The history of the Great Hall
The Great Hall is well-loved and familiar now – but what was it like 20, 50, 100 years ago?
Built in 1900, the impressive Grade II listed building, with its beautiful marble rotunda and trompe l’oeil domed ceiling, has been inspiring people for over a century.
Today, we know it as a place of celebration and discovery. It’s where award ceremonies are hosted, degrees awarded, and pioneering conferences held. But this hasn’t always been the case. Over the last 100 years, the Hall has seen war, sports matches and much more.
A cathedral to learning
The Great Hall has been a part of Birmingham from the University’s beginnings. In fact, it was the very first building to be built on campus.
As soon as Birmingham gained its Royal Charter in 1900, Joseph Chamberlain – the University’s founder and first Chancellor – set his sights on building a hall befitting the University’s status. He wanted to create a ‘cathedral to learning’, a building so grand that it would surpass others of its kind in Birmingham, making the University a key destination for the world’s best and brightest minds.
The Great Hall certainly lived up to expectations and continues to do so today. The centrepiece of the University’s Edgbaston campus, the Hall was built as a space for ceremony and pageantry (nothing impresses quite like a 32ft organ!). A place for academic addresses, degree congregations, religious dedications, and royal visits. But it wasn’t long after its construction that it took on an entirely different role…
Providing support in times of crisis
During the First World War, The Great Hall went through the greatest transformation in its history: it became the base for the First Southern General Hospital. Under the watchful eye of the War Office, this impressive building, praised for its aesthetics and grandeur, became a purely practical space from 1914 to 1918.
Over 1,000 hospital beds occupied the Hall and Aston Webb complex during the war years, as well as a dental surgery room and medical supplies store. It’s thought that over 64,000 patients had passed through The Great Hall by the time war was over.
In more recent years, the Hall has played a crucial role in the COVID-19 pandemic. From 2019 to 2020, it was used as a testing site to support the national ‘Test and Trace’ programme and reduce the risk of transmission in the Birmingham community.
A place for performance and productions
The Great Hall’s prestige has made it an ideal location for high-profile performances and events.
In the 1970s and 80s, the Hall provided the perfect acoustics for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Turning the space into a studio, the Orchestra recorded over 50 albums in the Hall during this time.
Fast forward to 2007 and the venue was used for a very different kind of performance: sport. In September 2021, The Great Hall hosted the English Grand Prix squash tournament within its walls. A giant, purpose-built squash court was built for the occasion, and additional seating added to accommodate hundreds of spectators.
Throughout its history, the venue has also been the backdrop for a range of television programmes, including Antiques Roadshow, plus the Distinguished Lecture Series. The likes of David Attenborough, Jung Chang and Yehudi Menuhin have all graced The Great Hall’s stage.
But that’s not all. In 2010, the venue hosted one of the UK’s most important events: the final Prime Ministerial debate in the first-ever televised debate series. On 29 April 2010, the Hall opened its doors to then-party leaders, Nick Clegg, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown for a debate that was watched by millions across Britain.
What makes the Great Hall so great for events?
It boasts many desirable features for events and conferences of all shapes and sizes.