Wilton's Music Hall
|1828 Prince of Denmark Public House
1839 Mahogany Bar
1878 Frederick's Royal Palace of Varieties
The entrance to Wilton's Music Hall on Graces Alley
|Address||Graces Alley, Cable Street
Tower Hamlets, London
|Owner||Wilton's Music Hall Trust|
|Designation||Grade II* listed|
|Type||Saloon music hall|
|Capacity||300 hall and gallery|
|Rebuilt||1878 J. Buckley Wilson
1979-89 Peter Newson
|Years active||1859 - 1888
1999 - present
Wilton's Music Hall is a Grade II* listed building, built as a music hall and now run as a multi-arts performance space in Graces Alley, off Cable Street in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It is one of very few surviving music halls and retains many original features.
Wilton's has been a producing venue since 2004. It produces imaginative, distinctive work that has roots in the early music hall tradition but reinterpreted for an audience of today, which means presenting a diverse and distinct programme including opera, puppetry, classical music, cabaret, dance, and magic. Situated at the heart of the historic East End within easy walking distance from The Tower of London, the River Thames and the City, it is a focus for theatrical and East End history, as well as a living theatre, concert hall, public bar and heritage site.
The venue is currently undergoing an extensive programme of restoration work. Completion is aimed for late 2015. The theatre will not close at any point while the building works are under way: instead there will be an interim arts programme called The Chrysalis Club.
Wilton's is a unique building comprising a mid-19th Century grand music hall attached to an 18th Century terrace of three houses and a pub. Originally an alehouse dating from 1743 or earlier, it may well have served the Scandinavian sea captains and wealthy merchants who lived in neighbouring Wellclose Square. From c.1826, it was also known as The Mahogany Bar, reputedly 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 in 1843 it was licensed for a short time as The Albion Saloon, a saloon theatre, legally permitted to put on full-length plays. John Wilton bought the business in c.1850, enlarged the concert room three years later, and replaced it with his 'Magnificent New Music Hall' in 1859.
Wilton's was built by Jacob Maggs, on the same site as the former concert room of the Albion Saloon. The hall could accommodate 1,500 people, most of whom were working-class. The bar was retained as the public entrance, and the hall was built in the area behind the existing block of houses. This was common practice at the time, as street frontage for music halls was very expensive. 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. In the thirty years Wilton's was a music hall, many of the best-remembered acts of early popular entertainment performed here, 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.
Wilton's passed into several ownerships during the 1870s before being destroyed by fire in 1877. An eight-year rebuild commenced that year before the building was bought by the East End Mission of the Methodist Church. Towards the end of the 19th Century the East End had become notorious for extreme poverty and terrible living conditions. Religious organisations tried to help. The East London Methodist Mission, renamed The Mahogany Bar Mission and for some time considered '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.
The church ceased in 1956 and Wilton's briefly became a rag storage warehouse. After the Second World War the area was subject to local authority compulsory purchase and scheduled for demolition as part of the slum clearance schemes of the 1960s. The Methodists had to leave and Wilton's was scheduled for demolition. Fortunately a campaign was started to save the building with support from persons such as Sir John Betjeman, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Wilton's was given the protection of Grade II* listed building status in April 1971 and was bought by the Greater London Council who preserved it until 1999 when it was leased to Broomhill Opera Company until 2004.
Wilton's reopened as a theatre and concert hall in 1997. Frances Mayhew, the current Managing and Artistic Director took over the building in 2004, having worked previously at Wilton's in the late 90s as an intern. It was again derelict and in debt. Over the last decade or so she has been bringing the building back to life. In June 2007 the World Monuments Fund added the building to its list of the world's "100 most endangered sites".
Today, the hall is used for many kinds of performances and film and photo shoots. It is owned and managed by the Wilton's Music Hall Trust as a thriving arts and heritage venue entertaining thousands of people each year.
The theatre is an unrestored example of the 'giant pub hall'. In the theatre, a single gallery, on three sides and supported by 'barley sugar' cast iron pillars, rises above a large rectangular hall and a high stage with a proscenium arch. In its heyday, a 'sun-burner' chandelier of 300 gas jets and 27,000 cut crystals, illuminated a mirrored hall. Today, charring is still visible in the rafters, where the chimney exhausted the heat of this massive device. The hall would have had space for supper tables, a benched area, and promenades around the outside for standing customers.
Wilton's was modelled on many other successful London halls of the time, including the second Canterbury Hall (1854) in Lambeth, Evans Music-and-Supper Rooms (1856) in Covent Garden, and Weston's (1857) (later known as 'The Royal Holborn'). Wilton's remains the only surviving example.
After years of under-investment, the venue was in a state of near terminal decay. The Music Hall was featured on the BBC television series Restoration in 2003 as a nominee for the south-east segment of the show, alongside Broomfield House in Enfield and Darnley Mausoleum in Kent. The building won the South West category, with the series' overall winner announced as Victoria Baths in Manchester.
Since the Wilton's Music Hall Trust took over ownership in 2004, restoration has made steady progress and the building is in much better shape.
Phase 1 of the Capital Project Works was finished in February 2013 with completion of repairs to the auditorium. Phase 2 is to repair the five Georgian houses that make up the front half of Wilton's. They are suffering from damp, rot, subsidence, dereliction, and leaking roofs. Phase 2 commenced in July 2014 and is due to be completed late in 2015.
- Graces Alley is named after the former Cistercian house that stood on the site, known as St Mary of Graces, founded in 1350, by Edward III in gratitude for the naval victory at Sluis. Between 1348-9, the district had been used as one of the City of London's main plague pits.
- Baker, p. 113
- Historic England. "Details from listed building database (206024)". Images of England. Retrieved 9 December 2008.
- In praise of Wilton's music hall The Guardian, 8 June 2007
- Building News 15 April 1859
- Baker, Richard, Anthony (2005). British Music Hall: An Illustrated History. London: Sutton Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7-509-3685-1.
- John Earl and Michael Sell Guide to British Theatres 1750-1950, pp. 147–8 (Theatres Trust, 2000) ISBN 0-7136-5688-3
- Peter Honri John Wilton’s Music Hall, The Handsomest Room in Town (1985)
- Diana Howard London Theatres and Music Halls 1850-1950 (1970)
- Wilton's Music Hall (Official Website)
- Wilton's Music Hall (Twitter Page)
- Wilton's Music Hall (Facebook Page)
- Wilton's Music Hall (Instagram)
- Theatres Trust database entry
- Interview with Frances Mayhew, Artistic & Managing Director of Wilton’s Music Hall (Spitalfields Life blog)
- Interview with David Mason, Past Resident of Wilton’s Music Hall (Spitalfields Life blog)
- Wilton's Theatre History (Arthur Lloyd site)
- Wilton's Music Hall Posters held by the University of East London's East London Theatre Archive]
- IMDB List of Movies & TV Programmes Filmed at Wilton's Music Hall
- 2003 BBC Restoration candidates
- The Somnambulist: a novel by Essie Fox and published by Orion Books, which features Wilton's Music Hall http://www.essiefox.com