The People's Palace
Mile End Road
B Beaumont who died in 1840 provided the nucleus of funds for the
building that was to become known as the People’s Palace. The income
from the money he
left was to be spent on promoting the education and entertainment of
the people in the neighbourhood of Beaumont
Square, his East End property. The Beaumont Fund did a certain amount
of good for some years but then the testator’s survivors who were in
charge let the property fall into to disrepair and this brought its
usefulness to an end. Application was made to the Charity
Commissioners, an important official body who had large powers of
supervision over charitable concerns, to rescue the Beaumont fund.
Thus in 1878 Sir Edmund Hay Currie was appointed chairman of the
Sir Edmund Hay Currie was
a very remarkable man. A notable business man and distiller he was
identified with the East End and had business interests there. He was
greatly interested in educational and philanthropic matters, in
hospitals and in the welfare of the masses in general. He
distinguished himself in Crimean hospital management. He was chairman
of the committee that provided requirements of East London at the time
of the great cholera epidemic. When the same area was scourged by
small-pox he took thousands of cases to an improvised hospital camp
quarantined on a hillside in Kent. At one time the London Hospital in
Whitechapel was languishing for money and Sir Edmund came to the
rescue using tactics and his energy as a ‘beggar’ to secure £150,000
Sir Edmund had managed to secure about £120,000 of the original
Beaumont Trust but this was not enough to undertake any important
enterprise. In 1881 he persuaded his colleagues of the Trust to allow
him ‘fund raise’ an additional £50,000 with which to establish a
notable institution. He was amply rewarded for his efforts as he
secured gifts and endowments worth at least twice that amount.
His financial undertaking was aided by events and publications that
gave the prosperous and aristocratic people of the West End their
first conception of the condition and needs of the East End with its
great neglected population. The project was further boosted by the
discovery of East London by the popular novelist Walter Besant.
Walter Besant’s work ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men’ appeared in
the autumn of 1882. In his preface he reports that he had undertaken
many wanderings in the previous summer ‘in Stepney, Whitechapel,
Poplar, St George’s-in- the- East, Limehouse, Bow, Stratford,
Shadwell, and all that great and marvellous unknown country which we
call East London’.
Mr Beasant’s novel is the story of an ingenuous and clever young
gentleman and a lovely and fabulously rich young lady who were brave
enough to leave the drawing-room life of the West End and devote
themselves to the welfare of the East. They planned and built ‘Palace
of Delight’, with concert halls, reading rooms, picture galleries, an
art school and various classes, social rooms and frequent fetes and
dances. They threw it freely open to the people, gave the people a
large share in its management and made it a great recreational centre.
It would be a mistake to suppose that Mr Besant was indebted for his
plot to the then incubating project of the Beaumont Trust because his
work was published before he had any knowledge whatsoever about it.
The novel gave the ‘People’s Palace’ its name, gave the project a
great impulse, brought money and influence and undoubtedly gave
emphasis and prominence to the entertainment side of the Beaumont
For the working out of the plan and practical details the trustees of
the Beaumont fund, who also became the People’s Palace trustees, very
wisely relied on the experience and advice of Quintin Hogg and Robert
Mitchell of the Regent Street Polytechnic.
Five acres of
land, situated centrally in the East End, were secured and the main
hall of the central building, called ‘Queen’s Hall’, was opened by
Queen Victoria on 14 May 1887. The active work of the Palace began on
3 October in the same year. Some of the buildings on the ground floor
were fitted up temporarily for classrooms and workshops while
sheet-iron buildings were constructed for the gymnasium, exhibition,
refreshment, swimming bath, office and various other rooms.
The Queen’s Hall,
measuring 130 feet long and 75 feet wide, was very imposing in
appearance with a vaulted ceiling 60 feet high and fitted with stained
glass. The floors were inlaid and apparently beautifully smooth for
dancing. At one end stood a rostrum and behind this was the great
organ paid for by a contribution of £10,000 by Mr T Dyer Edwardes.
There were organ recitals each Sunday, both an hour long at 12 and 4
but so as not to desecrate the Sabbath, the music was sacred -
Handel’s Messiah being a favourite. During the week there were
concerts on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. According to Sir Edmund,
instead of waiting for the pubs to open, the public ‘finds the great
Queen’s Hall, well warmed and lighted, open to him, and excellent
recitals of sacred music performed for his benefit.
Immediately behind the Hall, the free library and reading room was
opened in June 1888. This was a huge eight-sided room with space
around the walls to house some 250,000 books, which were donated by
publishers and authors. Nearly all the periodicals and magazines were
provided free. It was estimated that 900 to 1100 people visited per
Among the largest donors to the funds was the Drapers’ Company one of
the City Guilds. They provided £40.000 a year for 10 years, half of
which was invested as an endowment. They also gave an additional
£20,000 for the construction of the permanent technical schools.
These schools flanked the main building on the east and were opened in
October 1888. The schools had both day and evening classes. The
average attendance was about 400 with almost ¾ of them having free
scholarships. To qualify for a scholarship the boys had to be aged
between 12 and 20, must have passed the examinations of the ‘fifth
standard’ and come from a family with an income of less than £200 a
year. Wealthier families had to pay an annual fee of 8s 8d.
At the Technical College, as it came to be known, all manner of
classes could be taken comprising tailor’s cutting, carpentry,
photography, needlework, French and book-keeping to name just a few.
There were also evening classes and it was estimated that in 1890 5500
students attended and most of the classes were open to women too.
To the rear of the Queen’s Hall was a winter garden enclosed
completely in glass, full of palms, flowers and tropical fruits. To
the west was a gymnasium and swimming baths.
Sir Edmund had achieved his aim of creating both an educational and
recreational establishment. But it did not stop there. In October
1887 ‘show-time’ commenced. A poultry and pigeon was arranged and in
just five days about 37,000 visitors paid two pence each for admission
and were delighted. East Enders were great animal lovers and Sir
Edmund knew just how to please them.
In November there was an exhibition of chrysanthemums that attracted
20,000. In December the Prince of Wales paid a visit to view the work
of London apprentices. There was a three-day dog show in March 1888,
a two-day cat and rabbit show and in July the donkeys and ponies were
brought to the site. All these shows made awards of prizes thus
The whole complex was completed by 1892 but within a short time
tension between pleasure and education was evident. The entertainment
side had financial difficulties and this threatened the success of the
educational side. Eventually a scheme was approved whereby the
Drapers’ Company would provide £7000 per annum for 10 years and they
took 7 places on the Board of Trustees.
In 1931 disaster struck and the Queen’s Hall was completely destroyed
by fire and was never to be rebuilt. Once again the Drapers’ Company
provided financial assistance but is was the educational side that was
to benefit. In the following years building was extensive – a new
lecture theatre, rebuilding of the engineering department, a
high-voltage laboratory, a new chemistry laboratory, extension of the
physics department and a dining hall.
The Peoples’ Palace had now become a College and in December 1934 the
Charter of Incorporation of Queen Mary’s College was given to the
Master of the Drapers’ Company. 116 years later the College continues
to thrive and is now part of the University of London.
Century Magazine: June 1890
The Cosmopolitan: January 1891
Jane Cox: London’s East End Life and Traditions
Walter Besant: East London
Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888
Anita Dobson: My East End