The Clarence Music Hall

Yup folks, I’m still enjoying the Greenwich Theatre Book – an incredibly slim volume that punches above its weight and provides a really excellent base for further digging. It’s made all the more mysterious by the fact that I can hardly open the thing for fear of it falling apart (it’s not mine or I would be far less careful…), so I can only dip in occasionally.

Today’s post isn’t really about Greenwich Theatre – or not the building, at least. But a brief mention in the book made me look again at another Greenwich venue. Over the years there have been a fair few places of entertainment, ranging from the highbrow (not many of them, ‘fraid) to the rather less salubrious establishments (plenty to see there…) From trestle-stages to purpose-built palaces, serious legit-stuff to – well, a few things the Lord Chamberlain would have got a bit hot under the ermine collar about. But by far the most popular of all were the music halls of Victorian Greenwich.

I’ll come to a big one that only died about forty years ago another day, because today, I want to concentrate on one that survives – in fact I understand it’s the oldest surviving purpose-built music hall there is – though it’s a mere shadow of its former self.

Where is it? Well – it’s here:

Still can’t see it? Look up – at the rooms spanning the bridge between the Admiral Hardy and – well, the other side. The Clarence Music Hall was incorporated into the original design of Greenwich Market by Joseph Kay when Greenwich was being gentrified in the 1830s, presumably as a sop to the working classes whose houses were being bulldozed to make way for it.

Admittedly the market had got a bit out of hand, with pushcarts and market stalls all over the place – up alleyways, blocking roads, stuffing every courtyard with stinking vegetables, animals being slaughtered any-old-where and generally annoying the toffs.

Joseph Kay was put in charge of making the new market pretty – and, from what’s left of it, he did a good job. There was a designated slaughterhouse area, room for stables for the stallholders’ horses and, of course a good, large central bit for the stalls themsleves.

The Admiral Hardy was one of the first pubs up and running in the complex and they decided to use the upstairs room spanning the market’s trendy new entrance as a music hall. The Royal Clarence Theatre opened in 1839. I’m assuming it was named for William IV (the erstwhile Duke of Clarence) who was popular in Greenwich, ostensibly because of his life as a sailor before becoming king, but probably as much, if not more so, because of his saucy former life and his openly living with a mistress. Greenwich has always liked characters.

The entrance was at Number 7a and you had to climb the stairs to get to it, adding to the back-room salaciousness of it all. If it had started out as trying to be a legitimate theatre (which I can’t see that it ever did) it definitely wasn’t after 1845, when it gave up even trying to sound posh and just called itself the Clarence Music Hall.

It was run by the Mitchell family, who also owned the pub, until 1860, but it carried on after they gave it up, until it was forcibly closed by the authorities for being too popular. It used to cram 250 people in to a 46ft x 24ft room and even the Victorians, not known for being particularly obsessed with safety, thought that might be a few too many.

However the room still existed, and continues to exist, despite two remodellings of the market – 1908 and 1958.

Each time, whatever happened to the inside of the market, Joseph Kay’s exterior stayed, and, thanks to its being part of the very fabric of the outside, the music hall has stayed too, an airy, high-roofed affair with windows both sides, onto the street and the market below. Its raison d’etre now gone, it became a bit of everything, as such places tend to be, including an engineering workshop. In 1964 it was converted to a TV/Film studio. I don’t know for whom. It’s far too early for Greenwich Cablevision.

A 1991 book by Darrell Spurgeon says it was, at the time he was writing, mooted to be a museum, but it would seem that that money started talking. It became the Time Bar and then of course, INC with those Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen designs and the erotic wallpaper. At least I assume the erotic wallpaper’s still there – haven’t been in ages, since it’s now not open except as ‘Clarence Hall,’ a space for hire. At least it’s kept the name…

There’ s much more music hall to be had around these parts, but for now, if you fancy finding out at least a flavour of what the old halls would have been like, I note there’s going to be an evening of music hall at Greenwich Theatre on 11th March.

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One Comment to “The Clarence Music Hall”

  1. Andrew says:

    I loved the Sunday night jazz sessions at Time Bar, they were great fun with always good bands.