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Village Underground – A History

Posted By: Louise Foxcroft on January 3rd, 2014

Part creative community, part arts venue, Village Underground is a non-profit space for creativity and culture in the heart of East London. The main Village Underground centre is housed in a renovated turn-of-the-century warehouse primed for everything from concerts and club nights to exhibitions, theatre, live art and other performances. High above Great Eastern Street, atop the venue, four recycled Jubilee line train carriages and shipping containers make up the creative studios of Village Underground. These uniquely renovated spaces accommodate up to 50 artists, writers, designers, filmmakers, VJ’s, and musicians working side-by-side in a creative community.


London’s earliest and liveliest theatrical and entertainment district flourished in and around Holywell Lane in Shoreditch, where Village Underground continues this tradition. Shakespeare trod the boards here and performed his first plays; the actor-mamager James Burbage lived in Holywell Lane and ran the Curtain Theatre nearby, before he moved across the river and built the Globe; Burbage and his son Richard, also an actor, are buried in Shoreditch Church as are Henry VIII’s jester, William Somers, and Richard Tarleton the Elizabethan comedian and model for Shakespeare’s ‘Yorick’.

The dramatic history of Holywell Lane and its hinterland is pious and prurient, turbulent and tragic, comic and long. It goes back even further than the Elizabethan era, deep into pre-Roman times before Londinium was established as a civilian town after the invasion of AD43. Then, the underworld rose up out of the gravelly ground via old springs and wells around which people gathered for ritual, song and dance. The holy well of Shoreditch, after which Holywell Lane is named, was one such ancient site of celebration that attracted water cults and healing ceremonies. There are signs of a Roman shrine where the ‘scared spring’, the source of the River Walbroke, emerged and ran out southwards on a course marked by Curtain Road. Since pre-history, the rituals that clustered around the water have become more theatrical, more secular, and increasingly devoted to pleasure and entertainment. Village Underground represents a new manifestation of the traditional, popular life of Shoreditch, carrying it up to the surface, actually and metaphorically, and lifting it high above the ground to the tube train carriages that sit above the arches and the warehouse, on top of the old East London viaduct.

In the sixteenth century the people’s appetite for popular entertainment was such that the area had become a crowded, squalid place known as the ‘suburbs of sin’. London’s population was exploding, it went from 100,000 in 1580 to 400,000 in 1650, and it was getting difficult for the authorities to keep control. The Lord Mayor and city authorities had always been hostile to actors and theatrical performances, regarding them as provocateurs and breeding grounds for crime and civic disturbance which required suppression. In 1572 the Mayor, in part hoping to stop the spread of plague, decreed that all plays were to be banned within the City as well as from the usual venues of public halls, aristocrat’s private houses, royal palaces and, most often, the courtyards of inns. Within three years all players and artistes had been forced out and the earliest permanent, professional play-houses in Britain were sprouting up on the edges of society, just two hundred yards beyond the old City limits in the lawless, liminal district of Holywell. The new play-houses squatted alongside the whore-houses, slaughter-houses and tanneries which ran along the open sewer and dump that was the River Walbroke, itself soon to be part of the underground as the water was ‘vaulted over with brick, and paved level with the streets and lanes where through it passed; and since that, also houses have been built thereon’. Above the buried river these ‘base tenements and houses of unlawful and disorderly resort’ harboured a ‘great number of dissolute, loose, and insolent people’ all living and working in a noisome environment of ‘stables, inns, alehouses, taverns, garden-houses converted to dwellings, ordinaries, dicing houses, bowling alleys, and brothel houses’.

In 1577, within spitting distance of Village Underground now, the famous Curtain Theatre was purpose built and was to become Shakespeare’s first London venue. When he was thirty years old, in 1594, Shakespeare was living in Bishopsgate and was a founding member, player, shareholder and leading dramatist of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that first performed Henry V and Romeo and Juliette at The Curtain. He wrote at least 37 plays, put on at court and in the public playhouses, and often took the parts of kings and old men, likely playing the Ghost in Hamlet and old Adam in As You Like It.

Many more of Shakespeare’s plays were staged at The Curtain before the place was dismantled in the 1620s and the site was lost – until very recently, that is. The Curtain, named after the road it stood on, was cheek-by-jowl with another playhouse called, with some panache, The Theatre, whose design was most likely adapted from those inn-yards that had previously served as playing spaces as well as bear-baiting pits. The Theatre was a polygonal wooden building with three galleries that surrounded an open yard with a thrust stage extending out from one side of the polygon. Both playhouses were rediscovered in 2008 when the site was being cleared for redevelopment. The well-preserved remains of The Curtain’s original ‘wooden O’ stage were uncovered by Museum of London archeologists in a yard across from Village Underground, the entrance to The Theatre was probably through what is now the Horse and Groom, a small, listed Victorian pub. Foundation walls which supported the tiers of wooden galleries are still there, and the yard of gravel and sheep-knucklebones which sloped down towards the stage where playgoers waited, watched, flirted, ate and drank.

The renowned actor-manager, Burbage, who lived with his family in Holywell Lane, had built The Theatre using bricks and materials from the remains of the twelfth-century Holywell (or Halliwell) Priory – a tradition of construction that has been continued in the putting together of Village Underground, itself made of the relics and remnants of other places and activities. Burbage and his sons ran The Theatre until they fell out badly with their landlord, quietly dismantled the building overnight on the 28th December 1598, and stored it in a yard near Bridewell. They continued to stage plays at The Curtain until the following spring when they shipped the dismantled theatre across the Thames and re-built it as The Globe – Shakespeare is named in the 1599 lease for this ‘new’ theatre. The original Shoreditch site is now commemorated by two plaques on the walls of 86-90 Curtain Road, at the corner with New Inn Yard across from Village Underground. All of society gathered around these venues, as this epigram by John Davies in 1593 reveals:

For as we see at all the play house dores,
When ended is the play, the daunce, and song,
A thousand townesmen, gentlemen, and whores,
Porters and serving-men together throng…

Plays were put on every day of the week except Sundays, and all year round except in Lent. Playbills, today’s flyers, were pasted on every post. ‘Garlic-breathed stinkards’ and multitudes of all sorts clogged the streets, the stench of tobacco was overpowering, beer was sold in bottles, apples and nuts were hawked. Noise and smell was everywhere, the crowds in the play-houses let out their ‘mews and hisses’, and their piss, too, because the playhouse owners had not yet accepted responsibility for this human need – and they wouldn’t until well into the nineteenth century.

The pre-eminent Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe worked and played in these streets alongside Shakespeare, and was a powerful influence on him. Marlowe was also involved in Elizabethan espionage, was an epicurean and atheist once arrested for his ‘vile heretical conceipts’ and was fatally stabbed in Deptford, aged just twenty-nine, ‘by a bawdy serving man, a rival of his in his lewd love’. Or, it has been argued, Marlowe was Shakespeare, working under a nom de guerre after faking his murder. Ben Jonson, dramatist, poet, actor and rival of Shakespeare, also frequented the playhouses and streets around Holywell Lane, and he too courted anarchy, was jailed several times – for ‘leude and mutynous behavior’ and for killing a man in a duel in Hogsden Fields (now Hoxton) in 1598 – and was arrested for his involvement with the Gunpowder Plot conspirators.

Political unrest has always found a public outlet through theatres and venues. In the Elizabethan period, suppression of anarchic ideas were exercised under the Royal Prerogative by the Master of the Revels, but from the Restoration onwards, the Lord Chamberlain became censor and silencer of players and theatre managers, stifling troubling discussion of politics, religion and sex. Statutory censorship was introduced by Sir Robert Walpole under his Licensing Act of 1737 and it continued until 1968 when the Theatres Act was passed. Since then, covert forms of censorship have prevailed with attempts to bring private prosecutions – memorably Mary Whitehouse’s action against Michael Bogdanov at the National Theatre staging Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain, a play that drew a parallel between the Roman invasion of Britain and the British presence in Northern Ireland, though it was a scene of anal rape that caused the alleged offence. Other venues have been the site of public political protest – at the Globe in 2012, for example, pro-Israelis came out to support the National Theatre of Israel performing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The early London playhouses drew in the people in their thousands, they were the newspapers of their day, airing new thoughts and ideas, gossip and debate, and were liberally covered in graffiti, just as the inns were. These ‘little scratchings’ (from the Italian graffiare – to scratch) were another way of communicating to your fellows in a personal and immediate way which is free of social restraint and the inhibitions of normal discourse. Authentic, colourful and spontaneous graffiti ideas illustrated anything, from petty concerns to politics, from sex to shit – many were recorded by the pseudonymous Hurlo Thumbro in The Merry-Thought or the Glass-Window Bog-House Miscellany of 1731. Graffiti gave the neighbourhood an identity, it lent it artistry, and showed off the wit – or otherwise – of the common man and woman. And it still does. Today’s graffiti, the drawings, paintings, tags and stencils, are an unpredictable public intervention, they are sometimes political, often challenging and usually criminal. Ephemeral and surprising, graffiti has evolved into street art that still appears and disappears, is painted over or washed away by the authorities. Shoreditch is now an international destination for street art, and The Wall of Village Underground is a free, legal, ever-changing, open-air gallery. Its transience is part of its impact: it is a series of temporary landmarks, powerful shorthand messages to the people passing by.

Just as the old playhouses had emerged from the inns and pubs, ‘cradled in a stable-yard’, the new music-halls were ‘suckled in a tap-room’ from the early nineteenth century and carried on until the 1960s when television took over. At their beginning prostitution was rife, unlicensed shows and acting abounded, all alongside the bull-and bear-baiting which were not banned until the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1835. Music-halls flourished in the poorer areas of town and were more often than not disreputable and neither sanitary nor safe. Inside them the stinking gas fumes lay heavy on the rank atmosphere, and even the air in the dress circles was discovered on analysis to be more foul than that taken from a local sewer. In 1888 a music-hall goer noted that ‘nearly every evening [the place] is crammed to suffocation … the gallery and pit is full of boys and girls from eight to fifteen … and the bulk of the audience in the other parts were quite young people … it was a jam – not a crowd – when one boy got up to go out he had to crawl and walk over the heads of the others …the artists were clever, and in only one case absolutely vulgar, and the choruses were joined in by the entire assembled multitude. Of course, there are disturbances, but the remedy is short and effective… the delinquents were seized by the collar [and] flung down a flight of steps and hustled out into the street with a celerity which could only come of constant practice’. Overcrowding was a real problem, and sometimes it turned into a real disaster if fire broke out.

Music-hall performances were nothing if not innovative. There were major stars, rousing and rude songs, burlesque-style dancing, popular drama, comics, and speciality acts from male and female impersonators to trampolinists and contortionists. The audience could smoke, eat, drink, sing, shout, mix freely and let their hair down. The venues emerged from the pubs and gave the ever-growing city crowds some release from the urban crush and grind of daily work. Venues such as Village Underground are reviving this old tradition and nurturing the new diversity and creativity of public entertainment and arts.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Shoreditch had achieved a reputation for entertainment to match that of the West End. Theatres and music-halls were dotted all around these streets – just as are today’s venues, bars and galleries – and included The Shoreditch Empire on Shoreditch High Street, built in 1856 and The Grecian Theatre on City Road. The latter could hold up to 4,000 people and had been remodelled from the original Grecian Saloon in 1858. A waiter at the saloon, John ‘Brush’ Wood, was the father of the famous music-hall star Marie Lloyd. The Grecian was attached to the Eagle Tavern, which crops up in the traditional song ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’, built next to the Shepherd and Shepherdess Gardens – pleasure gardens that opened in 1825 – renamed the Coronation Pleasure Grounds in 1838 before shutting down eight years later. The Royal Cambridge Music Hall on Commercial Street held 2000 people when it opened in 1864, but was burnt to the ground in 1896. They rebuilt it two years later and it lasted for another forty years before it was knocked down to make way for a tobacco factory. The Britannia Theatre began as an Elizabethan tavern on Old Street and worked until 1900, when it became a Gaumont Cinema. As a theatre and music-hall it held up to 4,790 people on a record night, enjoying Shakespeare, melodrama and variety acts. Charles Dickens was often in the audience. It was a family-run concern and its most memorable owner was Sarah (Sallie) Lane, ‘The Queen of Hoxton’. She appeared on the stage until she was seventy-six, nurtured new talent, and was so popular for her largesse – she kept the prices cheap so that everyone could go – that thousands lined her funeral route up to Kensal Green cemetery in 1899.

The National Standard Theatre stood where Village Underground stands now, on Holywell Lane and stretching across to Shoreditch High Street where the grand foyer sucked in the crowds. It went up in 1837 and boasted a truly splendid horse-shoe auditorium seating up to 3,400 punters. The entrepreneur and showman John Douglass bought it up in 1845 and started staging fabulous performances – the pantomimes he put on easily rivalled those of Drury Lane and for many years he held an annual Opera Season. He attracted major acts to his theatre – Henry Irving played Shakespeare there and the acclaimed tenor John Sims Reeves sang there. Ever-competitive, Douglass wrote to the press after a Drury Lane first night to say, ‘seeing that a hansom cab is used in the new drama at Drury Lane, I beg to state that a hansom cab, drawn by a live horse was used in my drama … with real rain, a real flood, and a real balloon’.

The National Standard, which had also been known as The Shoreditch Olympia, The Royal Standard Public-house and pleasure gardens, The Royal Standard Theatre, The New Standard Theatre, The Standard Theatre and The Olympia, was destroyed by fire in 1866 but was speedily rebuilt and reopened as The New Standard Theatre in December the following year and was reputed to be the largest theatre in London, its pit was certainly bigger than the one in Drury Lane. It had a special stage and removable boxes which allowed them to convert the auditorium into a horse ring. Usually packed out for each performance, one night it was surprisingly half empty and the dramatist, journalist, theatre manager and actor, H. J. Byron, asked Douglass where all the customers were, ‘Gone West, to Covent Garden’, he replied, glumly; ‘To pick pockets, I suppose’, returned Byron. By November 1926 the theatre had succumbed to the times and turned into a cinema, changing its name yet again to The New Olympia Picturedrome. But the old building was eventually demolished in 1940 to make way for a new super cinema, itself put paid to by WW2. During these decades the theatres and music-halls of Shoreditch were gradually replaced by the greatest concentration of strip clubs in London.

The long theatrical, pleasurable and public history of the arts and entertainment around Holywell Lane is being carried into the future by Village Underground. Since its optimistic inception, born out of a modest need for studios and creative space, the venue has evolved into a vibrant successor of the earliest celebrations, playhouses and music-halls of Shoreditch. It is, it turns out, all about continuity and change. Rooted in the traditions of the past, Village Underground has come to nurture its inheritance and to ensure that it develops and prospers as part of this long, creative narrative, as necessary to Shoreditch as all its predecessors have been.