Wilton's History and
"This is the most important surviving early music hall to be seen anywhere......It is of outstanding architectural and archaeological significance" The Theatres Trust
What Wilton’s is Today
Wilton’s has been a producing venue since 2004 and produces imaginative, distinctive work that has roots in the early music hall tradition but reinterpreted for an audience of today. This means presenting a diverse and distinct programme from opera, to puppetry, to classical music, to cabaret, to dance and even magic. Situated at the heart of the historic East End within easy walking distance from The Tower of London, the River 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.
From Ale House to Concert Room (1743-1843)
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.
The Concert Room Becomes the Music Hall (1850-1880)
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. 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.
Methodism’s Finest Hall (1888-1956)
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. In 1888 Wilton’s was bought by 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.
Wilton’s post World War II
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 Sellars and Spike Milligan and was grade 2* listed in 1971. However it remained empty and fell derelict from 1956 onwards, suffering much structural damage and decay. It started to reopen as a theatre and concert hall in 1997. Frances Mayhew, the current 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. Over the last decade or so she has been bringing the building back to life, brick by brick, audience member by audience member, penny by penny. Now this stunning Music Hall is a thriving arts and heritage venue entertaining thousands of people each year. The Wilton’s Team has successfully fundraised to secure the fabric of the building and will start phase 2 of the repair works in April 2014. There will be an exciting interim arts programme called The Chrysalis Club while the building works are underway, the theatre will not close at any point.
Do you have a memory or photograph of Wilton's from before 1999 or know someone who does? Maybe you have an interesting story about the local area? We are collecting memories and would love to hear from you. Email Wilton's Historian, Carole, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To find out more about the history of Wilton's Music Hall come to one of our
regular guided tours: see the What's On section above or call the Box Office
on 0207 702 2789 for upcoming dates.