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Category Archives: Then & Now

The YMCA, the Great War and the Bard

On the corner of Gower Street and Keppel Street in Bloomsbury stands the impressive inter-war building of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The site’s earlier history, though, is important in the history modern Shakespearean performances in the capital, linked to the RSC and the National Theatre – and it provided a haven for soldiers and sailors in London in the Great War.

In the years before the Great War, a group of like-minded and well-connected people were campaigning to open a Shakespeare Theatre in London as a venue for the Bard’s plays in the capital. In 1913, Sir Oswald Stoll gave 1616 guineas towards the project (an enormous sum when working men’s wages were around 20 or 30s per week – a guinea was 21 shillings). Israel Gollancz (uncle of the publisher Victor Gollancz) led the project and by early 1914 a site had been found and cleared, and a competition to design the theatre was launched, with a view to opening the theatre in 1916 for the tercentenary of the Bard’s death. In August 1914, the project came to a halt.

During the first eighteen months of the war, the YMCA and other organisations opened up places for soldiers and sailors to relax in London. Many were based around the railway termini (and we have seen that one was opened in 1917 for US servicemen: the Eagle Hut), but in August 1916 the ‘Shakespeare Hut’ was opened by Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (wife of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a grandson of Queen Victoria).

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The hut was used throughout the war for entertainments and as somewhere for soldiers and sailors to sleep if they had no accommodation in the city. The Times reported in September 1918 that over 2,000 men were sleeping in the Shakespeare Hut each week, the most of any of the YMCA huts whose statistics they listed.

After the war, the huts on the site were made into accommodation for students at the nearby University of London (the site is close to Senate House), mainly Indian students. The site was sold in April 1922 as the site for a new School of Hygiene in the University; as Gollancz (by now Sir Israel) put it, “On the site secured for the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre there will soon arise a Temple of Hygeia”. This new building and others around the university have completely changed the scene around the site of the hut.

YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740

Then: YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740

 

The junction of Gower Street and Store Street today (image from Google streetview)

Now: The junction of Gower Street, Store Street and Keppel Street today (image from Google streetview)

While it was lent (rent-free) to the YMCA during the war years the site had increased in value, and in the years after the war rent had accumulated from the use by Indian students. This money went towards the National Theatre movement and the creation of a New Shakespeare Company, as the campaign for a Shakespeare theatre in London became more closely allied with the one that had already been built in Stratford. Although it never became the site of a Shakespeare memorial theatre, the site was part of the story of the genesis of the National Theatre (eventually established in 1963) and the Royal Shakespeare Company (created in 1961 at the Stratford theatre)

 
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Posted by on 22 April 2014 in Famous companies, Famous People, Places, Then & Now

 

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Then and Now: Searchlights over Westminster

Then:

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Searchlights sweep the London sky over a blacked-out Palace of Westminster © IWM (Art.IWM ART 17172)

Now:

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

Palace of Westminster at night (image from flickr: (c)UK Parliament)

‘The Palace of Westminster, instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front, its numerous windows casting their bright reflections on the waters, as in peace-time, is now a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight.’

This is how Michael Macdonagh, the parliamentary correspondent of the Times during the war, described the view of the Palace at night in December 1917 (in his book In London During the Great War).

The current Palace of Westminster was built in the 1840s and 1850s, following the fire of 1834 that destroyed most of the old Palace. Its outline is clearly the same today as it was in the Great War. The big difference is the light. Streetlights were kept to a minimum during the war and external lights on shops and public buildings were banned. This has a big impact on the Palace of Westminster, turning it into a shadow at night. Most noticeably, the clock face is dark. In addition the Ayrton Light did not shine. (This is the light at the top of the clock tower that is lit whenever Parliament is sitting after dark, to tell the nation that its elected representatives or the Lords are still at work). In place of those lights are the searchlights, scouring the sky in search of Zeppelins and German aeroplanes.  The war also changed the sounds of Westminster, as Big Ben fell silent in October 1914 and did not toll again until November 1918.

The impact of the Great War, though, was much less than the Second World War and the Blitz,as this page at West End at War demonstrates.

 
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Posted by on 8 April 2014 in Air Raid, Places, Then & Now

 

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Then and Now: Rahere’s Tomb

Then:

Rahere's Tomb protected from bomb damage, 1915

Rahere’s Tomb protected from bomb damage, 1915

Now:

Rahere's tomb today (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Rahere’s tomb today (image from Wikipedia Commons)

Under the threat of attack from the air, some of the treasures of London were hidden from view behind sandbags.  At the British Museum, those artifacts that could not be moved to safety after the galleries were closed to the public were protected, as we have seen.  At Charing Cross, the statue of Charles I was hidden behind wooden hoardings and sandbags.  At St Bartholomew’s Church in Smithfield, the tomb of the church’s founder Rahere was also covered with sandbags.

Unlike most London landmarks, though, St Bart’s really did come close to destruction. On 8 September 1915, the largest bomb yet dropped on London fell from Zeppelin L13 on Batholomew’s Close. The 660lb bomb caused an enormous amount of damage, creating a hole eight feet deep, gutting a local printworks,  smashing shopfronts and shattering windows. A fountain in the close was virtually split in two. One curious effect of the blast was that it revealed the timber-framed gateway to the courtyard of St Bart’s church. Thankfully it missed the nearby hospital and the soldiers being treated there.

Rahere founded the church and hospital in the early twelfth century after a vision of St Bartholomew instructed him to. The site was on the King’s land, so Rahere had to win the favour of King Henry I, which he managed to do despite being discouraged by the London barons. Rahere was often portrayed as the king’s jester or minstrel in later years, but remained prior of St Bartholomew’s until his death. His effigy was installed in the church in the early fifteenth century, where it has remained to this day – despite the danger of time, the puritans, and two world wars.

Sources:

Secret London

Ian Castle – London 1914-17, the Zeppelin Menace

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Michael McDonagh – In London during the Great War

 
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Posted by on 16 March 2014 in Air Raid, Places, Then & Now

 

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Then and Now: Waterloo YMCA

This is the first in a new series of short posts showing scenes from Great War London with the same location today.

Then:

Waterloo YMCA hut next to St John's Church (c)IWM Q28744

Waterloo YMCA hut next to St John’s Church (c)IWM Q28744

Now:

The scene today (image from Google streetview)

The scene today (image from Google streetview)

The new building on the left (KCL’s James Clerk Maxwell building) is closer to the church than its predecessor was, and there are no longer public toilets under the road, but you can still clearly see where the YMCA building was.

In case you’re wondering what Iron Jelloids are, they are basically lozenge sweets used to counter an iron deficiency. According to a blog post about them ‘by April 1913 The British Journal of Nursing could write that “Iron Jelloids are now well-known as a neutral, palatable, non-constipating form of Iron Tonic.”‘

 
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Posted by on 20 February 2014 in Places, Then & Now