The People’s Palace – Erin Tomlin


The Queen's Hall, People's Palace, East London, opened this day by Her Majesty (engraving)
The Queen’s Hall, People’s Palace, East London, opened this day by Her Majesty; from The Illustrated London News, 14 May 1887

Throughout the nineteenth century, the middle classes within Victorian London became especially concerned with the moral value of entertainment and culture within the urban slum, and to what extent this was a threat to the “condition of England”.[1] As discussed before the urban slum was seen as a completely foreign land, where the cultural difference between the middle and working classes became an issue of race and distinction. However there were those who entered into the slum, and looked to provide an education in ‘middle-class values, moral virtue and economic rationality’.[2] It was believed by both men and women, that in providing this education you could make the hardworking slum dwellers culturally equal to the middle classes, and therefore better able to rise up out of the urban slum.[3] Within this section we will be exploring the materialisation of these beliefs through The People’s Palace, opened up in the East End of London on the 14th May 1887. These ideas will be explored through the analysis of a pamphlet, entitled ‘The People’s Palace’, written by Walter Besant in the July of 1888, which discussed in great length the layout and purpose of the building. The Victorian novelist Walter Besant is of particular importance to us, as it was his work All Sorts and Condition of Men that provided the inspiration, and arguably the creation, of The People’s Palace.[4] For Besant:

‘The Palace will contain in itself everything, namely: Social rooms, club rooms, billiard rooms, lecture rooms, reading rooms, apart from the Queen’s hall; class rooms, capable of accommodating an immense number of student; chemical and physical laboratories, and all the machinery of a great technical college and palace of delight.’

According to Besant the People’s Palace was created for the “better class” of working labourers who resided in the East End of London, and needed a “respectable” centre of entertainment to distinguishing themselves as steady tradesmen by. For the middle classes, the East End of London was a cesspit of beer, gambling, and the abuses of dancing, all of which they wished to reform for those who became a member of the palace. The founders of the People’s Palace believed in providing an institution of learning, reading and culturally moral entertainment, without the vices of intoxication. This is supported by the National Sunday League who in 1890 wrote of the benefits working-class labourers felt in visiting museums and galleries during their leisure time, and how the obtainment of knowledge lead to an enlightenment of the mind.[5] Whilst there were many middle-class philanthropists attempting to provide this enlightenment to the general populace, the People’s Palace believed that a policy of exclusivity was essential in reforming the deserving working classes. It was believed by Besant that the values, tastes and ideals of the middle classes could all by learnt, and the provision of this culture could ‘polish the rougher character’.[6] However it was only those engaged with steady work that could maintain the orderly and civilized manner of the People’s Palace, leaving those of the lowest classes as local bigots. Therefore administration to the palace was advertised as a members only privilege limited to those between the ages of fifteen and twenty five, and to be paid for annually. This helped to encourage a healthy number of “young people” into the palace, allowing them to engage with polite society and help towards the betterment of London.[7]

Throughout the pamphlet Besant discusses the utopian ideals of what the People’s Palace intended to provide to the East End of London, as discussed above. However towards the end of the pamphlet he begins to talk about how successful the palace was in the first year of its opening, and how these ideals have manifested themselves into the everyday lives of the deserving poor within the urban slums. Besant observes that:

‘The members have started clubs of every kind. These are, of course, managed by themselves. Thus there is a Committee of Management for the billiard room, whose duty it is to see that the tables are not monopolized and that betting is not carried on—betting and gambling are great curses among our young working lads. There are committees and secretaries for the Debating Club, the Chess Club, the Cyclists, the Ramblers, the Harriers, the Cricket, and I know not what else.’

Within this passage Besant is praising the successfulness of the People’s Palace and how these “young working lads” have become responsible members of polite society. They have been able to resist the vices of the urban slum, and the ramblings of local bigots, to become members of clubs that reflect middle-class identity and culture. Alongside these clubs, the men were able to attend concerts, exhibitions, classes, and have access to the Palace Journal. All of these things helped to fulfil Besant’s dream of a ‘centre of organised recreation, orderly amusement, and intellectual and artistic culture’.[8] However Besant’s dream was not limited to improving just the culture of the working man, and within the architecture of the People’s Palace, the hardworking women from the urban slum were also considered. With the first designs of the palace, Besant understood there to be a “social room for the lady members, where they can sit and talk, play or read”. Within his pamphlet from 1888, Besant writes that:

‘The ante-rooms of the library will be given over entirely for the use of the girls who form the “Lady Members.” They will then have all to themselves, under the government of their own committee, their own music room, tea room, reading and writing room, and conversation room.’

Within both of these passages we can see the importance Besant places on autonomy for the members, and how it is their responsibility to control the activity that goes on within the palace. Besant believed self-government of the palace was an important part of creating a social transformation in these men and women, without which there was no real use for the building at all.[9] Besant encouraged trust amongst the middle classes, and ensured that the People’s Palace would be run completely by the working class men it was intended for.

The success of the People’s Palace in reforming the entertainment and culture of the working classes can be judged by two things; the involvement of people from the slums, and the activities that went on within the palace. Within the first six months of the palace opening, it had six hundred-thousand visitors, with fifteen hundred of those attending classes, the Palace Journal had four thousand copies circulated weekly, and the trustees began talks of expanding the grounds of the palace.[10] The success of activity within the palace is discussed within Besant’s 1888 pamphlet, where he talks of a court ball that was conducted with great decorum and the absence of any vices associated with previous dances. This evidence would suggest that the People’s Palace was successful in reforming the morals of hardworking men and women from the East End of London, and the building was able to provide the opportunity for learnt middle class behaviour. We can also see the initial success within Besant’s 1888 pamphlet, where his pride over the palace is summed up with his belief that it created men who supported “the good old name of the good old country”.

Erin Tomlin


[1] Neetens, W., ‘Problems of a “Democratic Text”: Walter Besant’s Impossible Story’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 23:3 (1990), p.248

[2] Anderson, A., ‘Victorian High Society and Social Duty: The Promotion of “Recreative Learning and Voluntary Teaching”’, History of Education, 31:4 (2002), p.315

[3] Anderson, ‘Victorian High Society and Social Duty’, p. 315

[4] Spika, M., ‘Henry James and Walter Besant: “The Art of Fiction” controversy’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 6:2 (1973), p.103

[5] National Sunday League, ‘A few plain reasons for the Sunday opening of the National Museums, Libraries and Art Galleries’, in LSE Selected Pamphlets, (1890)

[6] Neetens, ‘Problems of a “Democratic Text”’, p. 259

[7] Besant, W., ‘London: Mediaeval and Elizabethan’, An address delivered to the London Reform Union, December 7th, 1896, in LSE Selected Pamphlets (1897)

[8] Boege, F.W., ‘Sir Walter Besant: Novelist, Part One’, Nineteenth Century Fiction, 10:4 (1956), p.266

[9] Neetens, ‘Problems of “Democratic Text”’, p.247

[10] Boege, ‘Sir Walter Besant’, p.268






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