Wilton's Music Hall
- Original design
- Jacob Maggs, 1859
- Tim Ronalds Architects, 2015
The 2017 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2018 programme in July.
The oldest music hall in London to survive in its original form, complete with papier-mâché balconies, barley sugar iron columns and unique atmosphere.
Wilton’s is the oldest surviving music hall in the world. Here in the 1860s, classical overtures, opera and operetta, choral, contemporary and folk songs were enormously popular, long before ‘old time music hall’ evolved. It is still a hall with fine acoustics and a place to appreciate music, drama, and the story of music hall and Victorian life.
John Wilton built this Hall behind his public house, The Mahogany Bar, in Graces Alley. The Bar was famous as the prototype of our traditional pub, the first to use mahogany fittings. Wilton’s was dedicated as a “Temple to Apollo” and described as the “Handsomest Room in Town”. A chandelier sun-burner with 300 gas jets and 27,000 cut crystals dominated a mirrored hall where George Leybourne, better known as Champagne Charlie, sang songs that we still enjoy. Although the bar and chandelier are gone, the hall is much as it was 135 years ago. Original cast iron ‘barley sugar’ pillars support papier-mâché balconies under paper roses set in a vaulted roof.
Unable to meet fire regulations, the hall became a Mission in 1885 and kept the name ‘The Old Mahogany Bar’ until 1956. In the first dock strike of 1898 it served 2,000 meals a day and in World War II gave shelter to a badly blitzed community. By 1964 it was a rag warehouse when John Betjeman campaigned to stop its demolition.
Ken Russell directed Vanessa Redgrave as ‘Isadora’ at Wiltons and Richard Attenborough filmed here for ‘Chaplin’. Neil Jordan shot Tom Cruise here for ‘Interview with a Vampire’ and Annie Lennox recreated the world of Toulouse Lautrec in Wilton’s for her video ‘No more I love yous’.
In November 1998, Broomhill Opera was granted a long lease to operate and run the venue to an agreed temporary capacity of 300 seats. In the ensuing months, basic remedial works were undertaken on the building in order that Broomhill could occupy it and a temporary licence be obtained. The works included performer access to the stage, strengthening and making safe the balcony, fire separation for escape routes, basic electrical works and some heating. These works were undertaken by the local community as an act of sponsorship in kind, valued at nearly £250,000.
On March 29 1999, Kurt Weil’s opera ‘The Silverlake’ opened at Wilton’s for a three week run, drawing near capacity audiences and great critical acclaim. The adaptation of the hall to house a 28-piece orchestra was a particular feature of the production.
Wilton’s is only a tiny stage and gallery built in the backyard of a pub but it is the last survivor of a 300 year tradition. Elizabethan, Restoration and Garrick’s own theatres, and early music halls grew here in East London. That tradition of live entertainment continues and hundreds who have helped preserve Wilton’s all bear witness to that fact. They include Laurence Olivier, Arthur Askey, Tommy Cooper, Tommy Trinder, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Liza Minelli, Roy Hudd and many more, locals and enthusiasts as well as the famous. All have appreciated an amazing past and worked to save Wilton’s.
In 2012, thanks to generous donations from SITA Trust, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and many other trusts and individuals, enough money was raised – just over a million pounds – to carry out part one of the Capital Project to repair the auditorium. In 2013, with generous 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 also included creating a new Learning and Participation Studio funded by the Aldgate and Allhallows Foundation.
The project was completed in September 2015 and made Wilton’s structurally sound – probably for the first time since the renovations of music hall days and after half a century of passionate campaigning.
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 was lovingly 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.