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31 January, 2023 -

From wacky races and slightly sordid ‘freak shows’, to the famous agricultural show, there’s no end to the history of our beloved building.  

Historically the pride of Islington, and originally known as the Royal Agricultural Hall (affectionately termed ‘the Aggie’), the BDC has gone through many an era (and seen many an event), long before it was even called the Business Design Centre. From wacky races and slightly sordid ‘freak shows’, to the famous agricultural show, there’s no end to the history of our beloved building.  

To round off the year, we wanted to do a run down of some of our favourite historical events at the BDC. Let us know if you think any of them should make a return in 2023! 

Smithfield Club Cattle Show

The Smithfield Club Cattle Show was first held in December 1799 (originally at Wootton’s Livery Stables in Smithfield). The Royal Agricultural Hall was originally built exclusively for the Smithfield Show, and when first built, it was one of the largest exhibition halls in the world. The Smithfield show took place regularly until 1939, when the onset of WWII shut down all of London’s festivities. 

If you take a stroll round the BDC, you’ll be able to see echoes of the agricultural shows everywhere – the main galleries, where people would have gathered to look at livestock and the stained glass at the front of the building depicting the name “Royal Agricultural Show”. 

World’s Fair 1885

There have been more than a few ‘World’s Fair’s’ in the BDC over the years. Between the travelling World Fair, which was supposedly reminiscent of older travelling fairs, and the World’s Fairs and Universal Exhibitions, the BDC was renowned across London (we’d like to think nothing has changed). In 1864, the Islington Gazette printed a piece claiming “There is no building equally well adapted for the purposes of a hippodrome and circus… the building is well lighted and free from those unpleasant smells that are offensively present in other buildings dedicated to equestrian amusement.” From this point onward, the Aggie swiftly became the prime venue for entertainment in a comfortable venue – circuses, races, shows, and ‘considerable hurly-burly’. 

International Walking Race 1879

The first ever walking race took place in the Royal Agricultural Hall in 1879. A bonus fun fact – racewalking is different from normal running races, in that one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. Edward Payson-Weston, all the way from the US, and Daniel O’Leary from Cork made a bet of £500 on race based on time (who could reach 500 miles first), and endurance (to see who could keep going longest). 

The race attracted a crowd of almost 20,000 people, and according to this poster, Daniel O’Leary was the winner. 

Sedgwick’s Exhibition of Living Wonders, December 1874

Certainly not one that would be greenlighted today, Sedgwick’s Exhibition of Living Wonders was an institutionalised circus and ‘freak show’ that grew out of the World’s Fair. Several acts were even granted royal patronage by Queen Victoria, as they were extremely popular (and who are we to judge, considering the record numbers of people that tune in to watch celebrities eating bugs).

Performers who appeared at the Exhibition of Living Wonders included the eight foot tall ‘Norfolk Giant’, as well as James Taylor, known popularly as ‘The Double Man’, who was presented as half-man, half-skeleton, and was described as ‘The Greatest Living Wonder Ever Seen!’. His reputation was so incredible that scientists were offered £20,000 (around £2,600,000 today) to find another living person with the same condition.

Grand Christmas Fete 1875

Circuses and fetes were some of the most popular attractions at the Royal Agricultural Hall in the 1800s. On the 26th December in 1863, the Islington Gazette started advertising a Grand Christmas Entertainment, “on a scale of magnificence hitherto not attempted in this country”. 

A poster for one of the Grand Christmas Fetes (from later on, December of 1875), depicts a lively scene, including a tree, eager spectators, and even an elephant! Unfortunately, the Grand Christmas Fete no longer exists – although if you fancy the BDC at a festive moment, check out the Country Living Christmas Show, which is held in the design centre every year.  

If you’re interested in holding your own event at the Business Design Centre, or you want to inquire about office space, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’ll be closed for a short while over the Christmas break, but we’ll be eager to get back to you in January.

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