Hoxton Hall: Step inside one of the East End’s surviving Victorian music halls
Long before TV and cinemas captivated Brits, music halls were a popular form of entertainment. Starting in the 1830s, music halls originally began cropping up in taverns and coffee houses. Landlords started putting on a variety of entertainment for the punters, along with providing them with food and drink. By the 1850s, these variety shows had become so popular, many theatres and pubs were knocked down and replaced with music halls. Hoxton had several popular music halls, including The Eagle on Shepherdess Walk and the Britannia Theatre on Hoxton Street, both of which no longer exist today. At the peak of the entertainment genre’s popularity, there were an estimated 375 music halls in the capital. Performers such as Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno and Little Tich became household names and were in high demand by music halls owners to top their bills.
Although most Victorian music halls are long gone, there is one that is still being used for entertainment today. Hoxton Hall in Hoxton Road was originally erected by builder James Mortimer in 1863. The building followed the traditional music hall design, with balconies on three sides overlooking the stage and open floor. Today, the galleries of seating feature the original iron railings and are supported by cast iron columns. Although more modest in size than many music halls at the time, Hoxton Hall is unique for being purpose-built as a music hall as many were converted from pubs. Originally, Mortimer gave his own name to the building – Mortimer Hall – which opened on 7 November 1863. On the opening night bill were singers and conjurers. However, Mortimer didn’t want his hall to just entertain, he also wanted to educate locals with lectures. Unfortunately for Mortimer, his education program wasn’t quite so popular and by 1865 the building was being used by a waste paper merchant.
In 1866, music hall manager James McDonald Jnr bought Mortimer Hall and renamed it McDonald’s Music Hall. He knew what the people of London wanted and offered affordable entertainment for the working classes, including music, circus and performing dogs. Business was booming and McDonald was able to extend the hall in 1867, raising the ceiling and adding a new upper balcony. However, by 1871, McDonald lost his license following police complaints so it was sold. The subsequent owners applied for a new license in 1876, but were refused.
Philanthropist William Isaac Palmer (1824–1893) bought the hall in 1879 for the use of the Blue Ribbon Gospel Temperance Mission, a sobriety movement. Today, Palmer is honoured with the Palmer Room at the hall. The building became home to the Girls Guild for Good Life, a group founded by Sarah Rae, wife of the secretary of the Blue Ribbon Temperance Society. In contrast to its bawdry music hall origins, the hall was being used to educate working class girls with cooking, dressmaking and elocution classes in a bid to warn them away from the ‘sinful’ hobbies of gambling and drinking. The hall was also used for talks and events to encourage temperance by the Blue Ribbon Mission.
The hall reopened under the Bedford Institute, a Quaker organisation, in 1893. The hall became a focus for the local community and charitable work, and was rarely used for entertainment. By 1910, the BI had incorporated the hall into a complex of newer buildings. The Institute then passed ownership of the hall to the Quaker Trust in 1911. By World War II, the East End was being ravaged by Nazi bombs, but fortunately Hoxton Hall managed to survive unscathed. During the war, May Scott started doing community work at Hoxton Hall while still under the Quaker Trust. After the trust moved on in 1957, Scott took on the responsibility of warden. She opened the hall for use as a youth club, pottery club, pensioners lunch club, as well as for a pensioners’ choir. Scott saw the venue’s full potential and began hiring it out to various arts and culture groups. The artists Gilbert and George ran art classes from the hall during the 1960s. Today, Scott is honoured with a studio named in her honour, which is used for rehearsals or meetings. Towards the end of Scott’s tenure at the hall, the building was Grade II* listed by Historic England in June 1972.
Following Scott’s departure in 1974, Terry Goodfellow became the warden until 1989. He was followed by Chris Bowler, the founder member of feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment. By the early noughties, the hall was struggling after the Arts Council funding was withdrawn. Bowler decided to buy Hoxton Works next door and used the rent from its tenants to fund the hall’s continuing use and survival.
In 2015, the hall underwent a £2million restoration, thanks to funding by Discover Hackney, HLF and Arts Council England. The work by Foster Wilson Architects allowed the upper and lower balconies to be used again. The practice also reinstated the fire surrounds, laylights and sunburners and exposed the original cast iron windows which had been hidden by modern brick. Once again, Hoxton Hall is being used for entertainment and the community, with a variety of arts, culture and heritage events taking place throughout the year. I went along to an immersive Hammer Horror theatre experience at Halloween 2017, which was spectacularly spooky. You may recognise Hoxton Hall in TV shows, films and music videos. The building has been featured in Downton Abbey, The Invisible Woman, and BBC4 drama Miss Marie Lloyd: Queen of The Music Hall.
- Hoxton Hall, 130 Hoxton Street, Hoxton, N1 6SH. Nearest stations: Hoxton or Old Street. For more information, visit the Hoxton Hall website.
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