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Memories of The Queen’s Theatre Poplar – David Mitchell
In a previous post, writer David Mitchell told of some of his memories of Poplar High Street, a main feature of the High Street was the Queen’s Theatre.
The Queen’s Theatre origins lay in the Queen’s Arms public house that was on the site in 1863, by 1867 a hall was built on the back. The theatre was then called the Oriental, this theatre was then demolished in 1873 and a new theatre called the New Albion built.
By the late 19th century new health and safety regulations by the council were introduced that led to a number of changes to the theatre that reopened in 1905 as the Queen’s Theatre of Varieties. It soon gained a reputation as a place to see the up and coming stars, Gracie Fields made her London debut in the theatre.
It also become a favourite of many Islanders who starved of entertainment on the Island made the journey up the ‘Queens’.
Later on in the day came the crunch and the big question. Would we be allowed to go to Poplar High Street in the evening – or not? It was very much a matter of the mood our mothers were in. In a bad mood – no! But in a good mood – Yes, but don’t come back late! And so in the evenings, if we were given permission, our gang of boys and girls – average age then, about 8-9 years I would say – gathered together in the street and marched round to the High Street.
First port of call was the fish n’ chip shop – what a Godsend that shop was for the poor people of the East End. You could buy a handsome piece of fried fish for 2d and a generous portion of chips for a penny. It was quite a treat to have that occasionally for tea, but only when our Dad was working; however, fish was not for us kids – we had to be happy with the chips. But sometimes we were generously given a taster by the adults which was delicious and much looked forward to.
Here I must explain that back in those days it was not possible to reserve seats at theatres as one can today. Therefore, it you wanted a good seat it was necessary to arrive early and form a queue. And these queues, of course, are what attracted the street entertainers to the High Street on Saturday nights.
But first things first, and so into the fish n’chip shop we all trooped. It was a tall counter and we could just about get our noses high enough if we stood on our toes so that we could be seen. “Pennorf o’ chips Guvnor, please” we would all cry in unison and we watched hungrily while ’the Guv’ shovelled the lovely golden chips into the large sheet of newspaper in which, in those days, they were served. The “Guv” folded over the newspaper and then handed the packets to us. One by one, we took the newspaper packages, then the vinegar and the salt cellar and sploshed both all over the chips. The object was to wet the chips and newspaper with enough vinegar so that when we wrapped them up again we could poke a hole through the newspaper with our finger and then we could extract the lovely chips one by one. How very sad we all were when we came to the last chip!
© John Earl 1958
Meanwhile, we would then make our exit from the fish n’ chip shop and seated ourselves on the pavement directly opposite the Queens and the queues. As the High Street was a very narrow street we had a grandstand view of all that was going on. All the external lights of the Queens were switched on and, as if to contribute even more towards the excitement and atmosphere, all the shops had their lights full on too – it was so bright that it was almost like daylight! It really was a magic atmosphere – there was a buzz in the air and a feeling of expectancy whilst we waited for the street entertainers to arrive. And as the queues began to lengthen so the entertainers eventually did indeed arrive.
We kids were a noisy little lot and we started by cheering their arrival and then each act as he/she performed. Neither were we shy of booing if we thought the act was poor. We were becoming little connoisseurs and critics of street entertainment! Some of these acts were very good indeed – in fact they should have been performing inside the theatre – not outside. Meanwhile the roasted peanuts vendor went round, the roasted chestnuts man remained stationary however, and the lady with a large basket over her arm laden with apples and oranges crying out and selling their wares – all of this thus adding to the old London atmosphere as they cried out to encourage people to buy.
Then the street artists began to perform and some of the singers were very good indeed. Our favourites were old MUTTON-EYE – an old chap who came every Saturday dressed in a well worn black suit which had seen much better days – and he always wore a bowler hat. Under his arm he carried a small collapsible organ which he quickly assembled and then sang old music hall songs which made everyone laugh. At the end, round he went with his bowler hat and was grateful to receive what ever he was given by the crowd and then made way for the next entertainer. Next was an act the name of which now escapes me but they were two chaps dressed as Egyptians who did a sand dance. They too were funny and amused everyone. It was very nice how each artist completed his/her act and then quickly and unselfishly made way for the next artist whilst going round to collect a few pennies, or maybe more, if they were exceptionally good. But most people threw only a penny in – times were hard!
Occasionally the night was interrupted by a drunk being thrown out of The Ship – the pub Teddy Baldock bought for his parents after winning the World Bantamweight Boxing Championship in the late 1920s and which was also in the High Street. Either the drunk would be of the more sentimental type and would start singing NELLIE DEAN or DANNY BOY at the top of his voice – or – he was maybe a more aggressive type who wanted to fight the world! We kids would watch and it all contributed towards the wonderful atmosphere of Saturday nights in Poplar High Street.
© John Earl 1958
Eventually the doors of the theatre would open and the queues would begin to slowly vanish inside. The street entertainers would then leave followed by the peanut lady, the apples and oranges lady, and the roasted chestnut man. Then they turned most of the theatre’s lights off and that was the signal for us kids to go home. So we too vanished into the gloom of the night and it was quite remarkable when Poplar High Street changed from the brightly lit up street full of excitement and electric atmosphere it had been and was now just an ordinary street with just a few people passing by. But that hour or more which had passed was a golden period of time which, as far as I am aware, does not today exist anywhere in London or in the whole wide world come to that.
The Coat of Arms above the door© John Earl 1958
That was a part of East London that has vanished into the annals of history. We will never see the like of it again. The Queens was affected by the advent of TV and like so many provincial theatres, far too many in my humble opinion, closed it’s doors in the 1950s never to open again. But what great stars had appeared there in days gone by: Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields, Marie Lloyd, Kate Carney and so many others. Three times I witnessed the house being brought down. A truly dramatic experience. Once by an artiste named VAN LUIN who dressed as a Dutchman with clogs and his act was yodelling and then he did imitations. His ended his performance with an imitation of Winston Churchill doing his famous speech that spurred us on so much in the war: WE SHALL FIGHT ON THE BEACHES, WE SHALL FIGHT IN THE STREETS – WE SHALL NEVER SURRENDER – was immaculate, dramatic, and very life-like – in fact it was better than old Winnie himself ! Well the whole theatre went crazy and I thought the old place would collapse. Then a West Indian singer, whose name I cannot now recall, who sang BEGIN THE BEGUINE in a way we had never heard before also brought the house down – a match between him and Julio Iglesias who had a big hit with the same melody in recent years would have been interesting.
Kate Carney ‘Coster Comedienne’
Finally I had the pleasure to see our old, dear, KATE CARNEY, an old music hall star of many years ago. It was 1946 and I was in the Army by then. My mother and father invited me to join them in a visit to The Queens. I asked who is on ? My mother replied – IT IS KATE CARNEY HERSELF ! I had heard of Kate for she was a legend in the East End, but I had never seen her perform We sat in the Stalls and the bar window stretched all along so the audience could see who was there. My mother nudged my arm and said THAT’S KATE ! And there in the bar I saw an old lady, surrounded by Cockney pearlies with great plumed hats – the ladies that is ! They clearly showed that they absolutely adored her. She stood out because she had bright orange hair – and she must have been in her eighties! I must say it looked rather peculiar. Well, we watched the other ‘turns’ one after the other and then it was time for Kate. She entered the stage and immediately the terrific cheering and stamping of feet began and she acknowledged this display of adoration with an exaggerated wave of her brightly coloured handkerchief – just like a queen. And then she began her first song but at her old age her old powerful voice had gone and could only croak – it was obvious that she was quite unable to sing as she once did. But never mind – the audience loved her as she croaked her way through her most famous old songs. But my word ! – the way that dear lady controlled that audience had to be seen to be believed. She had them all, every one of them, and me too !, in the palm of her hand – some of our present day entertainers could have learned a great deal from those old Music Hall entertainers. She came to the end of her repertoire but the crowd would not let her go – again and again she went off stage only to return because of the clamour of the audience. But of course, it had to come to an end and dear old Kate saved her best to the last when she sang her old favourite ARE WE TO PART LIKE THIS BILL ? And the crowd went wild.
Today, I am very sad to say that you will not find even a small plaque to show where the old theatre used to be – I believe an office block/warehouse was built on the site. I think the powers that be in The Tower Hamlets perhaps do not know, or worse, do not care how important The Queens was to us East Enders – it was part of our history. The Queens has gone now and is only remembered by people like me. As a schoolboy I, quite illegally, worked at The Queens during the war – I told fibs to the owner Morrie Abrahams and said I was 15 but I was still a schoolboy and only 13 ! – my job was as spotlight boy shining the spotlights on all the pretty girls – in later years I was lucky enough to marry one of them! As a boy I received 15/- (75p) per week for 6 nights and 2 shows per night. I also had a paper round and stood outside Green & Siley Weir Shipyard in Blackwall Way, for which I received 3d per night, plus I peeled potatoes for the British Restaurant in the western part of Poplar High Street and received a free cooked lunch in return. So, I was a busy little schoolboy – but quite a wealthy one! Well, how else could I pay black market prices for my sweets and chocolate? But what wouldn’t I give to be able to experience just one more magic Saturday night in Poplar High Street. I am not sure if my written words here do justice to those wonderful nights – they were terrific and I am so glad that I lived in that period and to see the wonders of the Music Hall
Each evening, except Sundays, I collected my newspapers from Poplar Railway Station, sold a few copies here and there, and waited for the crowds of dock workers to pour out at 5 pm and then all my newspapers were gone in about 5 minutes ! That was a crazy five minutes. Then it was home for a quick cuppa and off to the theatre to set up my spotlamp. I usually came home at about 10.30 pm and my mother prepared something to eat for me.
Outside of Queen’s Theatre (taken from the film Pool of London 1951)