Wilton’s Music Hall, London, United Kingdom

Wilton’s Music Hall is a gem in the heart of London and the oldest grand music hall in the world. It presents a year round programme of exceptional live music and world-class productions alongside learning and participation work that engages the local community and schools. 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.

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, former 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. In June 2007 the World Monuments Fund added the building to its list of the world’s “100 most endangered sites”.

Over the next decade Frances Mayhew and her team restored the building with a programme of arts and community activities and the reinstatement of The Mahogany Bar. The profile grew and in 2012, thanks to donations from SITA Trust, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and other trusts and individuals, enough money was raised – just over £1m – to carry out the first half of a Capital Project to repair the building. This first half repaired the auditorium and in 2013, with support of Heritage Lottery Fund and other donors, Wilton’s was able to raise the £2.6 million needed to begin part two of the project to repair the houses, numbers 1–4 Graces Alley and 17 Wellclose Square, which make up Wilton’s front of house. This included creating a new Learning and Participation Studio funded by the Aldgate and Allhallows Foundation. The project was completed in September 2015 leaving the building structurally secure – probably for the first time since the renovations of music hall days.

In carrying out the building work, a policy of ‘conservative repair’ has been followed which means ‘retaining genuine historic fabric and avoiding misleading restoration, so that future generations can interpret the significance for themselves in their own way, based on the physical evidence’. The work has been carried out by Fullers (Phase 1 – the Auditorium) and William Anelay (Phase 2 – the Front of House) under the careful direction of Tim Ronalds Architects, EC Harris, Bristow Johnson, Cambridge Architectural Research, Max Fordham, All Clear Designs, Ramboll UK, Carr and Angier and Wilton’s staff.

The hall is used for performances and film and photo shoots. It is owned and managed by the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust as an arts and heritage venue.

The Grade 2 Star listed building recently completed a 4 year capital project with support from Heritage Lottery Fund and numerous trusts and individuals. This project, designed by Tim Ronalds Architects, won a RIBA 2016 National Award, RIBA London Award 2016, RIBA London Conservation Award 2016 and RIBA London Building Of The Year 2016.

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 decay. It 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 repaired the five Georgian houses that make up the front half of Wilton’s, having spent decades suffering from damp, rot, subsidence, dereliction, and leaking roofs. Phase 2 commenced in July 2014 and was completed in late 2015.

In February 2016 Wilton’s Music Hall was shortlisted in the ‘Building Conservation’ category of the RICS Awards 2016, London.