Up to the middle of aerial photography mast equipment the nineteenth century this prominent hill a few miles north of London was part of Tottenham Wood Farm - owned, so I am informed, by a relative of Cecil Rhodes, the African explorer. Then the farm was gradually sold off for development. The surrounding acres filled up with housing but here, on the hilltop, Alexandra Palace was born. A product of the Victorian zeal for philanthropic works, "Ally Pally" was conceived as a great entertainment and recreation centre. Just as Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace was dismantled from its original site in Hyde Park and moved to Sydenham Hill, so Alexandra Palace was moved here from its original site in Kensington, re-erected, and opened in 1873. Sixteen days after it opened it burnt down and was totally destroyed.
The owners had attracted over a hundred thousand visitors in those sixteen days and recognized the future potential of their attraction. It was rebuilt (though to a different design), and reopened in May 1875. Served by a branch of the Northern Railway (now sadly defunct, though apparently the platforms still exist off the northern side of the building), Ally Pally covered seven acres, was built around three great auditoria and could stage concerts, exhibitions and banquets. It also contained a theatre, a library, a museum and a lecture hall. Its surrounding parklands contained ornamental lakes, sports facilities and a funfair. In 1900 it was turned over to the Alexandra Palace and Park Trust, a body charged by Act of Parliament with making the building and its grounds "available for the free use and recreation of the public forever".
Now comes the big story in Ally Pally's history. In 1936 the east wing of the building was leased by the BBC, which inaugurated the world's first high definition broadcast television service from two studios on the second floor and a transmitter mast constructed atop the eastern tower. In the earliest days the service was provided in two formats, the Baird 240-line optical system and the Marconi-EMI 405-line electronic system, each format being sourced from its own studio. A year after the launch of the service the Baird system closed and 405-line transmissions continued from both studios. In its early days the television transmissions could only be received by a hardy core of radio enthusiasts, and even then over a restricted radius of 25 miles or so, but gradually television receivers became more commonplace.
In 1949 the Alexandra Palace station was augmented by a second transmitter at Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham, and shortly afterwards by further stations at Holme Moss (near Sheffield), Kirk O' Shotts (east of Glasgow) and Wenvoe (south Wales), and eventually the BBC's 405-line network consisted of some 40 transmitters. Ally Pally itself was replaced in the early 1950s by a new high power transmitter at Crystal Palace in south london, and around the same time the studio headquarters found new space in an old film studio at Lime Grove in Hammersmith. In the early 1960s the new Television Centre at Wood Lane was commissioned, though BBC Television News continued to be produced from Ally Pally until the early 1970s when it, too, moved to Television Centre. From that time Alexandra Palace served as a production facility for the Open University until 1980, when the television studios finally closed and the BBC's lease ended.
It was also in 1980 that the Palace and Park Trust's activities were taken over by Haringey Council, and in the same year a second fire gutted much of the central part of the building. Lengthy restoration work resulted in Ally Pally being reopened in 1988. Nowadays the Great Hall is still used for exhibitions, while the East Hall has been turned into an ice rink. The transmitter mast is still there, now a listed structure, but sadly the old TV studios are rapidly deteriorating. The pictures on this gallery were taken in September 2002 on an "Open House" tour, a scheme that has allowed conducted tours of various places and buildings normally closed to public access. The Ally Pally tour included access to the original Studio One as well as the "Lost Theatre" in the rear of the east wing, unused since 1936.
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Alexandra Palace and Park
The long south front of Alexandra palace, with the transmitter mast rising from the east tower, is the view most people know, yet Ally Pally's main entrance is on the west side and is known as the Palm Court entrance. The building is listed, which means that its external appearance cannot be altered (though there is no corresponding rule that says the building must be maintained - parts of it look utilitarian, even shabby, close up). At a later date I hope to add some pictures of the surrounding parklands.
The Palm Court at the west end.
Ally Pally's Palm Court is a revelation when you set foot in the building for the first time - a vast, glass-roofed atrium filled with exotic palm trees and Egyptian sculptures. The Palm Court acts as little more than an entrance foyer to the Great Hall, but various other doorways give access to a coffee shop, bar, box office, and other facilities including hospitality suites.
Ally Pally's east foyer
The East foyer is less exotic, and contains little more than a ticket office and a small cafeteria. The interior brickwork is drab and the hall seems more than a little evocative of a partially disused railway station (complete down to the piles of plant and materials laying around in corners), but you only have to raise your eyes to see its real beauty - the glass roof, through which the shadow of the transmitter mast can be seen. The foyer gives access to the East Hall, currently functioning as an ice rink.
The theatre auditorium and its roof
This is a place rarely seen by the public - the three-thousand seat theatre on the north side of the east wing, unused since 1936 and semi derelict. It was part of the building leased by the BBC and was used as a scenery, props and equipment store, its raked floor rendering it unsuitable as a studio space. These shots were taken without flash - sadly, others that I took which show the curved balcony are too poor to publish here on the website.
The original Studio One, now containing broadcasting memorabilia
This is the real gem of Alexandra Palace as far as I am concerned - Studio A, from where the BBC inaugurated the world's first high definition broadcast television service in 1936, using the EMI-Marconi 405-line electronic format. Studio B, further along on the same floor, initially duplicated the same service using the 240-line Baird transmission system but this was dropped in favour of the 405-line format in 1937. The service was closed down during the second world war but the transmission equipment was used in the development of radar and also to jam the Luftwaffe's radio navigation system. Both studios resumed broadcast operations after the war, and following the television service's move to new studios at Lime Grove the BBC conducted its early experiments in colour here at Alexandra Palace and also continued to source BBC TV News from here until the early 1970s. The studios' final ten years of operation were spent producing Open University programmes.
The studios have long been decommissioned and, sadly, the studio space itself has deteriorated badly and is in dire need of major structural repair. The original equipment is now at the National Museum of Film and Photography in Bradford, and the space is currently used by the who are putting together a collection of broadcasting memorabilia and have aspirations to operate a museum here. Currently they stage tours once a month (see the for details). The set-up seen here in the pictures was used for a reconstruction of Picture Page, an early television magazine programme, by the (one of a number of organizations for those interested in broadcasting history and nostalgia). I think it is a crying shame that such an important part of our national heritage has been allowed to decay to this extent, and I can only hope that the efforts of the meet with success.
Transmitter mast, tower entrance and blue plaque
The original transmitter mast, a listed structure just like the building itself, still stands atop the east tower. The mast height is unknown but is probably around 40 metres (130 ft). In the days when this was London's main TV transmitter the actual broadcast antennae were carried in stages around the upper part of the mast on wooden outriggers. Nowadays the mast sprouts various aerials for public utilities as well as a low power UHF TV relay and transmitters for independent local radio and the BBC's digital audio network. The "BBC Tower" contains offices. A blue plaque on the wall outside informs visitors of the site's historical significance.
Views of the City and West End from the terrace; and the
The images above show just what a good site this was for a TV station. From the terrace lining Ally Pally's south front there is a superb panoramic view of most of east and central London. Prominent in the images above are the triple towers of Canary Wharf, while further to the west (right) are the major buildings of the City; the Swiss Reinsurance Tower (currently under construction), Tower 42 (formerly the National Westminster Bank's corporate HQ) and the triple residential towers of the Barbican. The view of the West End is more restricted though the BT tower is well seen. If you know just where to look, St Paul's Cathedral, the Millennium Dome and the London Eye can all be spotted. (Hint; the Dome is not far to the east of the Canary Wharf towers).
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This page last updated 16th November 2002
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