My discovery of Wilton’s Music Hall was certainly accidental. I spend a lot of time in the Tower Hamlets area, and I thought I knew it pretty well. Until one day I was walking past the usual housing blocks and railway bridges, and I ended up down a pedestrianised walkway I’d never noticed – and before I knew it, I’d stumbled upon Wilton’s: The world’s oldest surviving Grand Music Hall, and London’s best kept secret.
Standing outside it, you could be anywhere in the world except Tower Hamlets. The peeling paint, the old fashioned wooden shutters, the potted plants, the quiet alleyway – Wilton’s certainly transports you elsewhere, and back in time. I find a derelict or crumbling building will always catch my attention…
A stunning and atmospheric building, Wilton’s still runs an exciting programme of imaginative and diverse entertainment – including theatre, music, comedy, cinema and cabaret.
A quick history lesson for you…
Originally an alehouse, dating back to 1743 or earlier, a concert room was added in 1839. Around 1850, John Wilton bought the business and enlarged the concert room to create his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’, furnished with mirrors, chandeliers and decorative paintwork, and installed with the finest heating, lighting and ventilation systems of the day.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the extreme poverty and terrible living conditions in the East End prompted the East London Methodist Mission to buy the property, and put it to good use for 70 years feeding a thousand meals a day to the starving dockers’ families. Then after WWII, the area was scheduled for demolition as part of the 1960s slum clearance scheme. Fortunately a campaign was started to save the building, with supporters including Sir John Betjeman, Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan, and Wilton’s was grade II* listed in 1971.
In 2004, Frances Mayhew took over the building, having worked there in the late 90s as an intern. Wilton’s was again derelict and in debt, but Frances has been bringing it back to life, brick by brick, audience member by audience member, penny by penny, over the past decade.
Now a stunning venue with an appealing rawness and breath-taking history, I was drawn to Wilton’s for it’s appearance and atmosphere – and two fantastic bars.
The Mahogany Bar on the ground floor has a pub-y feel. It’s the oldest part of Wilton’s (c.1725), which was elaborately refurbished in 1828 with a magnificent mahogany bar and fittings which were unprecedented for a pub interior of its that time. Frequented by sailors from the nearby docks, the bar’s fame spread to ports around the globe – and it was even claimed that visiting sailors who had not heard of St Paul’s Cathedral knew where to find The Mahogany Bar! Serving beer, wine and spirits, plus a varying food menu at lunch, make sure you take a camera for your visit, to spend a lazy evening steeped in history.
Upstairs, you’ll find the Green Room Cocktail Bar. With zero pretension and the ubiquitous shabby chic décor, the menu changes regularly, featuring old classics plus new concoctions (£7-£9), expertly mixed by the approachable bar staff. We drank classic old favourites, and made new favourites from the menu.
We visited on a Saturday late afternoon (open from 5pm), and the place became pleasantly busy pretty quickly, with both locals and tourists enjoying the relaxed and friendly atmosphere. We had a drink in each bar, and also roamed about the building, discovering function rooms (available for hire) and run-down corridors, snapping photos all the while. I highly recommend a visit – the charming disrepair gives you a chance to fantasise about might have happened hundreds of year previously – like a truly immersive history lesson, or a high class version of ‘urban exploration’.
Wilton’s has slightly odd opening hours – it’s not open on Sundays, which is devastating as it would make the perfect lazy Sunday retreat. It’s open on weekdays (12am – 11pm) and Saturdays (5pm – 11pm), but best to check the website before visiting in case it’s closed for shoots or refurbishment. You can make reservations – email firstname.lastname@example.org
Did you know…
Both of the Sherlock Holmes movies were filmed in Wilton’s, as well as the latest Muppets movie!
Dates – so atmospheric.
Weddings! I believe you can hold the actual ceremony at Wilton’s, but it would be fabulous for the after-party too.
Parties – you can rent out various rooms, and the staff are happy to do you a deal based on number of guests and what sort of event you are after.
Quiz nights – Wilton’s hosts regular pub quizzes in the Mahogany Bar. See the events page for more info and upcoming dates.
Historians – see the events page for more info on Wilton’s history tours.
The next show is Father Nandru & The Wolves. Written especially for Wilton’s Music Hall by award-winning playwright Julian Garner, it is a captivating folk tale, based on a true Romanian story and narrated in verse.
Wilton’s Music Hall
Graces Alley, London, E1 8JB