Changing London

Wilton’s Got Talent: Victorian variety in treasured music hall

It was “the handsomest pleasure room in the district” noted the Daily News in 1864. Wilton’s Music Hall, nestled down an unassuming alley way behind Cable Street in London’s East End, was in Victorian times a popular variety venue enjoyed by Whitechapel locals and international sailors visiting the nearby Port of London. The stars of the day – arguably the first celebrities – entertained audiences with singing, dancing, magic and aerial acrobatics, while punters wondered in and out of the hall with food, drink and tobacco from the adjoining pub.

“We found a good audience at half-past seven, the time of the entertainments commencing, which increased to a perfect ‘overflow’ before we left the hall; and the concert was certainly of sufficient excellence warrant this large attendance,” reported the East London Observer in 1858. “The evening’s entertainment opened with some spirited choruses…. Miss Smithson who is the very singer for this audience—fresh, gay, and piquant, sang two character songs in a most effective manner; and Mr. Harry Castor gave a forcible and dramatic rendering of another old favourite – ‘Bonnie Dundee,’ over which the audience became even more enthusiastic than over the preceding ones.”

Next up was Mr. T. Glen, “a comic vocalist of provincial reputation” who made his first appearance “in a humorous version of Shakespeare’s ‘Seven ages of man’ in which he had to depict the ‘many parts’ from the infant to the lean and the slippered pantaloon…. Possessing considerable power of facial expression, and a large amount of dramatic ability, he made each character tell upon his audience; but it appeared if no possible quantity of laughter could satisfy them, for when he withdrew there was a general recall, in obedience to which he returned and sang an ‘antidiluvian buffalo song,’…”

Later came Herr Susman who “has developed his peculiar talent to something very like perfection.” Without the use of any musical instrument, the artist “whistles in exact imitation of all the varieties of singing birds—nightingale, skylark, thrush, canary, linnet, chaffinch, and many others; and gives also equally clever imitations of the donkey, pig, and young colt. The absolute perfection to which Herr Susman has attained in whistling all these sounds, and the compass of notes through which lie runs would scarcely credited by anyone who had not heard him….” And these acts were only a selection of the evening’s entertainment. All in all, judging by the variety on offer it must have been likely watching a live version of Britain’s Got Talent.

I’m writing this piece in the past tense which is slightly misleading as Wilton’s 19th century structure is very much still standing. It’s one of the few surviving music halls in Britain – the nation’s oldest surviving one in fact – and continues to put on a variety of productions following its re-opening to the public in 1997 (although perhaps not as raucous as some performances in the 19th century).

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Venturing into the hall’s Mahogany Bar today, it’s clear the clientele has changed considerably from Victorian times. When I visited at the weekend drinkers were well behaved, had scrubbed up well and were otherwise very middle class. Back then the punters were working class, but they received just as good a level of service as the Theatrical Journal reported in 1859:

“Great attention is paid to visitors, and every information is given to at the refreshment bar by Mrs Wilton, who is a perfect lady in her manners, and who is very attentive to her own sex. The refreshments are of the best kinds, and are very reasonable.”

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In keeping with the music hall tradition of the 19th century, Wilton’s grew out of a pub. The Prince of Demark, a popular sailor’s drinking establishment, occupied one of the five 18th century houses on Grace’s Alley that now form the venue’s entrance halls and other areas that are being renovated for use by the public.

Musical hall building started in northern industrial towns from the 1840s and within a decade they had reached London (there were some 300 establishments in the capital in 1866). A law introduced in 1843 which allowed concert rooms attached to drinking establishments to be licensed for musical entertainment was instrumental in the growth of such venues.

John Wilton – the son of a butcher from Bath – started building Wilton’s behind the Prince of Denmark pub (also known in the Mahogany Bar) in 1859. The two storey hall, built to a design that’s not dissimilar to that of a non-conformist chapel with a horse-shoe balcony has changed little structurally over the years even though it was gutted by fire in 1877 and had to be extensively refurbished. In fact, the ‘platform’ (the music hall’s stage, with a dressing room underneath) dates from the time when the vital renovations took place.

Music halls across Britain often became known as places of debauchery and Wilton’s had its fair share of problems. Rowdy sailors were seated with their ‘acquaintances’ (quite probably prostitutes) well away from more the better behaved audience (couples) downstairs. Music halls could, and did, bring down areas and Wilton’s was no exception – there are claims, for example, that it contributed to the flight of wealthy residents from a nearby Georgian square (although the opening of nearby St Katharine’s Dock and the railway would also have helped destroying what had previously been a ‘salubrious suburb’).

But according to contemporary accounts the music hall’s owner did go out of his way to operate an orderly business. Wilton, it was noted, did this remarkably so for “an establishment so difficult to manage.” He had “two policemen-looking men on the door” to keep out the riff-raff and ensure that ‘young ladies without escort’ that they needed to sit on the balcony upstairs.

Wilton saw that over time tastes were beginning to change. Better public transport meant ordinary working people could travel into town to watch shows at bigger West End venues. Wilton left the East End in 1868 and went on to run a restaurant in Soho and the in-house catering provision at the Lyceum Theatre. As the historian Roy Porter has noted, “by 1900 pub-based music halls had been eclipsed by gorgeous variety palaces, with proscenium-arched stages and fixed seats in rows.”

While others followed in Wilton’s footsteps in Whitechapel, the venue would only last another 12 years – a period that saw the devastating 1877 fire which destroyed most of the interiors – as a music hall. The building was then bought by the Wesleyan Methodists in 1888 who called it ‘The Mahogany Bar Mission’.

Operating as a venue for church services and community facility until well after the Second World War, the Wilton’s building was eventually turned into a store following its sale to the Coppermill Rag Warehouse in 1957.  And it was dangerously close to being knocked down on a number of occasions in the name of progress (London County Council announced dramatic plans in 1964 to redevelop the entire area, for example). There was however a highly vocal campaign that eventually saw Wilton’s receive Grade-II listed status in 1971.

But despite millions of pounds spent renovating the building over the last four decades, visitors still won’t find music hall interiors reminiscent of Wilton’s glory days. While trustees – the venue has been owned by a number of groups since the 1970s and is now under the stewardship of the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust – have worked hard to maintain its fabric (including repairing its leaking roof), they haven’t brought it back to its exact 1859 appearance. Right now Wilton’s is covered in scaffolding. The organisation received a grant from the Heritage Lottery foundation last year to complete repairs to the five Georgian houses that the music hall was originally built behind.

In many ways this approach makes sense. While it would be tempting to create a music hall museum piece, Wilton’s must also acknowledge the building’s history from 1888 onwards. It was used by the Methodist movement for far longer than it operated as a musical entertainment venue. That history is no less important than the period when it was a music hall.

And Wilton’s needs to make sure it remains a place that can be used – and is relevant to – modern audiences. When it was a music hall it would have been configured with tables, chairs and benches. The current set-up – without any fixed furniture – lends the venue to a much wider range of uses, including comedy nights and ping pong tournaments, as well as traditional music and theatre productions. Finding as many ways as possible to generate revenue will be vital for keeping such venues afloat and allowing them to thrive.

Next Thursday on Mark Gee looks at how Wilton’s became a centre for Methodism in the East End

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