Old Whitechapel And Its Theatres

Reading the numerous newspaper accounts about Whitechapel,  that were published around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, one could be forgiven for thinking that the district was a den of iniquity where nothing good or enjoyable ever happened.

However, this impression is somewhat misleading, since Whitechapel was, on the whole, a thriving, bustling busy district, with a thriving theatre scene.

On Wednesday, 16th January, 1895, The Sketch, published the following article that provided readers with an insight into the rich theatre and vibrant tradition that was still going strong in the neighbourhood:-


“The opening of a “New Pavilion Theatre” in Whitechapel, or Mile End Road, is a reminder that, for theatrical purposes, the “East End” was once a more or less fashionable suburb of the centre – the centre, of course, being in those monopolist days of the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

Sir William Davenant, whose patent and that of Killigrew’s, granted by Charles II, is still held to be sufficient licence for Drury Lane and Covent Garden, either for drama, opera, horse-riding, or fancy balls, followed Alleyne’s example at a much earlier period, and devoted some of his money earned from theatrical speculations to schools and almshouses, which were built in Whitechapel.


The name of Whitechapel suggests slums and dilapidated tenements, but, as a matter of fact, the main thoroughfare is not only the finest in London, but, in the Mile End portion, is as fine as the Nevskoi Perspective in St. Petersburg.

The pavement alone, on the north side, is as wide as the Strand in its widest parts, and on the unpaved part near the kerbstone an open-air market is held night and day, in which cheap furniture, books, and clothing are sold, as well as fruit, fish, and vegetables, and where some of the stall squatters have obtained legal rights over the ground by many years of undisputed possession.

An illustration showing the busy Whitechapel Road on a Saturday night.
Whitechapel Road On A Saturday Night.


A large part of Whitechapel proper is used on certain days of the week as a public market for the sale of hay and straw, which come from the Eastern counties, and during the week for a meat market and a busy thoroughfare of general trade.

The houses are large and solid, having the aspect of a well-to-do country town, and what little bits of antiquity are left are chiefly represented by the eighteenth-century beetle-browed tavern where Dick Turpin shot his companion, Tom King, to prevent him turning King’s evidence.


Whitechapel as a theatrical market dates from about the middle of the last century, when the neighbourhood of Wellclose Square was famous in dramatic annals.

David Garrick gave this district its fashionable impetus when he appeared, for the first time in London, 0n October 19th, 1741, in a theatre in Goodman’s Fields called the Royalty.

David before this had given a taste of his quality, as a reciter only, in the big room of St. John’s Gate, Clerkenwell, then in possession of Cave, the printer and publisher of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and the friend of Dr. Johnson.

The Royalty Theatre was the last of four houses that were built within the precincts and almost under the walls of the Tower of London.

The wits of the day, of course, sharpened their pens on this building. One said, The Great Playhouse (Lincoln’s Inn Fields) “has calved a young one.” Another said, “This will be a great ease to the ladies of Rag Fair,” as Rosemary Lane was then called, its trade being the same in old clothes as that of “Petticoat Lane,” which had not then started in opposition.

The “Mumpers of Knockvargis” were congratulated on having the play brought to their doors, thus saving a long trudge on wooden legs, and the sailors were congratulated on having better entertainment for their “loose corns” than formerly.

A sketch of the East End Theatre.
The East London Theatre, 1826. From The Sketch, Wednesday, 16th January, 1895. Copyright, The British Library Board.


These theatres met with considerable opposition. The merchants, who then lived over their business premises in the fine old houses, some of which still exist near Trinity Square and Tower Street, thought these local theatres would corrupt their apprentices and breed a race of George Barnwells. The proprietors were hunted, but were equal to the huntsmen. When Rich moved from Portugal Street –  the theatre, not the Insolvent Court – to Covent Garden, they moved to the deserted central theatre for two seasons with their company, and then returned to Goodman’s Fields (not a mile and a half, as the crow flies) for another brief theatrical existence.

When Garrick, who had had some stage experience at Ipswich, first appeared at this “Royalty Theatre,” he was practically playing in an unlicensed building.

Both the play (“Richard the Third,” then probably not altered by the actor) and the after-piece, “The Virgin Unmasked,” were performed “gratis by persons for their own diversion between two parts of “a concert of vocal and instrumental music,” “the part of King Richard by a gentleman who never appeared on any stage.” This was not quite true, but near enough for a play-bill.


The “twin star” of Shakspere, as the Westminster Abbey tombstone puts it, drew all “society” to Goodman’s Fields.

The Patent Theatres were deserted, and a line of private coaches nightly connected Temple Bar with Whitechapel.

The monopolists were naturally aroused. Partly by threats, partly by bribes, and more by giving Garrick a big salary, they secured “The Star of the East,” as he was called, and Goodman’s Fields was again left to its own resources.


The Royalty Theatre number three of the series became a cotton and coffee warehouse, until it was burned down.

Number four of the series was another theatre, erected in Wells Street, Wellclose Square, and opened on June 20th, 1787.

It was chiefly remarkable for two things the first appearance, at the age of fourteen, of Master John Braham, the great singer, who had changed his name from Abraham, and as the cockpit in which the proprietors of the Patent Theatres fought for and maintained rights which were not finally extinguished for another half-century.

The fight with the Royalty Theatre number four was forced on the monopolists, as it was the first serious attempt made to trespass on their privileges.

The leader of the rebellion was an important seceding member of their company, a Mr. John Palmer, an eminent and versatile actor, who was able to influence other members of the two privileged theatres, but he found the law and the monopolists too much for him.

Some of his converts deserted him, and went back to the Drury Lane fold.

Illegal performances at that time meant imprisonment, and even hard labour, and the prisons of 1787 were not models of comfort.


Bannister stuck to Palmer, and they opened the theatre with what we should now call a “variety show,” the real Act-of-Parliament-created origin of our present music-hall entertainment.

The opposition still continuing, both Palmer and Bannister were committed by Sir. Justice Staples, a local magistrate, as “rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars,” and Mr. Delpini, the clown, was also committed for crying out Roast Beef in a pantomime.

Opinions were then taken on the now somewhat mouldy Act which still governs the music-hall entertainments of the United Kingdom (25 Geo. II., Cap. 36), and one authority, Sir Vicary Gibbs, thought the Act covered the performance of operas. This was, of course, before the passing of the Stage Play Act (6 and 7 Vic., Cap. 68).

After Mr. Palmer’s final defeat, “the reins of management,” as they are called in the theatrical profession, were taken by Mr. W. Macready, the father of our great tragic actor, but he was not more successful, though not so bitterly opposed, and the theatre lingered on under various managements until it was burnt down in 1826.


The destruction of the East London encouraged the building of the old Pavilion Theatre in the Whitechapel Road, which was opened in 1827.

It always had a good “stock” dramatic company playing pieces, chiefly adaptations’ from the Porte St. Martin, with really excellent actors like Charles Freer, Elphinstone, and Edward Edwards, and a low comedian named Burton, who became famous and rich after he went to America, and built Burton’s Theatre on Broadway, in New York.

His style, eccentricities, and pieces, like “The Toodles,” have been brought back to us by Mr. J. S. Clarke.

The sailor-made drama found an appropriate home at the Old Pavilion, a vigorous actor, Mr. John Douglass, being a physical-force copy of T. P. Cooke, and a much cleverer hornpipe dancer and broadsword-combat fighter.

The East, about sixty years ago, had starring visits from Mr. Charles Macready and others, at the Norton Folgate Theatre, and Mr. Elton played there before he started on his fatal American voyage.

A photograph showing the Pavilion Theatre.
The Pavilion Theatre. From The Sketch, Wednesday, 16th January, 1895. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The shortest-lived London theatre was the Brunswick, in Wellclose Square, which was built and opened in seven months in 1828, the day after the opening of the Old Pavilion.

On the third day after its completion, the roof fell in at rehearsal, killing a number of the unfortunate actors.”