Ever since the decision was made for the Women’s Library to move to LSE (now open as the Women’s Library @ LSE) I have been writing posts that draw attention to the many locations associated with the women’s movement in the area around Aldwych and the Strand. My hope is that researchers in the Women’s Library, when taking a break from their labours, will welcome some information that will allow them to see the surrounding area with fresh eyes.
Today I would like to direct your attention to the site between Portugal Street and Sardinia Street that now houses the Peacock Theatre. Many readers will have been to that theatre, rather oddly sited in the basement of a modern office-type block – if only to take younger members of the family to the annual Christmas treat of ‘The Snowman’. Have you ever wondered why there is a theatre there – in what is now a rather untheatrical area? The answer is related to the wonderful building in the photograph below.
The London Opera House, its rooftop adorned with figures representing Melody and Harmony, opened 102 years ago today – on 13 November 1911. It occupied an entire block of Kingsway, between Portugal Street and Sardinia Street, and was built for Oscar Hammerstein (Sr) , whose idea was that it should rival the Covent Garden Opera House. The building was opulent and enormous, capable of seating over 2600 people.
Its first season ran from its opening until March 1912, when there was then a hiatus. It was this lack of a follow-up season that, I think, accounts for the fact that on Friday 15 March it was available to be hired for a ‘Suffragists’ non-militant and non-party demonstration’ by the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage. Kate Frye was its organizer and in Campaigning for the Vote you can read of her efforts, which included mustering the banners of the various suffrage societies – she collected that of the WSPU from Mrs Garrud’s gym – in order to decorate the auditorium. Eva Moore and May Whitty of the Actresses’ Franchise League were amongst the suffragists on the platform, very fitting in such a theatrical venue.
It was not the first time in its short life that the Opera House had held a suffragette meeting. The previous week, the police, on the hunt for Christabel Pankhurst who had given them the slip from nearby Clement’s Inn, searched the Opera House, where she was reported to be hiding. However the New York Times reported that all they found was ‘Oscar Hammerstein sitting alone in state at a big table in the vestibule, with a printed notice behind him reading “Subscriptions department for the Grand Opera Summer Season”.’ The reporter described how ‘Outside the Opera House were posters announcing tomorrow’s meeting’ ‘So you are a sympathiser’, said the correspondent to Mr Hammerstein. ‘I don’t know anything about it,’ he replied, ‘except that I let the opera house to them before they started on their stunts, and can’t break the contract, or else they might break up the opera house’.
The London Opera House was so well-placed in the middle of suffrage society territory – and right beside the Tea Cup Inn, a favourite haunt – that it was to be the venue for various other suffrage meetings.
Hammerstein’s Summer Season was his last at the London Opera House and in July he gave up and returned to America. The theatre re-opened in December, staging variety shows and showing films, but not before it had once again, on 4 November, been hired by the suffrage societies who held a joint meeting protesting at the proposed reform bill.
It was at the London Opera House on 8 September 1914 that Christabel re-appeared when her exile came to an end, beginning her speech by saying ‘It is very good to be back in one’s own country again, amongst one’s own friends’ – and ending by promising ‘[The war] will sweep away, it must and shall sweep away, the superstition, the narrowness, the jealousy, the suicidal folly which have made of our country two opposing camps – the enfranchised men in one, and the voteless women in the other’.
From 1917 -1940 the building became a cinema – the Stoll Picture House – but from 1942 to 1957 reverted to live theatre – before being demolished in 1958. Planning permission for the replacement building required the incorporation of a theatre – hence The Peacock.
The office block has now, I see, been taken over by King’s College, which is marching up Kingsway into LSE territory. It is now known as the ‘Virginia Woolf Building’. Which allows my imagination another suffrage spin – to visualise Mary Datchet returning down Kingsway from her suffrage society office in Russell Square to her flat near the Strand. She glances at the poster outside the London Opera House advertising a suffrage meeting (perhaps her society, the PDS, would have been taking part but perhaps, as it probably supported adult, rather than women’s suffrage, not). Little did she suspect that her creator’s name would 100 years later adorn its – rather less – opulent – successor.
The copy of Christabel Pankurst’s 8 September 1914 speech, The War, referred to above will be for sale in my next catalogue.
For much more about the London Opera House and its successors click here.