A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Sixty

Alie Street, E1

Perhaps it’s me but I spent near on forty years wandering around the streets of London with little or no idea of the history associated with these thoroughfares. Take Alie Street, which is today an unprepossessing street which runs from Mansell Street in the west to Leman Street at the eastern end. It marks the northern perimeter of Goodman’s Fields which variously was attached to the Abbey of St Clare, then pasture land under private ownership following the dissolution of the monastery and then a tenterfield which was an area for drying newly manufactured clothes placed on hooks aka tenterhooks.

It was originally known as Ayliff Street, after a relative of William Leman, whose great-uncle, John, had bought Goodman’s Fields. Its name changed to Alie Street, quite why I don’t know, and the street that bears its name was known in the 19th century as Great Alie Street, there being a Little Alie Street which ran from the east end of Leman Street up to the Commercial Road. It has a rather pleasant pub called the White Swan which we regular topers dubbed the Mucky Duck, wags that we were.

Alie Street’s major claim to fame was that it was the site of the Goodman’s Fields theatre, the first of which opened on Halloween 1727 with a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. The arrival of a theatre was not universally popular and following a highly critical sermon preached at nearby St Botolph’s in Aldgate, the owner, Thomas Odell, passed it on to Henry Giffard. Giffard put on plays until 1832 when he decided to move premises to a custom built theatre further down the street, the original theatre being used for acrobatic performances.

The new Goodman’s Fields theatre opened its doors on 2nd October 1732 with a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 – I’m not sure if Part 2 ever got performed. The theatre soon got into trouble, though, after putting on A Vision of the Golden Rump, possibly by Henry Fielding, in 1736 which was highly critical of Robert Walpole and the Whig government. This led to the passing of the Licensing Act the following year which banned performances of any play critical of the government or the monarchy. The theatre reopened in 1740 with David Garrick in residence. It became a fashionable place to visit and “coaches and chariots with coronets soon surrounded the remote playhouse”.

Its very success, however, proved to be its undoing as it ran into trouble with the Licensing Act and was forced to close down in 1742, the final production being the Beggar’s Opera. Four years later the theatre burnt to the ground. A third theatre was built on the site which flourished briefly before being converted into a warehouse until it too was consumed by fire in 1809. The street retains its thespian links with the Half Moon Theatre which was formed in 1972 and occupies a disused synagogue, taking its name from the Half Moon Passage which runs alongside it.

Perhaps the most notable building in the street today is the St George’s German Lutheran church which is to be found at number 55 and was built in 1762. It is the oldest German-speaking church in England and drew its congregation from the German immigrants working in the sugar refineries and meat and baking trades in the area which was known colloquially as Little Germany. It still retains a number of box pews, a fine double-decker pulpit and a wonderful Walcker organ. It is worth popping in to see – en route to the Mucky Duck, of course.


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