30 Apr 2013

Roll out the barrel

Saved from dereliction, Wilton’s Music Hall is becoming a thriving music and theatre venue. David Adams discovers an auditorium echoing with East End history

Is there anywhere else in Britain so vibrant and unpredictable as the East End of London? This part of the city is in a state of constant flux, created in part by the energies of the many different immigrant communities who have lived and worked here over the centuries, but also by the regeneration of the area during the past 20 years. Its streets and buildings are forever being replaced or reinvented – yet reminders of its history are everywhere.

Wilton’s Music Hall, in Grace’s Alley, off Cable Street, provides a perfect illustration. Here stands a row of Georgian townhouses, in varying states of repair, and a scuffed, carved stone archway, guarding two battered wooden doors. This is the entrance to Wilton’s, one of London’s most evocative buildings: hidden behind the houses is a Victorian music hall.
Inside, the bare brick walls are decorated with playbills for previous shows and with Victorian ephemera such as a poster for a toothache cure based on cocaine. At the back of the building, the atmospheric music hall auditorium is a wonderful space, with its high, elegant ceiling, scarred walls and the beautiful helical cast iron columns that support the balcony.


There were prostitutes here, as there were in all theatres. One journalist said the Wilton’s girls were ‘more wholesome and straightforward looking than the harlots of the Haymarket’

That this building, erected in 1859, still stands, defying decades of neglect, repeated redevelopment of the surrounding area and the bombs of the Blitz, is a delightful miracle. Today, the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust has completed the first phase of a major restoration project, repairing the roof, installing new electrical, plumbing and heating systems and soundproofing the hall for the first time. Wilton’s is now a venue for a broad range of modern, folk, operatic, classical and other music and drama, showcasing performers from all over the world; and a heritage and educational facility for the local community.

The trust receives no regular funding from the Arts Council or local authority. Instead, ticketing income is supplemented with money earned through hiring out parts of the building for photo, film and TV shoots (recent examples include the second Sherlock Holmes film, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law; and Stephen Poliakoff’s TV drama Dancing on the Edge); and for weddings and private functions.

The story of Wilton’s begins with a pub. In the early 18th century Grace’s Alley stood on the north side of Wellclose Square, home to wealthy merchants and ships’ captains. There was an alehouse on this site from the early 18th century. In 1828 the landlord refurbished it with elaborate mahogany fittings and it became the Mahogany Bar. It was said that sailors from all over the world whose ships docked in London might not recognise St Paul’s Cathedral, but could find their way to the Mahogany Bar. Today that part of the building is a bar once more, sadly bereft of those opulent fittings, but still retaining a comfortable ambience.

In 1839 a concert room was built behind the pub, licensed as the Albion Saloon Theatre. John Wilton bought the business in 1850 and started to build a new music hall in 1859. Designed by Jacob Maggs, it was furnished with all the finery of a West End theatre: mirrors, decorative paintwork and state-of-the-art heating, lighting and ventilation.

Carole Zeidman, resident historian and researcher at Wilton’s, says Wilton was credited by his neighbours with improving the reputation of the area, which had become less salubrious during the first half of the 19th century. He was effectively trying to turn a rowdy sailors’ pub into a more respectable establishment.

“He was always striving to keep crime from spilling in from the streets,” says Zeidman. “There were prostitutes here, as there were in all the theatres. But there is an account from a journalist who said the girls here were ‘more wholesome and straightforward looking than the harlots of the Haymarket’.”

The music hall was successful for most of the next 30 years, despite several changes of ownership (Wilton sold up in 1870); and a serious fire in 1877. Standing in the auditorium it’s exciting to imagine what it would have been like to be in the audience in those days. Today only about 300 people are seated for a performance, but audiences for the music hall sometimes numbered more than 1,000 in its heyday, crammed into stalls and balcony, on benches, around tables, or standing. Wilton himself often served as chairman, leading community singing, introducing acts and keeping order; “and encouraging people to drink – but not too much!” says Zeidman.

Famous performers who appeared here include George Ware, who wrote one of the first great music hall hits, The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery; Arthur Lloyd and George Leybourne (Champagne Charlie), who would become two of the first music hall stars to perform for royalty (Bertie, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII).

Some of the action took place above the audience: the trapeze artist Madame Senyah (possibly not as exotic as she would have liked us to think: read Senyah backwards) swung from the ledge at the back of the balcony across the full length of the hall.

By the end of the 1880s Wilton’s was in decline, as newer music halls stole its audience and social and economic conditions in the East End deteriorated. There is a story about a group

They fell down on their knees… and… prayed that God would break the power of the devil in the place”.

 of Methodist missionaries walking into the hall and being so shocked by what they saw that “[they] fell down on their knees… and… prayed that God would break the power of the devil in the place”.

Their prayers were answered. In 1888 Wilton’s was purchased by the East London Methodist Mission and was renamed the Mahogany Bar Mission. The Mahogany Bar itself became a coffee parlour. For almost 70 years the Mission served this deprived community. During the Great Dock Strike of 1889 a soup kitchen here served 1,000 meals each day. Organisations such as the local Boys’ Brigade and Mothers’ Sewing Circles met here down the years. The Methodists also took local children on trips and holidays in the countryside. “There are touching accounts of these outings,” says Zeidman. “People would remember them all of their lives – it was a rare chance to see green fields.”

In 1956 the Methodists left and the decaying shell of the building became a rag warehouse – there are stories of local children sneaking into the warehouse and bouncing around on the huge piles of rags that filled the auditorium. But the late 1950s saw a gradual reawakening of interest in music hall and in Victorian architecture, in part because so many fine old buildings were being demolished in the name of progress. The efforts of individuals including music hall historian John Earl, writer and actor Peter Honri and the poet Sir John Betjeman helped to save Wilton’s from destruction.

Instead the GLC bought the building, which was listed in 1971. A campaign to reopen it was supported by prominent figures in the entertainment world, including Roy Hudd, Peter Sellers, Liza Minnelli and Spike Milligan, who persuaded the BBC to help him recreate an evening at Wilton’s for TV, broadcast on Boxing Day 1970. But as ownership of the building passed from one charitable trust to another over the next 40 years, little of the work needed to protect the fabric of the building was completed. Wilton’s did finally reopen as a venue in 1997, but parts of the building remained derelict.

The Wilton’s Music Hall Trust took over in 2004. Its current artistic director, Frances Mayhew, had come here as a student and returned as an intern in 1999. Within five years her passion for the building had made her the effective leader of the campaign to secure its future. The trust finally bought the freehold in 2012.

It now has eight full-time and four part-time staff, along with a large pool of volunteers and interns. It will be recruiting again if successful with a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a public fundraising campaign is now under way to help pay for the next phase of restoration, to repair parts of the Georgian houses at the front of the building. Reopening these areas will allow the trust to expand outreach and heritage activities involving local young people. This seems apt: the reborn Wilton’s will combine elements of both the music hall and the Methodist mission. It’s just another example of how the old and the new overlap in the East End; and nowhere more so than within this unique building.

Other restored 19th century venues

 The Malt Cross, Nottingham
The Malt Cross, near the Old Market Square, was built in 1877 on the site of a former inn by a local architect, Edwin Hill. The original plan had been for a public house with a skating rink until the sudden increase in popularity of music halls persuaded the backers to add a stage.
Famous performers to have appeared here include Little Tich, a 4ft 6in clown whose comic influence continued to be felt throughout the 20th century, in, for example, Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. It is also possible that Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, was “exhibited” here during the 1880s. Its license was revoked in 1914, when a magistrate declared it a place where “felons and whores” carried out acts of “villany and lechery”.
Today The Malt Cross is the headquarters of a local Christian charity and also a café bar, which hosts various arts and music events.

Birmingham Town Hall
This venue was built to house the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival in the early 19th century. At the start of the 21st century, after a £49m refurbishment, it is still a concert hall.
The building was designed by Edward Welch and Joseph Hansom (creator of the Hansom cab). However, Hansom was declared bankrupt before it was completed and two workmen were killed when a crane collapsed. Another architect, Charles Edge, was later hired to correct structural problems.
The hall is built in brick and limestone and is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome. It has witnessed many memorable and historic performances over the years, including public readings by Charles Dickens and the premiere of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

Royal Hall, Harrogate
The Royal Hall has only been so-called since 1914, when its name was changed from the unpatriotically German-sounding Kursaal. The Kursaal (Cure Hall) was built as part of the development of Harrogate as a spa town.
Intended to be used for special receptions and ceremonies, it was designed by Robert Beale and Frank Matcham. Unique features include an ambulatory, allowing audience members upstairs to walk all the way around the hall; and hollow pillars supporting the balcony, which were connected to the basement to form a natural air conditioning system.,