6 Secrets Of Southbank Centre

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 8 months ago
6 Secrets Of Southbank Centre

You've probably been to the Southbank Centre several times (even if only to take advantage of the free toilets). You might even know it was the only permanent building from 1951's Festival of Britain. But did you know about things like the singing lift and Mandela's big head? Read on...

Photo: James Beard

1. The lift sings

When you enter Royal Festival Hall via the main entrance close to the river, head over to the far left corner and you'll find this lift. Hop in and you'll be serenaded.

2. A trailblazer for Grade I listing

Royal Festival Hall in 2012. Photo: Andy Worthington

Clement Attlee laid the foundation stone of the Hall in October 1949. Today, Royal Festival Hall is Grade I listed — it was the first post-war building to be given this protected status.

3. The London Zoo link

Hugh Casson, the architect responsible for overseeing the construction of Royal Festival Hall, was also responsible for designing the famous elephant house at London Zoo. Before work on Royal Festival Hall began, he described South Bank area as

a grimy and battered film-set of a place lying almost in the shadow of Big Ben.

To be honest, not everyone was enamoured with Casson's design. John Rentoul describes it as one of the 'Top 10 Horrible Buildings'... although he also includes Buckingham Palace in the list. Weirdo.

4. It used to be a brewery

The Red Lion Brewery and Shot Tower on the south bank near Waterloo, in June, 1932. By AG Linney, courtesy of the Museum of London.

Before the Festival of Britain in 1951, the site now occupied by Southbank Centre was home to The Lion Brewery. The brewery opened in 1837, and functioned here until 1924, when the company was taken over. The building sat disused until 1931, when it was destroyed by fire, and the site remained empty until the Royal Festival Hall was built in 1949 (hence Casson's comments above).

The South Bank lion, which now sits on the south end of Westminster Bridge, used to sit atop the brewery — pictured above.

5. The Mandela statue

Photo: Dan Brown

The bust of Nelson Mandela outside Royal Festival Hall is unusual because it was unveiled in 1988 while Mandela was still alive — it's normal for statues to be erected after the subject has died. Indeed, the man who created it, Ian Walters, actually died before Mandela himself did. Walters was also responsible for designing the Mandela statue in Parliament Square, although he died before it was completed.

The bust is Grade II listed.

6. Tobacco pipes

When the Royal Festival Hall organ underwent a major restoration in 2011, yellow nicotine traces were found on the inside of the original pipes — a relic from when audiences were permitted to smoke in the hall. In 1969, the hall welcomed a meeting of women pipe smokers, as seen below in a groovy British Pathe video. '50 puffing ladies gathered for their first ever smoke-in' almost sounds like a step towards equality... until the voiceover mentions the pipes are "to fit snuggly between those ruby red lips." Ah well.

Last Updated 29 May 2018