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People's Palace Mile End

This piece follows on from the brief mention of the People's Palace in AfL Newsletter 36.

A useful background to the history of the People Place is a handbook of some 60 pages published in 1900, at a cost of 6d, with the title A Handbook and Guide to the People’s palace, Mile End, London, from which I have taken the early history.

The first 12 pages give the history of the foundation, but the book was clearly intended as a guide to potential students, since it mentions that the area has clothing trades in Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, furniture in Bethnal Green, building in South Hackney; shipbuilding in Poplar, and it offers courses relevant to these trades, with any others. Trade classes included architecture, engineering, chemistry (for chemical engineering) carpentry, plumbing, book-binding, tailor’s cutting, dress-cutting, sign writing; but there is also art, and the book pictures a life room with students drawing from statues. In the days when photography was in its infancy and well before computer-aided design, the ability to draw well would have been useful to architects and designers.

The original aim of the Palace was to become the University of East London, and as well as schools it was to house swimming pools (one for each sex, no mixed bathing), a music hall (by which they meant a concert hall), a gymnasium, a ‘winter garden’ which a picture shows was, at least in par,t an enclosed glass house, and other facilities: but whilst being a school, it was intended to be used by all the people of the area.  When it opened it gave both day and evening classes; the day school charged £2 a year, but there were Drapers’ scholarships worth £10 over 3 years (£3 in the first two years, £4 in the third), and LCC scholarships for those residing in the LCC area — although the Palace was in the LCC area, it would have been easily accessible to Essex residents. They also ran a seaside camp in the summer, 10 days for 7s. The guide says there was a Bow and Bromley branch a mile east, near Bow station; I have not researched this building.

The history: J.T. (John Thomas) Barber Beaumont worked in insurance (in particular fire insurance) and at his death in May 1841 gave a legacy of £13,000 for the “Intellectual Improvement and Rational Recreation and Amusement for people living at the East End of London”. Nothing was done with this money for 40 years, until 1884, when further appeals and fund-raising collected a total of £75000, (including donation of £2800 from Mr Wilberforce Bryant, which met the amount outstanding). The Queen contributed £200 and in recognition of her contribution the large hall was named the Queens Hall. It is described as 130ft long 75ft broad and 60ft high, with an elliptical roof of glass and steel and a platform that could accommodate 300 performers.

The Drapers Company gave £20,000, the largest amount; the site of the Bancroft hospital in Mile End Road was purchased from them, the school being transferred to Woodford. (The Drapers also had built a school of art, and in 1894 gave £5,000 towards an Engineering laboratory, so they were significant donors.) These funds were still insufficient, so a further meeting occurred on 5th November 1885 at Mansion House, when the mayor (Sir John R Jennings) was also master of the Drapers. In best Victorian manner, there were protests at the suggestion of the building being open on a Sunday, and the sale of alcoholic liquors.

The formal opening in 1887 was a grand occasion: the Queen came by train from Windsor to Paddington (where she arrived at 4pm), thence to the People’s Palace, where there were also the Prince and Princess of Wales, Crown Prince of Denmark, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord and Lady Rosebery, Marchioness of Salisbury, Lord Randolph Churchill, and others. I doubt that the Queen used the underground line from Paddington to Mile End The library opened on 6 June 1887, and this is a circular building that survives as part of Queen Mary  College. In the event there was only one swimming bath (separate men’s and ladies’ sessions), it was 90ft by 30ft, cost 3d to get in, and it opened 14 May 1888. In 1892 a Winter Garden was opened, the gift of Lord Iveagh at a cost of £14,000. (I cannot find it documented whether this is the same Lord Iveagh as the man after whom the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood House in north London is named: the latter was alive at the time and was wealthy enough.)

The People’s Palace is easy to find on Bacon’s 1912 map of London (facsimile published by the London Topographical Society). Rather amusingly, the area immediately to the north is marked as a Workhouse.

The halls of the People's Palace survived until destroyed by fire in 1931. A successor, named the New People's Palace, opened on 12 December 1936: information from QM.UL says it was in St Helens Terrace, but I cannot locate a street of this name in the area. They say also that the entrance of the original building was behind the neo-classical entrance block which still remains on Mile End Road. QM.UL (Queen Mary University of London) now occupy the site and hold the relevant archive, of which a catalogue is online.

The new building was closed during the war years, but resumed some activities in October 1946 when there were films shown. Benjamin Britten's version of the Beggar's Opera was performed here, as was his comic opera Albert Herring. Financial problems mean that the building was put up for sale in 1953, and the following year it was acquired by Queen Mary College. Then in 1956 it was renamed the Queen's Building by HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and became an integral part of Queen Mary College.