In the heart of London’s East End, nestled between commuter train tracks and the heavy traffic of The Highway, lies a hidden gem: Wilton’s, the world’s oldest surviving grand music hall.
The hall itself is tucked away behind four shallow houses dating from the seventeenth century that now make up the box office, the Mahogany Bar and other rooms. The hall’s balcony is supported by delicately elegant barley-twist columns and there’s a soaring ceiling with just enough detail to make it interesting.
When John Wilton opened the hall in the 1850s, there were music halls around London and across the country, providing a variety of popular entertainment.
But tastes altered and the grand music hall declined. In the 1880s, Wilton’s was bought by the East London Methodist Mission and, in decades that followed, the Methodists ran a soup kitchen and supported the local community through the Cable Street riots and the Blitz.
After the Mission closed, Wilton’s struggled and crumbled, like much of the East End. The intervention of historians, John Betjeman and the Greater London Council lifted the threat of demolition and listing protected the building, but it was reaching a point where extensive repairs were becoming essential.
When I first came across Wilton’s in 2010, desks were placed around buckets to catch the water when it rained and daylight was visible through more crevices than it seems decent to recall. I only wore heels there once; it wasn’t a mistake you made twice. Stairs were rickety and exploring the back of the stage involved taking your life in your hands.
What a difference five years make – that, and a lot of fund-raising, careful work, dedication and effort by too many people to mention.
Wilton’s re-opened last week after extensive work that, delightfully, hasn’t altered its appeal one jot. The building is now structurally sound. It doesn’t flood and it doesn’t let in the elements, but the walls are still bare brick and the steps are still worn and chipped at the edges. Just as they should be. There’s still a warren of rooms to explore and there’s been no attempt to force Wilton’s to become something it wasn’t meant to be. It’s still charming.
I asked one of the staff what it’s like to work there now and she explained that brick dust is still part of life at Wilton’s, but you don’t have to clear ceiling-rubble from your desk in the morning and there are no longer gaps in the walls to let in the draughts. The genuine delight at the outcome, on the part of all the staff, was very clear to see.
The artistic programme is up and running, food’s being served and the Mahogany Bar and the Cocktail Bar are buzzing. Go – and enjoy!