Business Design Centre

The History of the Building and Business

The History of the Building and Business

The Business Design Centre is now classed as one of the best modern day conference and exhibition centres.


Originally the Royal Agricultural Hall the (now) Business Design Centre was opened in 1862. The construction was inspired by the Crystal Palace, which had been designed by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and re-erected at Sydenham in 1852. The function of the Royal Agricultural Hall and its location was related specifically to its proximity to Smithfield, the great livestock market.


In the 1880s the Smithfield Club was outgrowing its original location down Baker Street due to the development of new railways. Therefore the decision to raise £50,000 was made in order to create the Agricultural Hall. Mindful of their origins in Smithfield and the routes for driving animals to the livestock market, three acres of land were bought in Islington. This land was previously occupied by pasture and cattle sheds and knows as Dixon’s Lairs, or Layers. With the location chosen, Frederick Peck was appointed as the architect, Whitechapel builders Hill, Kedell and Robinson were employed as the contractors and the ironwork was commissioned from Andrew Handyside & Co. of Derby. Peck proposed a single large, covered space with a huge single span roof.


As early as 1867 the premises were being developed. At the east end of the main building the new St Mary’s Hall was built to function as the Empire Music Hall or Islington Palace, the theatre then ended up turning into a bingo club. In 1869 the Berners Hall was being opened as a further annexe for the Main Hall. The original design for this was a small 100 square feet secondary space but in 1894 it was demolished and rebuilt as a bigger hall. The last addition to the Royal Agricultural Hall was the New Hall of 1930, replacing the Methodist chapel on Liverpool Road. Architecturally the New Hall was utilitarian and nondescript but it helped to extend the site to a total of nearly five acres.


The first Smithfield Show was in 1862 and had a record attendance of 134,669. The Smithfield Show continued to take place every year in the Royal Agricultural Hall regularly attracting over a hundred thousand people. On 26th December 1863 the Islington Gazette advertised a ‘Grand Xmas Entertainment’ at the Agricultural Hall. In 1924 the New World’s Fair Company took over from impresario Mr Read when his lease expired. The most glamorous event to take place in the Agricultural Hall was the Grand Ball held for the Belgian Volunteer Regiments during their visit to England in July 1867. Other events included Military tournaments, Walking races, Dog shows and Trade shows.


In 1943 the Post Office half a mile away was bombed leading to the inland and foreign parcels departments being moved to the Royal Agricultural Hall. Although the Inland Parcels returned to Mount Pleasant, the Overseas Parcels and Customs remained in the Main Hall until many years after the war. The Post Office became a very un-intensive occupation of the site and during the 1950s the Angel became a dull place. In 1970 the Overseas Parcels moved to new premises in Canning Town. The entire venue, with the exception of the Top Rank Bingo in the Blue Hall, fell empty. In early 1974 the then owner offered to sell the "Aggie" to the council.


In the 1980s Sam Morris came to the Agricultural Hall's rescue and bought the building after being fascinated with how this deserted and derelict building might be reborn. Sam Morris turned to Renton Howard Wood Levin for architectural advice and redevelopment work began. The architectural work began in January 1985. One of the initial tasks was to clear away the buildings and accretions which were not going to be kept.

In October 1986 work was completed and the Business Design Centre opened for business. The official opening took place in July the following year (1987) with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher doing the honours. Thirty four years later, the Business Design Centre is now regarded as one of the best modern day conference and exhibition centres, hosting hundreds of events yearly and always providing an exceptional service.


Over the last 34 years since the venue was opened, there have been many milestones and historical events. In 1988 Princess Diana attracted huge crowds as she opened the New Designers exhibition, showcasing graduating students' design work from across the country. Eight years on at the same event Stella McCartney displayed her first graduate collection, getting friends Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Yasmin Le Bon to help out on the runway.

1999 saw the BAFTAs transform the venue into a starlit ballroom with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Pierce Brosnan in attendance for a night hosted by Jonathan Ross. Over the following years many longstanding conferences and exhibitions have celebrated their own milestones at The BDC, with a host of high profile speakers; particularly memorably in 2005 Tony Blair took to the stage at the CBI conference.

The most memorable year in recent history for many people was the London 2012 Olympics. The venue hosted its longest ever event tenancy welcoming the Czech Olympic House for the duration of the Games. The House welcomed 74,000 visitors, poured 72,000 beers and served 6,200 portions of strudel inluding Sebastian Coe, Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky and Colin Jackson.

Two years on, the BDC team took on a challenge in the form of their Angel to Angel Bike ride. Fourteen members of staff and service partners comprised the team who cycled from the Angel of the North in Newcastle to the Angel in Islington, London. The charity fundraising ride took six days and covered 375 miles and can still be read about in our six-day blog.

Also in 2014, we unveiled the gable end restoration. Both ends of the BDC's magnificient roof were replaced in their entirety with glass, allowing for natural daylight to illuminate the venue and giving arriving guests a glimpse of the original architecture. Innovation such as this has kept the business evolving and in 2017 the venue’s showroom portfolio incorporated a new coworking space venture. The growth trend continued into 2019 for the showrooms business, with The BDC welcoming several new design manufacturers joining industry leaders such as Silent Gliss, Lathams, Saloni, Bisque and Merlyn who offer an unparalleled design experience in one central London location.

Updated: 01/12/20