Barber Beaumount and the People's Palace by John Rennie
Barber Beaumont & People’s Palace
This summer, students of Queen Mary and Westfield College will gather at an imposing building on the Mile End Road to collect their degree certificates.
What most of them won’t know is that the building they are nervously gathered in boasts one of the longest and strangest histories of any in the East End.
Our story starts back in 1774, when Barber Beaumont was born in Marylebone. The young man showed talent as an artist and was enrolled in the Royal Academy School.
It was the beginning of a colourful and varied career. Beaumont’s speciality was miniature portraits and
he became the court painter to the Duke of Kent and the Duke of York.
But the talented artist gave up his painting, making his fortune from insurance after founding and running the County Fire Office.
Spurred on by his success, and by a philanthropic urge to help the poor of London, Beaumont then set up the Provident Life Institute and Bank of Savings. This was one of the first friendly societies, which encouraged working people to save money, and the forerunner of modern building societies.
Though a talented and prudent man, Beaumont was also a colourful character. He fought a duel in Hyde Park, and left the world of insurance to became a military commander during the Napoleonic Wars.
Returning to England, Beaumont set his mind again to philanthropic works.
He became determined to bring culture to the East End, by building a combined museum, concert hall and library. And so, the Eastern Athanaeum was born in Beaumont Square.
But his real legacy was a trust fund he endowed to build a home for higher education in east London. The money was re- leased on his death in 1841, but it was to be 40 years before his dream came to reality.
In 1887, Beaumont’s educational establishment, known as the People’s Palace, was opened by Queen Victoria. It was her first visit to the East End in four decades.
Built on the old Bancroft Hospital site, the plan was to include a technical college, gymnasium and swimming pool, library and concert hall.
Crowds for a queen
Aimed at the mind as well as the body, it would fulfil Beaumont’s dream of “the intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement for people living at the East End of London”.
Thousands turned out to watch the Queen in her rare outing east of the City. And thousands more eagerly attended the lectures and classes at the People’s Palace and Queen’s Hall.
But in 1931 disaster struck. Fire ravaged the Palace, the worst of it centred on the Queen’s Hall. Two-hundred and fifty firemen fought the blaze and two hours later the fire was out. Little had been saved and the Queen’s Hall lay in smouldering ruins.
The East End could have been downhearted, but local Labour MP George Lansbury put his usual positive spin on the disaster.
Broadcasting on the radio in 1936, he said: “We all felt a personal loss, but we were not dismayed. We knew that the goodwill that created our People’s Palace was not dead, that all classes of people would readily respond.”
And respond they did. An appeal for funds culminated in King George VI and his wife, the present Queen Mother, following in the footsteps of his great grandmother, Victoria.
On 13 February 1937, the King laid the foundation stone of a new People’s Palace.
But the dream was shortlived. After the war, the building had a new role to fulfil, when Queen Mary College took over the building.
Stand on the south side of Mile End Road and you will see the imposing building to this day, though the “People’s Palace” enscription has been sandblasted from its beautiful facade.
And every summer, groups of nervous graduates will gather within this building, the latest crop to benefit from Barber Beaumont’s dream of bringing education to the East End.