Skip to main content  

Earls Court, 2014

Earls Court, 2014.

It’s Show Time: a new partnership project to catalogue the recently deposited archives of Earls Court and Olympia

London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) is delighted announce a new partnership with Olympia Management Services Limited to catalogue the archives of Earls Court and Olympia London which were deposited in late 2014. This exciting and substantial archive collection extending to around 200 linear metres charts the organisation of exhibitions, shows and events at Earls Court and Olympia from the 1880s until 2014. The project, funded by Olympia Management Services Limited, the owner and depositor of the archive, ran until early 2017. Richard Wiltshire tells more.


Since the 1880s, the Earls Court and Olympia sites have hosted an astonishing range of exhibitions and concerts from the cowboys and Indians of  Buffalo Bill to the Ideal Homes Show (first held in 1908), the Women’s Exhibition of 1922, the Boat Show, the Motor Show and Royal Tournament, boy band ‘Take That’ and the Brits.

The history of Olympia can be traced back to 1884 when the National Agricultural Hall Company was established to operate a national centre to showcase agricultural displays, military tournaments, sports and theatricals. The National Agricultural Hall was built to Henry Edward Coe’s design in 1886 and still stands today. Later buildings at Olympia were added including the Empire Hall in 1930. Crowds were first attracted to Earls Court on 9 May 1887 to the inaugural American Exhibition. Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West’ show at Earls Court was secured through the efforts of Earls Court founder John Robinson Whitley, later Director General of the National Exhibitions. The Earls Court grounds closed in 1914 to be replaced by Earls Court Exhibition Centre which opened in September 1937. This building had a huge indoor swimming pool which later hosted the Boat Show.

Jeffrey Sterling, property business magnate later bought Earls Court and successfully bid for Olympia in 1973. This purchase led to the amalgamation of the companies running the sites and the establishment of a holding company, Earls Court and Olympia Limited. P&O later acquired the company and exhibition venues through P&O Exhibition Services Limited; in 1991 Earls Court 2 building opened. P&O decided in 1999 to sell the concern to re-focus on shipping. By the early 2000s the ExCel centre and Millennium Dome venue (now the O2) in Docklands were in direct competition for exhibitions and music events and business was lost. However, by 2013 a £30 million redevelopment had culminated in a completely renovated Olympia Central and Olympia Conference Centre. In December 2014 Earls Court Exhibition Centre closed for demolition and site redevelopment for housing. Earls Court and Olympia Limited was renamed Olympia Management Services Limited and the business rebranded as Olympia London. The company continues its long tradition in providing venues at Olympia for events, shows and conferences.

The archives of Earls Court and Olympia were formerly held at Earls Court Exhibition Centre. With the pending closure of Earls Court, it was decided by the company that the archives needed to be found a new home to safeguard them for the long-term future. LMA surveyed the records and organised the transfer from Earls Court in late 2014.

Olympia 1886 album

​Olympia album 1886 (series 12) with LMA staff

​Scope and research strengths

The collection dates from the 1880s to 2014 and consists of around 200 linear metres of records in two deposits (accession references: B14/167, B14/185). It includes foundation records, minutes, annual reports and accounts, and other administrative records; show files, show catalogues, agreements and photographs; exhibition building plans, publicity including posters and artwork; history research, two films, and videos. The records include those of subsidiary and related companies. Highlights include the ‘Olympia Album’ 1886 (accession reference: B14/167/series12/1of1) containing the printed prospectus of the National Agricultural Hall Company; and original artwork for the ski extravaganza ‘Winter Cavalcade’ at Earls Court in 1938 (accession reference: B14/185/drawers1-2).

The collection plugs a key gap in LMA’s business archives relating to entertainment and leisure venues. The archives document the running of some of the largest popular entertainment events in Western Europe and the largest undercover exhibition space and sports venue in southern England. The collection also has wide popular appeal: audiences have been attracted in their thousands from London and far beyond, and many people have unforgettable memories of having attended shows or concerts.

Most research enquiries relate to shows which were organised by third parties and hosted at Earls Court and Olympia. Show catalogues survive for both sites, although fewer survive for the pre-1930s period. These mainly record the show organiser, a plan and list of organisations exhibiting with stalls, and the events programme. The catalogues are often illustrated and are complemented by the photograph series. In addition to the shows, there are Event Manager’s show files relating to pop concerts, especially in the 1990s including boy band ‘Take That’.

There are exhibition hall building plans for both sites. Researchers are advised first to consult the archives of the London County Council (LCC) which contain plans which were submitted to the Council for building and licensing purposes, for example received plans of Earls Court Exhibition for licensing events 1892-1924 (series reference LCC/AR/TH/02).  

Olympia catalogues

​1950s Olympia catalogues

Other related collections which are available to consult at LMA include the archives of J Lyons and Company Limited, caterers (ACC/3527); minutes of Earls Court Grounds Limited 1914-1934 (ACC/1297/ECGL); LCC: London Exhibition Buildings presented papers 1888-1909 (references LCC/MIN/10840-42); and a County Licensing Committee record of the American Exhibition, Earls Court, 1886 (MA/C/L/1886/059).

Elsewhere Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies collection at Kensington Central Library holds Local Studies Earl's Court folios including show programmes and further images are held at Hammersmith and Fulham Local Studies and Archives. Berkshire Record Office hold records of Lord Glyn, Chair of Earls Court, 1935-1947 (reference D/EG1).


The archives are currently uncatalogued although the key series, especially those relating to shows, are listed in hardcopy catalogues which were prepared by the company during the 1990s and 2000s. Researchers are advised to contact LMA with their research enquiry, and arrange, if appropriate, an appointment to consult the existing catalogues. Having consulted the catalogues, researchers may order relevant items in advance for consultation in LMA's Archive Study Area giving at least ten working days’ notice. LMA welcomes enquiries from individuals who wish to add to this collection.

LMA would like to thank Olympia Management Services Limited for safeguarding the future of the Earls Court and OIympia archives and for funding the partnership project. Look out for updates on progress over the coming months.

Further information can be found in the official published history Earls Court and Olympia. From Buffalo Bill to the 'Brits' by John Glanfield (Sutton Publishing, 2003). Copies are available in LMA’s library at 43.5(EAR) and Guildhall Library at 67.1.

05 May 2015
Last Modified:
05 September 2018