Bygone concert venues no. 5: Willis’s Rooms

Willis’s Rooms (public domain)

Willis’s Rooms began life in 1765 as Almack’s, a suite of fashionable Assembly Rooms in King Street, St. James’s (not far from the St. James’s theatre demolished in the 1950s) built for the eponymous William Almack. They included a ballroom decorated in the Classical style where popular weekly subscription balls took place well into the nineteenth century, and rooms let for numerous purposes including concerts, lectures and readings. When Almack died in 1781, the rooms passed to his niece and were re-named Willis’s Rooms (she was Mrs. Willis).

A variety of musical events took place in the Rooms in the following century. Saturday 11th February 1792 saw the first of Samuel Harrison and Charles Knyvett’s Vocal Concerts . An advertisement in the Times on 9th February gives the programme which consists principally of glees and other light songs, but also included Angels ever bright and fair  from Handel’s Theodora sung by Mrs. Harrison.

“Mr Harrison and Mr Knyvett most respectfully acquaint the Nobilty and Gentry that their FIRST VOCAL CONCERT will commence on SATURDAY EVENING next at eight o’clock…”

[The Times. 9th February 1792]

Cold is Cadwallo's Tongue. London, 1820? MR260.a.80.2

Cold is Cadwallo’s Tongue. London, 1820?

The University Library has copies of some of the popular ballads performed at other Vocal Concerts including: William Horsley’s Cold is Cadwallo’s Tongue and In the dead of night. The Vocal Concerts continued, albeit erratically, until 1821.

John Ella’s Musical Union performed regularly at Willis’s Rooms (the records of the Musical Union held here at the UL will be the subject of a separate post). Ella believed that the audience should prepare for a concert as much as the musicians and so he introduced the programme note (or “synopsis analytique” as they were delightfully called) that we recognise today, describing the works to be played, complete with musical examples and biographies of the performers.

The fare was chamber music and each year between 1845 and 1858 at Willis’s Rooms and thereafter until 1880 first at the Hanover Square Rooms then at St. James’s Hall, eight afternoon concerts were given.

Hector Berlioz was no stranger to Willis’s Rooms: John Ella was a friend of his and Ella invited Berlioz to the concerts whenever he was in London. For example, in the programme for the Musical Union concert on 28 March 1848  there is a note saying:

“We are proud to number among the visitors to this day’s performance one of the most remarkable musicians, composers, and critics of the age – Hector Berlioz. The orchestral, descriptive pieces of this composer have, throughout Europe, created the deepest sensation among all those who could sympathise with the daring persistence of his original genius.”

What a splendid tribute.

Berlioz was on the podium himself at the rooms on 7 April 1848 when he conducted his Hungarian March from La Damnation de Faust at a concert of the Amateur Musical Society.

Programme for John Ella’s Musical Union. MR455.c.02.02

For a short time, there was competition for Ella from the Quartet Association (which included the ‘cellist Alfredo Piatti and the pianist/conductors Charles Halle and Sterndale Bennett) who gave concerts at the Rooms between 1852 and 1855 in an attempt to popularise chamber music. The Sterndale Bennett collection at the Bodleian Library in Oxford includes programmes from the 1852 and 1853 seasons.

Sadly, the buildings did not survive World War II as they were bombed in 1944.


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5 Responses to Bygone concert venues no. 5: Willis’s Rooms

  1. Clive Simmonds says:

    This brings to mind what is probably the most arresting first line in nineteenth century poetry.:

    1 Who now remembers Almack’s balls—
    2 Willis’s sometime named—
    3 In those two smooth-floored upper halls
    4 For faded ones so famed?
    5 Where as we trod to trilling sound
    6 The fancied phantoms stood around,
    7 Or joined us in the maze,
    8 Of the powdered Dears from Georgian years,
    9 Whose dust lay in sightless sealed-up biers,
    10 The fairest of former days.


    11 Who now remembers gay Cremorne,
    12 And all its jaunty jills,
    13 And those wild whirling figures born
    14 Of Jullien’s grand quadrilles?
    15 With hats on head and morning coats
    16 There footed to his prancing notes
    17 Our partner-girls and we;
    18 And the gas-jets winked, and the lustres clinked,
    19 And the platform throbbed as with arms enlinked
    20 We moved to the minstrelsy.


    21 Who now recalls those crowded rooms
    22 Of old yclept “The Argyle,”
    23 Where to the deep Drum-polka’s booms
    24 We hopped in standard style?
    25 Whither have danced those damsels now!
    26 Is Death the partner who doth moue
    27 Their wormy chaps and bare?
    28 Do their spectres spin like sparks within
    29 The smoky halls of the Prince of Sin
    30 To a thunderous Jullien air?



  2. Ruth Denton says:

    The musician John Ella (1802-1888) birthplace is now known to be in Leicester in Leicestershire.
    However, an article via Wikipedia wrongly gives Thirsk in Yorkshire, although that county was his family’s origin on his father Richard’s side.
    Wikipedia seem to quote from old and outdated copyright expired publications and therefor repeat any errors by past authors and make money this way. My advice to anyone is to check for more recent works, e.g., that of Raymond E.O.Ella (author-historian) and Dr.Christina Bashford; both having researched together.

    Ruth Denton.


  3. Joan M.Wilson says:

    Yes, I have viewed an article by Raymond on the HECTOR BERLIOZ WEBSITE and there are images of contemporary documents to prove the musician John Ella was indeed born in Leicester; although Raymond also proves that it was his father Richard who was born at Thirsk in Yorkshire; year 1769.
    There are very good images of pictures on “Flickr” by Raymond of musicians and singers; some quite rare.
    The sites to go to are:

    Anna Regan (1841-1902)



    Joan M. Wilson.


  4. James Metchalf says:

    I know of Raymond E.O.Ella and he is aware of the error in the Wikipedia article on the musician giving Thirsk has his birthplace…
    He tells me that he has informed them of the mistake but they told him John could have been born in Thirsk. But how can that be possible when John’s father Richard was only 6 years old when he left Thirsk with family to move to Leicestershire. Also, Raymond E.O.Ella has on THE HECTOR BERLIOZ WEBSITE and FLICKR John’s Leicester birth/baptism document and another document proving that John’s family on his father’s side left Yorkshire in 1774.
    There is also “” who I would say are a bit like Wikipedia and some images I have copyright to they are pirating and selling-on without my permission; or no form of royalty payments,!.



  5. Penelope Lansdale says:

    Extra on the musician John Ella (1802-1888):
    This site interesting but slow sometimes downloading:


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