101 Things Birmingham Gave The World No. 69: Conference centres


Anyone who regularly travels by train between Birmingham and Coventry will know that the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is a little like Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree. As the train pulls into Birmingham International station, every train regular is wondering, which land is at the NEC this week? If the carriage is suddenly full of perfume, giggling women and designer handbags, it’s probably the Clothes Show. If it’s wall-to-wall North Face, it’ll be a hiking event (or a Christian rock concert) and if there’s a faint pong of wet dog, you know that it’s the Liberal Democrat conference.

The NEC is the UK’s largest conference centre and it is fitting that it is in Birmingham, home to the world’s first ever purpose-built permanent exhibition hall.

Bingley Hall opened on Broad Street in 1850. Designed by local architect J. A. Chatwin, who also worked on the Houses of Parliament, Bingley Hall must have wowed the Victorian public. Its interior space stretched over an acre and a quarter and held 25,000 people in five rooms. It had ten entrance doors and had used nearly 12,000 feet of 21-inch glass in its construction. Of course, just a year later Birmingham-wannabe London launched the Great Exhibition and the rather showy Crystal Palace left Bingley Hall looking small in comparison. But, the Birmingham venue outlived its metropolitan rival by five decades, before also finally succumbing to a fire in 1984.

For more than a century, Bingley Hall hosted shows on dogs, cows, cars and boats, fireplaces, chrysanthemums and poultry. It was the place to go for boxing matches, cycling competitions, circuses, concerts, cinema and religious and political rallies. Modern politicians reading bad jokes to empty conference halls would be devastated to hear that in 1888 Gladstone made a speech at Bingley Hall that attracted over 30,000 people. Glass had to be removed from the ceiling to make space to squeeze more people in and so many fainted and had to be lifted out that a kind of reverse-crowd-surfing occurred. Although, as his oratory was over two hours long, you can’t blame the audience for trying to escape. It was also the first political speech to be recorded, using Thomas Edison’s phonograph, which had been shipped from the US just for the event. So, it could be argued that without Birmingham we might also have no Question Time or Any Questions – perhaps not even one Dimbleby-fronted programme. In fact, perhaps the fainting people being lifted out of the Hall were thinking, “It’s being recorded, so I’ll catch up later before Andrew Neil comes on and starts talking about Blue Nun”.

Later in its history, mid-twentieth-century lofts and broom cupboards bore witness to Bingley Hall’s annual visit from the Ideal Home Exhibition. Gadgets would be bought that promised to revolutionise domestic life, only to be used once and then abandoned in dust-gathering ignominy. Making Bingley Hall a bit like a Betterware catalogue (who are based in Castle Vale, tat fans) with just an added day out to accompany the inevitable cycle of enticement, confusion and disappointment.

If you’ve read the foreword to our book, you’ll already know that Stewart Lee saw the Wombles play a show at Bingley Hall but, as well as giant recycling-obsessed rodents, Bingley Hall also rocked out to bands like the Yardbirds, Deep Purple, ZZ Top, the Animals and Hawkwind. Motorhead once had to abandon their encore at the venue when Lemmy was too, ahem, ‘tired’ to go back on. Recently, Queen legend and badger-protector Brian May has revealed that he was inspired to write _We Will Rock You_ after playing a gig at Bingley Hall, and also presumably where Freddie liked to buy his `vacuums`.

The story of the world’s first exhibition hall came to an abrupt end in early 1984 when it was destroyed in a fire at the Midland Caravan, Camping and Leisure Exhibition. We can only speculate as to whether this was caused by inattentive use of a Calor gas stove or a faulty barbeque ignition kit, but it is understood that the incident led Brian May to write the Queen hit Flash.

Rising phoenix-like from the flames, on the hallowed ground of Bingley Hall, came the International Conference Centre. This is the zenith of late twentieth-century conferencing. It’s hosted the G8, Nato and the first meeting of the UK Cabinet held outside London in 90 years. Not to mention a few party political conferences that notably failed to have them fainting in the aisles.

Yes, the ICC can feel corporate. Yes, lanyards and lattes are never far from one’s line of vision. But the spirit of the old Bingley Hall is still here. The ghosts of circus performers, carpet baggers and horse breeders still haunt this turf – and that of every conference venue that followed. If you’re at the World of `Pencil Sharpeners` on a wet Wednesday in February, be proud of those who have taken the path before you. Channel Lemmy when you’re offered a business card; tell them that the only card you need is, “The Ace Of Spades”.