Skip to content

Whitechapel’s Theatrical Terrace Is Saved, Again

February 27, 2024
by the gentle author

3-13 Vallance Rd



Thanks to the objections from you – the readers of Spitalfields Life – Whitechapel’s Theatrical Terrace has been saved, again. Yesterday Transport for London withdrew their Planning Application for demolition in response to the chorus of disapproval we sparked, including letters from the Victorian Society, SAVE Britain’s Heritage and Historic England.

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

Be assured, we will keep you informed of further developments with these buildings of acknowledged importance 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.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. February 27, 2024

    This is wonderful news which I picked up on last night on social media. It is sad that the theatre has gone but to preserve the terrace would really enhance the area immensely. It would be wonderful if the architects added little references to the theatrical past of the buildings. I can’t recall the Royal Pavilion cropping up in the listing of my ancestral aunt, Nellie Estelle’s performances but I will check again ( she performed at nearby Wilton’s twice at least).
    Fantastic news so well done again the GA for mobilising the masses to object and help preserve our East End. Next objective, Whitechapel Bell Foundry!

  2. Arabella permalink
    February 27, 2024

    Congratulations and how wonderful that you have saved this piece of history from destruction. All power to Spitalfields Life!

  3. February 27, 2024

    Excellent news about Vallance Road. Well done to the GA for making this happen!

    The caption for the photo “Old Montague St and Black Lion Yard, 1961 (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives) is wrong – it actually shows Old Montague St and Green Dragon Yard (a little further West).

  4. February 27, 2024

    just wonderful news.

  5. Karen Rennie permalink
    February 27, 2024

    Bravo to you for saving this piece of London’s history again.

  6. Andy permalink
    February 27, 2024

    It is not often we get such news so thank you to everyone who fought .
    I am so grateful to the Gentle Author .
    For those who like David Kossoff and Alfie Bass YouTube holds one of their films set in Old Montague Street .
    I shall try to find its name .

  7. Andy permalink
    February 27, 2024

    The film I refer to is called “The bespoke overcoat”.
    You will find references to it on YouTube .
    Particularly endearing and unique is an old man talking about the the filming of it .

  8. Milo permalink
    February 27, 2024

    Fantastic news. Good work everyone. We can make a difference. (One does wonder sometimes..)

  9. Eve permalink
    February 27, 2024

    well done! all objectors & protectors, Gentle Author & Spitalfields Life for rallying them (+ TFL for backing down) – thanks & praises all..

  10. February 27, 2024

    Congratulations and: You can do it after all!

    Love & Peace

  11. David Levenson permalink
    February 27, 2024

    Wonderful news! Well done to the GA and everyone who has worked to save the buildings, and fingers crossed that the Spitalfields Trust plan comes to fruition. My dad Harry was born in 1919, just behind the buildings in Regal Place, where he lived with his family. His older brothers would sneak in to the rear of the Pavilion Theatre, to watch the Yiddish plays. Sadly Regal Place was destroyed by a stray bomb in WW2.
    I visited the area again the other day, looking at the buildings, and sitting in Vallance Park, where my grandad and great grandad would sit with their friends, pre war. I noticed there still seems to be a wooden doorway there, in the corner, at the back of what would have been the Theatre? viewable from Vallance Road

  12. Linda Granfield permalink
    February 27, 2024

    Wonderful news!
    That said, one match (carelessly tossed or intentionally ignited) will make the rehabilitation impossible. We’ve seen such ‘accidents’ before.

    How quickly can the 2014 plans be adopted and construction begin? Even with the now-old scaffolding, there isn’t much holding those buildings together.

  13. Steve Shinners permalink
    February 27, 2024

    I’m so pleased . I received a letter in email form, from the planning department stating that they are not proceeding with the application . So glad . Let’s hope the buildings will now be safe .
    Steve Shinners.

  14. February 27, 2024

    Most excellent news!! I hope, one day on a future visit, that I will see them revitalised!

  15. Robin permalink
    February 27, 2024

    Wonderful news! The power of collective organizing. Now let’s see if we can still save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS