Major refurbishment starts this month for Wilton’s Music Hall

Wilton's Music Hall, Mike Twigg

During the summer months Wilton’s main music hall will be closed for major work to tackle the flooding underneath it.  The floorboards will all be taken up and meticulously numbered so they can be put back exactly  in place when the new drainage is complete. All the original material will be reused to retain the appearance so that, promises artistic director Frances Mayhew: “No-one’s going to know a flipping thing about what’s gone on down there!”

Eight years ago the music hall was going to be repossessed and turned into a themed pub when Mayhew and her team stepped in and took on the project eight years ago. The deteriorating state of the building meant that businesses were reluctant to give grants towards regeneration.  There have been a number of fund-raising set backs over the years.  Mayhew said: “It was a real struggle and we got there!

 “I’m really proud because we’re independent. The reason nobody took this on was because it had a quarter of a million pounds worth of debt as a building eight years ago as well as the fact it’s falling down. We finished paying off that money three months ago. So we are now truly free people.”

The money was raised by renting Wilton’s out privately. In the first few years a lot of weddings, private parties and film shoots took place in the venue and this income was gradually saved.

More recently the Hall has had a lot charitable support from SITA Trust, The Loveday Charitable Trust, The Foundation for Sport and the Arts and numerous trusts and individuals to raise funds for large amount of essential building work, starting this month. Mayhew said: “The building is crumbling away and we have to stop that. We’ve had some really big grants, hundreds of little grants and donations. But it’s not over yet! Our hall is floating off down Cable Street.” For the last 150 years the drains from the nearby houses have been pumping water underneath the auditorium which has caused flooding and consequently a tremendous amount of rotting.

Wilton’s Music Hall is one of the East End’s hidden treasures. Dating back to 1743 it is still as relevant to the local residents’ lives today as it was to the Scandinavian sea captains who frequented the bar in its earliest years as an ale house.

The building on Graces Alley, which is tucked away near Tower Bridge, began as an ale house which served the sea captains and wealthy merchants  who used the nearby St. Katherine’s Dock. It later became known as The Mahogany Bar as the landlord was the first to install a mahogany wooden bar into a pub.

A concert room was built behind the ale house in 1839 which was then converted by John Wilton 20 years later into a  ‘Magnificent Music Hall.’ The history of the building seeps through every crevice and into its enchanting atmosphere.

The Music Hall’s pristine grandeur has depleted over the years,  the décor  has been left exactly as it was in the 1800s – but as the walls crumble and the gold leaf peels away the building takes on a new kind of beauty. It has an organic shabby chic interior that trendy East End cafes desperately try to achieve but Wilton’s has a unique charm that is impossible to forge.

Frances Mayhew, the artistic director, and her team “keep it alive” by putting on a variety of theatrical productions from plays and operas to cabaret and puppet shows. They have taken their lead from John Wilton himself, Mayhew said:

“John Wilton used to premiere all kinds of weird and wonderful people here.”

These included performers from George Ware who wrote ‘The Boy I love is up in the Gallery’ to Arthur Lloyd and George Leybourne (Champagne Charlie) who were two of the first music hall stars to perform for royalty.

“I think it was the range of things that kept people interested.”

Mayhew is keen to keep the atmosphere intact: “We have an architect called Tim Ronalds, who did the Hackney Empire, and he’s got that real lack of ego that means that he’s totally on side with us doing the best job in the world to stop that thing falling apart but there’s not going to be any sort of architectural mark on it at all. So it will be just the way it is.”

Mayhew explained how many architects have proposed interesting ideas that fuse modern design features into the historic building however as the music hall is the last of it’s kind she thinks it is more appropriate to keep it the way it is.  She says the team’s philosophy is not to change anything that is non-essential.

“[This way] you don’t get into that ego-aesthetic world that is not appropriate for a charitable arts organisation that should really be focusing on what goes on on-stage”.

The Mahogany Bar will be open, pic James Perry

The Mahogany Bar, which is part of Wilton’s, will remain open during the work and tours around the building (with viewing windows into the construction site) can be taken. Two more rooms will also open which will usually feature instillations, Mayhew said: “It will probably end up being very experimental and self-expressionistic but that’s quite nice actually because we don’t often do that so we’ll be bringing different types of art in.”

The Wilton’s team dream of opening a memorabilia room to house the artefacts they  found during an archaeological dig in 1980, such as Victorian footlights and plastic cupids that would have decorated the music hall balcony. Many people have discovered connections with Wilton’s when researching their family history and have sent information in, for example one such memory is from the descendant of Annie Delemont, who did male and female impressions and was known for her remarkable voice. Also a descendant of Walter Cole ‘the first ventriloquist to throw his voice to the roof of buildings’ – both of whom performed at Wilton’s Music Hall in the early 1870s. Mayhew talked of her delight at receiving these things and said: “It’s fascinating!”

“We have people who come to us and say they’ve seen ghosts here, and whether you believe it or not it’s so lovely that people are having experiences in some way – you wouldn’t get that in Café Nero!”

If you would like to help support Wilton’s Music Hall donations can be made visit:

By Louisa Plumstead

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