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Toynbee Studios history

Toynbee Studios was built in 1938 and was originally part of Toynbee Hall, a centre for social reform in London’s East End.

In the 1930s, with funding from actor and director Sir John Gielgud and playwright George Bernard Shaw, the studios were added to the building, providing space for art, performance and music, primarily for the use of young people and the local community. Built over four storeys, the modernist building was designed by Alister MacDonald, the son of James Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s first Labour prime minister.

The 280-seat theatre still contains many of its original features, including stained flush pine panelling, a shallow double-pitch ceiling and two murals on the proscenium wall painted in 1939, depicting Ancient Greek mythological scenes of The Furies and Pegasus and Athena. In 1946, the Toynbee Studios theatre (formerly known as the Curtain Theatre) became the first children’s theatre in Great Britain.

The Court Room was previously used as a music room and a juvenile court during the daytime. It still contains most of its Art Deco features, including pine panelled walls which are believed to have been retrieved from the wood used to build the old Waterloo Bridge, which was demolished in 1932. In addition to the Court Room, the second floor contained classrooms, a laboratory and art studios and on the top floor, a dining and recreation room.

In 1995, Artsadmin took over the lease of the building, turning the space into a centre for artistic creation and a place where artists could and present work. From the outset, Artsadmin has offered office space to artists and arts organisations as well as hiring out the studios and theatre to companies for performances and rehearsals. In 2001, Artsadmin undertook further refurbishment of the building, renovating the theatre, rehearsal spaces, the Arts Bar & Café and building the Steve Whitson Studio with a fully sprung dance floor, full-length rehearsal mirrors, barre and views across the east London skyline. 

Artsadmin has since been awarded a Green Tourism for London Gold Award for their work in greening the building, including the installation of solar panels on the roof. In 2017, Artsadmin was awarded funding to make the building more accessible for wheelchair users and has installed fully accessible toilets. Find out more on our accessibility page.

In 2019, Artsadmin was awarded £189,166 through Arts Council England’s Small Capital Grants to make Toynbee Studios even more accessible and carbon neutral by 2025. Over the coming years, we will transform Toynbee Studios into a more sustainable, digitally resilient and inclusive space for diverse artists and audiences, installing more accessible furniture and equipment, enhancing our digital resilience, and becoming renewably-powered and heated, single-use plastic-free and zero waste by 2025. With accessible working space in ever increasing demand, this grant helps us to provide better working conditions for disabled artists, arts professionals and audiences using Toynbee Studios.