The Athenaeum Hall

Ann Basu wrote in Fitzrovia News (Winter 2018):

“The Athenaeum Hall at 73 Tottenham Court Road hosted events from radical political meetings to plays, musical recitals and dancing classes. It opened in 1885 in premises previously used by a variety of small businesses and was eventually knocked down due to the building in 1907 of what was at first named Tottenham Court Road tube station but renamed Goodge Street station in 1908.

A photograph of the Athenaeum shows that it fully lived down to the seedy character of Tottenham Court Road at that time. If there is a rule that the most unimpressive places have the grandest names, the Athenaeum proves it. Pictured forlornly awaiting demolition, it is a narrow three-storied brick building with no elegant features and a scruffy bay window, perhaps the box office, on the ground floor. There are double doors to the right of the window which must have led to the hall. “Athenaeum” is faintly visible painted above the entrance, with a lantern on the wall to light the name from above. A notice advertising “Public Telephone” is prominent below the third-floor window; the boasted-of telephone must have been quite an innovation. The upper floors were occupied by an oyster restaurant and a dancing school.

The Central Club used the building for two years before the Athenaeum opened there. The shop on the ground floor had originally been a tobacconists then a florists, and a basket and brush making business had also operated at that address until 1877.

The Athenaeum staged a wide variety of events. There were plays and entertainments. On 25 February 1890 there was a farewell benefit to Monsieur Louis Verone, a ventriloquist and thought-reader, “the most genial and dexterous of entertainers … three hours of continuous amusement and laughter.” The bill listed 18 acts including a juggler and midgets.

In January 1893, Henrik Ibsen(see image)‘s “Ghosts” was performed at the Hall, directed by Mr H. de- Lange. In at least one of the performances the well-known actress Mrs Patrick Campbell starred as Mrs Alving and was praised in The Sketch review on 1 February…

The reviewer reveals the small scale of the Athenaeum when he comments that the audience was “most inconveniently overcrowded”, although he says they responded to the play “with marked favour.”

The Athenaeum had a reputation for hosting radicals who lived in large numbers around Tottenham Court Road. The Hall is perhaps best known for putting on music and poetry recitals involving Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. William Morris’s play, The Tables Turned, or Nupkins Awakened, was also performed there in October 1887. The play, a satire, was popular with leftists who were described by George Bernard Shaw as “a motley sea of rolling, wallowing, guffawing Socialists” in an essay for the Saturday Review in 1896 likening Morris to Aristophanes.

In October 1890, Morris appeared at the Athenaeum again to give a talk for the ‘Commonweal’ branch of the Socialist League on “Art for the People.” Morris explained his ideas about the convergence of beauty and utility…

The radical trend of activities at the Athenaeum continued through the 1890s. The Hall features on a poster advertising a talk on “The Philosophy of Anarchism”, part of a course of anarchist lectures taking place in July 1897. And in 1899 there was a mixed bill of songs, recitations and an “Operatic Dramatic Burlesque” called Trafalgar Square with characters such as an unemployed man, Tom Allalone, a French insurgent, assorted police officers and the Spirit of Liberty.

In its last years the Athenaeum also functioned as a dance hall. A picture taken in 1902 shows it full of men and women who were busy learning Irish reels in classes organised by the Gaelic League. They seem to be moving quite sedately for Irish dancers. Perhaps this was because they were dressed in the normal daywear of the time which for men was a suit, waistcoat, starched collar and tie and, for women, an elaborate hat kept on with long hatpins, a blouse with leg-of-mutton sleeves, an ankle- length skirt, petticoats and a tight corset.

Within a few years of this dancing scene, the Athenaeum Hall would close and lie empty until it was swept away by the Goodge Street Tube development. After that its energy and radicalism had to flow into the many other small halls, cafés and clubs tucked into the cheerfully unkempt and rackety streets of Fitzrovia.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s