News and Events | All Posts From 2017

Recording the Pavilion Theatre in 1961

Posted by Survey of London on June 1, 2017

John Earl, doyen among historians of theatres, remembers recording the derelict remains of the Whitechapel Pavilion in 1961:

It was a dauntingly complex task, as to my (then) untrained eye, it appeared to be an impenetrable forest of heavy timbers, movable platforms and hoisting gear, looking like the combined wreckage of half a dozen windmills!  I started by chalking an individual number on every stage joist in an attempt to provide myself with a simple skeleton on which to hang the more complicated details. Richard Southern's explanations enabled me to allocate names to the various pieces of apparatus, correcting my guesses.  (‘Stage basement’ for example was, I learned, an imprecise way of naming a space with three distinct levels).  He also gave me a brilliant introduction to the workings of a traditional wood stage and to the theatric purposes each part fulfilled.

The attached sketch attempts to give a summary view of the entire substage.

It is set at the first level below the stage, with the proscenium wall at the top and the back wall of the stage house at the bottom.  In the terminology of the traditional wood stage, this is the ‘mezzanine’, from which level, all the substage machinery was worked by an army of stage hands. In the centre, the heavily outlined rectangle is the ‘cellar’, deeper by about 7ft below the mezzanine floor.  Housed in the cellar are a variety of vertically movable platforms designed to move pieces of scenery and complete set pieces.

It may be observed at this point that not all of this apparatus will have resulted from one build.  A wood stage had the great advantage that it could be adapted at short notice by the stage carpenter to meet the demands of a particular production.  The substage, as seen, represents a particular moment in its active life.

There are five fast rise or ‘star’ traps for the sudden appearance (or disappearance) of individual performers (clowns, etc) through the stage floor. The three traps nearest to the audience are ‘two post’ traps, rather primitive and capable of causing serious injury to an inexpert user.  Upstage of these are two of the more advanced and marginally safer ‘four post’ traps.  In both types, the performer stood on a box-like counter-weighted platform with his (usually his) head touching the centre of a ’star' of leather-hinged wood segments.  Beefy stage hands pulled suddenly (but with split second timing) on the lines supporting the box, shooting him through the star.  In an instant, it closed behind him, leaving no visible aperture in the stage surface.

Farther upstage is a row of ’sloats’,  designed to hold scenic flats, to be slid up through the stage floor. Next comes a grave trap which, as the name suggests, can provide a rectangular sinking in the stage (‘Alas, poor Yorick’).  Finally, a short bridge and a long bridge, to carry heavy set pieces, with or without chorus members, up through (and, when required, a bit above) the stage.  These bridges were operated from whopping great drum and shaft mechanisms on the mezzanine.

In order to get all these vertical movements to pass through the stage, its joists, counter-intuitively, have to span from side to side, the long span rather than the more obvious short span.  This makes it possible to have removable sections ‘(sliders’) in the stage floor, which are held level position by paddle levers at the ends.  When these are released, the slider drops on to runners on the sides of the joists and are then winched off to left and right.

The survey of the Pavilion stage was important at the time because it seemed to be the first time that anything of the kind had been done, however imperfectly. Since then, we have learned of complete surviving complexes at, for example, Her Majesty’s theatre in London, the Citizens in Glasgow and, most importantly, the Tyne theatre in Newcastle, which has been restored to full working order twice (once after a dreadfully destructive fire) by Dr David Wilmore.  Nevertheless, the loss of the archaeological evidence of the Pavilion is much to be regretted.

I can have enjoyable fantasies about witnessing an elaborate pantomime transformation scene from the mezzanine of a Victorian theatre.  The place is seething with stage hands, dressers and flimsily clad chorus girls climbing on to the bridges, while the stage is shuddering, having been temporarily robbed of rigidity by the drawing off of the sliders.  Orders must be observed to the letter and to the very second, but there can be no shouting, however energetically the orchestra plays.  Add naked gas flames to the mix…

That's enough!

Unsettled Whitechapel – a conference report

Posted by Sarah Milne, Survey of London on May 22, 2017

Between 29 - 31 March 2017, an international conference entitled ‘Unsettled – Urban Routines, Temporalities and Contestations’ was hosted by the Technical University, Vienna, Austria. It aimed to explore conditions and conceptions of the unsettled. At this event Sarah Milne and Shahed Saleem presented their paper ‘A Kind of English: The East London Mosque and Whitechapel’s German Churches as Diasporic Religious Spaces’.

The paper explored the role of religious buildings for migrant communities in Whitechapel, considering how such groups created and connected to conceptions of ‘home’ through their places of worship. Two particular migrant groups were examined as they moved into and dispersed from Whitechapel. The analysis started with the German community (Deutsche Kolonie) in the East End, and its close links to the sugar refining industry in the nineteenth century. Sarah and Shahed then considered the Bangladeshi community who started to settle in large numbers from the 1970s.

Drawing on the Survey’s research into three local German churches (St George’s Lutheran, St Paul’s Reformed and St Boniface Catholic), Sarah and Shahed also interviewed Sigrid Werner, associated to St George’s, and Father Chris Dieckmann of St Boniface to further understand the churches’ funding, sociability, cultural and spatial practices over time.

Utilising research from Shahed’s forthcoming book The British Mosque, the paper then outlined the development of the East London Mosque (ELM) in the context of a growing working class Muslim community in East London. It suggested that there were many more barriers to integration for the first-generation Bengali migrants than for the Germans. It argued that the ELM in fact has served to unite different ethnicities under a pan-Islamic and transnational vision for the mosque. As the present-day Bengali community trickles out of Whitechapel, the mosque’s aspiration to move beyond the local and address regional and perhaps national Muslim needs finds expression organisationally as well as architecturally.

The conference itself thought seriously about the diverse manifestations of urban instability in a range of international situations both past and present. Presentations ranged from ‘Creeping Urban Apartheid’ in Tel Aviv to ‘Unsettling the Sociopolitical Order through Hip Hop Practices’ in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. There were many exciting conversations and propositions for active engagement in places all over the world as a result of the discussions.

Whitechapel Histories Map

Posted by Shahed Saleem on April 18, 2017

Date and Time: Thursday 1st June, 2017

A display of the Whitechapel Histories map where you can interact physically with it by sticking your pin on a place, and writing your contribution about it.

Further infomation about the project on screen and print will also be displayed.

Location: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Local Archives, 1st floor gallery

Date: June 1st 2017 - September 1st 2017

At Home in Whitechapel

Posted by Shahed Saleem on April 18, 2017

Date and Time: Thursday 1st June, 2017

An exhibition of photographs by local photographer Rehan Jamil of people in their homes in Whitechapel.

The photographs show the range of people and living spaces in this diverse area.

Location: The Aldgate Coffee House, 68 Whitechapel High Street E1 7PL

Date: June 1st - August 1st 2017

Whitechapel Guided Walk

Posted by Shahed Saleem on April 18, 2017

Date and Time: 6 p.m., Saturday 17th June, 2017

In collaboration with the Institute of Historical Research, we are running a guided walk around Whitechapel focussing on places of worship, immigration and personal memories drawn from our oral histories.

Walk through layers of social history, visiting the sites of former German sugar refineries, an 18th-century German Lutheran Church and 20th-century German Catholic church, the park where St Mary Matfelon (the 'white chapel') once stood, the East London Mosque, former workhouses, the Royal London Hospital and the variety of buildings across its estate, amongst other diverse and fascinating places.

This event is part of the London Festival of Architecture 2017.

Date: Saturday 17th June

Time: 6.00-8.00pm

Meet in Altab Ali Park

Cost £3 please register here:

Going Digital: Mapping family history in Whitechapel with the Survey of London

Posted by Shahed Saleem on April 18, 2017

Date and Time: 1 p.m., Saturday 3rd June, 2017

Join a fascinating panel of speakers and explore Whitechapel's history through their rich family and personal stories. Joe Swinburne was born on Spelman Street in 1923 before moving to Vallance Road where his block of flats was bombed in the blitz of 1941. After demobilisation he spent his working life in the local authority, observing Whitechapel's changes through the second half of the 20th century. Gary Hutton is a Whitechapel born and bred author, historian and social activist, who grew up locally in the 70s and 80s. He uses social media to connect past and present residents of Whitechapel through their stories and memories and runs a charity to mentor young people. Sufia Alam is the manager of the East London Mosque's Maryam Centre and has been involved in women's advocacy projects since the 1990s. Her father settled in Whitechapel in the 1960s before moving the family to Yorkshire, from where she returned to the East End as a young adult.

Attendees are encouraged not only to be part of the conversation, but also to be part of the writing of Whitechapel's history - bring your family photos, artefacts and memories, we can digitise them and put them onto our digital map on the day. We will also be making audio recordings of any memories and recollections, which can become part of our website and will be archived at the Tower Hamlets Archives.

There will also be a discussion on the role of digital technology in mapping, recording and sharing histories and memories, with presentations by the Survey of London and the innovative Layers of London project, currently being developed.

The event will be in collaboration with the Tower Hamlets Archives to coincide with their exhibition 'Mapping the Hamlets', which displays the different ways in which the area has been recorded in maps since 1610.

Date: Saturday 3rd June 2017

Time: 1-4pm

Attendance is free but please register:

Location: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, 277 Bancroft Road E1 4DQ

Illustration by Judit Ferencz

Whitechapel on Film

Posted by Shahed Saleem on April 18, 2017

Date and Time: 5:30 p.m., Thursday 29th June, 2017

Film Night: Whitechapel 1968

In collaboration with Tower Hamlets Archives, we are delighted to present a screening of two contrasting documentaries featuring Whitechapel made in the 'year of revolutions', 1968. 

Georgia Brown: Who are the Cockneys Now? is a very personal look by the singer and actress Georgia Brown, returning to her childhood haunts in Whitechapel. She reflects on her own Jewish heritage and that of the area (inluding the Brady Club) and looks at the changing character of Whitechapel, which she celebrates as a place that has always welcomed immigrants. It features interviews with Lionel Bart, who she went to school with, Vidal Sassoon, the writer Wolf Mankowitz and the legendary Tubby Isaacs, the jellied eel man, and many other locals. There are evocative scenes of Petticoat Lane, Old Montague Street, Whitechapel Road, Black Lion Yard and Hessel Street and the streets just north of Wentworth Street, including her old school in Deal Street, much of which was soon to be demolished for redevelopment.

The London Nobody Knows, filmed in the same apocalyptic year, is described as a 'trippy documentary', presented by the actor James Mason. It is not just about Whitechapel, but includes a major segment about it, an outsider's view in contrast to Georgia Brown's.

Afterwards we'll have time for a discussion about the films, and memories from that time, and we'll have a large copy of our Whitechapel map so you can add your recollections of the places seen in the films. We'll also have a hand-out with the locations in the films identified, and we’ll share some of the material that we have gathered so far on those places in our research and from contributions.

Date 29th June

Time: 5.30-7.30pm

Location: Tower Hamlets LHLA, 277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4 DQ

Free to attend, limited numbers - registration link to follow


Lecture - Boundary blurring in Whitechapel: Whose history is it anyway?

Posted by Shahed Saleem on April 18, 2017

Date and Time: 6 p.m., Wednesday 21st June, 2017

In collaboration with the Institute of Historical Research this lecture by the Survey of London will review the Histories of Whitechapel project to date, looking at issues raised and insights gained through this experimental project. Survey historians Sarah Milne and Aileen Reid will consider the question of who writes history, and will present a sample of the most thought-provoking contributions and explore how history can be co-created through a combination of archive and memory.

Location: The Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Date: Wednesday June 21st 2017

Time: 6.30pm

This event is free, but please register at:


Sylheti Settlement in Whitechapel Road

Posted by Shlomit Flint on Feb. 28, 2017

In fieldwork carried out in 2011-12 twenty-one interviewees explained the need to preserve the identification of Whitechapel Road with the Sylheti community as a reaction to the gentrification process.

Saba (53) was preoccupied with the possible loss of individual cultural identity and the uprootedness of a society that is more and more like a market in which nothing prevents the stronger from dominating the weaker: "I am worried about an oncoming blending of local culture, as other multinational chains follow Starbucks into the area and attempt to gentrify it with their bland corporate décor and homogenous facades. We must defend our area and culture from taking over".

Puja (34) said: "I see Shoreditch, about a mile from here, that every venue has the same hipster formula applied. There's no place for identity anymore".

Abida (26) claimed: "It feels like the East-End becomes a playground for the rich and Japanese. We are worried that property prices soar pushing us, the original residents, out. We’d better sell inside."

As of 2002, indirect collaborations succeeded in strengthening the Sylheti presence on Whitechapel Road. Collective behaviour thus attracted Sylheti newcomers. The area designated as Sylheti territory was marked by its own market prices, strengthening the community members' sense of place, and improving their ability to cope with local challenges.

This is an extract from a paper titled 'A decision not to decide: A new challenge for planning', to be published in European Planning Studies.

24-26 Whitechapel Road

Posted by Sarah Milne, Survey of London on Feb. 21, 2017

At the beginning of 2017 the late-Victorian pair of shop-houses at this address was demolished, for replacement in replica form as part of a wider development project. The circumstances of the pair's construction in 1893-4 were unusual. An early timber-framed and jettied three-storey pair here was gutted by fire on 20 August 1893. For reconstruction the landlord, Fasham Venables, a linendraper on Whitechapel High Street, employed Henry Hyman Collins as surveyor and Amos Eaton & Co. as builder, the last also based on Whitechapel High Street. The old front walls were retained for the sake of the upper-storey projection, but Arthur Crow, the District Surveyor, objected and took the matter to court, arguing that the work constituted rebuilding so the projection had to be sacrificed. He prevailed, and work with set-back brick front walls was completed in March 1894. Please have a look at the images attached to this site on our map.