Still visible from the platforms of the Hammersmith & City line terminus at Hammersmith is the last, sad remnant of what was once one of West London’s most popular entertainment venues.
First opened in 1919, the Hammersmith Palais was for most of its life primarily a dance venue. The building was actually a tram shed when it was first built, but in the early 20th Century trams were becoming less popular as motor cars and buses became more widely used. After it stopped being used as a tram shed, the site was home to a roller skating rink for a few years before it was converted into a dance hall. Roller skating was hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the early years of the 20th Century, with many indoor and outdoor skating rinks being set up – it’s estimated that by 1909 around 500 rinks had been set up in Britain. The old tram shed in Hammersmith would have made an ideal site for skating due to its size and the fact that it was sheltered from the elements.
Like so many other crazes, roller skating’s popularity declined after a few years and the rink in the old tram shed at Hammersmith was closed and converted into a dance venue. The newly-opened Hammersmith Palais played host to ballroom dancing and also went on to be a pioneering supporter of early jazz bands, with its first resident band being the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1919, and the Jazz Kings, featuring Sidney Bechet, played regularly at the venue between 1920 and 1922.
The Palais returned to its skating roots for a spell between 1929 and 1934, with the worn floor of the venue being replaced and transformed into an ice rink. Ice skating had become popular at the end of the 19th Century and the first indoor artificial ice rinks began to appear in the 1870s. At Hammersmith, the new ice rink was used for ice dancing as well as conventional skating and ice hockey. The London Lions ice hockey team were based at the Palais until 1934, when the venue was once again converted into a dance hall and the Lions found a new base in Wembley. The Hammersmith Palais once again became a popular dance hall, accommodating up to 5,000 dancers at a time.
During the Second World War, and in spite of the Blitz, the Palais continued to play host to jazz bands and dances. It was popular with servicemen on leave and women working in London. Glenn Miller, one of the iconic artists of the period, was among the performers here. The BBC also broadcast Services Spotlight from the venue, featuring the popular artists of the time.
After the war, the Palais continued to be a popular jazz and ballroom dancing venue. After the Second World War, London was home to a “Modern Jazz” movement that included famous names such as Ronnie Scott. Jazz nights at the Palais continued to be incredibly popular. An article about the Palais in 1951 commented that “Jazz as they play it at the Hammersmith Palais, is a serious matter. Youth goes mad about it – one way or the other. It’s the music of an unsafe, unsure, age.”
As trends in music changed, the Hammersmith Palais played host to some of the biggest and most popular bands of the day. Legendary acts such as the Beatles, the Who, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones all played at the Palais, and it also became a popular venue for reggae and punk acts. The Palais was immortalised by The Clash, in their 1978 release “White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)”, a song inspired by Joe Strummer’s visit to a reggae night at the Palais.
In the 1990s, the Palais began to fall into decline, increasingly hosting discos and club nights rather than live music and the venue began to be associated with drugs and violent crime. The venue changed hands a number of times, and was even named Po Po Na for a while before an outcry caused its name to be changed back to the Hammersmith Palais. However, even in its final months the Palais was still able to attract big-name acts and news of its closure was met with dismay by fans. The Fall was the last band to play at the Palais, in a rather controversial last evening which had been scheduled before the venue’s closure was announced. Mark E. Smith, lead singer of The Fall, didn’t reference the venue’s closure during the show and an angry fan invaded the stage to show his displeasure.
After its closure, the Palais stood derelict for a number of years, looking increasingly shabby and forlorn. As the venue had been refitted so many times over the years, none of the original features had been left intact and therefore getting the building listed was not an option.
In 2013, demolition work finally commenced on the site and within a matter of months the Palais was gone, replaced by a block of smart (and eye-wateringly expensive) student flats. No trace of Hammersmith Palais is now visible from Shepherd’s Bush Road. Today the Palais lives on only in the ghost sign that overlooks the tube platforms, and in the memories of those who danced, drank, and performed there.
Farewell and RIP to the Hammersmith Palais – Ghost Signs, 11th May 2012 http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/2012/05/farewell-and-rip-to-the-hammersmith-palais-2.html
Exclusive Photos of the Hammersmith Palais being demolished – The Clash Blog, 23rd May 2012 http://www.theclashblog.com/exclusive-photos-of-the-hammersmith-palais-being-demolished/
The 1951 Hammersmith Palais Jazz Ball (Jiving is forbidden!) – Independent R’s Review, 9th June 2014 http://www.indyrs.co.uk/2014/06/the-1951-hammersmith-palais-jazz-band-ball-jiving-is-forbidden/
Hammersmith Palais Theatre – Guerilla Exploring, 27th March 2011 http://www.guerrillaexploring.com/gesite/public_html/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=98:ges019-hammersmith-p-theatre&catid=4:industry&Itemid=5
A look back, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, February 2007, http://www.lbhf.gov.uk/Images/A_look_back_tcm21-76037.pdf