EARLS COURT 1887 - 1914

The Earls Court Exhibition Centre was originally developed by J. R. Whittey in 1887. A year previously this man had travelled extensively in the U.S.A. with the express purpose of bringing back new ideas to entertain the British public. He brought back Colonel Cody and Red Shirt the Indian Chief in time for the 1887 season and after he had built the stadium called the Empress Theatre, the show opened on the 9th May and over 28,000 people passed through the turnstiles. From this date, many successful shows were held on this site until the year 1914, when the Great War put a stop to all exhibitions.

In 1895 a significant event took place in the history of Earls Court. Imre Kiralfy, Harold Hartley and Paul Cremieu-Javal came together to form the nucleus of London Exhibitions Limited, with Kiralfy becoming the Director General. He was to remain on the board of this company until at least 1909, even though his main business interests were connected with the White City from 1907 onwards. They purchased the Hippodrome in Paris, re-erected it at Earls Court where it was renamed the Queens Court and then, almost immediately, blew down in a gale. However, the Duke of Cambridge declared the show "Empire of India" open on the 10th May 1895 and though the running costs were about 500 per day, it was still a success. One of the main attractions was the Indian Jungle designed by the famous taxidermist, Rowland Ward. This exhibition was so successful that it was carried on in 1896 with additional features from countries like Ceylon, Borneo and Burma. Rickshaw rides were introduced to carry visitors about the grounds and they were so popular that they remained for many years and also became a feature of other exhibitions. On the amusement side for two years they secured a monopoly of the "Distorting Mirrors", another money spinner! 1897 saw the Victorian Era exhibition with a historical section representing the Queen's Jubilee year. In 1898 was the International and Universal Exhibition in which Hagenbecks Monkey Paradise made its first appearance. The amusements included American Midgets, Hungarian Minstrels and a Moorish Camp. The Great Naval Spectacle in the Empress Theatre was made possible by the construction of a concrete water tank which had a surface area of 40,000 square feet and one million gallons of water were needed to fill it. Naval craft of all kinds were manoeuvred without any human aid and men on the roof dropped sodium into the water to produce terrifying explosions. The storage of the sodium proved a problem and on one hot July day it exploded and burnt out all the Exhibition Offices and damaged the Entrance Hall.

The Greater Britain Exhibition in 1899 was primarily a Colonial exhibition with one of the main exhibits being a Mining Section organised with the help of Cecil Rhodes. About 200 Zulus, with their families, were brought over for the exhibition and to house them a village was built at the side of the Queens Court. This became an added attraction and a charge was made to visit their Kraal. By the turn of the century, the ever inventive Kiralfy was turning his thoughts in another direction. He had for some time been very keen to present a theme, or pageant, of a Festival of Women. He devised a scheme to use the Empress Theatre to project a vast array of women of all the nations. This theatre was ideally suited to such a display as it had a stage running the full length of one side of the hall and three banked tiers of seats capable of seating 6,000 people on the other three sides.

The Zulu village was replaced by an Amazon village and as this proved a popular attraction, a different village of a new nationality became a regular feature at Earls Court.

The year 1901 saw the Military Exhibition and in the Queens Palace they had a tableau displaying the character of the British and French Armies, the French section had been the one displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900. In the Empress Hall, Kiralfy produced a spectacle on the Boxer rebellion. In 1902, Earls Court was transformed into "Paris in London" and a new theatre was run by Joseph Oiler, the manager of the Moulin Rouge.


© Exhibition Study Group 2004