Jaunt to Wilton’s Music Hall, Aldgate, London.
Wiltons Music Hall, in the East End of London is, I believe, the oldest surviving music hall in the world and is a hidden gem that’s well worth discovering. It’s only a short walk from the Tower of London but is concealed in tiny Graces Alley, not far from the famous – or perhaps infamous – Cable Street where the Battle of Cable Street took place on 04 October 1936 between East Enders protesting against a march by Sir Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts and police who were attempting to clear the way for the marchers.
Anyway, if you’re visiting London and you come across the red plaque above, you’re about two minutes’ walk to Graces Alley!
If you’re really interested, Wiltons Music Hall periodically run tours of the site and I can heartily recommend it. For more information from their website, click here.
Wilton’s began life as five houses – 1 to 4 Graces Alley and 19 Wellclose Square. In the 1600s, Graces Alley consisted of individual houses, the largest of which – No. 1 – became an ale house, dating from the first half of the 18th century. It was called The Prince of Denmark and it was frequented by many of the Scandinavian seamen who came to the nearby London Docks. Later, it became known as The Mahogany Bar, supposedly because the landlord installed a mahogany bar and fittings. In 1839, a concert room was built behind the pub and four years later, it was licensed as the Albion Saloon, a saloon theatre which was permitted to stage full-length plays.
John Wilton and his wife, Ellen, bought the business around 1850 and he replaced the concert room with a music hall which opened in 1859. He furnished the hall with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintwork, even installing the finest heating.
By the early 1860s theatres were being built in the West End and John Wilton, perhaps suspecting his hall might not be able to compete, sold up early in 1868 and opened a West End restaurant. The music hall carried on under a number of different proprietors for another thirteen years until 1877 when a serious fire in the hall left just the four walls and the ten barley twist columns that still support the balcony today. The hall was rebuilt and refurbished the following year but in 1881, Wilton’s Music Hall closed its doors – possibly because the rebuild didn’t conform to fire regulations brought in that year. In the thirty years Wilton’s was a music hall, many of the best remembered acts of early popular entertainment performed there, from George Ware who wrote The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery to Arthur Lloyd and George Leybourne, two of the first music hall stars to perform for royalty. When George Leybourne performed his comic song Champagne Charlie, it was to a sell-out audience of more than fifteen hundred people.
In 1888, Wiltons was bought by the East London Methodist Mission who renamed the building ‘The Mahogany Bar Mission’ and used it to help the people of the East End, many of whom lived in extreme poverty. During the Great Dock Strike of 1889, a soup kitchen was set up which provided thousands of meals a day to starving dockers’ families.
The mission remained open for almost 70 years during which time, the Methodists campaigned against social injustices and supported the local community – particularly needy children.
The main reason I’m so interested in Wiltons is because during the 1930s, my father used to go there to the youth club which was run by the Methodists. In fact, he represented the club at table tennis, playing in the international finals in the Albert Hall. One one occasion, he was playing a ball game in the hall, dived for the ball and knocked himself out on one of the barley twist pillars which gave him two lumps on his forehead!
The photo below shows the canteen just before the war and if you know where to look, you can see my father and his twin brother!
Dad was very sad when the Mission closed in 1956 and the building became a rag sorting warehouse with rags piled from the floor up to the balcony – a factor which may have supported them when the building was left to decay. However, a campaign was launched to save the building and it has been restored with much love to its current state. The mahogany bar has disappeared but our guide told us that when a film was being shot there, the film company installed a wooden bar and after they’d finished filming, it remained.
The tour around Wiltons took about an hour and for me, it was wonderful to know I was in a place which held such fond memories for my father. But it was also fascinating to learn more of the building’s history too.
Definitely well worth a visit!
And it still stages plays, so if you’d like to see a performance there, visit the site and find out what’s on by clicking here.