Bank of America House, 1 Alie Street

1987, office building, EPR Architects, site of an 18th-century chapel and the Goodman's Fields Theatre

Bank of America House, 1 Alie Street
Contributed by Survey of London on May 6, 2020

Until 1987, when this drab office block was erected on this ‘City Fringe’ site, the west end of the north side of Alie Street retained traces of an early eighteenth-century Nonconformist chapel and its burial ground. Immediately to the chapel’s east was where the short-lived but celebrated Goodman’s Fields Theatre stood. The return to Mansell Street (formerly Somerset Street) had a row of small houses, rebuilt at its south end around 1814 to open up the corner as a crescent, and comprehensively replaced after the widening of Mansell Street in 1910.1

The Great Alie Street Presbyterian Church appears to have been built in 1746–7, probably to designs by Joel Johnson, who recorded working on an Alie Street chapel at this date. It was established by a congregation founded in 1688 that was moving from Gravel Lane, Houndsditch. Elias Keach’s Particular Baptist congregation has also been associated with this Alie Street site, possibly from its move to Whitechapel in 1698, but it had gone to Angel Alley by 1714. The Presbyterian chapel, a sober brick building, was built during the ministry of the Rev. Joseph Denham (d. 1756), who lived at several addresses on Alie Street’s south side (see below), and under whom the congregation was said to remain ‘respectable both for numbers, and opulence’.2

Decades of doctrinal schisms whittled the congregation down, and it is said to have become Unitarian towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was dissolved in 1804, and in 1807 a lease was taken by John Bailey, a Particular or Strict Baptist minister of Greenfield Street, and the building was renamed Zoar Chapel. Editors of the conservative Gospel Standard were leaders of this congregation. A section broke away in the mid-1840s, establishing the short-lived Jireh Chapel in Spitalfields. The chapel on Alie Street is said to have been the model for Charles Dickens’s ‘Little Bethel’ in The Old Curiosity Shop.3

Plain inside and out, the chapel was similar in scale and proportions to Johnson's St George’s Lutheran Church, which survives further east on Alie Street. It had a three-bay pedimented front with a central doorway and round- headed windows. Box pews and three galleries addressed a fine hexagonal pulpit with a bold tester attached to the north wall, behind which were the vestry and office. A concrete floor was inserted above extensive vaults in 1901, but the chapel was condemned as unsafe in 1909. Before the congregation moved to Varden Street in 1921, James Kidwell Popham, editor of the Gospel Standard, preached the last sermon on Isaiah 6:5: ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.’4 After remodelling to the extent of rebuilding in 1909–10, by Barlow and Roberts, Southwark builders, the property was used as a warehouse by Warden Salip & Co., cork merchants, until demolition in the 1980s. The pulpit appears to have been salvaged, possibly transferred to the Art Institute of Chicago, though it seems not to be there any longer.5

An enclosed burial ground that lay behind the chapel was principally accessible from Somerset Street via St John’s Court (later John’s Court) in its early years. A plate on the chapel’s north wall marked the ground there as within the City’s Portsoken Ward, Whitechapel’s boundary having meandered hereabouts, irregularity that has been said to have Roman origins. Excavation here in 1986 recovered evidence of eighty-five Roman inhumations and seventeen cremations. Richard Horwood’s map of 1813 marked the site as ‘Dutch Church & Burial Ground’, possibly relating to use by the Dutch Church, Austin Friars, which had lost its churchyard. The Alie Street ground had been cleared and unified with an open frontage east of the chapel by 1873 (see below).6 The chapel was buffered by a house to its west, presumably once pertaining to the minister, though part came to be used as a whitesmith’s shop. This house was rebuilt in 1854 then demolished in 1910 when Mansell Street was widened. Barlow and Roberts redeveloped the larger corner site as warehousing in 1911–13.7

The Goodman’s Fields Theatre adjoined the chapel to the east. It was a conversion of an antecedent building that had been silk-throwing premises, so probably a workshop–warehouse; it evidently had a triple-storey loophole or loading bay, though that might have been a later alteration. In 1729, Thomas Odell (1691–1749), a playwright, set up what was only the fourth theatre in London in this low-slung ‘throwster’s shop’.8 Regulation of theatres protected the interests of a few patent holders, unlicensed premises flourished briefly, here and there, and theatrical activity had creatively to avoid directly flouting the law. There was therefore immediate opposition to Odell’s initiative, which forced temporary closures. In 1732 Odell sold the theatre to Henry Giffard, an actor in his company who proved a more competent theatre manager. Peter Prelleur (c.1705–1741), the musician and composer and Spitalfields-born son of a Huguenot immigrant weaver, was involved with the theatre from Odell’s time up to his death.9

Relying on subscriptions, Giffard enlarged the theatre in 1732. Edward Shepherd was his architect and was doubtless responsible, inter alia, for the elaborately rusticated entrance at the east end of the building’s street frontage. William Oram, a carpenter–architect who was also a landscape painter, decorated a ceiling with representations of Apollo and the Muses, and of the heads of Shakespeare, Dryden, Congreve and Betterton. The stage was at the east end of the building, storage and dressing rooms to the north. An inclined pit to the west could hold about 120. Benches curved around the orchestra well, and further west there were boxes of varying sizes arranged radially or in a fan-shape, that is wider at the front than the back, this a first, making room for around 280 more. A gallery probably accommodated another 250.10

The Goodman’s Fields Theatre catered for a growing public appetite for political entertainment. Spoken drama was buttressed with benefit performances for which the charge of an entrance fee or subscription was legal. However, the Licensing Act of 1737 tightened restrictions, increased penalties and limited theatrical performance in London to Westminster. Giffard, who had anyway moved on, was thus unable to sell his Alie Street property. In 1740 he secured permission to re-open it, though unlicensed. On 19 October 1741, Giffard staged a free performance of Richard III following ‘A Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music’ for which a fee was charged. Shakespeare’s play was the London debut of David Garrick (1717–1779), in the title role. He performed at Goodman’s Fields with huge impact until May 1742, giving the unorthodox establishment a claim to great influence on the history of British theatre. Such was Garrick’s popularity that it was said that people of all classes and parts of London flocked to the unlicensed theatre. There were reports that ‘every night the house was crowded with wives, daughters, apprentices, journeymen and servants, who, to secure good places, stole thither at four o’clock in the afternoon’ and also that ‘coaches and coronets soon surrounded that remote playhouse’.11

The Goodman’s Fields Theatre proved to be a victim of this success, such visibility leading to determined prosecution. Giffard staged a final performance, The Beggar’s Opera, and closed the theatre on 27 May 1742. It is said to have been used sporadically under the oversight of others until the 1750s, after which time the building functioned as a warehouse until gutted by fire in 1802.12

Samuel Johnson’s biographer, Sir John Hawkins, writing nearly half a century later, attributed considerable local impact to the theatre, alleging that ‘adjacent houses became taverns, in name, but in truth they were houses of Lewd resort, and the former occupiers of them, useful manufacturers and industrious artificers, were driven to seek elsewhere for a residence.’13 A coffeehouse- and bagnio-keeper next door to the theatre was indeed prosecuted for keeping a disorderly establishment in the 1740s. Another bagnio-keeper, Dorothy Bean, lived at the other end of Great Alie Street in 1791.14

By 1814, F. Bowman and Sons, sugar refiners, were on the site of the theatre in substantial premises, presumably a sugarhouse, somewhat set back from the road. Some rebuilding was forced in 1848–50 following the fall of an 80ft chimney. After a transfer to Kirkpatrick & Balguy, also sugar refiners, a larger site taking in the former burial ground to the north was cleared and redeveloped in 1874 by Browne & Eagle, wool importers. Holland and Hannen put up a six-storey wool warehouse and a two-storey engine house. Brick-built and with timber floors on iron stanchions, this warehouse was one of a number of Browne & Eagle buildings in Whitechapel. To the east, separated by an access passage, Browne & Eagle added a single-storey extension. Much later, the firm became Butler’s & Colonial Wharves Ltd, which sold the Alie Street warehouse to Kennedy Leigh Commercial Properties in 1963 after which the east extension was cleared. Thereafter the surviving six-storey warehouse was known as Swan House and put to a variety of commercial and storage uses. By 1982 it was vacant, awaiting demolition.15

The present corner office block at 1 Alie Street was constructed in 1987 to designs by EPR Architects. Clad in polished red stone and with the upper of seven storeys stepped back, both bland elevations are broken up by round- headed glazed bays as if for atria, though only Alie Street is privileged with an entrance. This building soon became known as Bank of America House on account of its principal tenant, though it is also associated with the Corporation of London and is now in mixed occupation. The Alie Street entrance was reconfigured by Artillery Architecture in 1997, and in 2011 ground-floor offices were converted to accommodate a shop, restaurant, and clinic.16

  1. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), LMA/4673/D/01/004/002: Richard Horwood's maps: Robert Wilkinson, London Illustrata, vol. 2, 1825, p. 297 

  2. Walter Wilson, History and Antiquities of the Dissenting Churches, vol. 1, 1808, p. 397: Waltham Forest Archives, Acc.10199: William Thomas Whitley, The Baptists of London, 1612–1928, 1928, p. 123: Dr Williams’s Library, Wilson MSS, ‘The Outlines of An Essay Towards An History of Dissenting Churches In London and Its Environs’, p. 38: The National Archives (TNA), PROB11/821/97 

  3. Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), P/SLC/2/16/40: F. H. W. Sheppard (ed.), Survey of London: vol.27, Spitalfields and Mile End New Town, 1957, pp. 189–93: The Dickensian, vol. 9, 1913, pp. 233–5; vol. 49, 1952, p. 92 

  4. J. H. Gosden, Valiant for Truth: Memoir and Letters of J. K. Popham, 1990, p. 163: LMA, District Surveyors' Returns (DSR) 

  5. Post Office Directories (POD): Historic England Archives (HEA), London Region Historians’ file, TH70 file; Survey of London notes: DSR: THLHLA, P10539 

  6. TNA, RG4/4353/3670: W. H. Black, ‘Observations on the recently discovered Roman Sepulchre at Westminster Abbey’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol. 4/1, Jan 1871, pp. 61–9 (p.65): S. S. Frere, M. W. C. Hassall, R. S. O. Tomlin, ‘Roman Britain in 1987’, Britannia, vol. 19, 1988, pp. 415–508 (p.464): Ordnance Survey map (OS), 1873: Isabella (Mrs Basil) Holmes, The London Burial Grounds: Notes on their history from the earliest times to the present day, 1896, p. 166 

  7. LMA, LMA/4673/D/01/004/002: DSR: POD: OS: London County Council Minutes, 19 Oct 1909, p. 689 

  8. John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1787, p. 73 

  9. Wilkinson, London Illustrata, p. 297: Peter Cunningham, A Handbook for London: past and present, vol. 1, 1849, p. 345: F. T. Wood, ‘Goodman’s Fields Theatre’, The Modern Language Review, vol. 25/4, Oct 1930, pp. 443–56 (p.445): Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) sub Odell and Prelleur: Derek Morris, Whitechapel 1600–1800, 2011, pp.79–81 

  10. Daily Advertiser, 12 Sept 1732: London Merchant, 27 Sept 1732, as quoted in Wood, ‘Goodman’s Fields Theatre’, p. 445: Hawkins, Johnson, p. 75: Wilkinson, London Illustrata, p. 297: ODNB sub _Giffard and Oram: A. Nicol, _The Garrick Stage: Theatres and audience in the eighteenth century, 1981, pp. 47–51 

  11. Anon., The Case of the Stage of Ireland, 1758, p. 30: B. Victor, History of the Theatres of London and Dublin, 1761, vol. 1, p.62: Julia Swindells, David Francis Taylor (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre, 1737–1832, 2014, p. 102: S. Massai, Shakespeare’s Accents: Voicing identity in performance, 2020, pp. 106, 109: Joseph Donohue, ‘The theatre from 1660 to 1800’, in Joseph Donohue et al (eds), The Cambridge History of British Theatre, vol. 2, 2004, pp. 3–52 (p. 16): ODNB sub Garrick: J. Benedetti, David Garrick and the Birth of Modern Theatre, 2001, pp. 58–61: M. Caines, ‘Part 1: David Garrick’ in M. Caines (ed.), Lives of Shakespearian Actors, vol. 1, 2008, pp. xix–xxii 

  12. Victoria & Albert Museum, drawing S.531-1997: G. McGrath, Cinemas and Theatres of Tower Hamlets, 2010: East London Observer, 4 Sept 1915, p. 7: Cunningham, Handbook, p. 345: Wood, ‘Goodman’s Fields Theatre’, pp. 455­–6 

  13. Hawkins, Johnson, p. 73 

  14. LMA, Land Tax Returns; CLC/B/192/F/001/MS11936/375/579307: Ancestry 

  15. DSR: Builder, 10 July 1847, p. 331: LMA, CLC/B/017/MS15627/024; CLC/B/017/MS14944/019; LMA/4673/D/01/004/002; Collage 116958: POD: HEA, London Region Historians’ File, TH70: Southwark Local History Library and Archive, A119/181 

  16. Tower Hamlets planning applications online