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The Excelsior

Until 1898, Bethnal Green had no public hall or swimming baths. Oxford House changed this. Acquiring the Excelsior Hall on the opposite side of Bethnal Green Road for £4000, they set out to make it the centre of social life in Bethnal Green. The aim of all this was to improve the people of the East End: in 1910, Oxford House’s annual report claimed that weekly concerts were ‘doing much to educate the musical taste of Bethnal Green’.

small.1967_source Cinema Theatre Association Archive_copyright Cinema Theatre Association Archive_Excelsior Hall in colour

In 1903, Oxford House’s Musical and Dramatic Association produced fourteen shows, ranging from Carmen to Haydn’s Creation. A thousand came each night. In the summer, the floor of the theatre was taken up and hundreds flocked daily to two swimming pools.

Inside Door Collage_Kevin's ExcelsiorIn 1921 the Excelsior was permanently converted into a cinema. Oxford House spoke of its concern ‘to improve and enlarge the minds of those who came as opposed to the deteriorating effect which most cinemas, alas, have on those who patronise them’. So, alongside the films of Charlie Chaplin, a weekly lecture programme was set up on subjects ranging from international affairs to the dangers of the popular doctrine of eugenics. One highlight came with the visit of Queen Mary in 1928, who was treated to a showing of the film Chang and a performance by the choral society.

With the advent of ‘talkies’ and the opening of York Hall in 1929, the Excelsior’s money troubles began to worsen. Gradually, Oxford House’s musical and dramatic productions moved elsewhere. But it continued to show films into the 1960s, even briefly converted into an Urdu cinema before its final closure in 1969.

If you have any memories of the Excelsior that you would like to share with us, please get in touch via email at heritage@oxfordhouse.org.uk, or via Facebook and Twitter.

Text: Lucy Valsamidis and Laura Newby

Images:
1: Excelsior Hall (B&W and Colour) in 1976. Curtesy of Cinema Theatre Association Archive
2:  Kevin Wheelan’s garage Excelsior. The image on the door shows the original Excelsior. Courtesy of Dr Charles S.P. Jenkins

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