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At The Eagle Tavern

September 25, 2017
by the gentle author

I wish you would take me out to the theatre. As the autumn nights draw in, 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 are only tantalising hints that survive of these bygone entertainments. Yet 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, crammed with enigmatic promises of exotic thrills. I 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. The many thousands of souls who experienced so much joy there over all those years impart a certain sacred quality to this location, even if it is now mostly occupied by 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

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

10 Responses leave one →
  1. September 25, 2017

    One suspects the audience were in two minds regarding the cancellation of the singing act that had gone down with dysentery. The entertainment value was potentially enormous, but …

  2. September 25, 2017

    The artwork on Miss Hengler’s playbill is wonderful, ditto for the 12 fiery steeds just above

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    September 25, 2017

    Does the Weasel still go “pop” though?

  4. Paul Blanchard permalink
    September 25, 2017

    Delightful posters in profusion and a really great essay. Thank You.

  5. Chris F permalink
    September 25, 2017

    I love it when you post content like this… I end up spending hours trying to research the names of the performers… It’s amazing what the Internet throws up. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to step back in time to view some of these shows… Dinner at a chop house followed by a couple of hours at the Grecian Saloon and then finish the night off at a local tavern with a few beers and a gin chaser…. Brilliant…

  6. Peter permalink
    September 28, 2017

    Our chum, Michael O’Connor, was raised there.
    His Mum and Dad ran the Eagle and he would sneak down and nick crisps.
    Thirty years later his costume design won an Oscar, a hat tip to the history listed above

  7. Stephen Barker permalink
    September 28, 2017

    As a collector of examples of jobbing printing from the 19th Century I am envious of the posters. What it must have been like to have been in the crowd at The Grecian Rooms is hard to imagine.

  8. Roger permalink
    October 1, 2017

    The current owners of The Eagle are singularly disinterested in the history of the area sadly. My attempts to gather information on the history of the pub and area were unsuccessful. They look down their noses at working class people (well, white ones anyway) and local history.

  9. Keir permalink
    October 1, 2017

    ‘Pop’, in this context, means making a temporary loan of a valuable possession to a pawn shop to obtain some ready cash. Also as in ‘Ill just pop down the road’.
    Weasel is short for ‘weasel and stoat’ which is London rhyming slang for coat. So, short of money, you would ‘pop your coat”

  10. Tracey Dunn permalink
    October 18, 2023

    Wow! I was born round the corner in Sherborne St N1 1961…When I was a toddler my grandad used to bounce me on his knee and sing the nursery rhyme..In and out the city Rd…his name was POP too! Would have loved to work here…

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