In & Out the Eagle Tavern
I wish you would take me out to the theatre. On these dark nights when the rain beats at my window and the wind moans down my chimney, I dream of leaving the gloomy old house one evening and joining the excited crowds, out in their best clothes to witness the spectacular entertainments that London has to offer. The particular theatre I have in mind is The Grecian Theatre attached to the Eagle Tavern in Shepherdess Walk, City Road between Angel and Old St.
The place seems to have developed quite a reputation, as I read yesterday, “The Grecian Saloon is really a hot house or a black hole, for the number of human beings packed in there every night would induce a supposition there was no other place of entertainment in London. At least two thousand persons were left unable to procure admission.” This was written in 1839, demonstrating that the popular art of having a good time – still pursued vigorously in the many pubs and clubs here today – is a noble tradition which has always thrived in the East End, outside the walls of the City of London.
“Up and down the City Road, in and out the Eagle, that’s the way the money goes…” The Eagle public house in the rhyme still exists to this day, though barely anything remains of the elaborate entertainment complex which developed there during the nineteenth century – apart from a single scrapbook that I found in the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute. All the balloon ascents, the stick fights, the operas, the wrestling and the wild parties may be over, and the thrill rides closed long ago, but there is enough in this album to evoke the extravagant drama of it all and fire my imagination with thoughts of glamorous nights out on the town.
You only have to walk through Brick Lane and up to Shoreditch on a Saturday night, through the hen parties and gangs of suburban boys out on a bevy, jostling among the crowds of the intoxicated, the drugged and the merely overexcited, to get a glimpse of what it might have been like two hundred years ago. With as many as six thousand attending events at the Eagle Tavern, we can assume that lines must have formed just as we see today outside nightclubs.
On the site of the eighteenth century Shepherd & Shepherdess Pleasure Garden, the Grecian Saloon developed at the Eagle Tavern to provide all kinds of entertainments, from religious events to conjuring and equestrian performances. There is a tantalising poetry to the hints that survive of these bygone entertainments, because sentences like “We are glad to find that little Smith has recovered her hoarseness.” and “We have little to find fault with save that the maniac was allowed to perambulate the gardens without his keeper.” do set the imagination racing. There are many fine coloured playbills in the cherished album that I hope to show you in coming weeks, crammed with enigmatic promises of exotic thrills. Take a look at the plates below and wonder who exactly was the beautiful Giraffe Girl, or General Campbell, the smallest man in the world. Amongst so much hyperbole there is a disappointing modesty to learn that the central attractions are merely supported by the “artistes of acknowledged talent.”
Elaborate pavilions with all manner of special effects were constructed at the Grecian Saloon, which in turn became the Grecian Theatre in 1858 where Marie Lloyd made her stage debut, aged fifteen. Eventually the building was acquired in 1882 by General William Booth of the Salvation Army and the parties came to an end. Yet this site saw the transition from eighteenth century pleasure garden to nineteenth century music hall. And when you come to think of the many thousands of souls who experienced so much joy there over all those years, it does impart a certain sacred quality to this location, even if it is now mostly occupied by the Shoreditch Police Station.
Watercolours of the New Grecian Theatre in 1899, built during the management of George Augustus Oliver Conquest in 1858 and later purchased by General William Booth of the Salvation Army.
All images copyright © Bishopsgate Institute