If you read my review of The Limehouse Golem earlier this week, you’ll remember how much of the plot revolves around a Victorian era music hall. Music Halls were once widespread around the entire country but eventually became all but extinct with the advent of cinema, television and modern day discos and clubs.
However there is one notable example music hall in East London that has quite literally soared back to life like a phoenix from the ashes. Tucked behind a row of terraces, this vast barrel-vaulted venue is the East End’s best-kept secret. Now, thanks to an overhaul that leaves the tattiness intact, a beguiling Tardis of Victoriana is open for business once more.
It’s not an easy place to find, a little alleyway off a side street, Wilton’s Music Hall incorporates all 4 of the 1690s terrace houses on Graces Alley, but once found, on walking up to the building you cannot fail to ‘feel’ the place.
Wilton’s began life as five houses – 1 to 4 Graces Alley and 19 Wellclose Square. Originally built in the 1690s as individual houses, the buildings have had various alterations and reconstructions over the years including being combined by John Wilton in the 1860s.
The largest house (1 Graces Alley) was an ale house dating from the first half of the 18th century, serving the Scandinavian sea captains and wealthy merchants who lived in neighbouring Wellclose Square.
From 1826 the ale house was also known as The Mahogany Bar supposedly because the landlord was the first to install a mahogany bar and fittings in his pub. In 1839 a concert room was built behind the pub and the building’s life as a venue began. In 1843 the ale house was licensed for a short time as The Albion Saloon – a saloon theatre, legally permitted to stage full-length plays.
John Wilton bought the business in c.1850, building his first music hall in place of the previous concert room in 1853. He then replaced it with his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’ in 1859. He furnished the hall with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintwork and installed the finest heating, lighting and ventilation systems of the day. Madrigals, glees and excerpts from opera were at first the most important part of the entertainment, along with the latest attractions from West End and provincial halls, circus, ballet and fairground.
By the early 1860s the first of the larger proto-variety theatres were being built in the West End. John Wilton may have spotted the new trend, selling up early in 1868 and opening a West End restaurant. The music hall carried on under a number of different proprietors for another thirteen years.
In 1877 a serious fire in the hall left just the four walls and the ten barley twist columns that still support the balcony. The hall was rebuilt and refurbished the following year but with hardly any change to the 1859 design. In 1881 Wilton’s Music Hall closed its doors, certainly as a respectable licensed music hall and possibly because the 1878 rebuild did not conform to fire regulations brought in that year.
In the thirty years Wilton’s was a music hall, many of the best-remembered acts of early popular entertainment performed there, from George Ware who wrote ‘The Boy I love is up in the Gallery’ to Arthur Lloyd and George Leybourne (Champagne Charlie), two of the first music hall stars to perform for royalty.
Towards the end of the 19th Century the East End had become notorious for extreme poverty and squalid living conditions. Religious organisations tried to help. In 1888 Wilton’s was bought by the East London Methodist Mission. The Methodists renamed the building ‘The Mahogany Bar Mission’ and for some time considered it ‘Methodism’s finest hall’. During the Great Dock Strike of 1889, a soup kitchen was set up at The Mahogany Bar, feeding a thousand meals a day to the starving dockers’ families.
The Mission remained open for nearly 70 years, through some of the most testing periods in East End history including the 1936 Mosley March and the London Blitz. Throughout that time the Methodists campaigned against social abuses, welcomed people of all creeds and ethnicity, and gave invaluable support to the local community, particularly the needy children of the area.
After heavy wartime bombing, many local businesses and residents left the East End. The Mahogany Bar congregation was much reduced and the Mission closed in 1956. The building was then used for several years by a rag sorting warehouse. In the early 1960s the London County Council drew up plans for demolition and redevelopment of the whole area between Cable Street and the Highway, Cannon Street Road and Ensign Street, including Wilton’s. A campaign was launched to save the building led by theatre historian John Earl who persuaded the poet John Betjeman and the newly formed British Music Hall Society to back the campaign which proved to be ultimately successful.
However, the building remained empty and in doing so suffered more structural damage and decay. The campaign to save Wilton’s gathered steam with articles in theatrical and variety journals and in 1970 Spike Milligan persuaded the BBC to produce The Handsomest Room in Town – a star-studded recreation of a night at Wilton’s Music Hall, filmed in the hall itself. The building was grade 2* listed in 1971 and in 1972 John Earl, together with Peter Honri, an actor and music hall historian, founded the first trust to raise funds to buy the lease.
A first phase of essential urgent repairs was completed in 1982 though in many ways the music hall remained very far from safe and secure. However the evident dereliction wasn’t enough to deter artists from making use of the great old building. Amongst other projects Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin 1992, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax 1984 and Annie Lennox’s No More I Love You’s 1995 were all filmed here.
In 1997 audiences were once again invited to see a performance, this time The Waste Land, performed by Fiona Shaw and directed by Deborah Warner. The production received rave reviews with many critics commenting on how suited Wilton’s was to the desolate mood of Eliot’s poem. In the middle of winter, the hall was unheated; the flyer said ‘please dress warmly’ and one journalist added ‘wear hard hats’.
In 1999, Broomhill Opera obtained the first artistic residency, opening Wilton’s more regularly to the public and they and their successors have succeeded in their goal which coupled with even more renovation means that we once more have a totally authentic Victorian era Music Hall right in the East End of London, just a short though mazey walk from The Tower of London or the infamous Whitechapel.
Wiltons’s has a full programme of exciting events as well having fine food and drink available at The Mahogany Bar and the Cocktail Bar. For those like myself who also like history, they also run a wonderful tour behind the scenes on a monthly basis. Visit their official website and travel back to Victorian London today.