The East End of London is well-known for its poverty and suffering of times past. But there was one beacon of light in the dark, dank, cobbled passageways of Aldgate; that was Toynbee Hall. A Grade II listed building, the Victorian buildings were of neo-Tudor design, influenced by the university buildings of Oxbridge. It began life as a charitable venture for social change and named after social reformer Arnold Toynbee. Visited by royalty, politicians, and even Bryant & May Matchgirls.
I was about 7 when I decided I wanted to be an actress. We lived a few miles from Aldgate in Mile End, so my mother accompanied me on the bus to the children’s drama class at Toynbee Hall. It was Britain's first children's theatre dating from 1946. The first year I attended, we had our class in the Lecture Hall. We performed basic drama and some ballet, although, as a plump child, I didn’t feel much like a ballerina.
The children came from all over the East End, including Stepney, Whitechapel, and Bethnal Green. From all different backgrounds, different ethnicities, yet we were all family once we entered the grounds of Toynbee. There were few parks in the locality. Even less gardens amongst the smoggy, grimy streets, with their history of Jack the Ripper. So, Toynbee was our playground.
(Some years later when I was 14, I joined Redbridge Youth Theatre and we toured with the musical Matchgirls and once performed in Greenwich Theatre, but I had no idea of the connection of the real Matchgirls back to Toynbee).
Sadly, some of Toynbee’s buildings had been destroyed in the blitz, including much of a magnificent structure called Wadham. As a child, what remained of Wadham reminded me of a fairy tale, medieval castle; with a tower to equal those created for Rapunzel or The Lady of Shalott. Our wardrobe was housed in what remained of Wadham. I remember climbing the dark winding stone stairs up to the wardrobe. A scary adventure as I entered the musty room in the dimly lit turret, overwhelmed by the smells of age and wonder. Rows upon rows of professionally made costumes hung in the eerie shadows. So magnificent that they were suitable even for the West End. Every theatrical role was catered for: kings, queens, and even court jesters; costumes for every play and every decade.
A tall modern building had recently been built opposite to the Lecture Hall. It contained a cafeteria, large rooms known as studios, and most importantly it housed a professional theatre. The Curtain Theatre, possibly named after an Elizabethan theatre that had once stood in nearby Shoreditch.
Toynbee’s Curtain Theatre was where we cockney children put on the shows. On a professional stage, with professional scenery and dressing rooms below. Although we were like an extended family, and each Saturday we’d look forward to seeing the other members. (When I was 12 a girl kindly got me a ticket to go to Wembley to see The Monkees, and we screamed our young hearts out on the night).
During a London carnival, my father took the class on the back of his lorry to join the procession of other floats travelling around the East End. We also toured homes for the elderly with a show. We sang good old East End songs and performed Zorba’s dance. I played Goddess Minerva and turned some poor young girl into a spider.
When I was 10, we performed our first major show on the stage of The Curtain. It was called Worlds Apart. I still have the script and photos from 56 years ago. I played a tourist among Native Americans, to echoes of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’. I also played a princess, and a space person. On the night of the performance, the auditorium was packed to full capacity.
We knew the lines by heart, we had the costumes, (some my mother had made), and our young hearts were beating fast with nervous anticipation. Downstairs in the dressing rooms we put on our stage make-up and costumes for each scene. When the curtains opened the stage-lights beamed down on us, and we played our parts with gusto, never missing a cue. When the show was over and we took our final bow, the applause was stupendous. We had done Toynbee proud.
This was our celebration of childhood.