Graces Alley, Cable Street, London E1
A form of entertainment which was enormously popular in England from around the middle of the 19th century until the middle of the last century when the curse that is television took over was the music hall. It consisted of a mix of popular songs (often patriotic or jingoistic), comedy, specialty acts and variety entertainment. Often originating in the back rooms of public houses music hall became so popular that rather like a cuckoo it evicted its host and erstwhile boozers were converted into music hall venues.
Perhaps the finest extant example of this social revolution can be found just off Cable Street in East London, Wilton’s Music Hall. There was an alehouse on the site dating from at least 1743 which probably numbered amongst its clientele the Scandinavian sea captains and wealthy merchants who lived in the nearby Wellclose Square. By around 1826 it was known as the Mahogany Bar, reflecting the fact that the then landlord was the first to fit a mahogany bar and fittings into his gaff. Its initial transformation into a place of theatrical entertainment occurred around 1839 when a concert hall was built behind the pub and by 1843 it had changed its name again, this time to the Albion Saloon, and was licensed to put on full-length plays.
John Wilton appeared on the scene around 1850, buying the business, extending the concert room in 1853 and then employed Jacob Maggs to replace it with what was described as a magnificent new music hall six years later. And magnificent it was too, accommodating some 1,500 punters and furnished with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintwork and boasting the finest heating, lighting and ventilation system of its day. A single gallery on three sides rose above a large rectangular hall and a high stage with a proscenium arch, supported by cast iron pillars. The “sun-burner” chandelier consisted of 300 gas jets and 27,000 cut crystals and there is charring visible on the rafters to this day caused by the heat thrown out by this monstrous lighting device. At ground level the hall would have accommodated supper tables, a benched area and promenades around the sides for the patrons who preferred (or could only afford) to stand.
In its 20 years or so as a music hall Wilton’s hosted many of the genre’s finest performers including Arthur Lloyd and George Leybourne aka Champagne Charlie who both went on to perform before royalty. But in the 1870s after changing hands a number of times there was a disastrous fire in 1877 which ended its theatrical days.
Rebuilt the premises was bought by the East End Mission of the Methodist Church and provided comfort and victuals to the needy poor in the area. The church moved out in 1956 and scheduled for demolition as part of the redevelopment of the area the building was saved after a public outcry and restored. It started operating again as a theatre in 1997 and is thriving once more.
You can have a guided tour (Mondays at 6.00pm, I believe) round the what is claimed to be the most important surviving early music hall to be seen anywhere and a building of outstanding architectural and archaeological significance – well worth it if you are in the area.