Funding for the construction of the Central Hall of Arts and Science, later the Royal Albert Hall, did not come from government but from public subscriptions and ticketing. Although not common practice today, subscription concerts had become a popular part of English society since the mid-18th century.
Henry Cole’s efforts to secure funding and support
After the site was reserved for the hall in 1863, momentum for the project slowed down. By August 1864 Henry Cole had lost patience and began to collect money from private investors, in agreement with the late Prince Consort's ideas for commercially funding the hall.
Within six months Cole had collected subscriptions from 70 people of important standing. Following his successful trip to Osborne in 1865 to gain royal support, the 1851 Commissioners were finally won over and gave their full backing.
The commissioners granted a lease of 999 years on the land at one shilling a year and subscribed £50,000 towards building costs, on condition that the total not exceed £200,000 and that the public subscribed the remainder of the money. Unfortunately there was a shortfall so the builders, the Lucas Brothers, initially acquired 300 seats. These were later also bought by the commissioners.
The 999 year lease on seats and boxes
All seats and boxes were sold leasehold for 999 years: seats cost £100 each with their own silver seat token; and boxes, seating ten people and accessed by their own key, cost £1,000 each. Although the hall was not at first a financial success, the seats and boxes turned out to be excellent investments. In June 2008 one of the largest boxes went on sale for £1.2million! (1)
At first the box owners brought in their own furniture to use. This gave the auditorium a very busy, uncoordinated look. After ten years owners were given regulation red curtains and chairs instead, however certain box holders still had their own furniture in place until 1984.
(1) Article in London Lite, 3 June 2008