Just outside the walls of the old City of London there used to be a coaching inn that became a popular theatre, and you can now see echoes of the long lost theatre in a modern building on the site.
The Boar’s Head playhouse is close to modern-day Aldgate and had been putting plays since at least 1557 if not earlier, and probably closed around 400 years ago, with the site being developed and redeveloped many times over the centuries.
But deep under the ground, the remains of that early playhouse theatre waited, somehow undisturbed. Until 2019, when the latest redevelopment of the site gave MOLA archaeologists a chance to take a proper look at long last of what was down there. They were able to uncover a number of surviving walls and posts from the old theatre, and a lot of artefacts were recovered to be studied and conserved.
Although it was decided to leave the remains in the ground, and protect them for future generations, the building that now sits above the old playhouse has created a display to let passers-by know what they are walking above.
There’s a display sign outside the building that tells a brief history of the Boar’s Head playhouse and includes some illustrations of what they think the buildings would have looked like. It was a theatre in the round, with the stage in the middle and the stalls around the sides.
It’s likely that the cheaper seats would have been on the northern and eastern side, facing the sun, with the richer people facing away from the sun.
The windows of the modern building have images of people known to have been associated with the playhouse, from Jane who owned it, Queen Anne, its patron, and Mary who worked there.
In the floor are some bronze plaques, which if you look closely, you’ll see they’re a pile of dropped playbills.
The main building is student accommodation, albeit quite expensive student accommodation. However, the more interesting occupant of the building’s ground floor is the local youth charity, Streets of Growth, which moved in earlier this year just after the building was completed.
While there are interpretation signs on the outside of the building, if you’re fortunate enough to go inside, or you catch the eye of the manager who invites you in, there’s a whole series of displays inside showing off the many artefacts that were uncovered by the archaeologists.
Alongside that, inside on the ground floor is a large auditorium space, which happens to be roughly the same size and location as the original Boar’s Head stage – give or take a bit. So today people performing on a modern stage are stepping into a space that once resounded to the cheers of Tudor London.
And something I liked, a LOT, is that in one of the display cases on the ground floor is a small plastic Incredible Hulk. They think it was a toy that was given away with breakfast cereals and then dropped in recent decades. But it’s just as important a piece of the history of the site as any Tudor pot shard would be, and it delights me to see it preserved in the display. Not just for its intrinsic historical value, but because it triggers debate about how old something has to be before it’s the sort of thing that should be conserved as part of a site’s history.
Upstairs there are more glass case displays, and at the reception desk, is something lovely. When people used to arrive at a play, they put their money into a clay pot that was smashed at the end of the day to get the money out. An early piggy bank.
When the site was excavated, the archaeologists found many remnants of those money boxes, and just as they would have been at the entrance to the theatre, here they’ve been displayed next to the entrance to the building.
Which I think is very clever.
Overall, this is a good example of heritage being preserved, and where possible shown off. It’s subtle from the outside, so many people will walk past oblivious to what’s there, but those who spot the display will be delighted with their discovery.
You can find the exterior display on the side of the Unite Students building, on the corner of Whitechapel High Street and Middlesex Street.