Wilton’s Music Hall, known as “the city’s hidden stage”, is a beautiful Victorian music hall located in east London, the finest surviving example of an early music hall and a survivor of closure, change of use and the threat of demolition. Before the majority of the building closed for renovation work due to take around a year, I signed up for a tour.
The Hall can be found on Graces Alley, built across the backs of five early eighteenth century houses in 1859 by John Wilton. At the beginning of its life it was a place of entertainment for sailors and their women, East End men and their wives, who would come to enjoy music and comedy acts. Despite the constant threat of trouble, Wilton appears to have ruled his music hall with an iron fist, ensuring that it remained a well-conducted and safe place for respectable people to be entertained.
Years later, after Wilton had sold the hall, a fire broke out in the music hall and it was rebuilt, opening in 1878. Wilton’s still has this original stage, though it is covered over to prevent damage.
A new era for the Hall began in 1888 when the Wesleyan Methodists purchased it, renaming it ‘The Mahogany Bar Mission’ after the bar at the front of the building. This lasted over half a decade; the hall was notably used as a soup kitchen during the London Blitz and was also used as temporary accommodation for those whose houses had been bombed. The building was sold to Coppermill Rag Warehouse in 1957.
Further threats to the Hall’s survival came in the 1960s, when London County Council wanted to redevelop the area. Several individuals, including poet John Betjeman and theatre historian John Earl, persuaded the LCC to save Wilton’s from demolition and over the next few decades, fundraising, repairs and film shoots saw the Hall go from strength to strength. Since 2005 Wilton’s has been run by The Wilton’s Music Hall Trust, with an ongoing programme of drama, music, comedy, cabaret, and even ping-pong. The Mahogany Bar reopened in 2009.
The Wilton’s Capital Project, the most recent building programme, has completed Stage 1 which was to repair and improve the Hall itself. Stage 2, which is about to begin, covers the front of house and upstairs areas and the Mahogany Bar.
Wilton’s is a beautiful place and is worth visiting for the building alone. The hall in particular is just beautiful. It has a higher, shallower stage than most theatres, and a curved auditorium which was designed to ensure that everyone had a good view and could hear well. The paintwork has a ‘shabby chic’ feel about it, and the columns supporting the balcony are gorgeous twisted pillars. Definitely pay this place a visit if you can.