The Wonder of Wilton’s

London

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Wilton’s Music Hall is a hidden London gem, a unique building and a bugger to find when you’re in a hurry and the show’s about to start. It comprises 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’s off the East End’s Cable Street, under the wing of the DLR, then down an alleyway. And yes, it looks like the picture above.

John Wilton bought the business in 1850 and opened his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’ in 1859. He furnished it with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintwork. 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 Champagne Charlie, two of the first music hall stars to perform for royalty.Wiltons Music Hall,  London

Wilton’s survived the slum clearance schemes of the 1960s and was grade 2 listed in 1971. It reopened as a theatre and concert hall in 1997. Most of London’s music halls were not so lucky, as unscrupulous property developers colluded with corrupt councils to make money. Down came history-filled halls like the Putney Hippodrome and the Camden music hall, which you see in the film ‘The London Nobody Knows’ – the sad thing is that had they not been torn down, they would now be making a fortune.

Instead of getting the gold-and-red-wallpaper treatment most theatres get when they’re fixed up, Wilton’s was restored in shabby-chic style, which is much nicer. It’s now the home of variety, opera, pop, comedy, fringe plays and art events. On Saturday night I went to see Marc Almond perform Mark Ravenhill’s ‘Ten Plagues’, a song cycle about the London plague years which I must say was one of the more painful atonal avant-garde experiences I’ve ever sat through begging to be let out of, but there’s no doubting the commitment of everyone involved in staging it.

UntitledVenues like these were once in every borough, with the concentration being in the poorest neighbourhoods, because music hall was a cheap if rowdy night out. The Ealing film about the life of Champagne Charlie was partly shot in Wilton’s, I believe. All of the other halls faced the wrecker’s ball. Open Christopher Booker’s book ‘Goodbye London’ and you’ll see a catalogue of some of the buildings that were lost to incompetence and corruption in the 1970s. The one remaining building in central London is the Cafe De Paris, and is still in operation as a club and events space.

7 comments on “The Wonder of Wilton’s”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Better Man Than I to last through “one of the atonal avant-garde experiences (you’ve) ever sat through.” I wouldn’t have lasted. Tip of the hat. Do you catty earplugs?

  2. Jo W says:

    Was the film,The London Nobody Knows, the one narrated by James Mason. Perhaps it should be re-released as The London Nobody Knew or will ever know now.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    We’ve seen the inside of the Wilton before as a survivor but this is the first of its outside. That frontage hardly looks like a public building at all, let alone a theatre. What it really looks like is a back street in some ancient Asian city.

  4. jan says:

    You’ve probably seen this venue in lots of BBC historical productions as it is widely used as a set in films as well

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Perhaps, but Admin featured it in an entry about music halls a while back.

  6. Mike Nicholson says:

    The place was recently featured – a lot – in Poliakoff’s ‘Dancing on the Edge’.

    In my days as a storyboard artist I visited it during filming of Vic and Bob’s revival of 60’s TV show ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)’ for which it was featuring – appropriately enough – as a music hall venue in the Afterlife.
    Guest star and music hall fiend Roy Hudd – dressed in the white suit of a ghost at the time – regaled me for a very entertaining half an hour about the place’s history and provenance, including snippets of old songs and some scurrilous detail about the proximity of a both a local brothel AND church hall. He had been there the day the people from the Museum of London had opened the doors on the place after decades of dereliction, in the late 60s/early 70s.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Are those ghosts in the bottom picture, or part of the R & H (Dec.)production?

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