OLYMPIA Corporate History 1884-1999


© John Glanfield

January 2012


1930. February. Olympia Ltd revalues assets and Increases capital.

            On completion of Empire Hall the buildings and equipment at Olympia were independently valued at £2.254m. A public issue of shares followed to offset development costs, increasing the company’s issued capital to £1.275m.


1933. February. Philip Hill announces vast expansion plan for Olympia.

            By 1931 the insatiable BIF had again outgrown Olympia. A section was driven back to the White City. Philip Hill announced at the February 1933 Fair that he would build a colossal hall less than 150 yds diagonally south east of Olympia on the comer of Kensington High Street and Warwick Road, where Charles House stands today. Joseph Emberton prepared outline plans for a handsome structure with 45,000 sq. metres of exhibition space on the 3.5-acre site, almost doubling Olympia’s capacity. Its roof would clear-span 245 ft, the longest unsupported span in Europe at that time. The hall would be connected to Olympia by subway Addison Road station was to be moved a short distance south to adjoin the Hammersmith Road bridge. There would be direct pedestrian links from its platforms into the new hall and the existing centre (The station was renamed Kensington Olympia in December 1946).

            Hill put in a planning application to the LCC. after which the project quietly died. Over the next eighteen months it became clear that the BIF had different ideas for its future location.


1933. November. BIF relations with Olympia sour.

            Almost certainly for fire-separation and evacuation reasons, LCC building approval for the Empire Hall had been conditional on the topmost (third) level being fully enclosed rather than overlooking the atrium as did levels 1 and 2. In November 1933 as the 5th BIF at Olympia approached, the Fair’s management and the Dept of Overseas Trade complained to Olympia that level 3 was unacceptably isolated and had become un-lettable. It was still under construction in year 1 (1930) so had been unavailable. For the following two years the BIF’s furniture trades reluctantly occupied level 2 and the enclosed level 3 before leaving the Fair in despair and returning alone to White City in 1933. They were replaced that year by sections of the radio and music trades which combined to stage a ‘Hall of Radio & Music’ in Empire Hall, afterwards refusing to return to level 3. Olympia would not waive its rental, reminding DOT that BIF had approved the building’s design before construction began.

National Archives. Kew, Dept of Overseas Trade file. piece TI61/6I8

            The dispute soured relations and clouded Philip Hill’s proposal earlier that year to build another 45.000 sq m of hall-space. It was shelved.


1936-37. Olympia fears Earls Court’s ‘pull’.

            By spring 1936 as Earls Court neared completion, Olympia Ltd felt the undertow sucking some of its valued shows away to the new centre. Hill responded by opening a visitors’ cocktail lounge on Grand Hall’s ground floor and an exhibitors’ club at balcony level accessible from the Grand and National Halls.

            More radically and dangerously, Olympia Ltd had facilitated the registration of Exhibitions Ltd on 6 February as an independent entity with offices in St James’s Street It was to compete directly with event organisers by creating and staging exhibitions at Olympia that would backfill shows lost to Earls Court. By April 1937 it had made a £13.000 loss, largely attributable to compensation paid to its MD, a Mr Lascot. on early termination of his contract. That same month Exhibitions Ltd was offered to Olympia Ltd. its shareholders having lost patience and refused further funds to seek the purchase of Montgomery’s hugely successful Building Exhibition at Olympia. This appears to have been a pre-emptive attempt to block any move by Greville Montgomery to take his show to Earls Court. In fact, it stayed put at Olympia until its switch to the NEC in 1977. Exhibitions Ltd staggered briefly on. Before its demise it was planning a Film Fair in 1938 (no record of it’s taking place yet traced)


1936. May. The BIF pulls out of Olympia

            The May 1936 BIF would be its last at Olympia. The organisers had booked into the larger Earls Court Exhibition Centre, then nearing completion, only to learn around Christmas 1936 that the building would not be ready for it to open the following May. Olympia was no longer available. The huge BIF was driven back to White City with only weeks to reorganise.

            The Board of Trade ceased to support the Fair in 1954 when its popularity fell away as specialised ‘vertical’ trade fairs gained strength, primarily on the continent. The Fair closed for good In 1954.

Nations! Archives. Kew. Treasurery file, piece T/161/618


1936-37. Philip Hill opens London’s first multi-storey car park - at Olympia.

            Joseph Emberton was commissioned to build it. Planning consent was sought in May 1936

and granted the following January. The delay reflects the novelty and complexity of the application.


1940-46. Olympia is requisitioned for war service.

            Olympia came under government control on 10 January 1940 as civilian internment camp No. 14. During the Dunkirk evacuation it was Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s assembly point for what became the Free French Army. The Royal Army Service Corps then took the halls over as a transport depot until October 1944 when they became military clothing stores, and finally a demobilisation centre 10,000 tons of stores were held there at any one time. Some 250,000 men were kitted out since the October 1944 start, and 300 drew their civvies on the final day, 23 March 1946. Olympia was derequisitioned that June.

            HMG paid annual rental of £32,500 for at least part of the period, but this failed to cover interest payable on debenture stock and overheads. £27.4s Od p.a. was paid for ‘hire of chattels’.


1943-44. Harold Hartley’s death aged 91.

            29 September 1943 At his beloved Brook House, North Stoke. Oxford.

1944    Olympia Chairman Philip Hill’s death aged 71.

            15 August 1944 At Windlesham.

1947. September. Reginald G Heaton resigns.

            For reasons of age after 35 years as Olympia’s much loved Managing Director, He died the following year.

1951. 31 January. Sir Charles Cochrane’s tragic death.

            Seizure, scalded in his bath. Aged 78.

1957. E.T. ‘Monty’ Swann joins Olympia board.

            A well-remembered and respected director.


1964. Olympia acquires entire share capital of A. R. Taylor & Co.

            East Anglian timber importers and joinery mfrs. Olympia’s continuing diversification contributed over one third of profits other than from halls rentals (40% in 1968). Some operations within Olympia Ltd were conducted by wholly-owned subsidiaries, including Olympia Exhibitions Ltd trading as hall proprietors, Barren Bros Ltd as exhibition stand and electrical contractors; Sutcliffe Catering Group Ltd which operated through nine subsidiaries as industrial caterers; and Maclise Road Garages (Olympia) Ltd.


1964. October. Chairman Oliver-King at AGM.

            Olympia Ltd will miss no opportunity to exploit its various assets to the full. A new exhibition centre elsewhere may emerge several years hence, and the long term possibility of redeveloping Olympia may arise. Conversations were accordingly proceeding with Second Covent Garden Property Co. Ltd, of which Oliver-King was a director.


1967-68. Olympia is served a compulsory purchase order.

            Olympia is served a compulsory purchase order on the Blythe Rd corner. The order was successfully opposed by the company which demolished the last remaining buildings and levelled the site late in 1968 for ‘development to enhance the viability and value of the business.’ It served as an invaluable lorry marshalling area and car park for Empire Hall/Olympia 2 traffic.



E.T. ‘Monty’ Swann steps down as MD

            But remains on the board he had joined in February 1957. He reverted to MD in 1973. below.


1969-71. Olympia contemplates merger with Earls Court.

            By 1969 the National Exhibition Centre project was beginning to focus on Birmingham rather than London’s old Northolt airport, or off the Ml near Leicester. Olympia’s board feared the approaching battle on two fronts - The Court’ and NEC. For years it had been diversifying its investments as a hedge against future trouble from any quarter, and was currently exploring options with the Greater London Council to redevelop Olympia.

            The possibility of a defensive merger of Earls Court with Olympia was also contemplated, but exchanges between the two in May 1969 came to nothing. It seems that Olympia initiated their further meeting on 16 April 1971. At that critical point Olympia’s Oliver-King resigned his chairmanship on 2 April Nevertheless he still attended the meeting as a board member. His reasoning is unknown, but for the past seven years he had been spearheading Olympia’s strategic planning in quite another direction - its redevelopment. He was replaced by Joint Vice-Chairman Lord Sandon (MD of Coutts Bank and a director of National Westminster Bank). Olympia’s other Joint Vice was Earl de la Warr. The Hon H.W. Astor became Deputy Chairman.

            Olympia was represented at the meeting by Astor and Oliver-King Earls Court by its chairman Major General Ritchie and Messrs Bowie and Peter Cutmore MD. Earls Court concluded that they would gain nothing of substance and broke off the dialogue

            With the NEC looming, it seems probable that Earls Court took the view that it was not going to enlarge its lettings pool by another 50,000 sq. m. in a reverse take-over of Olympia at a time when the NEC was poised to poach a sizeable catch of London’s biggest exhibitions. (As a public company, Olympia would find it much harder to marshall shareholder support to acquire The Court, and with similar concerns)


1971. September. There now being no chance of a merger with Earls Court.

            Lord Sandon laid Olympia’s future on the line at its AGM that September, 1971. He pointed to ‘the intended redevelopment of the Olympia site which might well prove of significance’ He also had to report that pre-tax profit fell by £54,000 over the previous year’s £498,726.

            Two months later the NEC secured outline planning approval for the Birmingham site. Phase 1 would deliver 89,000 sq. m of exhibition space when it opened on 2 February 1976.


1972. January - March. Property group buys Earls Court & a stake in Olympia.

            The first intimation of an Earls Court take-over by property tycoon Jeffrey Sterling’s Sterling Guarantee Trust (SGT) had come in City reports at the end of January 1972. His objectives became clearer a week later when he bought Sir Robin McAlpine’s 18% stake in Olympia for £1,6m. SGT’s £4.4m bid for Earls Court was accepted on 23 March.

            Sterling had acted very quickly on word of the NEC’s planning approval. He clearly anticipated that its destructive effect on London’s exhibitions at the two halls would end in time in their near insolvency. Acquisition now would enable SGT not only to manage their decline appropriately, but also pre-empt moves in the same direction by rival developers.

            News that the NEC was about to build at Birmingham, followed by reports that a property developer had bought Earls Court and was poised to swallow Olympia, came as a triple whammy to the exhibitions industry. Much of its London-based end was left in turmoil.

            SGT speedily announced plans for redevelopment of the 17.7 acre Earls Court site in alliance with Town and City Properties (T&C). They were already in talks with London Transport Executive about varying the Earls Court lease which still had seventy years to run, and were inviting LTE to include an adjoining 15 acres in a single massive £50m development.

            Having bought Earls Court, it emerged that SGT planned to sell off the venue’s property assets to a new development company jointly owned with T&C, reportedly for £7.5m cash. The deal promised a healthy profit and SGT would still have a 40 per cent stake in the subsequent development. The news left many London exhibition organisers anxiously preparing Plan B. Without a highly improbable declaration from Sterling that he was committed to retaining substantially both London halls as exhibition centres, a rush of the capital’s shows to Birmingham would become a certainty Not all could possibly succeed.

            SGT was formed in 1969 and quickly became noticed following its acquisition of Salisburys the handbag retailer, Gamages dept store in the City, Buck & Hickman tools distributors, and Wharf Holdings. Jeffrey Sterling’s strategy was to take over companies with under-utilised property potential and quickly release a large slice of cash in the land by forming a joint development company, or by land sale.


1972. September. Lord Sandon signals Olympia’s redevelopment after NEC opens.

            The chairman stated that ‘closure of Olympia synchronised with the provision of facilities elsewhere is both desirable and an economic necessity. The board continues to pursue plans for Olympia’s redevelopment.’

            He announced a pre-tax profit of £559,965 for the year to 31 March 1972 against the previous year’s £444,170.

            In the general upheaval J. Lyons announced that its Cadby Hall HQ and food factory were vacating the Blythe Rd premises opposite Olympia. The premium 10 acre site fronting Hammersmith Road would be redeveloped. It was 40 years too late to be of value to Olympia.


1973. March. SGT secures Olympia. Earls Court and Olympia unite in shotgun marriage.

            SGT bought out Associated Newspapers’ 37% stake in Olympia for £4.2m. Assoc. Newspapers had held this to protect its Ideal Home Exhibition, but having secured SGT’s guarantee of a show site ‘until at least 1988,’ it agreed to sell. SGT successfully bid £11.35m for Olympia.

            Jeffrey Sterling revealed that the Olympia site would be redeveloped for other purposes after the Earls Court building had been converted to mixed use with a much smaller but modern exhibition hall. He expected large events such as the Motor Show and the Royal Tournament to move to Birmingham, whilst others could occupy Olympia pending completion of the new Earls Court and their transfer there Olympia would then close for good.


1973. April-May. SGT moves in at Olympia Ltd.

            Strong new board appointments followed.

30 April.           Bruce MacPhail SGT’s steely MD, and his co-director Peter J. Ford joined the board.

13 May.           Olympia’s Chairman Lord Sandon was replaced by Major-General W.H.D. ‘Dick’                               Ritchie, charismatic Chairman of Earls Court Ltd.

                        Ralph S. Carver appointed Deputy Chairman. (Earls Court board member since                                                January 1973)

                        Olympia Board member E.T. ‘Monty’ Swan reverted to MD. see ‘1968’ above.

                        Peter Cutmore joined Olympia’s board. (Deputy Chairman Earls Court Ltd.).

4 July.              Olympia’s J.M. Ockleshaw resigned from the board.


1973. June-July. SGT and Town & City Properties create Earls Court and Olympia Ltd.                       (EC&O).

            Major-General Ritchie was appointed Chairman of the new company on 4 June. It was owned 60% by T&C, 40% by SGT. Terms for the acquisition of the Olympia site reflected a value of £15m.

            Under-performing managers at both venues, and the internal rigidities that accumulate over time in a sellers’ market were removed as a first step in merging and managing the businesses. Significant operational changes followed.


1973. November. OIL crisis - game-changer.

            SGT’s carefully crafted strategy was compromised when the oil crisis broke. Middle Eastern oil and gas producing countries had taken control of their resources before increasing prices to the point where a world-wide recession threatened. It had built over the summer and merged in Britain with trade union objections to a government-imposed prices and incomes policy. The mix exploded in November with a miners’ overtime ban just as winter set in, government cuts in fuel oil and petrol deliveries, and a 50 mph limit on all roads. Petrol rationing coupons were issued but never used. The economy slumped and commercial property values dived.

            Sterling’s redevelopment plans became expensively stalled.


1973-74. SGT marks time.

            Jeffrey Sterling kept the two halls open through the ‘Black Winter’ of 1973/4. Its 3-day weeks of power rationing and miners’ strikes felled Edward Heath’s government in March 1974. Sterling could have ridden out the crashed property market by closing the heavily loss-making Earls Court, but it was a premium national asset and such action was unthinkable. A property upturn was possibly several years distant. Sterling could only mark lime by retaining both halls as show centres.


1974. April. Sterling Guarantee Trust merges with Town & City.

            Sterling Guarantee Trust merged with the ailing Town & City Properties in a reverse take-over. T&C changed its name to Sterling Guarantee Trust PLC in 1983 to mark Jeffrey Sterling’s success in nursing (he company back to health. In February 1985 Sterling merged his SGT with P 8 O. (Sterling was simply a non-exec director of P & O when it faced a hostile bid from Trafalgar House in 1983. The battle ended with P S O triumphant and Sterling as chairman).

1974. August. Olympia’s redevelopment to follow a refurbished Earls Court.

            6 August 1974. Following strong representations from the Dept of Trade & Industry, Greater

London Council and the exhibition industry. Town and City Properties announced plans for a major facelift of Earls Court. On its completion Olympia was likely to close and the site converted for non-exhibition purposes. Probable phasing would see Earls Court close in 1976 to begin refurbishment, when  its exhibitions ‘could be transferred to Olympia’ pending completion.

            The unspoken but inevitable consequence would be a crisis for many remaining events at Earls Court as they became stranded in the interim through lack of space and/or acceptable dates at Olympia. A move to the NEC would then be the only option for most. The chances of survival for some events forced to transfer to Birmingham would be questionable.


1974. August. Major-General W.H.D. Ritchie retires (resigns?) as EC&O chairman.

            He departed 9 August 1974, only 14 months after his appointment. Replaced by Christopher Stewart-Smith. board member. SGT


1975 - on. All change at EC&O.

            First, SGT had to overcome a severe loss of confidence in the exhibition industry. Event organisers were wary of promises from a property developer turned semi-saviour, and Jeffrey Sterling only put up £1 5m to start a much needed Earls Court & Olympia ‘Facelift’ programme. It was not enough to demonstrate long-term commitment once the property market recovered. For that reason alone, at least one big show, the British International Toy & Hobby Fair, held back from booking into Earls Court and went instead to the NEC. Others were leaving London for Birmingham. The turning point came in July 1979 when, concerned at the rising loss of London shows to the NEC, Greater London Council Leader Horace Cutler announced a £5m loan to kick-start ‘Bow-Wave’, a rolling halls modernisation programme funded by EC&O It was to be repaid when later profits reached an agreed level.

            The GLC’s powerful commitment was hugely significant. It came as a timely expression of confidence that EC&O had an assured future. The GLC’s starter money and EC&O chairman Christopher Stewart-Smith’s bold initiatives (below) triggered a rolling modernisation programme for Earls Court and Olympia. As value was added, hitherto frozen rental tariffs were unlocked to fund some £8Om of major improvements. To this must be added the £100m later invested to build Earls Court 2.

            Stewart-Smith got rid of Olympia’s hedge investments in a timber company and property, gave Leslie Overs, MD of Olympia’s Electrical Services contracting division, his head (Overs joined the board of EC&O September 1974), likewise the imperturbable Peter Harrison, MD of Olympia’s slandfitting company Barren Brothers Ltd, and formed profitable subsidiary service companies in catering and security Philbeach Events Ltd was another such, creating and staging successful exhibitions and special events in-house and elsewhere. It was led by David (‘give it a punt’) Fasken who eventually became EC&O group managing director and deputy chairman.


1976    Before the gain came the pain.

            The NEC opened in 1976, soon capturing five of EC&O’s blue chip exhibitions plus Earls Court’s commercial director Terry Golding to become NEC’s chief executive. The ‘lost’ events included Earls Court’s Motor Show and the impressive Furniture Show, Fasken replaced both with strong variants, his hugely popular London Motorfair having first to overcome powerful objections from the ever-protective SMMT.


1978. Empire Hall closes for exhibitions.

            The NEC’s adverse impact on London lettings brought closure to the 4-level Empire Hall in May 1978. The hall was the most marginal of EC&O’s assets at that time. It was leased to Allied Retailers, reopening 27 December 1980 as ‘UKAY OLYMPIA,’ a home furnishing super-store.


1983. Empire Hall gets new name, new market, and a makeover.

            Trade Fairs organiser John Glanfield joined EC&O in October 1983 to formulate and implement a marketing strategy for the Empire Hall. Its retailing lease had been recovered that year by EC&O. Renamed Olympia 2 (O2), the hall was converted to permanently carpet-tiled space with improved amenities, lighting, and a packaged shell scheme. It was targeted at a new sector for the company - exhibitions which had outgrown hotels and small halls and needed a bridging venue to expand into, perhaps later moving on to a major hall. O2 opened early in 1984 with 19 lettings in hand. It quickly became a popular premium-rate staging post for such shows. O2 was marketed and managed as an independent unit within the group. A 500-seat conference centre was built on the historically notorious top floor in 1985 with a dedicated entrance on Hammersmith Road. The lower ground floor was converted to exhibition space soon afterwards.


1985. Earls Court & Olympia becomes part of P&O.

            In a dramatic move in 1985, Jeffrey Sterling merged Sterling Guarantee with P&O in a reverse take-over, later becoming Chairman of the shipping, construction, property and services conglomerate. EC&O became a subsidiary of P&O.


            EC&O chairman Christopher Stewart-Smith stood down, moving on to P&O. T.C. Tim’ Harris at EC&O had risen through chief accountant and managing director to now become chairman. The incisive and hard-driving Harris finished what Stewart-Smith had begun.

            Thanks to the 1973 oil crisis and Sterling’s resolute reaction. Earls Court and Olympia’s premises and profitability had been transformed. Chairmen Stewart-Smith and Harris set in train a golden age for the two centres. So intensively were they occupied that together they achieved more whole-hall occupancy days each year than any comparable exhibition centre in W. Europe.


1999. 23 March. Earls Court & Olympia change hands.

            Pressured by the City for which conglomerate entities such as P&O were losing appeal, the company announced a major asset disposal programme. It was intended to raise more than £2 billion. P&O would focus on its maritime businesses.

            Earls Court and Olympia were up for sale. There were numerous bidders. Fittingly, both centres went to the Morris brothers. With their father Sam Morris they had transformed Islington’s Agricultural Hall - the ‘Aggie’ - into the successful Business Design Centre. With their new acquisition they now controlled some 90% of London’s purpose-built exhibition space. The £183m purchase was financed with equity from Candover and a loan from Credit Suisse First Boston. Earls Court & Olympia Group Ltd would manage the assets, led by Chief Executive Andrew Morris.

            After more than a century of rivalry, London’s three historic centres became united under one house flag


© Exhibition Study Group 2014