In 1835 the then 23 year-old budding writer Charles Dickens, wrote a sketch about a visit to The Eagle Tavern in London’s City Road. In the subsequent years, the Eagle would grow to become one of the largest and most popular venues in the East End. In a four-part blog, we explore the rise of the Eagle Tavern, how it rose to become one of the most popular entertainment places in the metropolis and how it ultimately fell to religious zealotry.
Part 1. Taking Flight (1822 – 1831).
We do not know exactly when Thomas Rouse purchased The Eagle, a small pub on London’s City Road, but a number of accounts indicate he started to redevelop it in the year 1822. It had previously been known as the Shepherd and Shepherdess, a house open to the public serving tea and cakes within its own grounds of nearly two acres. It backed onto fields of the same name. The fields, used as a cut-through between the City and Islington, seem to have had a murky reputation. In 1782, a Mr. Herd, a clerk in the Custom House, was murdered there as he was returning from town with a friend and two servants. Although armed himself, he was fatally shot by an assailant after resisting. In 1815, warehouse owner Richard Deacon was found barely alive in the fields one January morning, having been badly beaten and robbed of everything, including his clothes, the previous night. Although he survived, the ordeal took its toll on Deacon who committed suicide a few weeks later.
Despite any notoriety it had gained, Rouse chose a business in an area that was on the up. The City Road had been created in the late eighteenth century, extending the then New Road (now Euston Road) from the Kings Cross area to the City of London. An extension of the Regent Canal, running almost parallel to the City Road in parts, had opened in 1820. A huge basin was built here for warehousing and the City Road area was soon acting as a major distribution centre for goods and raw material into the growing metropolis, particularly coal, timber, bricks, sand and other building materials. Several firms moved to City Road Basin, including the carriers Pickfords. The route allowed boats from Manchester and the north of England to travel down, discharge their cargo at the basin and even began their journey back on the same day. Whilst the area may have been grim and grimey, the trade brought wealth to the area that filtered down to the pockets of workers, keen for a release from the toil.
Balloons and Bouts.
During the first few years of his tenure, Thomas Rouse appears to have grown the presence of The Eagle by putting on spectacular events in the large grounds that would appeal to local audiences. The open fields at the back had been used as a place for public gatherings for unregulated sporting events such as pugilism. A newspaper report from 1811 reports a bare-knuckle fight on ‘a field near the Shepherd and Shepherdess‘ in which the two contestants, who were settling old scores, ‘were so much beaten, that it was necessary to have hackney-coaches to convey them to their respective homes‘. Rouse brought the some of this urge to see fighting into his grounds, thereby charging for admission and supplying drinks to the thirsty spectators. He offered prizes and in return attracted noted fighters from across the country, Throughout the 1820’s the Eagle became known nationally for its hosting of tournaments of wrestlers, particularly from Devon and Cornwall, and also for single-stick matches.
The spectacle of balloon flights, popular at the larger pleasure gardens at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was brought to The Eagle, although one of the earliest ventures ended in tragedy. In May, 1824 the balloonist Thomas Harris ascended from the grounds of The Eagle heading towards Croydon, accompanied by a young woman, Sophie Stocks, who had volunteered to undertake the journey with him. On descending at Beddington Park, Harris was fatally hurt and Stocks severely injured. Undeterred, Rouse would host numerous more balloon flights at The Eagle, particularly by the noted aeronaut Charles Green, who would often ascend on the back of a pony. On one occasion several people were injured, some fatally, when scaffolding, erected in the grounds to watch a flight by Green, collapsed.
The area had also been used as a rallying point for political dissent. In 1822 the political reformer Henry Hunt, newly released from a two-year prison sentence, celebrated his release with a procession through the capital culminating in a dinner at The Eagle. Hunt had been jailed for being one of the leaders of a protest on parliamentary reform at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester (where troops firing on the crowd let to the infamous Peterloo Massacre). Hunt was a popular figure and noted orator and during this dinner an ‘immense‘ crowd gathered which were said to have ‘blocked up all the avenues leading to the tavern‘ as people clamored to get a glimpse of the politician known as ‘the man of the people‘.
Hunt would return to The Eagle in 1830, when a large meeting was held in the gardens calling for parliamentary reform. Hustings were erected in the grounds and speakers. The Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell, Member of Parliament for Clare at the time, presided over the gathering. The organisers had wished to speak at the Guildhall, but the anti-establishment meeting was blocked by the Mayor. One of the complaints read out at the meeting was that the majority of members of parliament were elected by just two thousand people, ignoring the wishes of the majority of the thirty million population. Protests such as these were part of a movement that would see these so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ were swept away later in the Reform Act.
Expanding the Eagle.
In the Summer of 1828, Thomas Rouse held a dinner held to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the renovation of the Eagle Tavern, attended by 100 guests. Toasts were made to celebrate him bring ‘bringing it to what they now witnessed—one of the most respectable and well-attended places of public resort in or near the metropolis.‘. But consolidating success was not enough for Thomas Rouse. As the decade drew Rouse was one of a number of entrepreneurial landlords began to look for more ways of increasing business, at a time when public-houses began to organise themselves more to meet increased demand for amusement.
Since the start of the industrial revolution the workforce was changing as working classes, in their millions, flocked to metropolitan areas to work in, or service, the burgeoning industrial revolution. Working for an employer defined hours to work, but also to unwind from it whilst a wage packet gave more freedom where to enjoy this release from the tensions of often hard demanding labour. It was a time when many of the popular forms of recreation now take for granted started to including teams sports, particularly football and visits to the seaside. At the corner, often quite literally, of this cultural shift, was the public-house. Originally often no more than a parlour area of a private house, they began to organise themselves to meet demand for amusement, often led by creative business people such as Rouse.
Those in the inner city attracted the leisure pound with beautiful ornate interiors, often nicknamed the gin palaces. In his sketch Gin-Shops, Charles Dickens picked up on this ‘invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood‘. Public-houses with more extensive grounds were able to utilize the space behind their building for different kinds of attraction. The traditional entertainment of sing-songs was turned into dedicated areas for music and singing by adding dedicated areas. These ‘saloons’ as they were known were usually built within the grounds or by converting existing buildings.
Rouse saw this potential and started to apply for a music license to entertain the numerous functions and events he held on the premises. These new licenses would cover not just music, but singing and dancing. Once music licenses had been obtained, landlords would often host events that included comic type singing productions to circumvent existing by theatrical regulations that only Patent Theatres could put on dramas. This comedic singing evolved into Vaudeville type productions and in doing so the Saloons became the forerunners of the Music Halls that popularised Victorian culture.
Rouse fell under the jurisdiction of magistrates for the county of Middlesex, who usually sat in the Sessions House at Clerkennwell. It had been the norm for the bench there to reject applications for music licences, often with little or no justification, as Rouse found out when he tried to obtain one for The Eagle in both 1828 and 1829. This blatant, and seemingly unfair, rejection was starting to get noticed, the Morning Advertiser newspaper commenting that ‘for many years past it has been the almost invariable practice at the Middlesex Sessions of refusing all applications for Music Licences, even when made by most respectable Tavern-keepers, whose premises were proved to be commodious‘.
Undetered, Rouse worked on strengthening his a case for acceptance. He gathered signatories from prominent local people to back him, a tactic he would come to use again in his time as landlord of The Eagle. In October of 1830, the magistrates at the annual licensing round of the Middlesex Sessions seemed to have run out of excuses. Thomas Rouse got his music licence.
The Grecian is born.
Rouse wasted no time in the change of heart at the Middlesex Sessions and no doubt of his background as a builder. He constructed a concert room in the grounds which he was already advertising by January, 1831. Five months later he also opened another purpose-built building for music and entertainment attached to the Eagle. Described by one newspaper as ‘fitted up in very costly and classical style, and is exceedingly well adapted for harmonic purposes’, it more resembled a long hall and was said to hold around 700 – 800 people.
This Saloon boasted a large church organ and grand piano-forte. Interiors from classic mythology were painted by Philip Phillips, a pupil of Clarkson Stanfield, the noted scenic theatre painter. The classical interpretation gave rise to its name, the Grecian. Rouse was aid to have been inspired by Lucia Vestris (1797 – 1856), an actress and singer who became more noted for her career as a theatre producer and manager. After accumulating a fortune from her performances, she leased the Olympic Theatre in London in 1830.
Conscious of the building’s ultimate aim, to boost the revenues of thirsty audiences, Rouse invited local brewers to an opening preview and celebration of the new Saloon. A week later, on the holiday of Whit Monday, the public got to see the lavish interiors and enjoy a concert. The Grecian, a name that would become synonymous with London entertainment for decades after, was in business.
- Part 2. The Eagle Soars (1831 – 1851). [coming soon]
- Part 3. The Grecian Conquests (1851 – 1879). [coming soon]
- Part 4. [coming soon]
- Click here to view our sources of newspapers, articles and books used in the compilation of this blog, with links where available.
- Click here to view to view a timeline of the Eagle and Grecian which we put together whilst researching this blog.
Copyright (c) 2018. The Circumlocution Office.
This article was written and published in November, 2018. Revised January, 2019.