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EAST END WEST END

by Catherine Haill, V & A


Few East Enders visited West End theatres in the early 19th century, and few West Enders ventured east for entertainment. West End theatregoers, as late as the 1830s, perceived the East End as dangerous and distant. Roads were perilous, and people then had to ride or use horse-drawn carriages to travel distances. Laura Honey referred to the problem humorously in an opening address in 1837 at the City of London Theatre. It was in Norton Folgate, then a mercantile neighbourhood near Bishopsgate. She was a West End actress:

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From Western parts come I to seek for fame
Where nought on Folgates know, save Folgate's name,
Where lisping beaus, if asked this way to stray
Cry `Where can we change horses on the way'?
And ere they do the arduous journey take
Sit up over-night their wills to make.                  

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In 1839 Charles Dickens travelled by horse-drawn cab to the Britannia Theatre in Shoreditch, and was pleased with the journey time:

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`in a vehicular conveyance falling under the denomination of a
cabriolet, and in the short space of one hour and fifteen minutes, after
entering in Fleet Street, we were, very much to our surprise and
gratification, deposited on the pavement of Bishopsgate Without.'

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As roads and public transport improved throughout the century it became much easier for East Enders who could afford the fares to take a horse-drawn omnibus or train to the West End. Thousands did, especially to visit the palatial new Music Halls in the 1880s and 1890s, many of whose star performers were East Enders or started their careers there.

Although East End audiences mostly stayed put in the first half of the century, it was a different matter for the owners and managers of the larger East End theatres who wanted to rival the West End in every way. They patronised West End theatres, and sometimes used the same architects. The owners of the Brunswick Theatre got it spectacularly wrong when it fell down three days after opening in February 1828, but it wasn't for the want of trying. Their opening publicity promised not only a spectacular and safe theatre, but the engagement of `Eminent London Performers and Artists in every department'.

East End theatre lessees and managers wanted to present the most popular West End fare with similar scenery and effects, and cheaper tickets. They needed to know hit West End productions, their playwrights, performers and scenic artists. After the 1843 repeal of the licensing laws, Nelson Lee engaged many leading West End actors for the City of London Theatre. Many East End managers began their stage careers in the West End and worked there at the same time, including Benjamin Conquest who leased the West End's Lyceum Theatre for three years in 1856 when he was lessee of the East End's Grecian Theatre. Some East End theatres such as the Pavilion or Standard were much bigger than most West End theatres, and when it became known as The Eastern Opera House in 1860, the former Pavilion Theatre presented West End singers and choruses.

When the splendidly equipped New Standard Theatre opened in 1867 it called itself the largest theatre in the world. Its situation opposite the terminus of the Great Eastern Railway meant that its lessee John Douglass could more easily lure West End stars and whole Companies from the West End. When it became known in the 1880s for spectacular pantomimes and sensation dramas rivalling West End productions, it became fashionable for West End playgoers to visit The Standard. Mindful of keeping up with West End, Douglass would regularly watch Augustus Harris's great Drury Lane productions. Not to be outdone, Harris would visit the Standard!


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Subject Terms:
Name Terms: Gaiety Company,Toole, John Lawrence, 1830-1906,Irving, Henry, 1838-1905,Conquest, Benjamin Oliver, 1805-1872,

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