To celebrate the opening of the new Courtyard Theatre, a permanent display has been created about the history of the building and the surrounding area.
The new theatre has been developed within a Grade II listed building, the former public library in Pitfield Street, Hoxton. Interestingly, this is only a few hundred metres from the site of the first purpose-built playhouses in England, the Theatre (1576) and the Curtain (1577), the latter still commemorated in the name of Curtain Road. These, like the later playhouses on the south bank of the Thames, were built just outside the City of London to avoid coming under the jurisdiction of the city fathers.
The Passmore Edwards Free Library, as it was originally known, was opened in 1897. Often described as the "Cornish Carnegie", John Passmore Edwards was a Victorian politician and philanthropist, and life-long champion of the working classes; this magnificent library was one of over 70 major buildings across the country - including hospitals, libraries, schools and art galleries - which he helped to fund. The building became redundant when Hackney Council opened a new central library in Hoxton Street; it was used for a time by English National Opera for rehearsals and workshops, but has now been refurbished to provide (in addition to residential accommodation on the upper floors) performance spaces and rehearsal studios for the Courtyard Theatre.
The display is entitled "Pitfield Street: a brief history" and forms a continuous frieze, over 30 feet in length, along the wall of the corridor outside the Studio Theatre. It includes photographs and drawings, extracts from maps (from the 16th to the 20th century) and features about some of the buildings and people associated with the area.
Hoxton is first recorded in the Domesday Book - an area of open meadows and pastures next to a great forest. By the 16th century it was developed by the wealthy and fashionable inhabitants of London moving out of the city. It still retained a rural appearance in the 17th and 18th centuries, but by the late 19th century a huge growth in population and increasing poverty had made it a byword for deprivation and criminal activity. Now a new Hoxton has emerged, of art galleries, restaurants and fashionable entertainment co-existing with the light industry and council housing which is still its dominating feature.
The display includes features on a number of buildings which still exist; apart from the Library and the nearby Electricity Generating Station (now used by Circus Space), these include the former Haberdashers' Aske's almshouses and schools, and the early 19th century church of St John the Baptist. Buildings which have long since vanished include Balmes House (a magnificent stately home just north of Pitfield Street) and the Hoxton Varieties Theatre. People also feature, such as Thomas Fairchild, the "forgotten father of the flower garden", and Charles Booth, the 19th century social reformer who described Hoxton as "the leading criminal quarter of London, and indeed of all England". The selection of maps, spanning some four centuries, shows Hoxton's development from open country to Georgian elegance, and then by the late 19th century to the densely populated and deprived streets among which the Passmore Edwards library was built. There are also brief quotations from Pepys, Defoe and others to add a contemporary voice to the visual images.
The area around Pitfield Street, and Hoxton generally, has a long and remarkable history, although much of the evidence of earlier periods was destroyed in the wholesale redevelopment of the 1950s and 1960s. Fortunately there is a wealth of resource material and in creating this display the challenge has been mainly one of choice, and what to leave out. We hope the result is still satisfying and informative.
Credits and acknowledgements: The display was researched, compiled and created by Michael Sargent (Artistic Director of Centurion Theatre Company and a trustee of the Courtyard Theatre). Graphic design by John Bell (Managing Director of John Bell, and trustee and Associate Designer of the Courtyard Theatre).
Sources for research material included the Hackney Archives Department, the Hackney Society, the Shoreditch Trust, the East of London Family History Society, the Museum of London Archaeology Service and the London Archaeological Archive Resource Centre. Particular reference was made to Christopher Miele's book Hoxton: Architecture and History over five centuries. Additional photographs by Derek Drescher and Kathleen Andersen.