St. James’s Hall was a noted music and speaking venue in the heart of London for around 50 years from the late 1850’s. Charles Dickens spoke here a number of time and gave his final public readings here just a few months before his death.
The venue stood on the site now occupied by the Piccadilly Hotel off Piccadilly. The Hall, built in 1857 and opened the following year, was fashioned in the Moorish Alhambra style, from design by Owen Jones. It had entrances in both Regent Street and in Piccadilly and consisted of one large and two smaller halls.
ST. JAMES’S HALL, Piccadilly and Regent’s Quadrant, was built by a joint-stock company. The architect and artist was Mr. Owen Jones, and his labours have not been unsuccessful. The grand hall, on the first floor, is 136 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 60 feet high. The decorations are superb. On the ground floor are two smaller halls one 60 feet square; the other 60 feet by 55 feet. The restaurant, under the management of Mr. Donald, is one of the best in London. The hall was opened on the 25th March 1858.
Description of St. James’s hall from an 1865 guide to London (Cruchley’s London: A Handbook for Strangers, 1865).
ST. JAMES’S HALL and its appurtenances (originated by Mr. Willert Beale) are situated between the Quadrant in Regent-street and Piccadilly, and Vine-street and George-court. There is a frontage in Regent-street, and another in Piccadilly; the latter is characteristically embellished with a sculptured figure of Music, supported by two Cupids, in the tympanum over the upper windows; and between the upper and lower window is a frieze of children playing various musical instruments. The interior consists of a great hall and two smaller halls. The dimensions of time great hall are 139 feet by 60, and 60 feet in height; and it will seat about 2500 persons. It has a semicircular-headed ceiling, and a recessed orchestral gallery at one end, and an alcove at the other end, containing a large organ by Gray and Davidson. The walls and ceiling have been decorated by Mr. Owen Jones. The ceiling is divided into lozenge-shaped panels, by principal ribs that traverse the roof diagonally, and intersect each other; within these panels are others formed by lesser ribs. The semicircular- headed windows are surrounded with flowing scroll ornaments, on a ground of orange-chrome yellow; and the windows have groups of figures in bold relief, holding scrolls, on which are inscribed the names of Mozart, Handel, Beethoven, Haydn, Auber, Meyerbeer, Spohr, Weber, Gluck, Purcell, Rossini, Cherubini, and other eminent composers. The ceiling is rich in colour and gilding; the smaller panels are Alhambran gold on a red ground. The Hall is not lighted at night by a central chandelier, but by gas stars of seven jets each, suspended from the ceiling. The figures in the various designs were modelled by Monti; the other enrichments, by De Sarchy, are of plaster and canvas run into moulds. The floor of the Hall is of marqueterie. It was opened with a musical performance for the benefit of the Middlesex Hospital on the 25th of March, 1856. The Hall is not, however, appropriated exclusively to music.
Public Dinners are given in this Hall. The first took place June 2, 1858, Mr. Robert Stephenson, M.P., presiding, when handsome plate and 26781. were presented to Mr. F. Pettit Smith, in testimony of his bringing into general use the system of Screw Propulsion in ships. The subscribers to time Testimonial were 138, chiefly eminent naval officers, engineers, ship-builders, ship-owners, and men of science; and the Festival intellectually commemorated “one of those bloodless triumphs of’civilization, of which this age and country have reason to be proud.”
Description of St. James’s hall published in Curiosities of London, 1867.
Charles Dickens and St. James’s Hall.
Charles Dickens gave a second series of his “Readings” here in the Spring of 1861.
In 1868, Charles Dickens presented a final series of “Farewell Readings,” at the hall, which commenced on the evening of October 6, with a program devoted to “Doctor Marigold” (from the Christmas Story) and “The Trial” from Pickwick. He had settled with his tour managers, Chappell & Co., on 100 readings for the princely sum of £8,000 pounds. Attendees would receive printed programs and Chappell’s advertisements included the following statement:
It is scarcely necessary for Messrs. CHAPPELL and Co. to add that any announcement made in connexion with these FAREWELL READINGS will be strictly adhered to and considered final; and that on no consideration whatever will Mr. DICKENS be induced to appoint an extra night in any place in which he shall have been once announced to read for the last time.
The stalls were priced at five shillings, balcony seats at three, and general admission at one shilling. A new amenity, sofa stalls (“of which there will be a limited number only”), went for seven shillings.
The following year Dickens would have to cut a provincial tour short after collapsing showing symptoms of a mild stroke in Preston on 22 April 1869. When he had regained sufficient strength, he arranged, with medical approval, for a series of readings to partially make up to Chappell & Co. what they had lost due of his illness. There were to be twelve final performances, running starting on 11 January 1870 back at the hall. Dickens would give his last public reading here at 8:00 pm on the 15 March 1870. He died shortly thereafter on 9 June, having suffered another stroke.