91 Whitechapel High Street

1861 shop, site of a 'penny gaff' in the 1850s, now a restaurant with flats over proposed

91 Whitechapel High Street
Contributed by Survey of London on July 11, 2018

This slip of a building, barely 11ft wide, was a rebuilding in 1862 by Mears, builders of Whitechapel Road, to the designs of William Scurry (1804-71) and his son-in-law James C. Wright (1825-1921), architects of Salisbury Street, Strand, and Denbigh Street, Pimlico, for the confectioner and ice merchant Carlo Gatti, who had had a confectioners’ shop there since the mid 1850s. Gatti’s centre of operations in Hungerford Market had been close to Scurry & Wright, and they later rebuilt the Adelaide Gallery off the Strand for Gatti’s nephews.1 It is essentially three floors above a shop, with a single room front and back either side of a lateral staircase with a small rear extension to the ground floor.2

From map evidence and its description in 1775, when it had been a tobacconist and grocers, as being ‘large and convenient for a Manufactory’, it appears formerly to have extended back along part of the west side of Inkhorn Court.3 In the 1660s and 1670s, in the occupation of Ralph Mansell, a baker, it was a house with six hearths.4 It was in use throughout most of the 18th and early 19th centuries, as a cornchandlers, (Dollinson, Goldsbury, Cook, inter alios).5

In the early 1850s it had been the Albion Bazaar and Concert Room, a penny gaff theatre, which expanded into a two-storey building to the rear. A description of the theatre and its entertainment emerges from witness statements during two court cases in December 1854 and June 1855 when Simon Marriott, alias Charles Mallett, employed as a bouncer in the theatre, was accused of assault, and his accuser was subsequently accused of perjury.6 The theatre, reached through the shop, was only around 50ft deep and 13ft wide but held 300 to 400 people, with a stage over a dressing room at the far end, an ‘orchestra’ (a violinist and one or two others) in front. There were two shows a night, six nights a week, which started when enough clients had assembled, and the entertainment included singing, clog dancing and audience participation - Mallett was employed to stand on the stage and ‘hold the people while they were having the laughing gas’. Following Mallett’s initial conviction (his accuser was later charged with perjury), the judge expressed his hope that ‘the attention of the metropolitan police will be strictly directed to its frequenters’, and the theatre seems to have closed soon after.7

The theatre building was likely demolished when the mean tenements on the west side of Inkhorn Court were built in 1859.8 Following rebuilding and Gatti’s departure, by 1871, a tailor, his family and assorted employees, fifteen in total, were living there. In 1910 the printer Eli Woolf Rabbinowicz (1853-1932) published his Yiddish-English Dictionary from this address, while the premises were also occupied by a manufacturer of artificial teeth.9 They gave way to ladies’ fashions, including by 1921 and into the 1930s Wolf and Marie Seifert, blouse makers and immigrants from Łódź via Zürich who lived on Whitechapel High Street from 1914 to 1930 with ten children, including Rubin (Richard) Seifert (1910–2001), who attended the Whitechapel Foundation School and returned to Whitechapel in later life as an architect. From the 1930s to the 1960s, No. 91 housed D&H Rose, fancy leather goods, then most recently, a café. In 2018 permission was granted for an additional storey and the removal of the staircase for a conversion of the upper floors into self- contained flats, all to plans by Clements & Porter, architects.10

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  1. The Builder (B), 30 Nov 1861, p. 832 : Blower’s Architect’s, Surveyor’s, Engineer’s and Builder’s Directory for 1860, London 1860, p. 54: Census: Building News, 7 May 1869, p. 421 

  2. Tower Hamlets planning applications online (THP) 

  3. Ogilby & Morgan map of London, 1676: Daily Advertiser, 12 June 1775 

  4. Hearth Tax returns (HT) 1666, 1674-5: Ancestry 

  5. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Land Tax returns (LT): Post office Directories (POD): Chelmsford Chronicle, 8 May 1847, p. 3 

  6. Old Bailey online, trials of Simon Marriott, aka Charles Mallett, in 1854 and Louisa Harrisson in 1855 

  7. Morning Post, 14 Dec 1854, p. 8 

  8. LMA, MBP/PLANS/492 

  9. POD: Census: Ancestry 

  10. POD: Ancestry: Ewan Harrison, ‘Hazardous Speculations: Richard Seifert’s forgotten early career 1933–1958’, in Elain Harwood and Alan Powers (eds), Twentieth Century Architecture, vol.14, Building for Business, 2020, pp. 69–77 (61–3): THP 

Charles Dickens at the Whitechapel penny gaff, 1851
Contributed by Survey of London on Oct. 4, 2018

Charles Dickens records a visit to the 'penny gaff' in 'the wider part' of Whitechapel High Street, almost certainly this site:

The 'gaff' throws out no plausible puffs, no mendacious placards, respecting the entertainment to be found therein. The public take the genuineness of the 'gaff' for granted, and enter by dozens. The 'gaff' has been a shop—a simple shop—with a back parlour to it, and has been converted into a hall of delight, by the very simple process of knocking out the shop front, and knocking down the partition between the shop and parlour. The gas-fittings yet remain, and even the original counters, which are converted into 'reserved seats', on which, for the outlay of twopence, as many costers, thieves... and young ladies, as can fight for a place, are sitting, standing, or lounging. For the common herd—  hoi polloi —the conditio vivendi is simply the payment of one penny, for which they get standing rooms in what are somewhat vaguely termed the 'stalls', —plainly speaking, the body of the shop. The proscenium is marked by two gas 'battens' or pipes, perforated with holes for burners, traversing the room horizontally, above and below. There are some monstrous engravings, in vile frames, suspended from the walls, some vilely coloured plaster casts, and a stuffed monstrosity or two in glass cases. The place is abominably dirty, and the odour of the company generally, and of the shag tobacco they are smoking, is powerful.

A capital house though, to-night: a bumper, indeed. Such a bumper, in fact, that they have been obliged to place benches on the stage (two planks on tressels), on which some of the candidates for the reserved seats are accommodated. As I enter, a gentleman in a fustian suit deliberately walks across the stage and lights his pipe at the footlights; while a neighbour of mine, of the Jewish persuasion, who smells fearfully of fried fish, dexterously throws a cotton handkerchief, containing some savoury condiment from the stalls to the reserved seats, where it is caught by a lady whom he addresses by the title of 'Bermondsey Bet'. Bet is, perhaps, a stranger in these parts, and my Hebrew friend wishes to show her that Whitechapel can assert its character for hospitality.

Silence for the manager, if you please!—who comes forward with an elaborate bow, and a white hat in his hand, to address the audience. A slight disturbance has occurred, it appears, in the course of the evening; the Impresario complains bitterly of the 'mackinnations' of certain parties 'next door', who seek to injure him by creating an uproar, after he has gone to the expense of engaging 'four good actors' for the express amusement of the British public. The 'next door' parties are, it would seem, the proprietors of an adjacent public-house, who have sought to seduce away the supporters of the 'gaff', by vaunting the superior qualities of their cream gin, a cuckoo clock, and the 'largest cheroots in the world for a penny'.

Order is restored, and the performances commence. 'Mr. and Mrs. Stitcher', a buffo duet of exquisite comicality, is announced. Mr. Stitcher is a tailor, attired in the recognised costume of a tailor on the stage, though, I must confess, I never saw it off. He has nankeen pantaloons, a red nightcap—a redder nose, and a cravat with enormous bows. Mrs. Stitcher is 'made up' to represent a slatternly shrew, and she looks it all over. They sing a verse apiece; they sing a verse together; they quarrel, fight, and make it up again. The audience are delighted. Mr. S. reproaches Mrs. S. with the possession of a private gin-bottle; Mrs. S. inveighs against the hideous turpitude of Mr. S. for pawning three pillow-cases to purchase beer. The audience are in ecstacies. A sturdy coalheaver in the 'stalls' slaps his thigh with delight. It is so real. Ugh! terribly real; let us come away, even though murmurs run through the stalls that 'The Baker's Shop' is to be sung. I see, as we edge away to the door, a young lady in a cotton velvet spencer, bare arms, and a short white calico skirt, advance to the footlights. I suppose she is the Fornarina, who is to enchant the dilettanti with the flowery song in question.

Charles Dickens, from 'Down Whitechapel Way', in Household Words, 1 Nov 1851, p. 129