Olympia 1886 - 2000

Part 1.


R. O. Tough MBE

At the Exhibition Study Group Convention in 1999 I gave a display covering the Olympia Exhibition Centre with descriptions, post cards and covers of a number of the main events held there in 114 years. It was not intended to be a complete description of any of the numerous types of exhibitions held there, some of them running over 60 years.

There are more detailed histories of individual exhibitions particularly the ‘Ideal Home’ by Deborah Ryan and several articles in the Exhibition Study Group quarterly Journal, also British Exhibitions and their Post Cards, Parts 1 & 2 by F. A. Fletcher and A. D. Brooks.

The Grand Hall opened on 26th December 1886 for a show put on by the Paris Hippodrome Circus.

The Empire Hall opened in 1929

The completed complex was then one of the largest exhibition centres in Europe.

In several cases however there were individual exhibitions or a shorter series of exhibitions which were of particular importance in attracting customers to business in this special way. The World’s first major motor show and a very early major aero show took place in the Grand Hall at Olympia. It provided an ideal venue for circuses, special types of plays and mixed entertainment as it had such a large visitor capacity.

The three main exhibition halls still remain open today, attracting a wide variety of exhibitions, although traffic worries in London now threaten the future, especially as car parking is so difficult and Olympia is not on a direct underground line.

It is interesting to look back on a major exhibition complex which has had such a wide variety of uses in over 100 years.

Following the remarkable success of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, there was a large surplus of earnings. A large area of Kensington opposite the exhibition site in Hyde Park was purchased. This site is now occupied by the Kensington Museums including the Victoria and Albert, the Imperial College and the Albert Hall. An exhibition building was constructed where the Natural History Museum stands now, it was intended to be permanent.

In 1862 the Agricultural Hall was built as a large exhibition centre in Islington. General Burnaby decided that a much larger permanent exhibition centre, similar to the Agricultural Hall, should be built in West Kensington. He formed The National Agricultural Hall Company to build the New Agricultural Hall, designed by Harry E. Coe. This was to be called the Great Hall, the name later changed to Grand Hall. It was opened on the 26th December 1886 with the Paris Hippodrome Circus. This started a tradition for nearly 80 years of a circus performing in the Grand Hall, Olympia, starting on Boxing Day each year or earlier.

The venture was successful and it was decided to add an additional hall called the National Hall, which was completed in 1923. A further hall was built called the Empire Hall which opened in 1929 for the British Industries Fair.

Site plan showing the position of the three halls.

Post Office.

Postal facilities were provided for exhibitors and later for the public from 1892, although apparently the first cancellation is only known on telegrams (0.1). The first post mark generally used (0.1a) is known from 1894 - 1914. Although it was used for a long period it is not a common cancellation and may have only been available to exhibitors. The next cancellation (0.2) was used from 1926 - 1933 and again from 1963 - 1970. This cancellation is fairly common. The next cancellation (0.3) is very difficult to find and is only known to be used in 1931, similarly (0.4) is only known to be used in 1933. Cancellation (0.5) is quite common, used from 1947 - 1970. Cancellation (0.6) (not illustrated) was used on registered mail from 1948 - 1961 and cancellation (0.7) was used from 1969 - 1970. There was also a parcel cancellation (0.8) which has been found from 1961 - 1966. These were general cancellations used at the exhibition centre post office. Some exhibitions, like the Ideal Home and Philympia had their own special cancellations. Slogan cancellations were used throughout the country, advertising the British Industries Fair which took place at Olympia from 1929 - 1953. For part of this time the fair also occupied the White City and the Birmingham Exhibition Hall. There were also other special exhibition cancellations for individual exhibitions.

Queen Victoria 2/6 stamp with Olympia cancellation (0.1) used on the first known date.

It is believed this was only used on telegrams.

Some of the cancellations used at Olympia.

A beautiful Ringling Bros. and Barnham & Bailey post card.


The tradition of circuses at Olympia attracted Barnham and Bailey who used Olympia regularly, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, arranged by Colonel Cody, also used the open exhibition ground at Earl’s Court. More recently Carl Hagenbeck appeared at Olympia. The last circus to appear was Bertram Mills, which continued into the 1960’s, although interest in circuses was waning. Unfortunately Bertram Mills circus had a fatal accident when a motor cyclist, performing on a wall of death in the Big Top, lost control of his motor bike and was fatally injured in the fall. Also the prejudice against animals acts affected the appeal of circuses.

International Motor Shows

The first large international motor show in Britain, organised under the auspices of the R.A.C., took place at Olympia in 1905. There had in fact been three much smaller motor shows previously but this one organised by Imre Kiralfy occupied the whole of the Grand Hall and set the pattern for motor shows at Olympia for the next thirty years. Motor shows at that time also included boats, a tradition which also continued after the war. There was however a boat show in Olympia in 1920.

The Olympia Motor Show 1905

1908 7th International Motor Exhibition held at Olympia.

Mammoth Fun City

This was produced in 1906 by the famous showman C. B. Cochran and covered a wide variety of acts, including a quartet of young ladies, comedy, traditional bands and animal acts. This showed the wide range of uses to which Olympia could be adapted.

to be continued.

© Exhibition Study Group 2002