East London Theatre Archive

V&A Theatre Collections - CAST - Hackney Empire - Half Moon Young People's Theatre - Hoxton Hall - Theatre Royal Stratford East - Theatre Venture - Wilton's Music Hall

ELTA - East End Theatreland Digitised

by John Earl

The East End was London's other Theatreland, less geographically definable, less celebrated, less documented, far less known, even to the majority of Londoners, than its mighty West End counterpart, but a fiercely independent, massively energetic theatrical presence in its own right.

It is a serious mistake to regard it as nothing more than a scruffy kid brother, a footnote to 'real' theatre history. The sheer number and range of entertainments that the East End offered to its inhabitants over the centuries commands serious attention.

Here, in Whitechapel, The Boar's Head yard was converted to a theatre in the 1590s. In Wapping, one hundred years later, Ned Ward visited 'a famous Amphibious House of Entertainment, compounded of one half Tavern and t'other Musick-house'. Here, in Goodman's Fields in 1741, David Garrick made his first professional appearance. Nearby, in the Wellclose in 1787, John 'Plausible' Palmer opened a playhouse, the Royalty, in defiance of authority. He was immediately forced to abandon the drama in favour of the kind of hybrid musical entertainments that the law permitted, a policy that continued under successive managements for nearly fifty years. The Royalty was eventually replaced by the Royal Brunswick, which came to a sudden and spectacular end in 1828 when it fell down a few days after opening.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the East End was a heavily built up, densely populated hinterland to the biggest port in the world, but its merchants and shipping magnates (and most others with the means to do so) were moving steadily away from the docks, warehouses and shipyards that created their wealth. The streets and alleys nearest the City acquired a threatening reputation as a lawless jungle where few outsiders, other than social reformers and moralising jounalists dared to enter, but a rapidly growing, ethnically varied working population (not all of whom lived in grinding poverty) provided an immense audience for every kind of popular entertainment from the darkest class of dance saloon, frequented by predatory prostitutes and thieves, to the most gorgeously ornamented and elaborately machined pantomime house.

Countless informal fit-ups came and went, some surviving only for days. Shops in Whitechapel became theatre gaffs by the simple expedient of removing the back wall, building a shed-like stage extension and turning the upper floor into a balcony, approached by a ladder. Tavern singing rooms proliferated and amateurs paid the landlord of the Brown Bear for the privilege of appearing on the London stage - in an upstairs room – while official building inspectors despaired of controlling a great surge of concert room construction (Paddy's Goose and the Jolly Sailor in Ratcliffe Highway, the Beehive, the British Queen and Rodney's Head among them) knowing that many such places would never be really safe to receive an audience, let alone the kinds of closely packed, hard-drinking and smoking crowds that would frequent them.

Inevitably, the historical account is gapped. A great deal of activity is barely recorded and it is certain that much has disappeared without leaving a trace. But there is another, quite richly documented layer. The more substantial entertainment houses of the East End present an impressive roll call.

The Whitechapel Pavilion began its eventful career in 1828. The Standard in Shoreditch and the Garrick in Leman Street opened in the 1830s, followed in the forties by the first Britannia in Hoxton, the Effingham Saloon, Lusby's in Mile End and the prematurely ambitious hall at the Edinboro' Castle in Rhodeswell.

The Prince of Denmark pub, known as the Mahogany Bar in Graces Alley, Wellclose, had its first concert room before 1840, followed in 1845 by a little saloon theatre, the Albion, which was replaced in turn by John Wilton's grand music hall in 1859, now the sole survivor of the giant halls built behind London pubs in the mid nineteenth century. The 1850s also saw the opening of the Royal Pavilion Gardens in North Woolwich, and the originally alcohol-free St Leonard's Hall, Shoreditch.

Over the next twenty years, music hall flourished. Pubs that had the space to do so followed Wilton's example (so far as space and resources permitted) and built well-appointed halls, while those that could not, simply renamed their concert rooms as music halls, presenting entertainments that ranged from the creditably semi-pro to the frankly amateur. The Mulberry, the unusual (and wonderfully surviving) Hoxton Hall, the little Royal Victor, the Sebright, the Queen's in Poplar and Forester's all opened, or were rebuilt in the sixties. Harwood's Varieties in Hoxton opened in 1870 and the 'legit' Theatre Royal in Stratford East (another precious survivor) in 1884. The Queen's survived as a highly evocative music hall relic until the 1950s. Forester's, demolished about the same time, retained its name, even in its last days as a cinema. Harwood's was still recognisable as a long-inactive building as late as 1980.

From the early 1890s up to the Great War, the extraordinary variety-house building boom that produced hundreds of new theatres nationwide, transformed the East End entertainment scene. The new buildings were lively works of architecture by masters of theatre design like Frank Matcham, Bertie Crewe and W G R Sprague. Their gorgeous new theatres, like the Borough and the Empire in Stratford, the Palace in East Ham and the (presently thriving) Empire in Hackney, were designed to attract a family audience, rather than the all-male drinking clientele of their predecessors. If one had to select just one variety theatre from the surviving national stock to represent the architectural wonders of this remarkable period, it would be hard to beat Hackney Empire.

Yiddish theatre was provided for by the Grand Palais of 1911 and, more exclusively, by the Palaseum of 1912. Later in the century, cinema established itself as the dominant popular entertainment for all classes. Variety palaces and theatres (the Palaseum for one) were converted to movie houses and splendid new cinemas and ciné-theatres were built, culminating in the 3,000 seat Troxy of 1933.

From the 1950s through to the early 1970s, a great theatre massacre (it was nothing less) occurred, resulting in the destruction of more than four in five of the national wealth of old theatres, which were commonly regarded at that time as outdated and useless relics. In the East End, wartime bombing followed by comprehensive slum clearance programmes erased whole neighbourhoods without record. Wilton's Music Hall was identified and saved by the skin of its teeth, but of all the great variety palaces that existed east of the Tower, only Hackney Empire now remains intact. Nearly all physical evidence of East End theatrical history before 1860 has gone without trace. Between 1860 and the Second World War, only a precious handful of recognisable entertainment buildings remains to be seen.

Late in the day, the tide has turned. Old theatres are now highly valued. The surviving theatres and music halls in the East End are not only active; they have either been splendidly restored and re-equipped or they have every prospect of being restored to perfection. Community theatres, like the Half Moon Young Peoples Theatre and Theatre Venture appeared in the 1970s and 80s and are still active. The East End today has a vibrant theatre life.

Histories of the West End theatres, their managements and their stars, fill miles of bookshelves. This other Theatreland has not been so well served, but the balance is being redressed. Theatre and music hall historians, academics and amateurs, began to focus on the East End during the last decades of the twentieth century and much excellent work has been done, but it has to be admitted that the task has only begun. ELTA, the East London Theatre Archive provides researchers with a new and effective investigatory tool.

The archive is already opening up a wealth of educational resources as well as new opportunities for original inquiry. It will be constantly enriched as more and more records are made available by the individuals and institutions that hold them, providing a growing body of record material in digitised form, including original drawings, photographs, programmes, playbills and contemporary accounts, embracing every strand of the history of East End entertainments and the buildings that accommodated them. The Victoria and Albert Museum Theatre Collections are contributing in total around 10,000 images and the University of East London about 5,000. Among the older theatres opening their archives for this project are Wilton's Music Hall and Hoxton Hall, while relatively modern archives partly digitised include those of the Half Moon, Theatre Venture and Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre.

The scope of the archive is easily stated: it aims to be a first point of reference for everyone interested in any aspect of East End theatre of any period.

John Earl October 2008

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East London Theatre Archive

East London Theatre Archive