In 1899, the London Council was given the power to proceed with major slum clearance in the area between Holburn and the Strand. The Methodist Church, which had operated the West London Mission from 1887, had land with a chapel on it, and decided to construct a new building. The Wesleyan Chapel at 67 Great Queen Street was renamed as Kingsway Hall April 1907, but that building was also condemned by the London Council as part of the clearance.
A new seven-story building called Wesley House was home to the West London Mission until 1972 when it merged with the Hinde Street Methodist Chapel (a merger not completed until 1982). Wesley House included a youth club, religious meeting rooms, a luncheon club, mission offices, and accommodation for resident staff. Adjacent to Wesley House and with a frontage on to Kingsway the Church also speculated by building the International Buildings which was let to many tenants and was a source of much needed revenue to run the mission. The mission was inaugurated at Wesley House on December 6, 1911 but Kingsway Hall within Wesley House required another year of construction. Although Kingsway Hall itself has been demolished, Wesley House remains today, no longer a mission, as does the International Buildings.
The organ, built in 1912 by J. J. Binns of Leeds, was inaugurated April 4, 1913. A fourth manual was added to in 1924 by Messrs. Hill & Son and Norman & Beard, along with chimes and timpani. The opening of the new organ was performed by Gatty Sellars, the hall’s organist at the time. The organ was rebuilt in 1932 and remained in use until the closure of the hall. The Nigerian composer Fela Sowande was the organist of the hall from 1945.
At the end of March 1983 the Greater London Council purchased Wesley House and Kingsway Hall for the women’s committee. Kingsway Hall was rapidly deteriorating, and an archaeological survey in August 1996 found nothing significant about Kingsway Hall was left. Despite pleas from some musicians and record magazines, Kingsway was demolished in 1998 to make way for a hotel of the same name, which opened in 2000. The hotel’s reception desk is on the approximate location where orchestra members once recorded.
Kingsway was built for evangelical purposes, as a place of worship, not as a concert or recording hall. However, it was considered to have the finest recording acoustic in London for orchestra and chorus. The outstanding acoustics were more of an accident than a design. The size and shape of the chamber, the plastered walls, wooden floor and seating all contributed as did the large storage chamber below the hall. . Musicians were enthusiastic to perform there since the hall offered excellent feedback. They also found the hall difficult since it lacked parking, was cold in the winter, was dingy and dirty, and lacked food services. For recording engineers, there was also continual rumbling from the London Underground line interrupting recordings. Directly below Great Queen Street is the main line of the Underground Piccadilly Line which opened on 15th December 1906, and under Kingsway was a branch, the rail extension from Holborn to Aldwych which opened November 13, 1907 and closed 1994. The sound of the underground could be heard on many recordings, and became known as the “Kingsway rumble”. There were also recording problems created by road and construction noise, and even occasional interruptions from the clientele of the mission itself. Engineers complained that takes made with outside traffic noise could not be edited together with those made while traffic stopped for a red light.
Despite the drawbacks, because of its central location and excellent acoustics, Kingsway became the most sought after recording venue for orchestral music in England, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when companies were replacing their monaural with stereophonic recordings. The London Symphony Orchestra alone made 421 recordings between 1926-1983. The London Philharmonic Orchestra made 280 recordings there, including its very first sessions (with Malcolm Sargent conducting choral favorites).
The hall included room for operatic and choral recordings, and there was also the usable organ. Since the stage was not large enough for an orchestra or chorus, the metal ground floor seating was removed for recordings. The conductor often faced the horseshoe balcony, giving that individual an unusual prospect of looking at the orchestra dropping down rapidly due to the five percent raked floor.
EMI began recording at Kingsway Hall on December 31, 1925; Decca Records began recording at Kingsway Hall in May 1944. EMI had its own recording complex at Abbey Road Studios, but Kingsway would become one of the three most used Decca recording locations (the others being Victoria Hall in Geneva, and the Sofiensaal in Vienna). Lyrita used Kingsway from 1965-1980 (these recordings were actually produced by Decca’s recording team) and RCA Records from 1957-1977. Although primarily used for classical music recording very occasionally dance bands and the like were recorded there including Sydney Lipton in the thirties and Ted Heath in the summer of 1958. EMI rarely used the venue for chamber music but Decca recorded solo keyboard, violin sonatas and string quartets.
EMI and Decca had opportunities to purchase Kingsway Hall. EMI determined that although Kingsway Hall was one of the best recording locations in the world, refurbishment would be too expensive. Decca and EMI’s recording contracts at Kingsway expired December 31, 1983. The final recording, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli, was made with Deutsche Grammophon a few days later: Puccini's Manon Lescaut which finished taping on January 5, 1984.
Unfortunately, there is no published history of Kingsway Hall.
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