Elephant and Castle Inn, Newington (ca. 1780-1820) by Thomas Rowlandson. Kindly reproduced by Princeton University Art Museum.
James II guinea coin, with elephant and castle under the bust, 1686
Reproduced from Pictures of Coins of the UK by Tony Clayton
The Elephant and Castle is undeniably one of the most exotic names for a location in the metropolis and one ironically defined by a not so glamorous transport nexus; the Luftwaffe bombers in WW2 perhaps didn't bomb the bejesus out of the area because they were using the roundabout as a point of orientation for the bombing of the nearby docks. There are conflicting ideas as to how this part of the London borough of Southwark came to be named, but we can trace its origins back to a coaching inn (and possibly a Cutler's shop) which has the first documented use of the "E&C" from the late eighteenth century.
Chicken and egg? Elephant? Castle? I want to propose a new layer of creative thought to the etymology. What if there is some deep connection with the British empire and trading posts in Africa and Asia where slaves and animals were once interchangeable commodities?
At the time when Thomas Rowlandson sketched one of the earliest images of the Elephant and Castle (image above from late 18th or early 19th century), he was just one among the thousand of travellers using this busy coaching route each day. He was no doubt impressed by the comings and goings in Newington Butts as the area was more commonly called: city toffs out in the sticks rubbing shoulders with soldiers returning from war and local agricultural workers battling with assorted livestock. After completing a rapid sketch, to be worked up in the studio, one can imagine our artist popping into the Elephant and Castle Inn for a meal of bread, mutton and cheese washed down by ale. He is annoyed by raucous laughter and turns to see the inn keeper engaged in animated conversation with a gouty customer. It transpires that the gouty fellow is a trader from the Royal African Company who had just arrived back in England from the dark continent and is en route to the family home at Royal Tunbridge Wells. This businessman had waged a bet with the inn keeper of the Elephant and Castle and having lost, is now forfeiting a coin, which is the object of their amusement. An old guinea coin is banded back and forth and Tom notes that it is a currency that had long passed out of circulation. Curiosity kills Tom. He creeps over to the bar and hears talk about an elephant and castle in reference to the coin. Aha! Tom recollects that the gold in this coin was made from the Royal African Company's mines in Guinea, West Africa. As a child, Tom was fascinated by these guinea coins and the elephant imprinted on it. An image of dread to the child is now eclipsed by the avaricious power of the RAC's trading empire. Putting his sketch in his bag and leaving sentiments aside, our artist, Tom, rushes to catch his 3pm stage coach. Next stop is the Drury Lane Theatre, where he has a romantic date with a lady of leisure.
Reader note, the Drury Lane theatre in this era, is one of only 3 patent theatres in the whole of England where the official seal had been granted to stage "spoken drama." All other theatres were only able to mount burlesques and increasingly melodrama (musical drama); the latter having migrated over from the European continent. There was a lot of hustling business to be found at the E&C in the eighteenth century, but apart from the gossiping classes at the inn, hunched over ale glasses, there was a distinct absence of stagecraft.
We would have to wait another century till the Elephant and Castle Theatre was built. It is directly connected to a phase of suburban development and expansion of London. The railway had arrived here in 1864, horse-drawn trams from 1869 and the underground in 1890. There was a rapid rise of population in the wider Parish of St Mary, Newington from around 14,000 in 1801 to 107,000 in 1881. By the turn of the twentieth century the E&C was being called the "Piccadilly of the South" with its numerous department stores and entertainments.
A caricature of E. T. Smith who is shown riding the elephant and holding a banner marked ‘Success’.
Copyright V&A Museum, Gabrielle Enthoven Collection: S.1605-2012
Alfred Bryan, printing ink on paper, 1872
In 1872 it made business sense to open a theatre here. A plot of land around and under the railway arches of the London, Chatham and Dover railway company's station at the Elephant and Castle came onto the market. The deeds were purchased by a Mr Crawley who began to build a public hall for meetings, lectures and musical entertainment and also combine this with swimming and private baths. This would have been a grand leisure centre, but after £5000 was incurred in carrying out the building design, the works came to a stand still (probably because the £12,000 capital required could not be fully raised) and the property was then purchased by persons unknown, possibly at the bequest of Edward Tyrrell Smith.
E. T. Smith was a "speculative capitalist" and the first lessee and manager of the Elephant and Castle Theatre. He was a flamboyant show-man who one can imagine being at home in the internet age. Born in 1804, he started off as a police man who deviated somewhat by having an affair with his superior's wife; he didn't seem to mind having his dirty underwear played out in the courts and press. Smith scrambled into theatre management and had a succession of establishments under his belt, most noticeably as manager of the Royal Theatre, Drury Lane in the 1850s when he revitalised its fortunes.
Smith put the Elephant and Castle theatre on the map of London's suburban entertainment with an ambitious plan of attracting an audience beyond the relatively poor, working class locals. Prices of admission were always very reasonable, one quarter the price of a West-end theatre. For the gallery it was 3d (threepence); pit, 6d; boxes and stalls, 1s; family reserved seats, 2s. The first play performed, before the paint and plaster of the building works was fully dry, was a performance of Orson and Valentine. This was a fun charged, satirical production that poked fun at figures of authority. The critic from the Pall mall gazette noted that in the harlequinade sequences: "policemen are battered, tradesmen plundered and assaulted, fish and vegetables are freely employed as missiles and weapons of offence, and riot generally is allowed to prevail upon the stage in the most uncompromising way. This kind of old fashioned pantominic fun, indeed, is now only to be seen upon suburban stages, where it wins as hearty approval as ever."
Adverts for the theatre proclaimed that in a given week: “There are one thousand trains stopping at the staircase (leading directly from station to theatre under an enclosed canopy), 800 trams and omnibuses pass the pit and gallery entrance in the Walworth Road, 700 omnibuses pass the box, stall, & pit entrances in the Kent Road, 900 omnibuses pass the E&C by Kennington Road and about 500 omnibuses pass the Station Road.” This is an amplified version of the transport hubbub that would have appealed to Thomas Rowlandson. Alas, there is scant photographic or painterly representations of the building throughout its existence as a theatre (1872-1928), there being no Elephantine version of Walter Sickert. The rich tapestry of life on the stage and the equally colourful and noisy audience who interacted with those plays, in a manner that was both welcoming and annoying for actors and managers alike, is only documented in newspaper accounts. The core part of the audience was drawn from the local community and they lapped up melodrama and pantomime; cheering for heroes and heroines; booing for the villain or if a stage effect went wrong. Tanked up on ginger beer and munching saveloys, several of the young men ended up at the Southwark police court charged with smashing bottles in the gallery. It was a rowdy beginning to life, on and off the stage, at the Elephant and Castle.
Smith had a short reign of management at the theatre. He was out within the space of a year. By 1877, he was bankrupt and died leaving a family at the mercy of charitable support.
Poster for a pantomime called A New World Order, pastel drawing, 60x81", 2016
Donnie Trump performed by Miss Marie Henderson
Nigella Farage - Mr Walter Grisdale
Hilaricious Clinton - Miss Clara Griffith
Theresa Maypole - Mr Watty Bruton
A production on a grand scale with thrilling scenes:
Donnie and Nigella riding the headless horse of the apocalypse;
Hilaricious hanging onto the tale of the headless horse;
And Theresa, trying to exit stage right, but being trampled under horse hoof.
All told, a magical transformation.
This new world order has to be seen to be believed!
This pattern of ambitious management and creative flair is a recurring theme. How to make money out of the art of theatre? The theatre's first few years saw a constant change of management, but the programme of new and recycled melodrama and pantomime was constant. What makes the E&C Theatre important was that melodrama was established and maintained here when other theatres either adapted to contemporary dramatic fashions or succumbed to the cinema; it even achieved a brilliant burst of fame in 1927, but more of that anon.
Richard Freeborne was the lessee and acting manager of the theatre from 1874-75. He got off to a good start with a programme of melodramas that appealed to the public, including the first appearance at the theatre of the coloured tragedian, Morgan Smith, in a play called The Slave. This is how the Era magazine reported the occasion on Oct 4th 1874: "A good attendance appears to be the rule at this establishment just now, and Mr Freeborne, the manager, is undoubtedly securing success where his predecessors have met with little else other than failure. The secret, we suppose, is to be found in liberal catering and judicious engagements, and in securing Mr Morgan Smith, the coloured tragedian, another trump card has been played, and the tastes of the patrons of the establishment have been hit to a nicety. Transpontine playgoers never fail to appreciate a good stirring play, appealing strongly to their sympathies."
By November 1874, Freeborne was in court presented with a petition for liquidation, He was unable to pay debts of £800 for rent and gas bills. Freeborn had a weekly box office return at the theatre of around £80 plus the profit derived from the refreshment bars. He pleaded with the authorities for more time as the pantomime season was in the offing and this usually offered theatres a good return. However the actors and technicians were in dispute with the management over lack of pay. The master carpenter had already summoned Freeborne to court (again) for not paying the balance of wages due him, 11 shillings. Freeborne came to an agreement that staff would form a "commonwealth" in which they would keep the theatre open and take the proceeds from the pantomime and pay off the outstanding rent and gas. This socialistic turn of events did not go according to plan. During another court hearing, somebody at the back of the court shouted: “They say they have paid money; they have not paid even the little children in the pantomime. (Cries of True, True.) They took away £130, and someone must have got it.” The "commonwealth" had failed, partly because the "leading lady" had refused to work for deferred payment and because the money had been siphoned off with Freeborne testifying to his innocence. The pantomime was cancelled and the theatre closed down. Thus ended the one and only attempt to run the theatre on a radical set of relations in the Victorian era of "masters and servants".
Freeborne had to suffer the added humiliation of attending an auction where all his theatrical stock was sold off. This lot included the beguiling array of costumes from the pantomime: a head-dress with wings, twelve tin swords, a pig’s head, eight batons, a knife, dagger, horn, six spider dresses with leggings, wands, masks, a pantomime plum pudding and the clowns and pantaloons’ dresses. The prized lot of the transformation scene, consisting of "gauzes, three sinks, one cobweb fly-cloth, one cobweb border, two ballet borders, six wings and four set pieces.” which was valued at £60 was sold for £10. The fairy tale at the Elephant and Castle had well and truly been shafted.
Crown the Queen at the Elephant and Castle theatre
Acrylic, oil pastel. colouring pencil
22 x 29.5 inches, 2013
The theatre was put up for auction and purchased by Mr Husford of Lymington for £2,750. This is when the actress Marie Henderson and her husband, John Aubrey, took over the managerial reins and ran the theatre from 1875-80. They put together a crack in-house company with Marie at the creative helm. Commentators at the time, noted how they ran a very successful ship, putting on acclaimed productions of melodrama, that filled the house nightly; at one point they were able to expand out and take over The Victoria (Old Vic).
This is a typical extract from the breathless theatre reviewer of the Era newspaper on September 16, 1877;
"This house, which has been made so thoroughly successful by reason of the energetic catering of Mr J. Aubrey and the really able acting of Miss Marie Henderson, was last Saturday crowded almost to overflowing, the initial item in the bill being a new romantic drama arranged by Messrs Frank Fuller and H. Richardson and entitled The Wild Flower of the Prairie or a Father’s Legacy. The piece, which is of the ultra-sensational order has been produced under the direction of Marie Henderson and Mr Fuller, and if cheers, and tears, and laughter are to be taken as indications of success, was in every respect successful. What better elements of success we should like to know could be supplied for melodrama than the doings of a pretty Indian girl; a couple of villains who are ever ready to “do” if not to die; a lonely spot where a catatact comes bubbling and foaming; a hero who is bound hand and foot, and, after a terrible combat is left to die; a heroine who comes in the nick of time to rescue him; pistol shots; oaths; appeals to heaven; thunder and lightning; limelight; a war dance; Ha Ha’’s in abunance; a legacy of vengence; hate; revenge; curdling Indian blood; Spanish vengence; threats of visits from the grave; beetling brows; daggers; gunpowder; coloured faces; big boots; hoarse vehemence; a comical Negress; an Irishman who is persuaded to turn “Nigger” in order to watch over the interests of his master; bludgeons; bleedings; blightings; blows and brooms; “Canons of Death’ (that is the name found for one of the scenes); blood stained pages; noble sacrifices; fights for life; moments of peril; and striking denouments. All these are to be found in The Wild Flower of the Prairie."
In 1878, at the pinnacle of their artistic and financial success, a fire burnt down the theatre. The Aubrey's were not insured and lost all their valuable costumes. A charitable appeal was set up to raise money for the company and although they moved back into a newly built theatre, Marie was slowly succumbing to the physical and mental effects of syphilis. In 1880, John Aubrey was declared bankrupt. We can glimpse him in the archive, in court needless to say. He is fighting with the landlord, Mr Gosford, who brought an action to recover possession of the building.
The most detailed account we have of the inner workings of the E&C theatre is from the memoir of John East called Neath The Mask. This chronicles the life of his father who was the general manager of the theatre from 1900 to 1907. He describes how his father kept a strict hold on the account books balancing the handsome profit generated by box office receipts, bars and catering with the assorted expenditure costs: wages, insurance, heating and gas, royalties, printing, scene painting, orchestra fees and advertising. John east drew 40% of the takings, which was considered small by West End standards.
As with the Smith and Henderson era, the audience for the theatre still wanted to see their favourite home grown stars in recognisable, old-fashioned melodramas where they could hiss, applaud or cry sentimental tears. East writes how: "It was to this public that he (his father) directed all his efforts - not to the sophisticates who went down nightly to see how the poor lived, and were only intent on mockery when they paid a visit to the E&C Theatre."
Melodrama reached a zenith of critical and public acclaim in the year 1927. This was at the tail end of the Barnard families long and successful management of the theatre (1908-28). Tod Slaughter was employed as the actor/manager at the theatre and it was his production of Maria Marten, or Murder In The Red Barn, that is the greatest single theatrical event in the theatre's history. It was an ordinary run of the mill play that had been flogged to death on the stage and was based on a real life, sensational murder and court case from 1827. The play was scheduled to run for one week, but exceeded 100. It was the talk of London with fashionable society making the trip south of the Thames to watch it. It even inspired a silent film made in 1928. We can glimpse a tamer version of the stage play, due to British censorship, in the film version of 1935 that starred Tod Slaughter.
At the same time that the theatre was experiencing its greatest success, the London County Council were enforcing new safety and building regulations. The E&C Theatre required major structural alterations. The cost of this was beyond Charles Barnard, so he decided to sell the building to Sir Charles Blake Cochran who had produced hit revues and comedies in the West End starring Noel Coward. In April, 1928, the building was acquired for £50,000 by a new company with Cochran as chairman. Plans were announced to reconstruct the theatre entirely as a “palace of drama, modernised and increased in capacity, which will provide a playhouse of surpassing architectural beauty.” The adjoining property was also purchased with a view to widening the frontage in the New Kent Road.
Rather surprisingly, the Elephant and Castle Theatre Limited, was traded on the London stock exchange at a value of £100,000 divided into 400,000 shares of 5 shillings each. They estimated that the theatre would be capable of making profits in excess of £16,000 per annum for its shareholders. The capital raised was needed for the renovation of the theatre.
Share holders were not forthcoming and none of these grandiose schemes came to pass. The LCC were still dragging their heels over safety and Cochran had not bargained for a rival concern which erected the enormous Trocadero cinema almost directly opposite. The E&C theatre was sold to John Maxwell, who on behalf of Associated British Cinemas constructed a new and luxurious cinema on the site, which opened on December 22, 1932.
Mapping session with John Whelan and Constantine Gras. The stages of drawing on ideas.
From left to right: burning theatre; Coronet new year's rave; cinema audience watching a melodrama film;
and the ghost of Marie Henderson on the elephant and castle as a steam train approaches.
Many thanks to Southwark News for profiling our project: How The Elephant and Castle Theatre reinvented itself and influenced theatre culture on its journey to becoming the Coronet.
I must confess to not knowing much about the history of the building as an ABC cinema. I'm hoping that the workshop we are running with Southwark Pensioners Centre and our public appeal will unearth fascinating stories about the cinema from 1932-1999. Also how revellers partied at the Coronet from 2003-2017.
As mentioned, the cinema survived Nazi bombing and the post war redevelopment when the shopping centre was built around it. It had a face lift in 1967 with the addition of the blue cladding on the facade and plusher interiors. This was a period when all cinemas were in decline, fewer and fewer people attending. One strategy to boost attendances was to provide more film choice and target the youth market with X-rated features. Hence in 1981 the ABC Elephant and Castle was converted from a single to three screens.
This is where I come in as a teenager in West London attending the ABC Edgware Road throughout the 1970s and 80s. Thinking about my experience of dodging traffic across the Westway A40 just before the Marylebone Flyover, pretending to be 18 years of age and watching double bills like the The Exorcist and Enter The Dragon; or a new blood wave of horror films coming out in the wake of Halloween and Friday The 13th. That particular ABC cinema of my youth has long since been demolished, but thinking how I might artistically explore its hidden history, was the germ of an idea that inspired this project - The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
Artists impression of regenerated Coronet.
Let's jump cut to the Coronet of today. There is massive regeneration taking place at the Elephant and Castle. This time the Coronet will not be incorporated into the new development being planned. The Coronet management team offered to buy the lease from the landlord Delancy and pump £1 million into revamping the building, peeling back the blue outer skin and offering new entertainment facilities. The Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) rejected an attempt to get the building listed. The council and developers are wanting to use the exceptionally large footprint of the building to provide more housing, shops or the relocated London College of Communication. The 2000 plus capacity of the Coronet will probably be replaced by a small music hall which can hold 400 people.
Our next blog will feature an exclusive interview with Samantha Porter, the manager of the Coronet. We will hear how she has managed the space for the last five years and how they are going out with a creative bang in 2017. A fitting farewell to a building steeped in history and art.
Let's hear it again for the The Elephant and Castle. It's a poetic, dare I say, theatrical or melodramatic place name. I imagine the intelligence and power of the African or Asian mammal transplanted onto British soil. If it is treated unkindly, that elephant is liable to stampede round and around the roundabout or cause a riot in the shopping centre; a turbo-charged variation of the expression "bull in a china-shop." But our elephant has a European castle strapped to its back and is looking stately and domesticated as a contemporary pink sculpture sited at the front of the shopping centre. So maybe it's not attacking, but defending. Castles were after all fortifications built by the nobility to control strategic locations and withstand sieges at times of war. Perhaps our logo or symbol of a castle on an elephant is a tarnished residue of that by-gone age of imperial power and glory, the potholes of elephantine transport and aspirations to homely castles. Perhaps these fragmentary associations of time and space are evolving into a new identity; one that bravely faces the challenge of contemporary social change and the demands of marrying capital with culture.
Gras sketches in the spirit of Rowlandson and during a rare lull in traffic flow.
Sketch of Elephant on the roundabout looking for its castle as the ghost of Marie Henderson looks on. 2017 oil pastel, pencils.
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital