Suffragettes, the Krays and Oliver Reed: how Shoreditch Town Hall turned into a slice of East End history

Shoreditch Town Hall
One of the most fascinating aspects of Shoreditch Town Hall – and there are many – is how its regeneration has coincided with that of Shoreditch itself. Dating back to 1865, it has experienced many incarnations and witnessed some key moments in history. But why build a Town Hall in the first place?

The Metropolitan Management Act of 1855 paved the way for 35 London Vestries to build new Vestry (Town) Halls, and in 1865 the Shoreditch Vestry Board commissioned CA Long as its architect. Long’s brief was clear: “The Committee have concluded it necessary that the design shall be such as would indicate the public character of the edifice, not extravagantly ornamented but of substantial and durable character.” The Vestry Board was determined to produce a building of distinction that differed from the other Vestry Halls of that time, with their red brick and Portland stone dressings. Emphasis was placed upon its being a prominent landmark.

Also – and this was highly unusual – the Board envisaged its Town Hall as a public space that would boast a theatre auditorium capable of seating 1,500 people, “to afford means for instructions and amusements by Lectures, Concerts and Entertainments”. There was sound reasoning behind this: at that time Music Halls, featuring mixed bills of variety acts and entertainment, were hugely popular – and remained so until the mid-1900s. The East End was a key destination.

I loved my time inside this historic building. I had visited previously, once to see a play and once for a concert (both were great), but on neither occasion was I able to explore the building itself. In fact, it’s only in recent years that Shoreditch Town Hall became accessible by the public again; since 1865, when Shoreditch ceased to exist as an independent local authority, it had struggled to find a role for itself. Luckily, in 2000 a Trust was set up to save/keep the building. Restorations began – and continue – but this is a big, expensive job. It is also an intricate job – the building’s beautiful, tiled floors were covered entirely in linoleum and most of its Edwardian and Victorian features had been completely covered over, with Victoriana having fallen out of favour a while ago.

Where better than to begin our tour, then, than in the Grade 1-listed toilets? I’m being slightly flippant, of course, but there’s no doubting their importance historically. The tiles and work surfaces, as well as the toilets themselves, are listed – and a sympathetic renovation means that these are the most impressive cloakroom facilities I’m likely to use in quite some time.

Next stop: The Council Chamber – Shoreditch’s principal political space until 1965. I fell in love immediately with its stained glass windows and stunning ceiling – and was intrigued by its history. This is where the inquiry into the murder of Jack the Ripper’s last victim, Maria Kelly, was held, while the world’s press camped on the steps outside.

Those steps, as it happens, have witnessed a great deal of history; they are also where Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested, in 1913, following a political rally – having managed to elude capture for many years.

Perhaps the most impressive room in Shoreditch Town Hall, though, is its Assembly Hall. Designed in the grander style of Victorian theatre auditoria, its aim was to attract the top professional artists of the day, which it did: Arthur & Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno and George Leybourne all performed here. I’ve been lucky enough to watch Kandace Springs perform in this room – and its atmospheric elegance suited her voice and personality perfectly.

Assembly Hall

As the times changed, so did the public’s taste in entertainment – and musicals went into decline. Political rallies became a big draw, with Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Oswald Moseley all addressing large crowds here. But it was boxing for which Shoreditch Town Hall would become renowned, with the likes of the Krays (complete with massive entourages and demanding free entry) and Oliver Reed turning up to watch matches. There were no health and safety regulations back then, of course, and our guide painted a vivid picture of what it would have been like at those matches, the air thick with cigarette smoke, with spectators throwing coins into the ring to encourage the fighters.

Downstairs in the basement, there is a very different feel – in part because the renovations are still ongoing. Retaining its original decor – and bomb damage – there is, amazingly, no damp. The basement been used for all sorts of purposes: storage, loading, kitchens (the ovens in which the councillors’ meals were cooked are still in situ) and as a bomb shelter in the early part of WWII, when Shoreditch was heavily bombed. We were able to take a peek into the caretaker’s accommodation, which still sports its original Victorian fireplace and wallpaper – complete with arsenic.

STH basement

What an incredible building – and how pleased the Shoreditch Vestry Board would be to see how much it remains a part of the local community. I know for a fact that I’ll return – with so many different reasons to visit, from tea dances to Shakespeare productions, it would be more difficult, to be honest, to stay away.

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