If you stand at the end of Upper Marsh in Lambeth opposite St Thomas’s Hospital and look towards the Waterloo station exit, you will be staring at the seedbed of a revolution in entertainment – though there is nothing there to show it. The only clue is that the block of flats in front of you is marked Canterbury House (see photo below).
Here stood the Canterbury Music Hall. It was Britain’s – and maybe the world’s – first large venue of its kind and spawned hundreds of imitators, from which can be traced the historical roots of today’s stand-up comedians. At its zenith, the palatial building stretched right back to Westminster Bridge Road.
Originally called simply the Canterbury Hall, it was opened in 1852 by entertainment entrepreneur Charles Morton, who had it built at the rear of a pub, the Canterbury Arms, he had purchased with his brother-in-law three years earlier. The area was full of gin palaces, ragged children and inebriated blokes.
In 1856, the hall was replaced by a grandiose larger one, able to accommodate 1,500 people. It was built around the walls of the older version, which was then demolished, reportedly in a single weekend.
Performers there included Charlie Chaplin’s father Charles Chaplin Snr and numerous others including, at one stage, the younger Chaplin himself. Charles Blondin did his famous tight-rope act there. By then, the music hall had a large entrance in Westminster Bridge Road. It also exhibited paintings and was dubbed “The Royal Academy Over the Water”.
The hall was reconstructed in 1890 by the redoubtable theatre architect Frank Matcham as the Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, seating 3,000 people, which is as large as the biggest West End theatre today. It lasted until 1942, when it was bombed beyond restoration.
In 1955, the building was demolished and there is little sign of it today. London has so much history, yet much of it goes ignored. At a time when Britain’s entertainment industry is doing so well, it is sad that the institutions that started it all are not better remembered.