Today (August 10) in London History – The Proms

The first night of the Proms was August 10, 1895. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Timing is everything. 

The very first night of the famous Promenade Concerts – the Proms – was on this night, August 10th, 1895.

Now grab hold of that handle – timing is everything – and don’t let go. We’ll come back to it. But first, a bit of British to American cultural translation. I remember years ago when I first heard the term “proms” – last night of the proms, first night of the proms – it didn’t quite compute. Because to me, as an American, when I heard the word prom I thought of “junior prom” or “senior prom” and “prom king” and “prom queen” – in short, a dance party for high school students. Usually near the end of the school year and usually quite formal, evening gowns for girls and corsages and suits or even black tie for boys. You said “prom” to pretty much any American who had little or no experience of Britain, that’s what came to mind.

But of course over here, the proms are a very different cup of tea. They go by various names: the Proms or the BBC Proms or, formally, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts Presented by the BBC. They’re a series of late summer concerts held predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall. They’ve been described as “the world’s largest and most democratic music festival.”

The word “prom” is of course an abbreviation of the phrase promenade concert. The roots of the term go back to the outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens. The audience was free to stroll around – to promenade – while the orchestra was playing. 

In their modern incarnation – the proms at the Royal Albert Hall – a lot of the attendees stand. The standees are sometimes referred to as prommers or promenaders. 

There is much more standing room at a promenade concert than at a normal concert because seats have intentionally been removed to make more standing room. And that all has to do with the economics of the proms. You can get a lot more people standing in a given area than you can get in that same area if they’re seated. I remember when the old Wembley Stadium went to an all-seater the capacity of the stadium dropped from over 100,000 to something like 60,000.

And the pounds, shillings and pence point is that if your concert hall has a lot more attendees you can reduce the ticket price.

Now here’s the thing. You hardly ever go wrong with the advice: Follow the Money.

But in this instance, I had no other choice. I wanted to find out what was on the programme that first night. What was the first music the first promenaders heard?

And what do you know, it looks as though that first night wasn’t reviewed.

What to do? Fallback plan. Don’t search in the category Articles. Search in the Category Advertising.

Voila. A measure of success. I qualified that quite carefully. A measure of success. I found out who the performers were. Who the conductor was. What the prices were. Etc. But what the music was –  drew a blank with the ads. Was that a conscious decision? Advertise Promenade Concerts at the Queen’s Hall to Commence Saturday next, August 10th – I’m quoting now from the ad – “and Every Evening at 8.” Did they see that as tantalising? People would turn up, wondering what they were going to hear? Maybe so.

Anyway, got there in the end. Should have guessed. The evening opened with the national anthem.

And then those first promenaders got the likes of Wagner, Rossini, Haydn, Liszt, Schubert as well as London premiers of works by Chopin and Bizet.

And you know something, the advertising strategy – if that’s what it was – worked. 2,500 people turned out.

Three hours of music for a shilling. That shilling got you admission as a promenader – standing in other words where the stalls normally are. Or up on the balcony. There were reserved seats in the Grand Circle. They were pricier: two shillings and sixpence. 

And for a guinea – that was 21 shillings – you could get a season ticket. What a bargain. 

And to get that into perspective for you, the competition across town, was something called Moore and Burgess Minstrels at St James Hall. Their prices were five shillings, three shillings, two shillings and one shilling.

That one shilling ticket at St James Hall would have got you into what’s called the Gods today. Or the nose bleed seats. So you can imagine the psychological effect on those promenaders at Queens Hall – they were in the stalls – the best seats in the house, the most expensive seats in the house. Except they weren’t seats, they were standing. But if the St James’ Hall prices are anything to go by, those promenaders were getting the best position in the house – let’s drop the word ‘seats’ – for a fifth of the normal cost. No wonder there was a full house. No wonder there was a sense of joy, of fun and giddy happiness. Which is still part and parcel of the proms today, over a hundred years later.

That first night, for the record, was the first of the 49 concerts in that first season. 

Another fun detail: eating, drinking and smoking was allowed in the Hall. But the promenaders were asked to refrain from striking matches during vocal pieces.

As for the performers, Madame Marie Duma was given headline billing. She was an American soprano. 

And – this is almost too perfect – the conductor was Henry Wood. 

So conductor-wise the proms started as they would continue for decades. Henry Wood was still conducting nearly 40 years later. 

There’s one other name on that ad that’s deserving of headline billing. 

It tells us tickets were available at Robert Newmans, Box Office, Queens Hall, Langham Place. 

Robert Newman – let’s call a spade a spade – was an impresario. He’s the true progenitor of the proms. He wanted to generate a wider audience for concert hall music by offering low ticket prices and an informal atmosphere.

He said it in so many words to Henry Wood. 

I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.

In which connection, I opened this piece by saying timing is everything. And asked you to keep a tight grip on that handle. Here’s why.

The proms are in late summer. Remember the 12th of August. The better sort of people – the toffs – have all decamped to their country estates. Up there blazing away at pheasants and partridges. And of course they were the concert music audience. The phrase there was an opening puts it perfectly. All the toffs had left town, had decamped. The market – well, the bottom fell out of it. Those concert-goers weren’t there. But it was an opening in another sense – it was an opening for a different kind of concert goer, a different class of concert-goer. 

Timing is everything. 

Ok, let’s bring this ship in. Today the proms are always associated with the Royal Albert Hall. 

But the Queen’s Hall was their birthplace and home for nearly half a century. The Luftwaffe did for it. Ergo the move to the Royal Albert Hall. 

The Queen’s hall was in Langham Place. The BBC’s broadcasting house, when it arrived on the scene, was a next-door neighbour. 

A bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood recovered from the ruins of the bombed-out Queen’s Hall in 1941, and now belonging to the Royal Academy of Music,[15] is still placed in front of the organ for the whole Promenade season. Though the concerts are now called the BBC Proms, and are headlined with the BBC logo, the tickets are subtitled “BBC Music presents the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”.

A Today in London recommendation. Well, to put this in baseball terms, this is the fattest batting practice pitch I’ll ever get a chance to swing at. No question but I’m going to hit this one out of the ballpark. Here’s your recommendation. Become a promenader. Go to a Proms concert. End of story. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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