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Whitechapel’s Theatrical Terrace Under Threat

February 24, 2022
by the gentle author

Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far to my crowd-funder to launch a COMMUNITY TOURISM PROJECT in Spitalfields as a BETTER ALTERNATIVE to the serial killer tours that monetise misogyny. We have raised over £12,000 now, so please help us reach our target by spreading the word.




Map of The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields designed by Adam Dant


3-13 Vallance Rd


It was an early success for the nascent East End Preservation Society in 2014 when this old terrace in Whitechapel, comprising the last fragment of the nineteenth century Pavilion Theatre complex, was saved from demolition.

In response to the number of objections received, Tower Hamlets Council withdrew their application for demolition in order to explore new options. How disappointing then to learn that the council have recently put the terrace up for sale by a commercial agent with a  brochure that offers the options of refurbishment or redevelopment. In other words, demolition is still possible despite the acknowledged importance of these buildings which sit within the Whitechapel Market Conservation Area.

Through all the changes in Whitechapel since World War II, this distinctive Victorian terrace has miraculously survived and the exoticism of its architecture with such a 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, even before 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, 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.

In the spirit of high theatrical farce, the Council’s consultant wrote of these buildings in Vallance Rd in the 2013 Heritage Report, accompanying the former 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 outlined the following priority for action – “Encourage sympathetic redevelopment of gap sites west of Vallance Rd and secure restoration of 3-11 Vallance Rd.”

In 2014, a new proposal was rendered by local conservation practice Jonathan Freegard Architects, commissioned by the Spitalfields Trust,  which retains the terrace as part of a mixed-use scheme delivering housing, retail and office space. This remains the best option for these buildings.

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


First sketch by Tim Whittaker of the Spitalfields Trust, proposing courtyard housing behind the terrace which reflects the local vernacular of Whitechapel

Proposal by  Jonathan Freegard Architects for restoration of the terrace with a new yard at rear

South-westerly view of  proposal by Jonathan Freegard Architects

Rear view of proposal by Jonathan Freegard Architects

Recent  photographs of Vallance Rd Terrace © Alex Pink.

You may also like to read about

The East End Preservation Society

The Launch of The East End Preservation Society

6 Responses leave one →
  1. February 24, 2022

    These buildings were made to last. Even the past 50 years of neglect after they had fallen into ruin was not enough to finish them off. I hope that these survivors from the past can be renovated for the future.

  2. February 24, 2022

    These beautiful buildings deserve to experience a renaissance. I hope that the architects’ ideas will succeed.

    Love & Peace

  3. Cherub permalink
    February 24, 2022

    I am glad I don’t live in Tower Hamlets because the council seem hell bent on either selling off, destroying or demolishing anything worth keeping. The architects proposal for these buildings would restore the terrace to something beautiful for local people to enjoy. The original facade of the theatre is imposing and handsome.
    I just don’t understand why councils do this and can only assume it’s driven by money with no thought for the people who live in the borough.

  4. Lizebeth permalink
    February 24, 2022

    Once again, Tower Hamlets Council scores a big fat ZERO with regard to any sensitivity to London’s heritage. Does the Gentle Author know if the seemingly excellent redevelopment scheme is of interest to any potential purchaser of the site?

    One can only hope that new Councillors may be voted in next time who have some understanding of history.

  5. Chris permalink
    February 24, 2022

    Such a sad state of affairs. Yet again Tower Hamlets seem hell bent on selling and destroying so much of the history which could be salvaged and repurposed, as per the architects proposals. Let us hope that neither the City Corporation or British Land get their greedy hands on the site as it will be a foregone conclusion amongst the esteemed councillors of Tower Hamlets.

  6. Su C. permalink
    February 25, 2022

    I don’t know why – maybe it’s the state of the world today and all the strife felt from everywhere – but the possible loss of these buildings makes me weep. Real tears of sorrow. Why do people insist on trying to recast the character of an area into something fleeting, as if it were to become the next -overpriced- fashionable trend? Why?

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