By The London Historian
This month we’re heading over to Shoreditch. More specifically: up and down the city road, in and out The Eagle…sing along now… that’s the way the money goes, Pop! goes the weasel. With the ever-increasing gentrification of London’s hipster Hoxton hangouts, I’ll be explaining how one great pub ‘The Eagle’ had the whole of the city talking (and the lucky ones singing) almost 200 years ago.
At 2 Shepherdess Walk, just off City Road, you’ll find The Eagle Pub. Built as the Eagle Tavern in 1821; by 1832 it boasted a music pavilion on its grounds, known as the Grecian Saloon. Rebuilt in 1841 as a proper theatre it was later named the Royal Grecian and seated 4000 people. Charles Dickens’ affinity for the tavern was enough for him to pen ‘Miss Evans and The Eagle’, featured in his Sketches By Boz collection of stories. Miss Evans got glammed up in her white muslin gown, a red shawl, white bonnet, jewellery, and white gloves, whilst Mr Wilkins looked dashing in a waistcoat, accompanied with a dress-cane and a beaming smile. After a pleasant night at the tavern, smiles turned to scuffles when a couple of scoundrels “made remarks complimentary to the ankles” of his lady and her friend. Now most of us know that Dickens liked to frequent numerous London boozers but he does make The Eagle sound something special.
An advert for the tavern in 1838 promised “Unrivalled Galas, with brilliant fireworks, and splendid illuminations, and a series of superior amusements, every Monday and Wednesday”. They went on to claim “To attempt a description of the numerous and varied sources of entertainment at this unrivalled establishment would be vain”. A bold claim as twenty years later a 1858 review of the tavern by J. Ewing Ritchie cast a more critical eye over the young men who visited the music hall to smoke their and frolic with loose women he compared to no better than hookers. Ritchie even makes reference to a parliamentary report in which he quotes “The most detrimental place of which I know, as far as women are concerned, is the Eagle Tavern in the City-road”. The Eagle was a goldmine for the various proprietors and ‘the place to be’ before the great-great-grandparents of today’s current Hoxton hotsteppers were even born.
In 1882 The Eagle, often referred to as ‘The Bird’ by its patrons, was purchased by the Salvation Army. That was the day the music died, along with the laughter and the songs. The Army had effectively occupied the Eagle and even issued a commemorative medal celebrating the coup. The stage had played host to local songstress Marie Lloyd, and Frederick Robson’s first performance as a comedic performer. Robson performed his way around the London theatre circuit and would have been performing at the Theatre Royal circa 1856 when the first reference to The Eagle was made in the nursery rhyme Pop Goes The Weasel. The pop of the weasel illustrated the sound made every time a drinker opened their fashionable weasel lined purse to buy another drink at the bar.
Luckily for us today, The Eagle was wrestled from the clutches of the sobriety soldiers and reopened as a pub in 1901. Whilst the exterior of the building has changed since its heyday, the legacy of the pub is enough to inspire the name of a nearby muti-million pound art deco apartment building on City Road. Not many pubs are given a shout out by a nursery rhyme, and many landlords will be green with envy wishing their boozer had been given the Dickens treatment afforded to this Hoxton watering hole. However, The Eagle today is modest in its infamy, with a laid back vibe, tasty pub grub and a decent sized patio garden.
As with all 19th century and early 20th century party venues and pleasure gardens, The Eagle started with good intentions but fell fowl of the temptations of vice and into favour of drunks, gamblers, hookers and thieves. Recent decades have seen a rapid re-gentrification of the area and sure enough the ‘pops’ are returning to Shoreditch – the pops of purses, champagne corks, and diners belt buckles. Next time you’re in the area ‘Up and down the City Road, in and out The Eagle’ just remember you’re not the first, and won’t be the last, as ‘Pop goes the weasel’.