattle being driven to Smithfield. The structure used 1,000 tons of cast-iron and roof has span of 130 feet, flanked by two brick towers – not unlike a railway terminus building. The great roof remains essentially the same as when first erected, along with the rest of the building, although there have been some modifications since the 1980s.
Above: The interior in 1861, during the Royal Agricultural Show. The inside still looks very similar today.
The showing of animals had always been a feature of feature at Smithfield when it had been a cattle market. This was the continuation and the first Agricultural Show was held December 1862. At that time the floor inside was sloping to facilitate washing away the slurry from the animals after the show was finished. The clock on the north side, facing Liverpool Road, is dated 1862. The Agricultural Show eventually moved from the hall in Islington.
The building was used for many other events. Being to large and only being used once each year to the Agricultural Show there was plenty of time to be hired for various purposes. From at least 1863 circuses were held in the building. In 1867 Thomas Barnardo attended a missionary conference in the hall. He described his experiences among the poor and later founded the homes which bear his name to this day.
The one and only London bull fight was held on 26 and 28 March 1870 in the hall. Summonses were issued to the secretary of the hall and to the seven Spanish mantadors. The Spaniards were fined one Pound each but the Englishmen had their summonses withdrawn.
In 1875 the gospel preacher Dwight ‘D L’ Moody, with the organist and singer Ira D Sankey, used the hall for evangelical meetings in London. They were attended by at least 15,000 people. Sankey and Moody returned to the hall for further meetings in 1881 and 1882.
The first Military Tournament was held in the hall in June 1880. Due to royal patronage, the hall was called ‘Royal’ from 1885. From 1891 until 1939 the hall was used for Cruft’s Dog Shows. Some time around 1900 the hall was used for the first motor show in London.
In 1943, during the Second World War, the Inland and Foreign Parcels offices at Mount Pleasant were burnt out by a fire bomb and they transferred to the hall. The Inland parcels returned to Mount Pleasant towards the end of the War but the Foreign parcels office remained until 1971.
Work was carried out 1981-86, costing £10 million, to develop and partly restore the building which had been lying derelict since the last World War. When the work had been completed it reopened 17 October 1986 as the Business Design Centre where exhibitions could also be held. This has continued until now. The hall stands beside Berners Road, near Islington Green. The south side opens onto the north side of Upper Street.
Known affectionately by the locals as the ‘Aggie’, the hall has seen many diverse events take place and it is good that it is still in use today. It is a Grade II listed building. The Business Design Centre is now regarded as one of the best modern day conference and exhibition centres in and around London.