Wiltons Music Hall

On Saturday evening, Mr Bluebird and I struck out East.  Beyond the psuedo-vintage tiles and cobbles of Hoxton and Shoreditch, beyond the imposing directness of the Great Tower of London and onwards still, into murky East London-ness, held up only by the crowd of schaudenfraude – seeking tourists who meet nightly at Tower Hill Tube for the bloody Jack the Ripper walk.  Seeking further fields east that Ripper Jack’s heartland, we crossed Cable Street, heavy and damp with history, and swerved into Ensign Street.  From there we turned left into the pedestrian-only Graces Alley, which took us to Wilton’s Music Hall, the oldest grand music hall still standing in the world.

Of course we didn’t.  We are North Londoners.  We took a cab.  We had not a clue how else to get there.

Wilton’s Music Hall stands somewhere between Shadwell and Wapping, and appears as an anachronism; a 1850s building in an alleyway with buildings on one side and Wapping Junior School on the other, a building that is hugged by 1980s neo-Georgian flat developments and passed by quizzical Londoners, some of whom – even the locals – unaware what is inside.  What is inside is a grand music hall founded by John Wilton in 1858, and managed by him until his death in 1880.  Since then it has served as sanctuary, soup kitchen, concert hall, rag sorting depot and community centre. It wasn’t until a long-running preservation campaign in the 1960s, headed by that trailblazer of Victorian architectural preservation, John Betjeman, that the building finally gained listed status in 1971.  One wonders how any near deaths it may have had.  It is now listed as one of 100 “most endangered sites” worldwide by the World Monuments Fund.  Putting an actual figure to the value of the building, both its cultural and financial value, would be impossible.

Some buildings have a power; a strange sense of history, something inarticulable that makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand to attention, and the mind instantly connect to the knowledge that other human beings have walked, breathed, shaken raindrops from coats, kissed and argued in this space before, and they’ve left something of themselves behind.  Well, Wiltons has buckets of the stuff.  The air is thick with knowledge of the past.  The Mahogany Bar within dates back to 1828, when it was originally known as the King of Denmark Public House.  It took the name the Mahogany Bar in about 1839, and was fully incorporated into the concert room (later Music Hall) in the rest of the building in 1850 or thereabouts.  It crouches on the ground floor,  off to the right from the small, flag-stoned entrance hall.  This bar is frequently closed off and redressed for television and feature film shooting, as its interior is alarmingly , evocatively Victorian.  Bare brick seems to be fighting for survival in small grey arches throughout the place, there are free-standing wooden bar tables, not enough chairs and a vast, tall 19th century bar with drinks sold at the kind of cheap prices I have never known in London before.  Going back to the flagstone entrance hall, where the air smells of 1860 and where, at this event, the girl at the ticket desk was dressed in 1920s wig and costume (more of that later), two small corridors run off either side of the central staircase that leads to The Gallery.  Down one of the small corridors is a tiny anteroom, dark and seemingly without purpose.  Down the other are the  makeshift loos, the foundation stone laid in 1858 spied just outside the Ladies, where it was originally lain by John Wilton’s wife.  It is peculiar to come into this building from the strident, modern crush of East London.  To travel past the Gherkin and the glass-fronted grey offices of Tower Bridge, from the Pret A Mangers of Eastcheap and find Wilton’s Music Hall is like falling into a slightly delicious, mucky Victorian alternative reality.  The rooms are elegantly sized, the proportions speak of an eloquence of another age, albeit a shabby sort of elegance.

The evening of our first trip to Wilton’s involved going to see a theatrical production of The Great Gatsby.  The website had suggested the production was “immersive”, thereby encouraging it’s patrons to dress accordingly.  This put another layer of historical weirdness on top of Wilton’s. Over its base of hardened Victorian grime was ladled a series of feather boas, chaps in white tie, ladies out on group outings with other ladies in flapper dresses, in gold T-bar shoes worn over black fishnets, of feather boas, of young Londoners in tweed jackets and innocent bow ties.  In the Mahogany Bar, two young men sat, each in white tie evening dress, spats, with hair slicked back and slowly sipping from Martini glasses, discussing something intently (no doubt, the new Evelyn Waugh or similar) in an image straight out of the 1920s. The narrative of The Great Gatsby, with its accent on the sham under the expensive leather, of the corruption that rich men build themselves on, on the inevitability of the futility of recapturing long ago dreams, suited the building.  Like Gatsby, Wilton’s may tumble and fall at any moment if anyone fired a shot in the right direction, but this evening nothing seemed further from that fact, bravely putting actors outside, two of them, dressed as Chicago gangsters, with great black overcoats slung over their shoulders, carrying ominous looking violin cases and firing menacing glances at the patrons giggling at them whilst gingerly eating their Boston beans, slaw and American hot dogs that the bar had laid on for the production.

Upstairs, things were stranger.  On one side at the top of the stairs was the entrance to the gallery, on the other side – if you turned right and essentially double-backed on yourself so that you were standing above the cramped entrance hall – was a further reception area, selling spats at £10 each, two Charleston dancers, hired for the event, and a “speakeasy” from which Hendricks Gin-based cocktails were dispensed to the crowds of theatregoers, in a dusty, small room which looked more like a Lascar’s smoking den from The Mystery of Edwin Drood than a theatrical bar.  It had, in fact, once been John Wilton’s bedroom, and one can only imagine his confusion had he been here to see blonde ladies in 1920s headbands and fur coats drinking champagne whilst texting avidly on iPhones.  After two gin-based thingummies – cocktails named after one of the characters in the play, and tasting a bit thin and weak for my liking – it was a delight to see the two heavies from outside, laying down their violin cases and starting to put on their own show – shouting avidly at each other in Chicago accents, peering over the tables, showing ladies rude postcards from the 1890s, and exhibiting their card tricks.  The patrons enjoyed this hugely.  The strangeness of this room was evidenced by its context; here we had a series of hatted, monocled, cocktail enthusiasts, sitting in the musty windows of this ancient room and beyond the windows there were 1980s apartment buildings, the ever-present office lights of the City of London, the modern, grey slant of it all – all of which, from here, looked like a theatrical set, rather than reality.

The play was absolutely appalling and the person who wrote it should be shot, but there you go.  These things happen.  Mostly I enjoyed the view; the shabby grandeur of the central music hall was an absolute delight , butter yellow walls were marked by smoky scarring of the first chandelier here, which astonishingly, had 300 gas jets.  This massive chandelier reflected onto walls that were at the time mainly mirrored.  You can only imagine the riot of light that it brought.  I don’t know if the fire that destroyed much of the building in 1877 was down to this massive ball of fire in the middle of the ceiling, though.  The proportions were quaintly elegant – I shouldn’t think the downstairs holds more than 150 people – but the intrinsic beauty of the design shines through the vast patches of damp on the upper right hand side of the auditorium and what must be remarkable lighting and electricity provisions.  The acoustics are shouty and hollow – this is not a room for acting.  This is a room for music, for gallantry, for robust rhymes shouted over flicking gaslights and raucous singing.  The play was so awful that after a while I stopped listening to it and listened to the building instead.  The best part was at the end of the interval (thankfully, a long interval, given the amount of business the bar was doing.  Theatrical intervals usually last for a quick glass of wine and half a cigarette and are never long enough).  At the end of the interval, when bobbed flappers and office boys in pinstripe braces were gathering for the second act, the actors led an impromptu Charleston lesson on the stage, which was instantly filled by 1920s wannabees joining in.  The very act of dressing up in another time was attuned to the spirit of the building, I thought, as youngsters high on chemical consolation of cocktails, flapped the evening away.

This sense of historical theatrical detail has its own pulse and its own majesty.  Considering the violent, scarred and bloody history of the East End, it is nothing short of a miracle that this music hall has still survived.  It is a truly magical place.  However, Wilton’s is a building in great jeopardy, announcing last year that it needed £3million of funding to restore it, damp proof it, secure its foundations, treat its subsidence and generally give it a Music Hall makeover.  Funds of £700,000 were secured from the charity SITA earlier this year, and announced with great aplomb, but Wilton’s needs a further £2.2million to secure the building and undergo critical works to ensure its survival.  For reasons that can only be connected to the bovine brains of our political leaders, Wilton’s receives no public funding.

For those of you keen to support Wilton’s, you could become a “Friend” and pay a nominal annual fee to go towards the restoration fund, but in my mind, the best thing to do is just go there, have a drink, join one of the many tours around the building and shove whatever shekels you can afford to part with into the buckets around the venue.  The first phase of works begin at the end of June, so from that point the music hall will be closed for six months.  But the Mahogany Bar will be open for business.  Pop in for a drink, slip back in time and bask in the peculiar and sublime hues of a Victorian public bar in London, here, in 2012.   Please support this venue.

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Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday. 


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