Hoxton Hall in East London is a charming venue for dance and performance. It was built in 1863 with ‘the specific object of affording the humbler classes an entertainment that shall combine instruction with amusement’.
The opening night, on the 7th of November 1863, promised:
A WONDERFUL PERFORMING RUSSIAN CAN!
LEARNED CANARY BIRDS AND WHITE MICE!
A LECTURE ON GREAT BATTLES OF THE BRITISH ARMY
THE COMIC ADVENTURES OF A TIGER AND A TUB
AN ORIGINAL SENSATION: HOMES OF THE PEOPLE
(ILLUSTRATED BY MAGNIFICENT DISSOLVING VIEWS AND ILLUMINATED BY THE LATEST OXY-HYDROGEN LIME LIGHT)
GLEE MUSIC BY THE ORPHEUS QUARTET
After such a thrilling start how could the project fail? Surprisingly there were no further entertainments of this nature and by the 4th of December that year the building was playing host to an Academy of Dancing. Music was provided by ‘Mr. Westbrook’s celebrated Quadrille band’. Tickets could be obtained from ‘a Mr. Thompson, pastry cook next to the Hall.’
In 1866 the place became a Music Hall of low repute featuring mysterious ‘Negro delineators’, trapeze artists, jugglers, singers, performing dogs and the like. There was much excitement among the populace about a certain Professor Devono who made a magic drum which answered questions and played tunes on itself.
The place rapidly became a roaring success. McDonald had a crude eye for profit and, desiring more alcohol-swilling punters, he raised the height of the building, adding two balconies in the process. Unfortunately, this ‘Temple of Amusements’ soon lost its liquor license, due to complaints from the Police about its rowdy customers.
By 1878 the Boroughs of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green were filthy and overcrowded. A large influx of country folk with rural drinking habits had led to appalling social conditions in the area. Help was at hand: the Blue Ribbon Temperance Army, sponsored by the wealthy biscuit manufacturer W. Palmer, made the building their headquarters.
From here they zealously convinced many locals to ‘take the Pledge’ and abstain from the demon in the bottle. How many of these converts kept their oath is not recorded. Alongside the Salvationist work of the Mission a network of activities known as the Girl’s Guild of Good Life organised chair caning classes and elocution lessons for local teenage girls.
On his death Palmer willed the building to a Quaker organisation known as the Bedford Institute which ran education programmes for ‘street arabs’. The Girl’s Guild particularly benefited from the new ownership and expanded to include both a men’s club and a boy’s club. They also dispensed free medical and legal advice to the poor.
The beginning of the welfare state at the end of the Second World War made organisations like the Guild largely redundant and, once again, the area was given over to ‘hooliganism, intemperance and thieving’. The Borough of Shoreditch carried out an intensive slum clearance programme and the BI moved its headquarters to the Hall, maintaining its good works programme by organising boy’s football teams, social clubs and an under 5’s playgroup.
Today the building is still run by the BI. It has been refurbished to a high standard and continues to offer a number of artistic programmes for the local community.
Under the slogan ‘Party like its 1799’ Adamski recently turned back the relentless march of time by hosting an ‘entertainment combining instruction with amusement’. The Hall was chosen for the launch of his Neo Waltz project which featured both performers and dance instructors attempting to seduce the Four to the Floor crowd into the (electronic) sway of three quarter time.
Only time will tell if this bold experiment will work but one thing is for sure: after a long dry spell the ‘Old Girl’, as the building is affectionately known, is once again offering performance, music and alcoholic libation to the humbler classes of the Borough of Shoreditch.