191-193 Whitechapel Road

site of the entrance to the Pavilion Theatre, established in 1827, rebuilt in 1858 and 1894, and cleared in 1962

The Pavilion Theatre (demolished)
Contributed by Survey of London on Aug. 25, 2017

The site of 191-193 Whitechapel Road has been an empty frontage for more than half a century, but it and the land behind occupy a place of importance in London’s theatre history. The Pavilion Theatre, in business here for little more than a century (1827 to 1934), was one of Whitechapel’s landmarks. Its arrival was part of the general development of what had been garden ground behind 181–193 Whitechapel Road in the mid 1820s.

The first theatre, a small playhouse, was built by John Farrell, said to have been an actor, and William Hyatt (known as Wyatt) in 1826. It was open by February 1827 and within the year was billed as the new Royal Pavilion Theatre. Promoted as being on Whitechapel Road, it was in fact well back from the road, immediately south of Caroline Place and behind houses on Baker’s Row, the only point of access at first; it stood about where 15–25 Vallance Road are now. At first unlicensed, and therefore liable to be closed down, the future of the establishment was secured in 1828 thanks to the collapse of the Royal Brunswick Theatre. That led to the transfer of both a license and performers. A new lease was agreed and improvements were immediately planned, including a long ‘avenue’ to the main road for patrons of the boxes. The Baker’s Row entrance was kept for the gallery, with houses there used for dressing rooms. George Chambers, known as an artist of ships and seascapes, gained employment as a scenery painter here in late 1829. Nautical melodrama was widely popular, and perhaps particularly emphasised here to establish the succession from the Well Street theatres. Even so, respectability was sought, suspected prostitutes being banned entrance. Farrell alone acquired leases of the site of 193 Whitechapel Road and land behind in 1830. Buildings that included the covered passage or ‘avenue’ were up by 1836. The street front was a three-bay stuccoed classical edifice, of some grandeur in the local context with a double order of paired Ionic columns, black on the ground floor and fluted to a piano nobile. The lease was sold in 1839 and a series of sub- tenancies followed.1

Fire destroyed the empty theatre on 13 February 1856. The roof collapsed, leaving the auditorium and stage a shell; the distant main-road frontage was not affected. The lease had passed to Charles Conaughton, an Irish gas fitter (according to the Census of 1851). He died in 1853 leaving his property to his Whitechapel-born 21-year old daughter Elizabeth M. A. Munro, she having married Donald Munro, a Scottish linen-draper on the Mile End Road. The theatre, its machinery and wardrobe had been insured. That permitted Elizabeth Munro to undertake rebuilding on a significantly larger scale in 1858, agreeing a new head lease with the Bacon estate and subletting to John Douglass, proprietor of the Great National Standard Theatre, Shoreditch, who became the Pavilion’s manager and paid for the fitting up of the premises. They opened as the ‘New Royal Pavilion Theatre’, claiming also to be ‘The Great Nautical Theatre of the Metropolis’. First designs had been by Arthur Taylor, architect, but his place was nominally taken by G. H. Simmonds; the Builder reported that architectural duties were in several (un-named) hands. The capacious auditorium could seat 1,750 to 2,000, and the gallery had room for 1,200 to 1,400. However estimated, capacity was greater than at Covent Garden’s new theatre. There was improved circulation and egress, though inadequacies were sharply noted. From Whitechapel Road the ‘superb Parisian avenue’ (10ft6in. wide and 172ft long) was an arcade of Portland stone and corrugated iron off of which there was a refreshment saloon. The 70ft-wide stage to the north had a great Corinthian proscenium arch. In the auditorium slender columns and ring beams of cast iron supported the balconies. Internal décor was of white and gold with crimson velvet for the box fronts and curtains. The painted domical ceiling, seemingly unsupported, had a central glass chandelier by Defries and Son.2

An attempt in 1859–60 to attract more respectable audiences that included the construction of private boxes and stalls and a renaming as the East London Opera House appears to have met little success and in straitened times the theatre failed in 1869. Munro tenure of the theatre property and its environs was consolidated in 1861–2, extending to all the Baker’s Row properties immediately to the east and nearly all those to the south on Whitechapel Road. The widening of Baker’s Row in the early 1870s gave the Munros an opportunity to acquire the southerly part of that frontage, which permitted minor additions to the theatre in 1873, overseen by Jethro T. Robinson, architect, and redevelopment along the street in 1873–6. Donald Munro became Whitechapel’s representative on the MBW.3

From 1871 the Pavilion’s proprietor had been Morris Abrahams under whom the theatre cemented a reputation as a leading popular venue: ‘It is perhaps the most cosmopolitan pit in the metropolis. Here may be seen the bluff British tar; the swarthy foreign sailor fully arrayed in a picturesque sash, a red mob-cap and a pair of ear-rings; the Semitic swell in glossy broadcloth and the rorty coster, a perfect blaze of pearly buttons artistically arranged in an elegant suit of corduroy with a natty bird’s-eye neckerchief tied in an imperceptible knot; the sallow, callow youth in the shortest of jackets and the largest of stand-up collars; the sallow youth’s sweetheart; the respectable tradesman accompanied by his wife, five children and a large bag of provisions and a bottle of enormous dimensions, a trio of artless maidens who giggle and weep torrents.’4 Extensive alterations were made in 1884 with John Hudson as architect, including to the street frontage and the proscenium wall, to meet MBW stipulations arising from a general review of theatres prompted by the destruction of the Ring Theatre in Vienna in 1881.5

Further minor alterations to circulation and refreshment facilities on the Baker’s Row side in 1889–90 were handled by S. Walker and Rüntz, surveyors. Ernest Augustus Rüntz was the Munros’ son-in-law, having married Mary Ann Munro in 1883. He was to establish a reputation as a theatre architect. With Abrahams given a new lease under Mrs Munro, Rüntz was responsible for more extensive reconstruction in 1894 under the eye and influence of C. J. Phipps. This included an entirely new Doulton’s terracotta façade to Whitechapel Road, widened to the east to permit separate entrances to the pit and stalls or boxes. Rüntz gave the upper storeys increased presence with a double-height recessed arch above a balcony. Around a large oculus, for advertising, there was relief sculpture depicting Tragedy and Comedy, modelled by William J. Neatby. The auditorium was raised, ceiled with figurative painted decoration by Nepperschmidt & Hermann, and reseated with electric blue upholstering. There were also lateral extensions of the stage with a taller fly tower in a huge mansard spanning 64ft. Between the flies to the back was a scene-painting workshop, and there were new dressing rooms and bars, in particular a roomier refreshment saloon at circle level. Rüntz oversaw further reseating in 1906–8 to give a capacity of 1,832 of which 516 were standing and 500 in the gallery. Now managed by Isaac Cohen, this vast home to melodrama and pantomime was ‘the Drury Lane of the East’.6

The Pavilion Theatre, ground-level plan as in 1894 (drawing by Helen Jones)

After 1900 the Pavilion came to be known for the staging of Jewish plays, to some extent through the short managerial stints of Max Merton and Laurence Cowen, whose first play, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, premiered here in 1909. In that year a meeting in support of the establishment of a Jewish theatre in east London drew more than 2,000 to the Pavilion – ‘it was an auditorium where everybody knew everybody else, and was not ashamed to say so, in strident tones to be heard from gallery to stalls. The noise never stopped.’7 Management passed to Jacob Woolf Rosenthal, Polish-born, who responded to financial problems in 1911 by proposing cinema use. The Whitechapel Foundation, freeholder and neighbour, agreed to this, but resisted proposals for opening on Sundays, the Jewish clientele notwithstanding. Rosenthal moved away but came back in 1922 to stay until the end. Minor works of alteration in 1922–3, with Herbert O. Ellis & W. Lee Clarke as architects, were completed with a projecting illuminated sign at first-floor level advertising ‘VILNA TROOP’, the international Modernist Yiddish theatre company whose production here of Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, set in a brothel and with a favourable portrayal of a lesbian relationship, was shut down by the censor. Rosenthal, always precarious, planned to sell up to Savoy Cinemas Ltd, but this fell through in 1927 so he kept the Yiddish theatre going. By now the superior lease was held by Sid Hyams, of a family of East End Jewish cinema entrepreneurs. With George Coles as his architect, Hyams proposed redevelopment on a larger scale for a theatre to take more than 5,000. But this failed to gain traction and cinema and occasional boxing use continued alongside Yiddish theatre. The LCC stipulated extensive improvements in 1932 to keep up with regulations. These were not carried out, forcing closure in 1934 with Rosenthal clinging to the possibility of redevelopment. The Hyams’s Gaumont Super Cinemas Ltd held out hope in the late 1930s, but the transformation never came and after indirect bomb damage in 1940 the building fell into dereliction.8

The LCC acquired the property for clearance and housing development and in 1961 the theatre historian John Earl recorded the roofless ruins (see his separate account). Clearance followed and an advertising hoarding occupied the Whitechapel Road frontage from 1962 to 2012. Back land fell to use as a lorry and car park and eventually into the ownership of Lidl. In 1988 Tim Reynolds’s Academy Drama School unsuccessfully attempted unauthorised building work on the site to form a theatre and classrooms. That property passed into the ownership of Lidl and a scheme for a supermarket below flats that extended east to Vallance Road was refused permission in 2013. The site remains empty in 2020.9

  1. London Metropolitan Archives (hereafter LMA), Tower Hamlets Commissioners of Sewers ratebooks; A/DAV/01/018; E/BN/120,123–4,164–5; MR/L/MD/0045: Morning Chronicle, 28 June 1827; 8 Jan. 1828: Weekly Dispatch, 17 Feb. 1839: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (hereafter THLHLA) cuttings 795.1: East London Theatre Archive: Diana Howard, London’s Theatres and Music Halls, 1850–1950, 1970, pp .171–2: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography sub Chambers: Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow, Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840–1880, 2001, pp. 55–6 

  2. Illustrated London News, 23 Feb. 1856, pp. 206–7; 6 Nov. and 13 Nov. 1858, pp. 429–30,453: The Builder, 15 May, 26 June, 25 Sept., 2 Oct. and 6 Nov. 1858, pp. 342,446,644-5,654-5,738–9: LMA, E/BN/138: Ancestry: Historic England  London Region photographs 

  3. LMA, E/BN/140–3; GLC/AR/BR/19/0439: THLHLA, L/WBW/13/15: Ordnance Survey map 1873: District Surveyors Returns (DSR): Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) Minutes, 8 Oct. 1875, p. 337: Davis and Emeljanow, London Theatregoing, pp. 60–1,68–9 

  4. The Referee, 1883, as quoted in Albert E. Wilson, East End Entertainment, 1954, p. 89 

  5. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/07/0439; /19/0439: MBW Mins, 13 Oct. and 17 Nov. 1882, pp. 511,741; 10 Aug. 1883, pp. 347–9; 24 April 1885, p. 739: DSR: Howard, _loc. cit__._ 

  6. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/07/0439; 19/0439: DSR: London County Council Minutes, 2 Aug. 1889, p. 697; 6 May 1890, p. 374; 13 June 1893, pp. 611–2; 1894 passim; 16 Oct. 1906, p. 851: The Builder, 22 Dec. 1894, p. 460: The Architect, 15 Feb. 1895: A. Stuart Gray, Edwardian Architecture, 1985, pp. 314–15: Post Office Directories: Howard, _loc. cit__._ 

  7. Charles Landstone, Jewish Chronicle Supplement, 27 Nov. 1970, p. 42 

  8. LMA, GLC/AR/BR/07/0439; 07/P/0439; GLC/AR/BR/22/036395; A/DAV/02/002, p. 206; LCC/EO/PS/03/170: DSR: Post Office Directories: East London Advertiser, 20 Nov. 1909; 7 Jan. 1911: New York Times, 28 Oct. 1923, p. x2: DSR: Anthony L. Ellis, ‘The East-End Jew at his Playhouse’, Pall Mall Gazette, vol. 41, 1908, pp. 173–9: Emanuel Litvinoff, Journey Through a Small Planet, 1972 (edn 1993), pp. 76–87: Howard, _loc. cit__.s_ 

  9. LMA, SC/PHL/02/1007HEA, MD96/04715–30: Colin Sorenson, ‘“How I began theatre hunting” some discursive recollections’, in Joanna Bird, Hugh Chapman and John Clark (eds), Collectanea Londiniensia: Studies in London archaeology and history presented to Ralph Merrifield, 1978, pp. 463–72: The Express, 18 Aug. 1961, p. 3: Historic England Archives, Aerofilms A147200: THLHLA, Building Control file 15497: information supplied by Ann Robey: Tower Hamlets planning applications online 

191 Whitechapel Road (demolished)
Contributed by Survey of London on Aug. 25, 2017

In 1840 the shophouse on this site was taken by Henry William Wainwright, a brushmaker. By 1861 his son of the same name, age 22, had inherited the shop and business, which he extended later in the 1860s to a warehouse and packing depot across the road at what is now No. 130, taking his family to live in Tredegar Square. In 1874 the younger Wainwright killed and disposed of the body of his mistress, Harriet Lane, at his depot, a notorious crime for which he was executed in 1875. In the same year a fire in the brush factory caused a dangerous panic in the Pavilion Theatre. After 1900 No. 191 became the Pavilion Restaurant; it was cleared with the theatre in 1962.1

  1. London Metropolitan Archives, E/BN/160,162,166–8,171–2: CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/572/1344518; GLC/AR/BR/07/0439: Ancestry: the-east- end.co.uk/henry-wainwright: Post Office Directories 

Recording the Whitechapel Pavilion in 1961
Contributed by John Earl on May 30, 2017

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!

The Pavilion Theatre, ground-floor plan as after reconstruction in 1894
Contributed by Helen Jones

The site of the Pavilion Theatre in 2017
Contributed by Shahed Saleem