Programmes for New Year’s Fêtes –
1928 (RSP/6/9/9), 1934 (RSP/6/9/16), 1938 (RSP/6/9/19)

Between 1896 and 1939, the Regent Street Polytechnic held an annual New Year’s Fête during the first week of January. However, its origins go back further to 1876.

Annual Exhibitions, 1876-1892

In 1876, the first Annual Industrial Exhibition was held by the Young Men’s Christian Institute (a precursor of the Regent Street Polytechnic). Unfortunately, no details of this event have survived in the University Archive. The first Exhibition we have evidence of is the Third Annual Exhibition, held for a week in March 1879, which is detailed in the first volume of Home Tidings (later called The Polytechnic Magazine). At this time, the Institute was based on Long Acre in Covent Garden and the date of the Exhibition moved according to the demands of the timetable.

The Exhibition was aimed at displaying the talents of members of the Institute, with prizes for the best in each category. It was open to members and their friends. The week concluded with a concert of songs, recitations, comic readings and music. The 1879 Exhibition was reviewed as being

as usual, exceedingly successful…the hall was exceedingly prettily decorated…it is difficult to think when these indefatigable decorators could have slept.’

(Home Tidings, Jun 1879)

Home Tidings reported that the total number of exhibitors was 57 and the prize winners were a model steam engine, wrought iron work, a model of distilling apparatus, and an illuminated manuscript.

In 1882, the Institute moved into the 309 Regent Street building and the event, drew parallels with the heyday of buildings previous occupant, the Royal Polytechnic Institution (RPI). The Gymnasium, the former Great Hall of the RPI, was once again filled with examples of various trades and vocations for Exhibition visitors to see.

Lantern slide of the Great Hall at the Royal Polytechnic Institution (RPI/5/5/1)

By the time of the Annual Exhibition in 1885, the event had expanded to include, among other things, a swimming display in the new pool. That year it was estimated that a minimum of 2,500 visitors attended the exhibition every day.

The last Exhibition of this type was held in 1892.

New Year’s Socials, 1885-1895

In the mid 1880s, another event, more specifically aimed at the members of the Institute and its clubs and societies, came into existence. The first New Year’s Social took place on 1st January 1885 and was very much a social occasion. The Polytechnic Magazine reports that

‘Around 250 members of the Institute arranged themselves around the tables in the Great Hall. At eight o’clock began the work of spoiling appetites and rapid consumption, and this kept people busy for about an hour. Bob Mitchell then announced the first item on the programme, a pianoforte duet.’

(The Polytechnic Magazine, Jan 1885)

The event continued in this format – tea and entertainment – for several years.

White and pink printed programme
Programme for Mr and Mrs Quintin Hogg’s New Year’s Conversazione, 1888 (YCI/6/1)

In 1888, Quintin Hogg decided that in place of the New Year’s Social, he would hold a ‘Conversazione’ on 4th and 5th January to which all members were invited. Hogg’s rationale behind the event was that, partly due to his ill-health over the previous couple of years, he had not been able to spend as much time as he would have liked at the Institute. Consequently, he wanted to show members some hospitality and wish them all a Happy New Year in person. Each of the clubs of the Institute were given an area to decorate as they saw fit and entertainments were arranged in each space including a dissolving view entertainment, a phrenological lecture and displays of interesting objects. Refreshments were given in the Gymnasium.

Reviewing the event afterwards, Quintin Hogg wrote the following

It was a great pleasure, both to Mrs Hogg and myself, to see so many of our boys [Poly members] there and I hope the effect will be to draw us all closer to each other, and increase that homely feeling which we all desire to see knitting us into one family, with common pleasures, interests, and sorrows. The Poly, has become what it is through the loving care and work of many hearts and hands, and what might it not grow to if everyone of our members were this year to regard himself as personally interested in all that goes on there, and were to give a brother’s help, council, and affection to those he meets there.

(The Polytechnic Magazine, 7 Jan 1888)

The Conversazione event was not held every year, but did take place in 1893 and 1894 when there was no Annual Exhibition.  By the 1890s, the Social/Conversazione had become a larger event, with nearly all the clubs getting involved, putting on dramatic entertainments, displays and stalls.

The New Year’s Fête, 1896-1910 

January 1896 saw the start of a new event which was a combination of the Social and the Exhibition, titled the New Year’s Fête.  Whilst there was no craft competition as previously, exhibition displays were part of the Fête, together with concerts, bands and side shows by the various Poly clubs. By this time, the now Regent Street Polytechnic was a more formal educational institution. As a result, there was an educational element to the Fête with student work on display. However, the emphasis on fun and entertainment remained prominent. Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, the Fête thrived, with each club trying to outdo each other and the previous year’s event.

Advert for Reading Circle's Maze
2,468 people attempted the Reading Circle’s maze in 1897

The New Year’s Fête continued in this style until December 1909/January 1910 when the last one was held prior to the demolition of 309 Regent Street for rebuilding. However, despite its apparent success, the Fête was not revived immediately after 309 Regent Street reopened in 1912.

The revival of the Fête, 1926-1939

Cast of a play on stage in costume
Senior School of Commerce production of The Critic, 1929 (RSP/7/d/68)

It was not until 1926 that a decision to hold a modified version of the Fête was announced. The first New Year’s Fête in 17 years took place in January 1927. Again, the format was very similar to those held before with the various clubs’ dramatic performances, including pantomime, taking centre stage. Indeed, by 1931 the Fête could arguably have been called a drama festival. According to the Polytechnic Magazine

‘The Cyclists presented a pantomime, “Babes in the Wood”…Once again the PTA Players showed how good a team they are in producing a melodrama…The School of Architecture Dramatic Club are to be congratulated on a really good show. Two short plays and two interludes…The Senior School of Commerce gave us a farcical comedy…We trust, too, you did not miss a clever shadow show, run by the Men’s Badminton Club.’

(The Polytechnic Magazine, Jan 1931)

As well as being fans of amateur dramatics, the members of the Poly also loved an excuse to wear fancy dress. In 1935, a Pageant of Notable Women in History and Fiction was included in the programme and there were frequent displays of historic costumes.

Women’s Tennis Club display – tennis past (1882), present (1932) and future (1982)
School of Tailoring display, 1932
Display by the Domestic Science Department, 1932

There are very few changes during the 1920s and 1930s, with the exception of a dance to close the Fête, which was introduced in January 1930 in the newly opened Portland Hall in the Great Portland Street Extension building (Little Titchfield Street). From 1935, the dance became a New Year’s Eve Dance. In 1938, the entire Fête was moved to the Little Titchfield Street.

1939 saw the last New Year’s Fête take place as the event was cancelled due to World War Two. Nevertheless, the New Year’s Eve Dance in the Portland Hall continued until 1960.

January 2022

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