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In & Out the Eagle Tavern

November 12, 2010
by the gentle author

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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    November 12, 2010

    it looks and sounds like las vegas.
    as for marie lloyd — 1858! i love how old man river just keeps rolling along and throwing these bits of flotsam and jetsam up for me to see. last i heard of marie lloyd, she was singing on stage in the diaries of virginia woolf, some sixty years later, and woolf used the word “crapulous” to describe her. first use i ever saw, and the last.
    marie lloyd, wow.

  2. Gary permalink
    November 14, 2010

    It is interesting to note that J.Phillips the printer of the last poster on the blog had committed the machine minders error of letting the spaces rise on the bottom line of the poster. This was caused by the compositor not justifying the line correctly and the minder not watching the run. This often happened on the old Wharfdale presses. Sometimes the minder knocked down the space with a bodkin instead of adjusting the spacing.
    This is where the term “bodger” originated.

  3. November 15, 2010

    Gentle Author, do you feel a kinship to that long ago journalist? I loved the way he had to resume his “arduous editorial duties” after the great wig-snatching caper. Thanks for taking us all to the theatre with you.

  4. Estelle Lee permalink
    August 1, 2014

    Researching my Phillips family in London. Phillip Phillips scenic Artist who married Elizabeth Rouse (painter – Artist). Wondering who is the J. Phillips – printer – Russell St. Mile-end-Gate as searching for Phillips parents & siblings at present. Believe one of Phillip Phillips brothers – Thomas Phillips of Hackney Rd – died young – a Licensed Victualler.

    Delightfull illustrations – pictures of the Grecian Theatre & Eagle Tavern, Shepherd & Shepherdess Wallk – City road – which I had only viewed in black & white previously.

    Impressed with site – thank you. Estelle Lee – Hawkes Bay – New Zealand

  5. Dr Ann Dingsdale permalink
    December 3, 2019

    Lovely to see this collection of images of the Royal Grecian Saloon. I’m off to the Bishopsgate Institute to see the scrap book!

    I am researching Miss Augusta Johnstone, who acted and sang there from about 1842 to 1865. She was also a writer and my interest in her was sparked by the fact that she is one of the 1,499 women to sign the 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition to Parliament.

    In her book of essays “A Woman’s Preachings for Women’s Practice” (1857) ( available on line) the chapter ‘Artistes ‘ gives a very interesting account of the experiences of a middle level actress, as she was at the Grecian Saloon .

    She was responsible for the support of her elderly parents so also taught piano and was a journalist to earn money. Following her mother’s death in 1865 she concentrated on teaching aspiring performers for a couple of years, and put on three shows locally to showcase her pupils. One at least also included one of her fellow performers from the Grecian Saloon Miss Harriet Coveney.
    With good wishes

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