The Beastly History of London’s Business Design Centre

The Business Design Centre is regarded as one of the best conference and exhibition centres in the UK. Many of you may have been inside and seen the huge open spaces, an auditorium and scores of smaller rooms used as office space which is ideal for hosting hundreds of events each year.

Taking a break from closing other things down, it was opened by our former PM Margaret Thatcher in 1987 after a major restoration project by the businessman Sam Morris, who has a bust inside. He was keen to recreate the glory days of the building after it had laid empty and unloved for nearly 20 years.

Opened in 1862, it was said to be inspired by construction of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was originally used for holding the annual Smithfield Show, and was known as the Royal Agricultural Hall. The first agricultural event here attracted 135k people, and every year usually over 100k arrived to observe agricultural innovations, equipment and animal husbandry.

It was also the host of the Royal Tournament from 1880 for 20 years, which was the greatest military event of the year.

Although the agricultural show was a huge success, there were inevitably fallow periods, and these were filled with some more unusual events.

In 1877 the first six day walking race took place here and drew crowds of 20,000, while the following year it held the first six day cycling event when a professional cyclist David Stanton wagered £150 (£12k in today’s money) that he could ride 1000 miles in six days, cycling for 18 hours each day. Amazingly he managed it within 73 hours!

Talking of global events, what is now the world’s most famous dog show, Crufts, had its first official competition here in 1891. It was organised by Charles Cruft, a local dog biscuit salesman, and immediately attracted aristocrats and royalty from across Europe. 2000 dogs were entered, including six by Queen Victoria, who not surprisingly won joint first prize! Some say it was ‘rough’ justice…

Unfortunately when the agricultural show moved out to West London in 1938 the building lost some sense of purpose, and despite being used temporarily as a parcel depot during the war by 1970 it was empty and unused except for occasional events and a bingo hall.

Its rebirth has been pretty spectacular, even being used as the home of Stella McCartney’s first graduate fashion show in 1996 and the BAFTAs in 1999 where rather appropriately given its agricultural past, Live Flesh was nominated for best foreign language film and Thora Hird won best television actress award!

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