Then and now: The People’s Palace in the 20s

This blog article is part of the 20sPeople season – a season of exhibitions, activities and events from The National Archives that explores and shares stories that connect the people of the 2020s with the people of the 1920s.

Following the 1921 census release on 6 January 2022 and the launch of our 20sPeople season, we are exploring and sharing stories that connect the people of the 1920s to the people of the 2020s. 

The First World War saw significant upheaval for many institutions at home – and London’s Alexandra Palace was no exception. Having been requisitioned by the government, it was finally handed back in 1922 to resume functioning as a ‘a place of public resort and recreation’.  

Staff have undertaken fascinating digitisation work of records from this period during 2020, so we invited Kirsten Forrest, Curatorial and Interpretation Manager from Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust, to tell us more.  

The crowd at The Flaming Lips on the Hilltop Stage, Alexandra Palace in 2018

During lockdown in 2020, archive volunteers at Alexandra Palace (Ally Pally) were able to commit some of their precious time to piloting a transcription project focusing on digitised records from the 1920s. This work has enabled a deep dive into the world of our grandparents and great-grandparents – and also reveals some surprising synergies with current times.

Directly comparing the First World War and the pandemic would be overly simplistic. But recurring themes of re-purposing, repairing and reopening our spaces here at Ally Pally, for the benefit of everyone, are prominent – both now and 100 years ago.

The legacy of war

The period from 1915 to 1919 saw the venue – built in 1873 as the ‘People’s Palace’, and set within 196 acres of parkland – closed to the public and converted into an internment camp housing 3,000 ‘enemy aliens’. When first reopened, it was used by government officials processing repatriation documentation, and not for the public.

Government employees working at desks in a makeshift office in Alexandra Palace in the 1920s.

There were still some opportunities for post-war fun once the park reopened on 27 March 1920, with popular events such as a concert in May attended by over 3,000 people.

A group of smartly dressed musicians pose for a photograph in a pavilion, in front of a small crowd in deckchairs.
Musicians in the Pavilion (also known as the Team Room) in the Grove at Alexandra Park. Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The people return to the ‘People’s Palace’

In February 1922, the keys of the Palace were handed back to the Trustees. This act signalled a return to the intended purpose of Alexandra Palace, resuming entertainment and recreation for the masses.

For the winter programme, the Industrial and Exhibition Hall (now the Ally Pally ice rink) was hastily converted into a concert hall.

Hundreds of chairs laid out in rows inside Alexandra Palace.
Bazaar at Alexandra Palace laid out for a concert. Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The Christmas pantomime returned in the same year, complete with a forest scene featuring a waterfall and live deer, ponies, horses and hounds!

Meanwhile, the banqueting hall – built for refreshments, before the Palace itself – saw 1,300 dancers welcome in the new year of 1923. At 200 feet long and 60 feet wide, it was the largest dance hall in London.

Chinese lanterns in the Banqueting Hall. Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The Palace’s popular clubs were also brought back into operation, offering badminton, indoor bowls and roller skating.

Significant challenges remained, however. The Palace’s Trustees expected similar treatment to the Crystal Palace, which was renovated and redecorated. However, the ‘tin gods in Whitehall’ seemed to have no interest in extending their support to north London. The Great Hall, with its leaky roof, rotten wooden flooring, and antiquated heating system, needed far more than the War Compensation Court offer of £11,000.

In the spirit of the venue, which continues to this day, the trustees were adamant that ‘the show must go on’. Professional management was brought in for the first time in the history of Ally Pally when local resident W MacQueen Pope was appointed. He had an established career in the entertainment world and helped steer the organisation forwards. Well-known singers were attracted back to Alexandra Palace once again for concerts and performances.

Against a black background, an image of a medical card for Tetanus Antitoxic serum and a bottle of the serum.
These vials of Tetanus medication, found wedged into the Alexandra Palace Theatre walls, were recovered during restoration. Dated to 1915, we assume they were used in the hospital for internees detained at the Palace. The vaccination was not widely used until after the war and this must have been an early use of the serum

The Theatre, which had been used as camp chapel and hospital during the First World War (see below), was refurbished and reopened, complete with the latest facilities, including electric lighting, heating and comfier seating! 1923 was the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Alexandra Palace, and jubilee celebrations from 18-21 May are detailed in a souvenir programme from the archive which includes the following:

‘… It should be remembered that the Palace belongs to the Public … and that every penny spent therein goes to the improvement of the Public’s property. With adequate support the future of the Palace is assured.’

A sentiment which is echoed to this day.

The 1920s saw the Palace’s Amateur Dramatic & Operatic Society established, with Nancy Macmillan featuring as a star of the stage.

A cast of actors and performers on stage at Alexandra Palace.
Performance at Alexandra Palace Theatre, c.1925

The August bank holiday crowds of 1923 sank 800 gallons of beer – almost as much as a darts’ world championship audience today! We seriously doubt they would match the consumption of a ton and a half of tea, plus 20,000 bottles of mineral water, though.

A programme for the Hornsey Conservative & Unionist Association Mammoth Fete in 1926, aside from exhorting readers to make sure they were registered to vote, also advertises a range of decidedly non-political entertainments including daylight fireworks, Punch & Judy shows, and a Palais de Danse (always sounds posher in French!).

The North London Shows that brought the latest fashions and home improvements to post-war audiences proved highly successful, and of course the electric tram came right up the hill to the doors of the Palace.

Trams and crowds of passengers outside the front entrance to Alexandra Palace.
Trams with signs for Lipton’s Tea, outside the entrance to Alexandra Palace, during the North London Exhibition. Source: Hornsey Historical Society

The Empire Exhibition programme of 1928 lists Trade Exhibitors’ stands as advertising pianos, fountain pens, boot polishes, Indian perfumes and various ‘domestic labour saving devices’. Some brands such as Cow & Gate are still household names. Hygiene was a concern 100 years ago (after the Spanish flu pandemic), as our archive reveals: ‘In the interests of public health, the premises will be disinfected daily with IZAL’. Parking was also becoming a concern, and fell under the ‘direct control’ of RAC attendants at a charge of two shillings and six pence. 

In all, the 1920s were a period of recovery and rebirth that laid the foundation for significant advancements in the decades to come.

To modern times

It has been a pleasure to rediscover so many of these events from the 1920s through our archive. Comparisons between that era and now are undeniable. Over the last 18 months, the Palace has at times been forced to close, though in contrast to the war years the Park has remained open, welcoming five million people in 2020. The locked-down Palace was re-purposed for COVID testing centres and food distribution hubs, while charities used the empty kitchens to prepare food parcels for the most vulnerable in our community. Modern technology enabled streamed performances from the likes of Coldplay, Wolf Alice and Nick Cave to be hosted inside our walls. Meanwhile, we took our learning programme online to help home schooling, and organised socially distanced entertainment in local care homes.

With some restrictions lifting, today’s Ally Pally team, like our counterparts in the 1920s, have welcomed audiences back for live music, theatre, comedy and major events, such as the recent Earthshot Prize, which was held in that same theatre space where people were royally entertained a century ago.

During the pandemic we leaned on the spirit of endeavour and innovation that our predecessors had shown in rebuilding and re-awakening this iconic venue.

As a Charitable Trust we are so grateful for all the support from the public and local communities during the past year, as we continue to fulfil our public purposes to make the Park and Palace ‘available for the free use and recreation of the public forever’.

20sPeople at The National Archives

20sPeople at The National Archives explores and shares stories that connect the people of the 2020s with the people of the 1920s. Accompanying the release of the 1921 Census of England and Wales, 20sPeople shows what we can learn by connecting with those who have gone before us. Find out more at


  1. Richard Keesing says:

    In 1963/4/5 I lived in a flat in The Avenue with two other graduate students from UCL. One Sunday morning I walked up to Alexandra Palace and the great hall was completely empty except for about a dozen couples practicing ballroom dancing to a small portable gramophone on a chair. The girls were wearing bright orange taffeta dresses and the men were in tails. It was completely surreal and could have come from a Fellini film.

  2. Doug Fitch says:

    My parents met in 1939 at the Ally Pally so may not have been here without it.

  3. Sue Hobbs says:

    Fascinating! Thank you to the volunteers who delved into the archives

  4. Sally Shepard says:

    Anything discovered about the Alexandra Palace organ? Built by Father Willis 1875, wrecked during WW1, re-opened 1929 by voluntary subscription, then damaged in 1944 and offered for sale in 1969. I have an LP dated 1975 containing 9 tracks by 5 organists recorded 1929-31. Ref no. HLM 7065. I could send a scan of the sleeve notes if it is of interest.

  5. John Nice says:

    I was brought up in Wood Green and knew the Palace well in my childhood and teenage years (1950’s &. 60’s.) I now live in North Wales. It was good to see the article about it on the National Archives site.

  6. Elizabeth Cuff says:

    Really appreciated the article. Thank you for researching, transcribing and posting!

  7. Dave Lally says:

    Looking forward to anything re Ally Pally (where ages ago, I did some of my Insurance exams!) re its unique history as the very 1st broadcast centre for high definition (ie then 405 lines) TV in 1936. I did attend the 80th anniv event there in 2016 and esp enjoyed the computer-assisted system showing not only the then current HD system (1018p), but also –converted from that– the older 625 line system, the then even older 405 line system (1st at Ally Plly) and then –ahem– the Baird 30 line system !!

  8. Love the view over London :) says:

    My grandparents met in the 1920s at Ally Pally (whilst rollerskating I think) and my parents used to go up there to watch icehockey matches.
    We scattered our grandparents ashes in the old rose garden!?

  9. Dave Raeburn says:

    My absolute favourite building in the world!
    Visited the theatre for ‘A Christmas Carol’ and thought the renovation was simply breathtaking.
    I lived on Bounds Green Road in the early 80s when fire damage made the Palace off limits; so fabulous to visit again whenever we can.x

  10. Grahame Chandler says:

    My parents were from the Wood Green/Tottenham area and had their first date at the Ally Pally in the late 30’s, sitting on a bench right up at the top. The reason for the location – my father wanted to listen to a boxing match on his ‘crystal’ radio set and it was the best place for reception. My Mother commented that it was a ‘riveting’ evening but must have forgiven him as they married in 1942 when he managed to get leave from the War.
    My Grandmother used to often take me up there in the early 50’s whereupon I frequently fell into the boating lake.

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