“Wilton’s Music Hall”…if I uttered these words, undoubtably a few of you will be scratching your heads, lacking the assurance of knowing exactly what a music hall is. Well, for those of you safely snug on your couch catching up with your soap-opera-box-fix, I can safely assure you that the Music Hall was the “TV” of its day, come 150 years ago, with Wilton’s as one of it’s brightest stars.
The Music Hall came about from the success of the “song and supper” rooms in saloons and pubs across London in the 1830’s. Each evening there would be a whole variety of performance acts ranging from ventriloquism, burlesque, gymnastic performance, magic, seriocomic vocalists, ballad vocalists and terpsichorean entertainments to name but a few. By the 1850’s popularity was so great that pub landlords were forced to extend and build make-shift theatres in their surrounding area. Very often courtyards were “roofed” into quickie auditoriums with enough room for a tiny stage area at one end. Usually split-level for maximum capacity, the ground floor would be used for tables where the audience could eat and drink during the entertainment.
The first regarded true Music Hall was ‘The Cantebury’ of Westminster Bridge Hall, Lambeth. Built in 1852 by the Godfather of Music Halls, Charles Morton, it was used as the prototype for many other Music Halls (including Wilton’s).
There were 32 Music Halls in London alone by 1865 with seating for between 500-5000. By 1878 there were 78 large and 300 somewhat smaller venues. It was cheap and readily available amusement for the working class masses and the ‘songs’ were often the highlights of the night. They reflected the changing attitudes of the recently urbanised communities, with the subject matter progressing from traditional folk tunes to songs with more humour and contemporary relevance. Music Hall artists needed to quickly engage and hold the attention of the over-worked and often rowdy public which is why they took on a catchy and uplifting tone. The songs often became ‘copyrighted’ to certain singers, many of whom became superstars of their day: “It’s a long way to Tipperary” was first sung by John McCormack in 1914; “My old man said follow the van” by Marie Lloyd in the early 1900’s; and “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay” by Lottie Collins in 1892. Both Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel also spent their early days performing in Music Halls. Other specialist (“spesh”) acts ranged from both the bizarre to the beautiful: circus trapeze acts; Adagio – a mix of dance and body juggling(!?); knife-throwing; feats of strength; mime; mentalism acts; puppetry; escapologists; and lets not forget the hugely over-looked flea circus.
All under one roof. All in one night. Any day of the week. The decline of the Music Hall came about in 1914 when the LCC banned alcohol from the auditorium into a separate bar, and then altogether in 1923. It changed the atmosphere somewhat, with critics claiming it to be a form of social control on the working class.
Of the few Music Halls that survived WWII (The Hackney Empire, Hoxton Hall, The London Coliseum which is now home to the ENO) none stand so resilient in decaying grandeur as Wilton’s.
Standing defiantly along a small back street in the un-presuming borough of Tower Hamlets, it has withstood fire (1877), flood, bombs and dereliction. John Wilton acquired ‘The Mahogony Bar’ and next 4 terraced houses in 1850, opening its doors as ‘Wilton’s’ for the first time in 1859. Amongst his above-par variety of acts John Wilton brought opera singers over from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. He even went as far as Paris and was the first to show the Can-Can in London and subsequently had it banned across the whole country. Sold in 1870 it passed through various hands before lying derelict for 50 years until 1997.
When you walk through the front door beneath its ‘crumbling-yet-still-slightly-tarty-pink’ facade into what would have been the original Mahogony Bar you can already imagine the faded glamour from the random sections of original wall dotted about the place.
With all its former trappings no longer apparent you move through the bar to the main stairwell where John Wilton himself would have greeted you, filling you in with all the highlights and urging you up the stairs into the auditorium or to the other inter-connecting supper rooms so as not to miss a thing.
Once inside the massive gallery you can really see the effects that fire, flood, neglect and gas-light burner have taken on its very fabric. It has such a positively-poetic melancholy about it. A beauty that overwhelms and lends itself to each of the current productions that the Wilton’s team help produce, each of which keep true to its ‘Music Hall’ roots.
Restoration and stabilisation are desperately needed to keep this wonder open. Lovingly maintained by a small and dedicated team, the atmosphere is both nurturing and inspiring. Despite it being the other side of town, I think I’ve just found my new local.
The Wilton’s Music Hall Bar is always open every monday – friday: 5 – 11pm