Imre Kiralfy, the man behind White City

In 1900 the northern part of Shepherd’s Bush in west London was farmland and brick fields. The driving force behind the development of this area, now known as White City, was Imre Kiralfy, a Hungarian impresario and entrepeneur. Kiralfy was already in his sixties when he led the construction of the Great White City. It opened in 1908 as a site to host the Franco-British Exhibition. This was the culmination of an extraordinary multifaceted international career.


Imre Kiralfy was born Imre Konigsbaum in 1845 in Pest, Hungary, the second child and eldest son of Joseph and Rosa Konigsbaum. The family had a successful business manufacturing clothing. Three years after Imre Kiralfy’s birth, Hungary was swept up in the 1848 Revolution. His family was on the losing side, having supported a revolution that was ultimately put down by the Austrian and Russian military. As a result, the family were ruined and faced the threat of persecution.

At a very young age, Imre Kiralfy emerged as a talented dancer. He first performed in public aged four. With several other siblings he formed a successful troupe of child dancers, who performed high-energy Cossack- and Hungarian-inspired dances across Europe. At some point during this time, the family changed its name to Kiralfy.

Imre Kiralfy

Career as a theatrical producer

In 1868 the Kiralfys travelled to the U.S. to appear in a show. They settled there and Imre Kiralfy and his younger brother, Bolossy, gradually moved from performance into successful careers in theatre production and choreography. They produced lavish light-hearted shows with plenty of good music and excellent dancing. Imre retired from performing aged 29. By the 1880s the brothers were highly successful.

Although Imre and his brother emigrated to the U.S. and became naturalised U.S. citizens, they were part of a transatlantic world. They brought shows first performed in Europe to the New York stage, they worked with European actors; they commissioned costumes and scenery in Europe; and some of their U.S. productions toured Europe.

By 1887 Imre and Bolossy’s partnership was over. Imre moved further into spectacle theatre, focusing on huge productions with casts of hundreds and extraordinary special effects, delivered for enormous audiences. Indeed, enormous audiences were needed to cover the costs. His most important production came in 1893. America was performed in the world’s largest theatre, the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, on the occasion of the Chicago World’s Fair , an international exhibition celebrating (albeit one year late) the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas.

The show was a set of historical scenes, celebrating European immigration to and conquest of America. It was the highest grossing show in the U.S. for that time. Imre Kiralfy claimed the 29-week run grossed $900,000. It’s estimated that Imre Kiralfy personally earnt $200,000, the equivalent of about $6.7 million in today’s money.

The Chicago World’s Fair
The Chicago World’s Fair

The show’s success was linked to that of the Chicago World’s Fair, said to have attracted 27 million visitors. Since the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park western countries had used international exhibitions to project their power by showing off their commercial, scientific and cultural progress, as well as boasting about the colonial possessions. The Chicago World’s Fair was unprecedented for the U.S. in terms of visitor numbers, physical scale and grandeur. All the buildings were painted white and lit up by Westinghouse with electric light. Additionally, the exhibition cemented the idea of incorporating entertainment for the masses into international exhibitions. The symbol of this was the 264 foot-high Ferris Wheel.

The Chicago World’s Fair appears to have had a profound impact on Imre Kiralfy. From this point in his life, we see him gradually moving into the organization of international exhibitions, culminating in the Great White City exhibitions. The enormous amount of money Imre Kiralfy made from America enabled him to take his next step, building his own entertainment complex in London at Earl’s Court.

A move into international exhibitions

In 1894 Imre Kiralfy bought a 21-year lease on Earl’s Court, the entertainment venue that had hosted Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The money Kiralfy made from America enabled him to buy the lease but he needed additional funds to implement his plan for a complete redesign of the site. He therefore created a company, London Exhibitions Ltd., and identified three other partners prepared to invest.

Poster for the show accompanying the Empire of India Exhibition

A series of initially profitable international exhibitions and shows followed at Earl’s Court, the first being the Empire of India Exhibition. All the exhibitions at the venue had a strong imperialist theme and this continued at White City. From the 1880s empire emerged as a dominant theme in exhibitions in Britain. This is not surprising, given that the 1880s onward were a period of intense competition between western powers to expand their empires.

The creation of the Great White City

In 1902 the British Empire League tasked Imre Kiralfy to organize a new exhibition. In April 1904 Britain and France had signed the Entente Cordiale, which settled several imperial disputes between Britain and France, primarily related to Egypt and Morocco. Imre Kiralfy proposed changing the exhibition’s theme to celebrate the agreement. The British Empire League agreed and preparations for the Franco-British Exhibition began.

In July 1904 Kiralfy acquired the first 24 acres of land in Shepherd’s Bush and continued negotiations with owners for further land purchases. Kiralfy was eventually able to acquire about 140 acres of land. He intended to create, unusually, a permanent site that could host, not one, but a series of exhibitions. How much did this cost? Speculation at the time was about £2 million, the equivalent of about £200 million today. This was financed through shares, with a publicly listed company eventually being launched in 1908.

The buildings were constructed from steel frames and concrete which were then plastered and had prefabricated mouldings attached. They were quite eclectic in style, although universally (apart from the Olympic stadium) very ornate. Kiralfy, presumably inspired by the World’s fair in Chicago, had all the buildings painted white, giving the site more uniformity.

The Franco-British Exhibition

At the Franco-British exhibition, there were 100 acres of gardens and 40 acres of buildings. There were 20 pavilions dedicated to displaying different aspects of culture and industry, plus 120 other exhibition buildings, half a mile of artificial waterways, a scenic railway and several miles of walkways. If trade buildings and kiosks are included, there were about 400 structures on the site. All this was built in 16 months (the stadium took only 10 months). At 140 acres, the area was eight times the size of the site for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

The Court of Honour

The main entrance to the Exhibition, where Television Centre is now located, would have taken you into the Court of Honour, the space most designed to impress. It was designed by Imre Kiralfy himself. The concept of a Court of Honour, plus the use of water and electric light were all inspired by the Chicago World’s Fair. As you can see from the image above there was a strong Moghul influence in the design. Kiralfy’s approach was Orientalist to the core, creating a fantasy environment that played to Western stereotypes of Eastern exoticism. You can hear this in the guide to the Franco-British Exhibition: “Just such a Court as this would the Maharajah of Udaipur have added had he been asked to design the court of courts at Shepherd’s Bush. Though we have to put up with lesser materials than his marbles, the illusion on a sunny day, is none the less perfect. As you lounge by the water’s edge you can, in imagination, hear the stifled murmur of the harem behind the closely latticed windows, and picture some dark, turbanned Rajput majestically strolling across the terrace.”

Visitors could then proceed to the Court of Arts where art treasures from Britain and France were displayed. They could visit the Elite Gardens to listen to music played from a sunken bandstand. They could turn into the Court of Progress and visit the Machinery Hall, the largest building on site which displayed the latest industrial technology related to mining, iron and steel, power, and textiles. Then they could wander north to Merryland.

The Flip Flap

Most of Merryland was dedicated to amusements, indicating how by 1908, a visit to an exhibition had become as much, if not more, about entertainment as education. Similarly to Chicago, Merryland had its keystone attraction, the Flip Flap. Visitors paid sixpence to ride in one of its two carriages which would lift you to a height of 200 feet, where you would meet the other carriage before descending to the other side. The Flip-Flap carried over a million during the 1908 season. It entered the popular imagination and was the subject of a music hall song “Take me on the Flip-Flap” sung by two different musical hall singers, Ella Retford and Millie Legarde.

Consistent with the strong imperialist theme of the exhibition, part of Merryland was devoted to displays about the empires of Britain and France. The British dominions (Canada, New Zealand, and Australia), as well as India and the Crown Colonies, all had pavilions. They mainly displayed natural resources and manufactured goods. The displays in the two French imperial pavilions focused on France’s African colonies and included Algerian girls weaving carpets.

The exhibition had ethnic villages where visitors paid to see people from various parts of the empires of Britain and France displayed. Such displays seem shocking now, but they were the norm in that era at international exhibitions and very popular. John McKenzie, a well-known historian of empire has described the British approach at this time to displaying people: “the native villages always performed one function: to show off the quaint, the savage, the exotic, to offer living proof of the onward march of imperial civilization.”

For the Franco-British Exhibition there was a Senegalese village and a Ceylon village. There was also an Irish village, Ballymaclinton, which  served as a product placement exercise for its sponsor, an Ulster soap company, MacClinton’s.

The Franco-British Exhibition opened in mid-May and closed on 31 October. Standard entrance was one shilling with extra payment for amusement rides or entry to an ethnic village. On the first day, 123,000 people visited. There were 8.4 million visits during the summer of 1908 with gate receipts of over £420,000, the equivalent of £41 million today. Unusually for an international exhibition, it made a profit.

Only six international exhibitions were held at the Great White City. The final one was the Anglo-American Exhibition in 1914. It had to close early due to the outbreak of the First World War. White City never recovered. Imre Kiralfy died in Brighton in 1919 and the exhibition site was gradually redeveloped, creating public housing, a park, a Territorial Army training complex and BBC Television Centre. The stadium survived into the 1980s.

Remains of the Great White City

The Japanese Garden today

There is almost no physical legacy of the site. The last remaining structure, a large white arch on the Uxbridge Road near Shepherd’s Bush underground station, survived into the 1990s. The only remaining physical remnant is the Japanese Garden in Hammersmith Park, which was originally created for the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910.