85 Stepney Way

Red Lion Farm and playhouse
Contributed by Survey of London on Jan. 7, 2021

From the sixteenth century a manor on Whitechapel's parish boundary south of Whitechapel Road at the settlement called Mile End Green was known as the Red Lion Farm, a name that seems to reflect the presence of a tavern. An important episode in the history of Mile End Green was the construction at the Red Lion Farm of galleries, a stage and a turret in 1567, financed by John Brayne, a citizen Grocer and the brother-in-law and partner of James Burbage. This timber structure was erected to put on a play called ‘the story of Sampson’. The only known documentation of this early instance of a purpose-built playhouse, which antedates Brayne and Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch, lies in a complaint against one carpenter, William Sylvester, adjudicated by the Carpenters’ Company in 1567, and a suit against another, John Reynolds, at the Court of King’s Bench in 1569. Sylvester, the more experienced craftsman, assembled the galleries while Reynolds constructed the stage and turret. In the later suit, the location of the theatre was described as ‘within the court or yard lying on the south side of the garden belonging to the messuage or farm house called and known by the name of the sign of the Red Lion … situate and being at Mile End in the Parish of St Mary Matfelon otherwise called Whitechapel without Aldgate of London’.1

The longevity, appearance and precise location of the theatre at the Red Lion Farm have been points of contention. Archaeological investigations in 2018–19 appear to have clarified matters to some extent, revealing a rectangular timber structure south of Raven Row just outside Whitechapel, that is to the east of the parish boundary. This has been interpreted as the perimeter base of the playhouse stage itself. There is evidence of reuse as a bear garden or baiting pit in the early seventeenth century and of repairs around 1680, and the associated tavern or inn is understood as having grown and thrived alongside.2

In 1709 a dispute over tithes of milk and pigs confirmed the location of the Red Lion farmhouse itself as in the parish of St Mary Whitechapel. Three maps, Joel Gascoyne’s of 1703, John Rocque’s of the 1740s and John Robinson’s of 1783 for the London Hospital, show that there were one or more bowling greens south of the property through that period, and further delineate the farm on the south side of Mile End Green (now Raven Row), at the eastern boundary of the parish. In 1753 Bailey Heath and Henry Knight agreed to demise to Joseph Taylor ‘all that new built brick messuage or tenement with the cow houses, stables and twenty-one acres of pasture ground … commonly called or known by the name of Red Lion Farm’.3 Rebuilding had perhaps taken place not long before Rocque delineated semi-quadrangular ranges north-west of a bowling green. By the 1780s the farm comprised a yard lined with buildings and tenements on three sides, bordered west by a skittle ground and a garden adjoining a public house known as the White Raven. The farm buildings were cleared in phases around 1800.4

  1. The National Archives, KB27/1229, m.30, as transcribed by Herbert Berry, ‘The First Public Playhouses, especially the Red Lion’, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol.40/2, 1989, pp.133–148: William Ingram, The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan _England, 1992, pp.102–13: Janet S. Loengard, ‘An Elizabethan Lawsuit: John Brayne, his Carpenter, and the Building of the Red Lion Theatre’, _Shakespeare Quarterly, vol.34/3, 1983, pp.298–310 

  2. Julian Bowsher, ‘Boozing, bear-baiting and treading the boards – the history of London’s first playhouse, Apollo, 29 June 2020: soundcloud.com /uclarchaeologysouth-east/episode-1-the-red-lion-playhouse 

  3. Barts Health Archives (BHA), RLHLH/A/5/4, p.299 

  4. BHA, RLHLH/A/5/9, p.194; RLHLH/A/5/14, p.149: Daily Courant, 5 August 1709; 5 May 1718: Henry Gwillim, _A Collection of Acts and Records of _Parliament, vol.2, 1801, p.607: Richard Horwood’s map of London, 1799 

site - or not - of the Red Lion Shakespearean Theatre
Contributed by david2 on April 1, 2017

This building, formerly used as a storage facility, was identified as the site of the Red Lion Shakespearean Theatre during assessment of the route of Crossrail, allowing Crossrail to take the route it did.  The site is scheduled for redevelopment and an archaeological evaluation found a row of post holes, potentially part of the theatre. Alas, further evaluation found they continued as a property boundary.   So the Red Lion  theatre is still 'missing'.  My flat, on the opposite side of the road, overlooks it.  Maybe the archaeological evaluation just wasn't in the right place and it is still out there?

http://74f85f59f39b887b696f-ab656259048fb93837ecc0ecbcf0c557.r23.cf3.rackcdn. com/assets/library/document/0/original/0004-r-redliontheatre.pdf   Crossrail report by the late Dr Phillpotts, locating the Red Lion Theatre

https://democracy.towerhamlets.gov.uk/documents/s90544/PA-15-01789%20-%20Comm ittee%20Report%20Final.pdf   Council committee report saying that they hadn't found the theatre after all