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The International Writers Magazine: London Secrets

Wilton’s Music Hall
Susan Radcliffe
If you think London theatre is all about the neon lights and the velvet curtains of the West End, think again.  If you really want to experience something special, find your way to Wilton’s Music Hall in East London.


You have to go looking for this theatre, but it’s well worth it.  It’s hidden up an alleyway in a bleak area of the city, bordered by the river and the railway tracks.  If you didn’t know better, you’d probably hurry past its cracked and crumbling façade, thinking it was nothing more than another derelict building.   But you would have just walked past the oldest surviving Grand Music Hall in the world.       

It didn’t always have such a low profile.  When it opened in 1859, it was known as the “handsomest room in town”, with its ornate painted plasterwork and spectacular chandelier.  It was filled every night with sailors and labourers from the docks, as well as toffs from the West End in search of a good time.  The international visitors spread the word about the place and at the height of its fame it was a better known London landmark than St Paul’s Cathedral.

Wilton Music Hall It was a place of brash and bawdy entertainment.  The punters got in for the price of a pie and a beer and they sat at tables in the auditorium, drinking, heckling, shouting and cheering.

The acts were short and varied – you might see a singer, followed by an acrobat, followed by a man who eats rats out of his top hat.  They even attempted to bring high culture to the masses, with opera singers dashing over from Covent Garden to take a turn.  But the rough and ready music hall crowds much preferred to hear a naughty song with a good chorus that they could sing along with.  Although it was a gritty place, both men and women who lived nearby came along to see the shows.  Prostitutes strutted along the balcony, waving and whistling to their clients down below.  The audience was loud and not afraid to let the acts know what they thought of them.  Fights often broke out and a man was once beaten to death in his seat by a performer he had booed. 

The lively music hall days were brought to an end in 1880 when new fire regulations meant that Wilton’s had to close.  It had gained a reputation as a place of sin and vice, and ironically, the building was then taken over by a Methodist Mission.  It continued to be an important place for the local community, but in a very different way.  Instead of providing entertainment, it provided support.  During the first Dockers’ Strike of 1889, the Methodists helped the struggling families by serving 2000 meals a day in the hall.  In 1936, it was used a safe house for Eastenders who were protesting against fascism, refusing to let Edward Mosley’s Blackshirts march through their streets.  During the Blitz, the building provided shelter for local people who had been bombed out of their homes. 

The Methodists moved out in 1956 and the hall was used as a warehouse for a time, neglected and left to rot.  It was scheduled for demolition in the 1960’s, but saved after a campaign by Sir John Betjeman, the famous English writer.  It took many years and much fundraising to get the hall back into a useable state.   In the meantime, it was used as a filming location for pop videos and movies.  In the 1980’s, Frankie Goes to Hollywood shot their notoriously rude video for “Relax” here.  In the 1990’s, Tom Cruise filmed here for Interview with a Vampire.  The first public performance was staged in 1997, at a time when the auditorium had been empty for more than 100 years. 

Wilton’s was gradually renovated and brought back into use as a theatre and as a centre for the local community.  The building needed a lot of care and attention and is still in a semi-derelict state.  It is looked after by a trust and all the profits from performances go back into trying to preserve Wilton’s for future generations. 

As well as being a theatrical venue, the music hall now hosts cinema evenings for local women and educational projects for children. If you want to hear more about the fascinating life of this building, you can take a guided tour.  You will learn about its chequered history as well as exploring its higgledy-piggledy structure.  Wilton’s was built behind a row of terraced houses.  It was put up quickly and without consultation, so the neighbours woke up one morning to find their gardens had been replaced by a huge music hall!  The downstairs rooms in the houses were where the beer and pies were served and today they have a similar function, holding the bar and restaurant.  Upstairs was once used for prostitution, but these days the rooms have a much less scandalous purpose, having been turned into offices and storage space.  The tour will take you down dark passages, up unexpected staircases and finally out onto the stage.  There is no better way to experience the magic of this amazing building.  You can find more information on the website -  There, you can also see details of what else is going on at Wilton’s.  There’s a varied programme of events including music, plays, lectures, magic shows and operas.  So, something of the original music hall spirit survives, with a variety of acts taking to the stage.

Today, the paint is peeling and the walls are crumbling on the “handsomest room in town”.  But the hall retains a sense of faded elegance and it seems right that you can see the cracks in the ceiling and the holes in the floorboards.  Like an old actress who is aging gracefully without plastic surgery, Wilton’s has an expressive face that allows you to see her age, her history.  The atmosphere adds something extra to every performance I have seen there, and I keep going back.  Once you have discovered Wilton’s I’m sure you’ll want to do the same.

Writer Bio
Susan Radcliffe is a travel writer who lives in London. Working for hotel price comparison site, she enjoys sharing her knowledge of attractions, things to do, hotels and accommodation with visitors to the city. At TubeHotels Susan creates and edits all information on London theatre hotels and theatre venues.

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