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In & Out The Eagle

October 20, 2020
by the gentle author

On dark nights when the rain beats at my window and the wind moans down my chimney, I dream of leaving the gloomy old house and joining 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 recently, “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 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 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 imagine walking through Brick Lane and up to Shoreditch on a Saturday night, through the hen parties and gangs of suburban boys out on a bevy, amidst the intoxicated, the drugged and the merely overexcited, to get a glimpse of what it might have been like two hundred years ago when as many as six thousand attended events at the Eagle Tavern.

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, 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 it is disappointing 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 Shoreditch Police Station.


Images courtesy © Bishopsgate Institute

6 Responses leave one →
  1. October 20, 2020

    “Having spent some days in preparation, a splendid time is guaranteed for all. And tonight Mr. Kite is topping the bill!” —- NOW I realize the full meaning of those curious tantalizing lyrics from the Beatles.

    As for all the varied type fonts involved here: All I can say is……..”Excelsior!”.

    What a tremendous banquet of excessive mirth.
    Take a bow (from a galloping horse, of course) GA!

  2. Jane Manley permalink
    October 20, 2020

    This brought back so many memories of my grandma singing Pop Goes the Weasle to me when I was young. I always thought that the line ‘in and out the Eagle’ was a bit odd, not realising at the time that the eagle was a pub. It was only last year as I was walking down the City Road and came across the Eagle pub that I realised that, in my mind, I could hear my grandma singing to me. I have also discovered recently that she grew up not very far from here.

  3. Linda Granfield permalink
    October 20, 2020

    What a magnificent place! No wonder thousands wanted to attend the various events.

    Have to say, I cannot imagine ‘dancing with a dysenteric patient’ though!

    I was curious about the songs mentioned and did a quick-look. Found one–“The Soldier’s Tear.”

    The lyrics (1830–which fits the dates of your clippings) by Thomas Haynes Bayly. New music by the fellow singing this sad song, Michael Squires. I can only imagine the audience-tears when “Miss Seymour” sang it so long ago.

    Good chuckle, dear GA, with that last, punchy line of yours. Shoreditch Police Station. Constables were most likely much in evidence with the crowds at the Eagle!

  4. Barbara permalink
    October 20, 2020

    We coulddo with something like this now!

  5. October 20, 2020

    Wow! Who’d have thought that all these amazing artists were appearing in the East End. I’m sure my great- grandmother must have seen some of them, she was a lover of Music Halls, Theatre and visited the Eagle Tavern. She used to live with us when I was small and always sang that song to me. Thank you for bringing back happy memories.
    It’s a poignant reminder that so may actors, performers and musicians are unable to share their talents with us all now……

  6. John Miles permalink
    October 21, 2020

    Wonderful post, GA – thank you! One of my favourite Dickens stories is ‘Jemima Evans and The Eagle’ from ‘Sketches by Boz’ – a lively and amusing portrayal of a lost London world. Would that it were possible to go back to The Eagle for an evening – to see a performance, hear a concert or watch Charles Green ascend in a balloon!

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