Tucked down Graces Alley along Whitechapel is Wilton’s Music Hall, London’s oldest grand music hall and the East End’s best-kept secret. Dating back to 1690, Wilton’s is a uniquely gorgeous building comprised of three houses and a pub.
A brief history
The place takes its name from John Wilton, who bought the building and enhanced the music hall into its grand style in 1859. Originally an alehouse, Wilton’s has survived the wear and tear of time and even a fire in 1877. Its historic importance in the art and entertainment community cannot be understated as the birthplace of variety entertainment, director Frances Mayhew told The Guardian. Mayhew, who has worked to improve the derelict building since 2004, shares, “Through places like this you can chart the development of the professional performer, from people singing in pubs, to cabaret, right up to The X Factor.”
After having avoided the threat of demolition in the 1960s thanks to artists John Betjeman and Spike Milligan, The Telegraph showed that nearly half of the building was in a precarious state before it underwent major renovation work. The renovation kept the shabby peeling paint and imperfections of the building, with architect Tim Ronalds believing that “It shouldn’t have a National Trust preciousness – it’s a rough, tough, working place whose character comes from wear and tear.”
Today, Wilton’s is a labyrinth of ancient staircases, peeling paint, beautiful vintage furniture, and dramatic lights – a renovation that is evocative of the building’s fascinating history and reminiscent of its heyday in the 19th century.
The music hall itself is a beautiful, cavernous masterpiece with an enormous stage, distinctive arch, and a gallery along the hall supported by cast-iron pillars. The result is grand and dramatic, and the Wilton’s stage plays host to a year-round program of live music and theatre and dance productions.
An important facet of the current operations of this historic site is community involvement. The management welcomes families, schools, and local artists to collaborate and learn within the music hall. The bar is also a perfect place to meet and hold smaller events. Because of this, Wilton’s is widely regarded as a living theatre, concert hall, and heritage site.
A community gem
Wilton’s has been widely lauded as a fantastic space for production work and learning. But as an East End gem, Wilton’s can galvanise the community with other locally produced events and alternative productions that bring people together.
For example, one event that would be amazing to hold at Wilton’s would be a music hall version of a pub quiz. While most pub quizzes typically revolve around general knowledge questions, Wilton’s quiz can be themed to promote learning about history, music, and art for families.
In the spirit of group games, another event that can be hosted at Wilton’s is community Bingo. Although Bingo has a reputation of being a game for old folks, the game is enjoying renewed interest among younger people in London. This is especially true for 90-Ball Bingo that has been made popular by UK brand Foxy Bingo, and as a sign of the times, the brand has even launched its very own Foxy Television digital channel. Thanks to Foxy Bingo, 90-Ball Bingo is now the most popular version of the game in the UK, as compared to countries like the United States and Canada, which typically play a lot of 75-Ball Bingo. And what better way to get the Whitechapel community together than over a game of fun bingo with the core concepts to raise money for charity and for the community as a whole.
Meanwhile, the local art community might also enjoy an arts and crafts festival in the venue. It can cover more art forms than the music hall is currently used for, such as pottery, painting, jewellery making, and the like. Live art can take place in the music hall while artists can set up tables to showcase or sell their work, and even take commissions.
In April, the music hall would be a great venue for the annual Record Store Day, which celebrates vinyl and the independent record stores that keep them alive. Like grand music halls, vinyl records are a historic treasure that can, and should, be shared with more people. Live music can be played in celebration at the stage in the main hall, while independent record stores can have stalls by the sides and at the balcony above.
Last but not least, Wilton’s can play host to a community swap day, where locals can come and exchange unwanted items from their homes. Not only is this good for the environment, it also helps solve Britons’ infamous hoarding problem and also promotes the main hall as a community space.
A lot has happened within its walls since the Wilton’s Music Hall was first built and, thanks to the efforts of those preserving the historic site, much more can also be achieved. The music hall is a thriving home for both artists as well as the entire East End community.