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Whitechapel’s Theatrical Terrace

January 12, 2014
by the gentle author

As one of Whitechapel’s most appealing architectural features faces imminent threat of demolition, I tell the forgotten story that lies behind these extravagant facades in Vallance Rd.

3-13 Vallance Rd

Just last week, when I was writing about the artist Morris Goldstein who lived at 13 Vallance Rd, I was reminded of the distinctive quality of this unusual Victorian terrace in Whitechapel. Despite all the changes since World War II, these old shops have survived and the exoticism of their architecture with its strange mixture of styles fascinates me – as it does many others for whom the terrace is also a landmark in this corner of the East End, where so few old buildings remain to tell the story of what once was here.

In fact, I realised these tatty shopfronts and ornate facades have always spoken to me, but only recently have I discovered the nature of the story they were telling. The florid decoration was no whim upon the part of the architect but reflected their association and direct proximity to the adjoining Pavilion Theatre which opened here early in the nineteenth century, at first presenting nautical dramas to an audience from the docks and later becoming a Yiddish theatre to serve the Jewish population in Whitechapel.

Commanding the southern extremity of Vallance Rd, this terrace is almost the last fragment to remind us of the history of one of the East End’s most ancient thoroughfares, linking Bethnal Green and Whitechapel. Built in 1855, the vast and forbidding Whitechapel Union Workhouse once stood a few hundred yards north. In common with most of the nineteenth century buildings in this corner of what was known as Mile End New Town, it has long gone – swept away during the decades following the last war, leaving the streetscape fragmented today. Old Montague St, leading west to Commercial St and formerly the heart of the Jewish commerce in the East End, was entirely demolished.

Even Whitechapel Rd, which retains good sweeps of historic buildings – many of which are now under restoration as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund project – suffered major post-war casualties, including a fine eighteenth century terrace west of the London Hospital that was demolished in the seventies. Yet there was one building of great importance of which the loss went seemingly unnoticed -The Pavilion Theatre, a favourite resort for East Enders for nearly one hundred and fifty years before it was demolished in 1961.

The New Royal Pavilion Theatre opened in 1827 at the corner of Whitechapel Rd and Baker’s Row (now Vallance Rd) with a production of The Genii of the Thames, initiating its famous nautical-themed productions, pitched at the the maritime community. In 1856, the theatre burnt down and its replacement opened in 1858, boasting a capacity of three-thousand-seven-hundred, which was a thousand more than Covent Garden and included the largest pit in London theatre, where two thousand people could be comfortably accommodated.

‘The Great National Theatre of the Metropolis’ – as it was announced – boasted a wide repertoire including Shakespeare, opera (it became the East London Opera House in 1860) and, of course, pantomime. It gained a reputation for the unpretentious nature of its patrons, with one critic remarking “there is a no foolish pride amongst Pavilion audiences, or, as far as we could see, any of those stupid social distinctions which divide the sympathies of other auditoriums.”

In 1874, the Pavilion was reconstructed to the designs of Jethro T. Robinson, a notable theatre architect who designed two other East End theatres. both of which are now lost – the Grecian Theatre in Shoreditch and the Albion in Poplar, that was oriental in style. It was this rebuilding of the Pavilion which included the construction of a new terrace on Baker’s Row with interwoven Moorish arches evoking the Alhambra. The theatrical design of these buildings, with decorated parapets, panels and window surrounds, and the integration of side entrances to the theatre suggest the authorship or influence of J. T. Robinson himself.

In its later years, the Pavilion became one of the leading theatres in London, offering Yiddish drama, but as tastes changed and the Jewish people began to leave, the audience declined until it closed for good in 1934. In ‘East End Entertainment’ (1954) A. E. Wilson recalls a final visit to the old theatre before it closed.

“Once during the Yiddish period I visited the theatre. What I saw was all shabbiness, gloom and decay. The half-empty theatre was cold and dreary. The gold had faded and the velvet had moulted. Dust and grime were everywhere. And behind the scenes it was desolation indeed. The dirty stage seemed as vast as the desert and as lonely. I realised that there was no future for the Pavilion, that nothing could restore its fortunes, that its day was over.”

The decline of the Pavilion had been slow and painful. After the theatre closed in the thirties, it was simply left to decay after plans to transform it into a ‘super cinema’ failed to materialise. Bomb damage in the war and a fire meant that when a team from the London County Council’s Historic Buildings Division went to record the building in 1961, they found only a shell of monumental grandeur. After the theatre was finally demolished in 1961, the northern end of the terrace was also demolished leaving just number 13 (the former Weavers Arms Pub) and the battered row that has survived to this day.

Astonishingly, this last fragment of the Pavilion Theatre complex – numbers 3-11 Vallance Rd are now under threat of imminent demolition. Apparently learning nothing from the mistakes of the past, Tower Hamlets Council intends to clear the site for a new ‘landmark’ building as part of its masterplan for the area. Yet Whitechapel does not require more large-scale office and residential development at the expense of its traditional streetscape with small shops and historic character.

The Council is claiming that the terrace in Vallance Rd must be demolished – even though it is in a Conservation Area – because it poses a threat to public safety, yet the Council is the owner of the buildings and is earning rent from number 11 which is still occupied. Conveniently, it was the Council’s own surveyor who claimed the buildings are unsound and, subsequently, they have denied access to an independent structural engineer commissioned by the East End Preservation Society. Meanwhile the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust, which has previously restored structures in a far worse state of decay, has written to the Council offering to take on the job of repairing the buildings.

In the spirit of high theatrical farce, the Council’s consultant writes of the buildings in the Vallance Rd terrace in 2013 the Heritage Report, accompanying the application for demolition, that  ‘… [they] do not contribute to the character or appearance of the Conservation Area’ directly contradicting the Council’s earlier Conservation Area appraisal of the area in 2009 which gives the following priority for action – “Encourage sympathetic redevelopment of gap sites west of Vallance Rd and secure restoration of 3-11 Vallance Rd.”

5 & 7 Vallance Rd, showing decorative window surrounds and parapet (Alex Pink)

9 & 11 Vallance Rd. With its decorative central panel, number 9 leads through to a courtyard where the theatre’s carpentry workshop once stood (Alex Pink)

3 Vallance Rd with original shopfront (Alex Pink)

Looking north over Vallance Rd (left) and Hemming St (right), 1957 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Whitechapel Union Workhouse in Vallance Rd, at junction with Fulbourne St, 1913 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Whitechapel Union Workhouse, Vallance Rd 1913 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Corner of Vallance Rd and Hereford St, 1965 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Bricklayers Arms, Vallance Rd and Sale St, 1938 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Old Montague St and Black Lion Yard, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Old Montague St and Kings Arms Court, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Old Montague St looking east with Pauline House under construction, 1962 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

The first Royal Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel, 1856  (East London Theatre Archive)

Playbill 1867, nautical drama was a speciality at the Pavilion  (East London Theatre Archive)

Playbill 1854 (East London Theatre Archive)

Playbill 1835 – note reference to gallery entrance in Baker’s Row (Vallance Rd)  (East London Theatre Archive)

Playbill 1856 (East London Theatre Archive)

Playbill 1833 (East London Theatre Archive)

Playbill 1851 (East London Theatre Archive)

The Great National Theatre of the Metropolis’ – the rebuilt Pavilion, 1858

Plan of the Pavilion in eighteen-seventies showing how the houses in Baker’s Row (Vallance Rd) are integrated into the theatre

The Pavilion as a Yiddish theatre in the thirties

Pavilion Theatre facade on Whitechapel Rd, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Auditorium of Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Pit and stage at Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Fly tower of Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Back wall of the Pavilion Theatre, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

17-29 Vallance Rd, showing the large scene doors entrance and gallery entrance beyond, all integrated into the terrace, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)

Sketch of the elevation of the Oriental Theatre, Poplar High St, by Jethro T. Robinson, 1873 – note usage of the arch-within-an-arch motif as seen in the Vallance Rd terrace

How the terrace could look if restored (Graphic by Nick Pope)

Elevation of the terrace as it could look after restoration (Graphic by Nick Pope)

Tower Hamlets Council’s vision for the future of Whitechapel

New photographs of Vallance Rd Terrace © Alex Pink

You have until Tuesday 14th January to click here and object to the demolition of 3-11 Vallance Rd


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36 Responses leave one →
  1. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    January 12, 2014

    Sad, very sad. Local government morons who probably live somewhere off the Metropolitan Line have no feeling for the past .

    Melvyn Brooks Karkur Israel

  2. alison homewood permalink
    January 12, 2014

    What marvellous detective work, Gentle Author. Surely now you have revealed the history behind this wonderful and unique terrace, English Heritage should step in and list these buildings so the Spitalfields Trust can take them over and restore them. Just the presence of the old Weavers Arms pub (who knew) ought to be enough but knowing now these are the last remains of such a huge, culturally important theatre – Ed Vaizey, please step in!

  3. January 12, 2014

    Beauty, dignity, elegance of the window surrounds and the facades …

    Why, oh, why are there so many snakes in high places …

  4. Annie permalink
    January 12, 2014

    Just emailed the planners to ask them to use some judgement and not keep trying to build brave and thrusting new towers. I am sure that is what they think they are doing…instead of trying to copy the Shard. I like the Shard but you only need one. Restraint and relevance should be the watchwords.

  5. Vicky permalink
    January 12, 2014

    When I first came to live in this area I fell in love with this beautiful terrace despite the poor state it was in. I would go out of my way to look up and admire the architecture and my walk home was made so much more pleasurable. When scaffolding went up and ‘work’ began I was delighted that I would soon be seeing it in all its glory and occupied once again. I’m hugely disappointed and angry that the scaffolding was only for safety work until demolition and that this area of Whitechapel is to be redeveloped so outrageously. Fight we must.

  6. January 12, 2014

    Thank you for this fascinating bit of local history – and for the research it entailed. Thank goodness there are people like you resurecting the East End’s forgotten stories and memories so we can enjoy them today and others will in the future.

  7. January 12, 2014

    This is really important. There are plans to transform much of the old East End onto soul-less glass and steel omni-architecture. Very important to mount spirited defence. Please other readers object too, doesn’t matter if you don’t live nearby.

  8. January 12, 2014

    All these ancient architectural highlights should be preserved and restored!

    Love & Peace

  9. January 12, 2014

    What a great piece of research.For me it is so important to document the lives of all the people of this country.Without the work of people like you we are seriously in danger of presenting a one dimensional view of history We then end up with the *Heritage^of our nation only being about Country houses and Downton Abbey loosing any true historical perspective on the lives and environments of many of the people who truly created this country.It needs fighting for
    Thanks for your hard work keep it up
    Phil Bailey

  10. Walter Blackstock permalink
    January 12, 2014

    Thanks for this post and the accompanying research. The planning statements are instructive reading! “Dangerous Structure Notices” appear to have been served on Vallance Road for almost 30 years, yet the building shells still stand and people walk by daily. The planning statement, quoting Pevsner, refers to the “unusually eclectic stucco and graffito decoration”, yet concludes “demolition to be the only viable option for these buildings”. That may be so, but to see an alternative costed proposal would have been welcome. Modern methods can salvage almost any structure if there’s a will (and money). It appears that “Whitechapel Vision Masterplan (2013)” recommendations were agreed by Cabinet on 4 December 2013, so what remains may be due process and a formality. I hope not.

  11. jean permalink
    January 12, 2014

    Up until 1935 the Pavilion (as we called it) was part of a life style. My father took me regularly to every show, all in Yiddish, and to the best of my memory it was always quite full. It was also a meeting place and used (hired) as a local community hall. My grandfather used to hire it each year as an extension of his small synagogue for the High Holyday Services.
    It would be a pity to dispose of it, because for many many years that part of Whitexchapel Road was the hub of the East End. Saturday night all the youngsters used to parade up and down. Mile End Waste stalls were on that wide pavement and all life was there. To replace it with yet another faceless block would be sacrilege.

  12. Erica America permalink
    January 12, 2014

    How did it get so bad so quickly? If it was in operation and in fairly good condition until 1935, what happened in the few years up to 1961 when it became such a shambles? Was there a weather event? Did the roof simply give in and nobody knew?

  13. Raymond Francis permalink
    January 12, 2014

    The crumbling facade of London’s East End is a metaphor for the gradual decline is basic values in present day life. We need to restore and save our architectural heritage before it has gone forever and provide a legacy for our children that life is not just made up of disposable plastic boxes but stable rock solid foundations. We need to save whats left of Vallance Road.

  14. Rosalind permalink
    January 12, 2014

    You can’t remember the past when it has been destroyed!

  15. Tanya Davis permalink
    January 12, 2014

    These elegant architectural highlights should be preserved and restored to their former glory! Such graceful designs can still be seen even in their current state. Please stop demolition.

  16. Miss Gherkin permalink
    January 12, 2014

    I’ve just sent off my email objecting the demolition of these buildings, pointing out that the most expensive parts of London are desirable areas because of their wonderfully preserved buildings. You cannot force gentrification on to TH by building bland and ugly buildings while tearing down property worth preserving.
    TH council probably won’t be swayed by ‘but they are such pretty buildings’ reasoning; the council’s intentions translate into cold hard cash and nothing else.

  17. January 12, 2014

    I have lived in East London for more than 25 years, during which time many buildings have been demolished or just been allowed to fall into disrepair. We need to preserve what’s left, in order to preserve some of the unique atmosphere of East London.

  18. Katya permalink
    January 12, 2014

    There is such possibility here. Small, steadfast old buildings keep history alive with as much stamina, if given a boost, as large, overly designed architectural marvels try to seize and redefine it. Where are the moguls and their billions who love London? It would take just one such enlightened billionaire to sell that unlived-in apartment in a swankier part of town, park the profits in a fund toward the restoration of this terrace and breathe joyfully, knowing he’d made a lot of people happy.

  19. Juliet shipman permalink
    January 12, 2014

    What a well researched article but it is the oldest trick in the book to say ‘these buildings are dangerous and must come down’ In Stroud we had a building called the Hill Paul Building which was too dangerous even for English Heritage to enter – it was saved – of course it was not in danger of collapse and is now converted into flats.

  20. January 12, 2014

    It aggravates me alot to see such characterful buildings left to rot.
    As a very small business owner I am desperate for a small premises to use as a workshop. If the council truely wanted to encourage small businesses in our borough, and have empty/ derelict properties restored or maintained they could let them to us at a reduced or peppercorn rent. Such agreements with tenants have been done before by other councils, with the work being overseen to ensure it’s sympathetic to the building.
    I’d be proud to be able to say that I’d restored the little red front place to it’s former glory!

  21. Rhianwen permalink
    January 12, 2014

    Such a great post today – amazing in its detail and love of what’s important about, not just history, locality and community but life itself, in all its richness. Strangely I walked down Vallance Road for the first time one night a couple of months ago, and stopped to take pictures of the terrace because it stood out for its elegance and eery beauty, even in its present dilapidated state. So I was extremely sad to read of the possible destruction of it, especially now, knowing its story and connections. Sent my objection off pronto and joined the East End Preservation Society. You are so brilliant bringing small but important issues like this to a wider community.

  22. Alison Benson permalink
    January 12, 2014

    I have just read about this via the Huguenot Society on Facebook and have made my objection to the council. Yet another move to destroy what should be preserved.

  23. Elaine permalink
    January 12, 2014

    So much desecration in the name of “progress” !!
    Thank you for preserving these images, even though, now, it’s a case of what was and what might – and should- have been.
    I have seen (and am still seeing) it happen in this young country of Australia and it HURTS. How much more painful must it be for all who cherish the architectural history of Old London.

  24. Chris Ashby permalink
    January 12, 2014

    Thanks for alerting us. I don’t live in Tower Hamlets but I’ve just objected. There’s still time to save these buildings.
    All the best!
    Chris A.

  25. January 12, 2014

    This is terribly sad and amounts to architectural vandalism. I cannot believe the short termism of this, have we not learnt from the past? I have objected I really hope that this gets stopped

  26. January 12, 2014

    Thank you for informing us about this. I’ve lodged this, my objection – The present buildings add character and reflect the rich cultural history and heritage of the location. Their preservation and repair would add value to what is a unique locality. We risk destroying the very things that make Whitechapel such a special and valuable part of London in the rush to ‘develop’ the area.

  27. Michelle Gales permalink
    January 13, 2014

    This research is wonderful. But this project MUST be rethought. The most important aspect is that destroying architectural heritage is destroying memory. And that is something which affects our conscience of our being part of society. Photographs cannot replace stone. But economically as well, these big modern structures are shabby in one generation unless huge amounts are spent on upkeep. Restoring old buildings, modestly —but keeping as much of the original structure as possible, not tearing out the insides and pouring in concrete instead— is the most economical solution in the long run. The advantage of older buildings is that they can be repaired as cells, whereas big structures are “all or nothing”. Older buildings also have advantages for being energy saving —less hot in summer, cold in winter than concrete. And insulation can be added whereas for modern buildings if it is not in the original plan, too bad. As one comment pointed out, it is so difficult for small businesses to find premises. These small units are a precious resource for that reason too. Restoring and maintaining architectural heritage makes so much more sense. Finally the City is a Common Good. It should not be periodically pillaged for these short sighted private profit making ventures.
    Please go back on this project and find a way to do more modest and respectful restoration. Future generations will be grateful.

  28. January 13, 2014

    Marvellous article, and makes me sad to have missed this wonderful area before it was hammered by WWII German bombs. It’s still possible to walk round and spot where the bombs fell… Have emailed to object. Suspect it won’t do much good, as THBC are not interested in any past other than the ‘new’ one they are busy creating. Of Swansea, it was said that what the Germans started, the town planners finished. Same here.

  29. JS Newby permalink
    January 13, 2014

    To be clear, I am opposed to preserving everything of age on principle, merely because it is old. I have no wish to freeze the capital in aspic, creating some sort of unnatural Victorian ‘theme park’. London has always been a city of diversity and continual evolution. Our built environment needs to represent this. Future generations have as much right to inherit – and make choices about – the architecture of this age, our own, as any other.

    Yet I am acutely concerned about the overall sense of a built environment’s proportion, its relationship with people and the feel of an area for those who live and work around it. Architecture needs to recognise the importance to people of being human in scale, with appropriate levels of ornament and detail.

    Just because modern technology means our architecture can build at a Brobdingnagian scale, does not mean it always should do – nor that the effect such size may have on local communities and cohesion is necessarily always good/neutral. Surely architecture that is human in scale is likely to be more humanising in the way people interreact with it? If so, we need to be able to get the balance right between the new giganticism and a the more traditionally measured, familiar and empathetic.

    Maintaining this terrace is about getting such a balance right. It is essential to ensuring that the new development acknowledges its interaction with the community of humans into which it intrudes, along with their history, identitiy and emotional needs.

  30. Vita permalink
    January 13, 2014

    The battle lines must be drawn….it’s taken years to save Wilton’s and look at it now…thriving and the most diverse and exciting performance venue. Sadly there is limited resource both in financial terms and campaigners to save all our threatened buildings. A quest to turn around the juggernaut of ‘progress’ can be a life’s work when clearly the input from professionals under the guise of authority employees is anything but impartial.

  31. Aysha permalink
    January 16, 2014

    I just went past it on Sunday and saw all the boarded up windows & thought what a shame they never restored that building & let it just rot. I loved the detail of the arches. I used to see that tree growing out the window and always wondered how that tree got so big!

    I’m all for change & regeneration, but I also believe in appreciating history too.

  32. January 16, 2014

    Tower Hamlets Council is moving ahead with the demolition of 3-11 Vallance Rd — a row of 142-year-old buildings in Whitechapel — on the grounds they pose a safety risk due to their condition.

    Yet note the final clause of their planning application (PA/13/03069):

    “This structural review has been prepared on the basis of a visual only
    review of the particularly elements noted in the scope of works together
    with the noted documentation. A full structural survey of the building or
    associated elements was not carried out…”

    So… It’s structurally unsound …but we haven’t actually done a structural survey. Astounding.

    See it (to believe it) here:

    Jason Neely, E1

  33. September 12, 2016

    How wonderful!; I was noodling around Google maps and suchlike for a story I am writing (Sherlock Holmes chasing Jack the Ripper for the morbidly curious) and looking at old maps its easy to see how you could move unseen through this landscape. What maps cannot show, however, is the beauty of the buildings… not the godforsaken slums or rookeries where ordinary, decent people had to tread water to survive, but these magnificent old edifices. I quite forgot my work for half an hour thanks to the Author, but sadly the ‘vision’ of the council of how the area could look (Presumably if they want to recreate Logan’s Run) jarred me back to reality. I’m not a Lahndaner-my Wife is a Newham girl, however and my dear Mum was from Islington. I pity the people of Whitechapel if this is what had to be removed to make way for glass wedges. The transluscent, anonymous people shown in a few of the images seem a perfect comment on how your council sees you. The past is not always pleasant-much of the area was clearly an insult to its residents… but why destroy such beauty?.

  34. Annette Keith permalink
    March 10, 2017

    Our old theaters, movies and old time silent films with actual organ, were closed in Benton Harbor MI USA. A group of construction company owners, architects and funds are trying to rebuild the theaters and old stores into town homes above the old theaters. atk

  35. Ken Stewart permalink
    April 15, 2021

    Same going on everywhere. The Eagle Brewery Tap in Poplar High Street was demolished even though there were parts dating back hundreds of years. So any fantastic facades everywhere in East London left too rot.

  36. Irene Lilian Pugh permalink
    May 3, 2021

    Thank you Charles, for reminding me of the corner tobacconist shop in Valance Road where I used to purchase a three corned lolly. I even remember the Jewish man who served in the shop. A tall bell built man – always wore a white apron.
    Sadly committee members are mainly from foreign parts – therefore its not their history.

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