A shabby old 1960s office block and car park has been recently cleared away to reveal the remains of one of London’s earliest and little known theatres that dates from Elizabethan times.
It’s not a famous playhouse as it lacks a magic word… Shakespeare. Without the fairy dust of fame, the theatre is little known outside historical circles, but it’s now gaining a second lease of life, as a building development on the site is letting archaeologists get down and have a look at what may have survived.
The site is just outside the City walls and was originally an inn on the main road from Aldgate known as the Boar’s Head. At some point, the owner decided to put on plays in the inn, probably around 20 years before the theatre was built.
The actors were got into trouble for putting on lewd plays, but despite that the venue was popular, so in around 1598, a full stage was built in the inn’s courtyard. The playhouse is understood to have functioned between 1598 and 1609, so it didn’t last long, but it was an important stepping stone in the conversion of inns into theatres, and then the building of dedicated theatres.
As one of the few such sites on the edge of London, it attracted travelling actors, often supported by a rich patron, and named after them — such as the Earl of Worcester’s Men, Lord Derby’s Men and Queen Anne’s Men.
From around 1616 onwards the Boar’s Head buildings were sold off and the stage was demolished a couple of years later. Although the buildings were gone, the name survived, as the buildings that followed surrounded a Boars Head Yard.
It was built over, used as a dumping ground, chopped and changed over the centuries, but then the railways came. A deep cutting for the former Aldgate East tube station ripped right through the southern end of the playhouse obliterating it. Above ground, much of the site was rebuilt in the 1960s following bomb site clearance.
It’s only now, that the site is being cleared that archaeologists from MOLA are finally getting a decent look at what’s here, and surprisingly, a decent amount has survived.
What they’ve found is that the stage was built with the audience facing west, towards the City, and that there were terraces around the space giving elevated views of the stage. Unlike the more famous Globe Theatre, this was a square-shaped building, and in fact, there seems to have been a curious taxi-driver divide in London in theatre design. They’re square north of the Thames, but if you go south of the river, then they become round theatres. No one is entirely sure why.
There is frankly, not a huge amount to see at the moment, some brick walls, some stone, an old cesspit cover, and an awful lot of 1960’s concrete. This project is more about recording what’s there for study than preparing the site to become a major tourist attraction.
It is though, a site of national importance, one of the earliest theatres in London and a transition point from an inn that puts on plays to full-time theatre building.
Once the archaeologists have recorded everything, it will be covered over again in neutral sand and buried under the building that’s going on top — and while not visible, it will be protected for future generations to come.