Changing London

Mission in a music hall: Wilton’s in Whitechapel

You don’t need to look far to find vivid accounts of the poor living conditions that many experienced in London’s East End in the 19th century. So-called social explorers flocked from the more salubrious areas of the capital – and even overseas – to witness and report on the destitution. Henry Mayhew wrote in London Labour and the London Poor (1851) that:

“roads were unmade, often mere alleys, houses small and without foundations, subdivided and often around unpaved courts. An almost total lack of drainage and sewerage was made worse by the ponds formed by the excavation of brickearth. Pigs and cows in back yards, noxious trades like boiling tripe, melting tallow, or preparing cat’s meat, and slaughter houses, dustheaps, and ‘lakes of purefying night soil’ added to the filth.”

While it is of course debatable as to whether these accounts – which I’ve explored in detail in other blogs in recent months – were exaggerated, it is impossible to deny that many in the East End were living on the bread line. Rapid industrialisation, the expansion of the docks and clearance of slums for the construction of the railways brought considerable overcrowding and insanitary living conditions.

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But while it may seem the poorest in the East End were ignored by the outside world, there were some individuals and organisations that did offer help. They were usually Christian organisations who saw delivering aid as part of a much wider strategy of bringing salvation to the masses.

The Wesleyan Methodists, who opened up a mission at St George’s Church in Cable Street in 1885, were just one such group that was active in the East End in late Victorian times. In 1888 they bought Wilton’s Music Hall, which as I wrote last week had become vacant when tastes changed and audiences moved to enjoy entertainment in other areas of the city, calling it ‘Mahogany Bar Mission’.

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Mahogany Bar was one of the names for the pub attached to the music hall (which was also called the Prince of Denmark). Methodists had prayed that the drinking establishment and adjoining entertainment venue would be closed down, such was some Christians’ belief of lewd behaviour going on inside. It has been touted that in its latter years – a decade or so after John Wilton left – nude female wrestling took place inside (they were “singing songs of blasphemous indecency”).

A commemorative postcard was produced telling the story of how the Mahogany Bar Mission was set-up. It described what Mr and Mrs Reginald Radcliffe and Mrs Miss Macpherson experienced when they passed through Grace’s Alley:

“The dreadful noise and sounds that came from the hall startled them. They paused to listen and were so impressed that they paid the admission fee and went in to see what really could be going on. The sights on the stage and the condition of things were so awful that they fell on their knees in the centre of the hall, and in view of the onlookers and stage prayed that God would break the power of the devil in the place, and bring the premises into use of Christian people.”

Methodists were clearly impressed with their new auditorium, as George Leask noted in his 1909 publication, The Romance of the East London: “I expected to see… a low-ceiled, narrow, frowsy room…. I certainly did not anticipate the vision which burst upon me when my friend triumphantly ushered me into the hall.”

It became a thriving community venue with a youth club, a place where Bible stories were told to children, films were shown and conferences held – and of course a place for Sunday church services. And leaders at Mahogany Bar Mission campaigned for better rights for women, particularly those caught up in prostitution, improved conditions for workers in sweatshops and stricter licensing of pubs.

Many of those living in Whitechapel, the area surrounding the Mahogany Bar Mission, were affected by the 1889 dockers’ strike. Unions meetings were held by at the church and soup was handed out to many workers. John Jameson, the first minister, noted: “Here we are in the thick of it. This morning it was piteous to see the people. Some of them had had no food for three days.”

But after the Second World War the mission was in decline and in 1957 the building was sold to Coppermill Rag Warehouse. As I wrote last week, Wilton’s then faced a very uncertain period as London County Council put forward plans to redevelop the area. Thanks to a tireless campaign the Victorian structure was saved and is now a thriving arts venue. Yet given that it was designers by church builders, visitors can feel they are still entering a non-conformist chapel.

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