Mile End Road
John 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 Trust.
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 for it.
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 plan.
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 weekday.
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 stimulating interest.
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.
The 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