roundhouse history

This Victorian steam engine shed became a legendary music venue in the 1960s
and 70s. Troubled and/or closed
for many years, it has now been
revamped as an international
performing arts venue

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The real Withnail
and I

Camden origins
of the cult classic

The Roundhouse in Camden


The Roundhouse is the famous Victorian steam engine shed that became a legendary venue in the 1960s and 70s. This Grade II* listed building is one of English Heritage’s Most Important Buildings at Risk. Always ground-breaking, this is where punk and glam rock started, where the Doors played their only British gig, where theatre took on a new and accessible identity.

1846 - Designed by Robert Dockray and built by George Stephenson (of 'Rocket' fame), the Roundhouse is built as a railway engine shed for the London and North Western Railway. The building is justly celebrated as a marvellous feat of civil engineering.

1856 - New, longer locomotives make the building redundant.

1869 - W S Gilbey of Gilbey's Gin takes the lease on the Roundhouse and it becomes a liquor warehouse. Fifty years later, the lease expires and is not renewed. The building becomes redundant again.

1964 - Louis Mintz gives the remaining 16 years lease to Centre 42, an arts forum with ties to the TUC. Under the artistic direction of Arnold Wesker, Centre 42 asserts that art should be made available “beyond the commercial world of entertainment and should be subsidised and not forced to pay for itself.”

1965 - The Round House Trust is formed to facilitate the artistic vision of Centre 42. Robert Maxwell becomes treasurer. Various fundraising drives are initiated, but the responses are uniformly disappointing.

1967 - Mary Wilson hosts a tea party at 10 Downing Street to raise funds. More successful is the rental of the Roundhouse. The building becomes an exciting venue for pop concerts, parties and other events. As a base for Centre 42, however, financial problems continue to dominate.

1968 - Peter Brook premieres his celebrated version of The Tempest. Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors play to packed crowds.

1969 - Tony Richardson's famous Hamlet with Nicol Williamson. Stephen Berkoff's Metamorphoses and The Penal Colony. Pink Floyd, Family and Fairport Convention play a benefit concert. The Roundhouse continues to feature a cutting-edge programme of theatre, opera, pop and classical concerts.

1970 - Kenneth Tynan's celebrated Oh Calcutta!. Jean Louis Barrault's production of Rabelais. Other successes include Godspell and Catch My Soul, the rock opera version of Othello by Braham Murray and Jack Good.

1972 - Arnold Wesker resigns amid ongoing pressure to compromise his artistic vision in order to raise revenue. George Hoskins continues to feature wild and exciting performances, amongst them Julien Beck's Living Theater and Ariane Mnouchkine's famous Théâtre du Soleil production, 1789.

1977 - Thelma Holt becomes Artistic Director of the Roundhouse. Burdened by ever-increasing debt and the Roundhouse's growing reputation as a centre for the drug culture, she prioritises the building's use as a theatre, and launches a programme to solve its many problems, including acoustics and seating. To finance this conversion, Holt holds many benefit concerts and brings in the best of provincial theatre. Productions include Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins in The Duchess of Malfi, Vanessa Redgrave in The Lady for the Sea and Max Wall in Waiting for Godot.

1981 - Thelma Holt persuades the Greater London Council to subsidise the Roundhouse for £120,000 annually. This is not as much as she needs and economies have to be made.

1983 - The Roundhouse closes due to insufficient funding and the Round House Trust is wound up. Camden Council and the GLC buy the freehold. The building is set to house a Black Arts Centre with a permanent Black Theatre Company. The project finally collapses in 1990, however, amid recriminations from all sides.

1992 - A formal tender is offered by Camden Council but none of the proposals reaches the bidding target set by Camden. One problem is that the car park next to the building is no longer included with the building’s freehold. In the end the building is sold to Keatway who plan to convert it into a multi-functional arts centre.

1995 - The conversion by Keatway fails to materialise and the Royal Institute of British Architects make a successful bid for the building. The Roundhouse is not considered an 'ideal place' to house RIBA's permanent collection, however, and the Department of National Heritage turn down their funding application.

1996 - The Roundhouse is bought by the Norman Trust, a private charitable trust. Performances by Elvis Costello, Suede and the Bluetones confirm its place in London’s music scene. 

1998 - A new Roundhouse Trust is established. The National Theatre’s Oh What a Lovely War, STOMP! and The Michael Clark Dance Company revitalise the Roundhouse as a seminal venue.

1999-2000 - The extraordinary Argentinean company De La Guarda complete the longest run in Roundhouse history.

2000 - The Roundhouse Trust takes on management of the building and a bid for National Lottery funding is launched to help establish an International Performing Arts Venue and Creative Centre for Young People. Work with young people begins.
2001 - Bounce!, The Ballet Boyz and Artangel’s Because I Sing complete short sell-out seasons. The Undercroft establishes itself as a fantastic venue for exhibitions and small shows including Pompeii, Imaginary Light and Fevered Sleep

2002 - Royal Shakespeare Company performs The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and Pericles; San Francisco's ground-breaking Antenna Theater stage Euphor!um London International Festival of Theatre present Australian company acrobat as part of Child Proof season; and Michael Moore presents Michael Moore Live! The Roundhouse’s Creative Projects work with young people – laying the foundations for the new Roundhouse Studios – continues with young people from across London participating in a wide range of artistic projects.

2004 Construction begins

Main space at The Roundhouse

2006 1 June – Roundhouse opens to the public with ‘Fuerzabruta’ in the Main Space and ‘The Foolish Young Man’ in the Studio 42


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