Jacqueline Banerjee. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL.], Mile End Road, London, designed by E. R. Robson. 1886; rebuilt by Campbell-Jones and Smithers after a fire in 1931. Photograph, caption, and commentary by
By the 1880s, the south of London had the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, while the north had Alexandra Palace at Wood Green/Muswell Hill. Quite apart from all the theatres, museums and art galleries in the West End, plans were evolving for a new vast hall at Olympia, while J. R. Whitely had his sights set on another entertainment area which he hoped to open in 1886 — this would eventually become Earl's Court. But what of the East End? "Two millions of people, or thereabouts, live in the East End of London," writes Walter Besant at the beginning of his novel, All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882). "That seems a good-sized population for an utterly unknown town. They have no institutions of their own to speak of, no public buildings of any importance, no municipality, no gentry, no carriages, no soldiers, no picture-galleries, no theatres, no opera — they have nothing" (28). In fact, unbeknown to Besant, there was already a project afloat with the legacy of Barber Beaumont, a miniaturist and insurance magnate, who had founded the New Philosophic Institute in Mile End. The insitute had declined, but Beaumont's fund was now being managed actively by Sir Edmund Hay Currie. Besant's words pricked the conscience of a wider audience, drew in more donations, and influenced the kind of facilities the new "Palace of the People" was to offer. With its great hall, mighty organ, swimming pool, glass-covered winter garden and so on, it would become very like the "Palace of Delights" into which Besant's heroine Angela (surely named after the real-life wealthy heiress/philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts) pours her large fortune.
Architecturally, the present front elevation of the Queen's Building resembles that of the original elegant building, with its decorative gables and swags (see the turn-of-the-century photograph in Appendix 3 of Gasson). In a nice touch, the gable design is echoed inside, above the library windows. J. Mordaunt Crook writes:
E. R. Robson (1835-1917), best known for his work as architect to the London School Board, had projected a number of eclectic schemes — with echoes of both the Crystal Palace and the Beaux Arts — before securing agreement for his executed design. The rib-vaulted library was a classical version of the fourteenth-century Prior's Kitchen at Durham. The Queen's Hall (built1931) outdid even Robson's Prince's Hall in Piccadilly. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1887, this "happy experiment in practical Socialism," as The Times put it, set out — in darkest Mile End Road — "to sow the seeds of a higher and more humane civilisation among dwellers and toilers in [that] unlovely district" (Mordaunt Crook 30-31).
Robson was born in Durham and had been articled to John Dobson in the north of England, but there is no need to go that far to find his main inspiration for the library. Like the dome of University College London's Wilkins Building, and the round reading room in the old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, the "Octagon," as it is called, owed most to Robert Smirke's Reading Room at the British Museum. Built in 1887-88, and opened by King Leopold II of the Belgians, this take on Smirke's great original was the most important part of the People's Palace to escape the 1931 fire. It is 23.23 metres in diameter ("Restored Architectural Gem"), has two cast-iron galleries, and rises to a height of three storeys with an elegant central dome. Busts of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Johnson, Wordsworth, Scott and Byron are housed in niches just above the highest shelves of books. Plaques to Pindar, Homer, Virgil and others are sited around the dome.
Robson would have needed no persuasion to produce an airy and open design, because he believed strongly in the importance of natural light and its influence on the atmosphere of a room and its occupants. Hence the very high windows of the typical Victorian school, for after his stint as architect to the London School Board (1871-1884), Robson was then consultant architect to the Education Department for another twenty years. His School Architecture (1874), along with his annual directives on school-building practice during the latter period, made him a hugely influential figure, leaving a legacy of distinctive, three-storey, red-brick Queen Anne style school buildings throughout the country.
The People's Palace was very popular at first. Andrew Gasson writes that 26,000 people visited it on a single Bank Holiday in 1888, and that altogether one and a half million people visited it in its first year. The library, administered by women only and open even on Sundays, was visited by about 1,000 people a day, and Besant's friend Wilkie Collins bequeathed his own large library to it in 1889 (the subsequent disappearance of these volumes is Gasson's particular interest). But, as with Alexandra Palace, the popularity of the entertainments here declined, and fire took its dreadful toll. In this case, however, what was left or rebuilt of the People's Palace could be subsumed into the technical college opened alongside it in 1888. When the Master of the Draper's Company, which had funded this institution, received the Charter of Incorporation of Queen Mary College London in 1934, the People's Palace officially became a part of the University of London. In this connection, Mordaunt Crook writes, "What Imperial College is to West London, QMC is to the East. In other words, what the Imperial Institute was to Imperial College the People's Palace was to QMC" (30). As a specialist in educational architecture, Robson would no doubt have been pleased with this development.
- Why has Besant's concept of a "People's Palace of Delights for the Eastenders" been called "Ruskinian" (Sutherland 18)? Consider, for example, Ruskin's idea that "perhaps even the final outcome and consummation of all wealth is in the producing as many as possible full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures" (Unto This Last 56).
- In what ways does the Octagon illustrate another Ruskinian ideal, "the golden stain of time" which ennobles architecture (The Seven Lamps of Architecture 172)? How does knowing about its past add to our appreciation of it as a building?
- How much does a building's architectural context influence our view of it (this undistinguished part of London, for example, is where the Salvation Army started, and the largest Ragged School was housed)?
- The Palace's own Prospectus of 1885 described it as having "rather a taint of aristocracy about it" (qtd. by Mordaunt Crook 30n.). Does the desire to elevate people necessarily involve condescension? (Take a look at Mrs Oliphant's comments on Unto This Last, and your webmaster's questions about them.)
- Interior of the Octagon (1)
- Interior of the Octagon (2)
- Dome of the Octagon
- Bust of Chaucer
- Foundation Stone Plaque
Besant, Walter. All Sorts and Conditions of Men. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, new ed. 1997.
Gasson, Andrew. "The Wilkie Collins Memorial Library: A Dead Secret." The Wilkie Collins Newsletter, Spring 2004. Viewed 3 January 2008.
Mordaunt Crook, J. "The Architectural Image." In The University of London: The World of Learning, 1836-1986, ed. F. M. L. Thompson. London: Continuum, 1990.
"Restored Architectural Gem Becomes East London's Premier Conference Venue." Viewed 6 January 2008.
Ruskin, John. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1849. Available here.
————.Unto This Last. London: G. Allen, 1907. Available here.
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, paperback ed. 1990.
Weinreb, Ben and Christopher Hibbert, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. London: Macmillan, rev. ed. 1992.
The Whitechapel Society. "The People's Palace." Viewed 7 January 2008.
Last modified 9 January 2008