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.


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  1. Alan Spooner says:

    I think that the Incredible Hulk figure might be a little too big to be given away in a cereal packet.

  2. Alan Spooner says:

    Or is it just perspective?

  3. Andrew says:

    Compare this story of this building’s commendable heritage homage, with that of the buildings, nearby on Mile End Road, the former Wickhams department store and the Spiegelhalters clock, watch and jewellery shop.

    The Spiegelhalters, whose little premises came to be in in the middle of Wickhams facade, were at number 81 where they lived with their staff and family, with family members born above the shop. Wickhams by 1927 had expanded, joining together properties neighbouring Spiegelhalter’s. Wickhams then wanted to redevelop the whole of the terrace on either side of Spiegelhalters as at their new store building.

    But the Spiegelhalters of that time would not sell up and they so the new store had to built on either side and behind, looking like separate buildings. So it remained until the Spiegelhalters of the day closed their Mile End shop, Wickhams having closed in the meantime, and the then Spiegelhalters, two cousins, continued thereafter in business at their Loughton shop, until its closure when they retired.

    When the Wickhams building was refurbished only the facade of number 81 remained and the developers and their architects wanted to the remove it, leaving a void. After a campaign and the intervention of English Heritage, a fragment of the upper part of the facade was retained, bearing the Spiegelhalter name – although not very visibly – with the void behind it.

    Would that it had been more like this more recent development – a plaque, explanatory panels: a shopwindow frontage had been suggested with a photo of the shop as it was the on glass as the shopwindow.

    It could still be done.

    …there is lot more to the Spiegelhalter story than the hold out, for the Spiegelhalters went back to George who in 1828 had his first shop in Mount Place terrace on the west side next to the London Hospital, George and his family were part of a multi-generation chain migration, originating in part of the Black Forest, composed of people whose many shops, clockmakers originally, extended into jewellery and they were sometimes opticians. Direct descendants of George Spiegelhalter’s brother, Simon continue as Spiegelhalters jewellers in Penzance, following a continuing line of overlapping generations in their business.

    The businesses of these Black Forest people, continued by descendants, were once extensive and visible throughout the British isles, as were along their itinerant clock peddlers.

    Now only a little of their legacy remains visible, in the form of jewellers and opticians which continue to bear their names, in London only Schwär jewellers in Walworth, – and which continue under their descendants as working proprietors, in London only Dominic Cuss, of Camerer Cuss, trading now as Hallpikes, whose business in London goes back continuously in his family to 1788, and earlier into the 1740s.

    But they are well remembered in their homeland, among other things, for their great success, the cuckoo clock, and that homeland still has now a small industry making clocks, which are sold in the British Isles, notably by AMSclocks, who back in the 1840 were in business in Reading with a shop which continued threre as Kleiser until around 2000.

  4. Chapman Charles says:

    Interesting Andrew, thanks for the clock shops info.

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