INDOOR THEMED VILLAGE, CELEBRATING THE LIFE, TIMES AND WORKS OF CHARLES DICKENS
In 1980 London newspapers reported that The Royal Agricultural
Hall, one of London’s most important historic buildings, had become in a state of disrepair and that it was scheduled
for the wrecker’s ball. Having been the original home of many London’s
most spectacular events since its opening in 1869 the public cried out for a solution.
Intrigued, the Doultons obtained a site visit. Unused since World War
II the RAH had indeed become a dangerous place to even walk. Sheets
of glass fell from the roof without warning crashing to the floor eight stories
below. Nevertheless, it once was a magnificent building that needed to be saved
if at all commercially possible.
The Royal Agricultural Hall, Borough of Islington, was
positioned between a residential neighborhood and the Chapel Street Market, a Royal Charter Market that had stood on
the site for 800 years. The area reeked with times past with particular emphasis
upon the Victorian era, due to the Aggie's own turn of the 19th century heritage.
In seeking a solution, Charles Dickens and his friends
(Thackeray, Cruickshank, Ellen Terry) kept turning up. Choosing to create an attraction based upon Dickens’ London within Victorian London’s most
popular diversion venues was a natural. No other theme could come close to rivaling
the concept for relevance and excitement.
One of the major newspapers ran a feature about our proposal
which prompted a Whitbread Breweries main board director to contact us. Whitbread
had been the major employer in Islington since its founding in 1747. Whitbread
had announced just weeks before that they were closing their historic Chiswell Street Brewery thereby making 750 local residents
redundant. Whitbread’s board was desperate to counter the bad press they
were receiving in a labor government environment. Saving the Aggie, with a project
that would employ 750 locals, and more, was heaven sent. A handshake deal was
made between the Doultons and Whitbread standing
in the middle of the Aggie, hoping that no loose glass would come sailing down before Heads of Terms were agreed.
A company named Whitbread/Doulton was formed. Whitbread provided the funds and credibility; the Doultons and their team, the work product. The first order of business was to obtain the blessings of the Dickens Trust and the Victorian Society. Americans wishing to build a new-fangled themed attraction that actually expected
to earn a profit took some convincing.
Once that was accomplished the next task was to create
a commercial rationale that provided a degree of hope that such a project had commercial reality. As this was Europe’s first US-style, paid-gate attraction, Economic Research Associates (Disney’s
key feasibility consultants) of Los Angeles were retained and gave Dickens London its blessing as well.
Whitbread/Doulton’s next hurdle was to convince
the Greater London Council that building Dickens’ London was good for the community and a planning variance should be
granted. The pundits and planning experts, to a man, felt that the GLC would
never in a hundred lifetimes grant the needed variances.
After a two week public exhibition held in the Islington
Town Hall, attended by some who were not as convinced as others, outline planning consent was granted, verily sailing through
the entire GLC membership with a very comfortable margin. The consensus was that
approval was based upon the majority wanting to be part of something they felt was important for London’s tourist
future and that it would be a fun attraction to attend.
Armed with valuable endorsements and outline planning
permission, the hard work began detailing the project and its functions. A team
of highly regarded UK professionals; i.e., architects, quantity surveyors, and engineers, were assembled to work alongside
the Doultons’ in-house design team.
During the design period the Aggie became officially listed
as a Schedule 1 Historic Building. Under the rules for reparation, the cost of
repairs of the structure, particularly the 80 cast iron stanchions used to hold up the mezzanine and the arched roof supports,
became a cause for concern. The international structural engineering firm of
Ove Arup was retained to assess the Aggie's true condition. Not only were the
stanchions rotting from the inside, but so was the 1200 seat theatre, and most of the ancillary buildings were beyond
repair. The project was therefore terminated.
However, one ray of light did manifest. Inspired by the Victorian themed concepts created by the Doultons
for Dickens’ London, Whitbread launched a chain of 400 restaurants which marked the beginning of that company’s becoming the UK’s second largest
hotel chain and one of the UK's largest restaurant owner/operators with over 40,000 employees (see the Beefeater
project for more detail on the Beefeater Restaurant Chain and the role the Doultons played.).