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The Music Hall

Assembly Rooms:
Archibald Simpson’s design for the County Assembly Rooms completed in 1822.

The events of a day of torrential rain on 26 April 1820 when 1500 Freemasons in full regalia attended the laying of the foundation stone of the Assembly Rooms. The position of this stone remains a mystery, confounded by contemporary newspaper reports which said it was laid on the corner of Union Street and South Silver Street – a south-east corner instead of the normal masonic tradition of north-east.

The iconic building on Union Street, Aberdeen, known as the Music Hall, began life as the County Assembly Rooms. Designed by Archibald Simpson, it opened in 1822 at a cost of £11,500, and provided – within its accommodation of parlour and billiard rooms, a card room, a supper room, a ballroom and a banqueting hall – a meeting place for the landed gentry and the polite society and intelligentsia of the city. Within its walls they could enjoy the higher levels of culture befitting their status. Charles Dickens gave readings of his works. General Tom Thumb and the world renowned magician, John Anderson, entertained.

It was soon realised, however, that the Assembly Rooms had limitations. To bring a famous Orchestra and full chorus at an affordable ticket price, a concert hall with 2,500 seats was required. In 1858, the Aberdeen Music Hall Company purchased the Assembly Rooms, demolished the banqueting room and built a new concert hall to a design by the eminent local architect, James Matthews. At the rear of its stage was a magnificent organ built by Henry Willis – the largest of its kind in Scotland and only one of two in the United Kingdom.  The Music Hall, as it was now named, opened on 14 September 1859 when Prince Albert, Prince Consort, journeyed from Balmoral to chair the annual conference of the British Association for Science;  150 years later, this anniversary was celebrated with a dinner addressed by the distinguished past chairman of the association, Professor Lord Winston.

Proprietors of these Buildings, are prepared to accommodate Persons requiring Rooms for Concerts, Lectures, Meetings, etc.
1. - The Large New Music Hall, 150 feet long by 68 feet wide and 50 feet high.
2. - A handsome Ball-room, suitable for Concerts and other similar purposes. This Room is 70 feet long by 35 feet wide, and 35 feet high, and fitted up with handsome Gasaliers.
3. - The Square Room, 31 X 34, suitable for Smaller Concerts, Picture Exhibitions. etc etc.
4. - A fine Octagon Room, of the same size as last.
5. - Two smaller Rooms, fronting Union Street, each 28 X 20.
6.- A large Upper Room, formerly used as a Billiard Room. The Rooms were recently cleaned and re-decorated, and will be shown to applicants by Wm. Donald, the attendant at the Rooms. Terms of Letting will be learnt on application to the Secretary

Nellie Lind and Clara Butt
Musical recitals and entertainments became a regular feature. Orchestras of national standing visited the concert hall – The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Halle Orchestra. Messrs Harrison’s Subscription Concerts brought international classical singers. The Aberdeen Choral Union was formed in 1859 giving four concerts per year and featuring instrumental pieces and organ solos. Nellie Lind, ‘The Swedish Nightingale’ and Madame Clara Butt were sell outs.

In the late 1890s Aberdeen was a growing city. Churches, curling rinks and sporting arenas were being built. Fund raising events used the extensive facilities of the Music Hall, as the whole building came to be known. With its many rooms, kitchens and toilets it was ideal for sales of work – then called Bazaars – huge affairs involving the decoration of the whole building. For the Dyce Bazaar of 1900, Mr George M. Bridges, Bazaar Artist of Kings Lynn, transformed the concert hall into the ice palaces of Montreal and depicted on stage the mighty St Lawrence River with rapids, cataracts, islands and ice-capped mountains.

The Music Hall can claim to be Aberdeen’s first Cinema. Just 9 months after the 1st public demonstration of the Kinematograph by the Lumieres brothers in Paris, 18 short films were shown on the 28th, 29th and 30th September 1896, including one that featured hand stencilled colour.

Princess Beatrice (inset) arrives at Aberdeen Music Hall to open a Bazaar in aid of the Sick Children's Hospital. (1877 Aberdeen Hospital for Sick Children opened in Castle Terrace).


Although some wall paintings were created for the opening of the Music Hall, these were replaced between 1899-1909 by the magnificent murals of artist Robert Douglas Strachan. Painted in the mainstream of European Art Nouveau, they are based on episodes from the Orpheus and Eurydice classical legend. Sadly, in recent history, some of these panels were painted over with industrial paints. One panel was removed in 1995 and restored to its original glory; others panels will be considered in the future.

After the 1914-1918 War and the advent of the jazz age, public tastes changed and takings at the box office tapered off. In 1928, faced with liquidation, the Aberdeen Music Hall Company sold out to Aberdeen Town Council for £34,000 ‘for the behest of the Common Good’.

For the next few years, The Music Hall continued to act as a focal point for freedom ceremonies, trade exhibitions, school prize-givings, wrestling matches, sales of work, cat shows, dog shows, exhibitions of budgies and horticultural events.  In the 1930s roller skating was a popular pastime and the Music Hall was converted to a roller skating rink. In January 1931 an attempt was made on the world marathon non-stop roller skating title. The holder gave up after only a few hours because of blistered feet. Rather than disappoint the audience, Hadyn Marshall, the professional manager of the rink, accompanied by an amateur skater, Robert Bruce, took up the challenge. Just before midnight on Saturday 17 January, Robert Bruce became the new World Amateur Marathon Roller Skating Champion with a time of 61 hours 36 minutes – a record still standing.

In the 1960s Aberdeen was expanding rapidly and many felt the Music Hall had outlived its use. A real estate company offered to demolish the building and replace it with a more modern concept. They had already made radical changes to the building next door. The Royal Northern Club was replaced by a supermarket. There was some support for the proposal as the building was run down and lacked modern facilities.

Simpson’s Round Room preserved
The public outcry that followed, however, bolstered by support from concert lovers, conductors from across the country and national personalities, led to the Secretary of State listing the Music Hall in 1962 as a Category A building. A public enquiry in 1973 agreed that Simpson’s Round Room and Square Room and Matthew’s Concert Hall must be preserved

The Music Hall is not resting on its laurels. It continues to extend the vision of its founding fathers that the building should be at the heart of cultural growth in the city. The ceiling has recently been repaired and there is new seating in the stalls. A feasibility study has been considering the hall’s future and from it has emerged a plan to establish a flagship centre for music.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013