The Entrance to Wilton's Music hall
Wilton's is the oldest of London's music halls. It was built in the 1850's at the back of The Prince of Denmark bar, in Graces Alley, in the East End. The bar itself is still functional and, though sadly now stripped of what were once famed mahogany fittings, it is still a wonderful place to drink, either before a performance or simply as a venue in which to meet friends.
The hall - which was known as the Temple of Apollo - is an intimate rectangular space. The floor rakes down to a stage which is low enough for everyone in the audience to fully engage with the performance. All around the walls are arched niches, once filled with glittering mirrors, and the high vaulted ceiling boasted a sun-burner chandelier which held hundreds of jets and dripped with thousands of crystals. There are scorch marks on the ceiling from the time when it actually burst into flames. And still in perfect condition today are the elegant, brass barley-twist pillars which support a balcony fronted with friezes or ornate papier mache designs.
John Wilton produced a variety of shows, often cramming well over a thousand punters into a hall which, today, is licensed to hold 300. He lured singers from the Royal Opera House, who stayed in stage costume and jumped into Broughams, driven at breakneck speed across town to perform their arias all over again - and no doubt to a more lively audience! There were circuses, ventriloquists and dancers, but perhaps Wilton's most famous artiste was George Leybourne - otherwise known as Champagne Charlie, after his hugely popular song.
Sadly, after John Wilton's death in 1880, the hall became less salubrious: a rowdy haunt of prostitutes, sailors, dockers and thieves, with many a naive punter being robbed, or found dead in the Thames with a knife in their backs. By 1888, it had been closed down and became the Methodist Mission hall - where, no doubt, Soup and Salvation was served up for free to many who previously paid to go in.
During the dockers' strike of 1889, the Mission provided 2,000 meals a day for the starving workers, and in 1936, the hall was used as the headquarters for those who demonstrated against Mosley and his fascists in the famous Battle of Cable Street.
Today, this magical, crumbling hall has been given Grade II* listed status and it is hoped that it may be preserved. I recommend a visit. I guarantee you will be charmed. There are many evening productions, along with regular open days when you can take a tour and learn more of its fascinating history - and see what all the fuss is about, and why Wilton's inspired the opening of my debut novel, The Somnambulist: a Victorian gothic mystery.
Addendum: For more contemporary images and a lovely article on Wilton's, do visit London Insight.