Along with Kate Bailey (seen left in this picture) a curator and producer of exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum,  the VV (otherwise known as Essie Fox) has recently delivered a talk based on Victorian music halls - with the VV's contribution more specifically based on how she had been inspired to write her novel, The Somnambulist, after visiting Wilton's Music Hall - the oldest surviving grand London hall.

Below is a transcript of that talk which widens to incorporate other areas of the music hall scene in the Victorian era -

My first novel is called The Somnambulist, and the title of that story was partly inspired by this painting. It is called A Somnambulist. It was created by the pre-Raphaelite artist, Millais, and his painting has been linked to the world of musical theatre, with critics claiming that it portrays a scene from Bellini’s La Sonnambula – a hugely successful Victorian opera in which Jenny Lind once starred; a singer who was so popular, and amongst all social classes, that a song was composed about her and performed in the music halls.

The music halls were a reflection of the times – a mirror, albeit sometimes warped – in the form of song and satire, of just about every aspect of Victorian society. Before the existence of television or radio to inform and entertain at home, in what could be confusing and fast-moving times, an audience could join together ‘as one’, to try and make some sort of sense of the age in which they lived - and all with an added frisson of excitement when many of those upon the stage alluded with a knowing wink to the baser human instincts that were less often spoken of in the politer day-time Victorian world. 

I still feel a tingling thrill of excitement when recalling my very first visit to Wilton’s. For those of you who do not know the place, should you wish see a show, or to join one of the regular tours to experience the atmosphere of a genuine Victorian hall, you will find it situated in the Wapping/Whitechapel area, in the pedestrianised Grace’s Alley which lies between Ensign Street (which was once known as Well Street) and Wellclose Square (once Marine Square). This is a socially mixed area, just as it was in Victorian times when its houses were owned by sea captains, and well-to-do merchants, who lived alongside the warrens of slums, to which many a docker and visiting sailor would have been lured and exploited. 

I was first lured to Wilton’s having seen an advertisement for a production of Handel’s operetta, Acis and Galatea – though I had no idea about where I was going; almost stumbling upon, and then, in through, the flaking wooden entrance doors. I really had with no preconception at all of what I might find on the other side though, as it turned out, it was something like making a visit to Narnia – leaving the bustling East End behind to enter a world quite magical! 

As soon as I made my way along the stone flags of the narrow entrance hall, seeing the stairs to the gallery floor that rose up on the left hand side, I’d already begun to travel in time – seeing old playbills on the walls, and even a poster for a Victorian cocaine toothache cure – although, perhaps, a hangover cure would have been more appropriate when considering the venue’s nature!


But loftier sentiments are expressed, carved into the hall’s foundation stone, which was laid on 9th December 1858 by Ellen Wilton, John Wilton’s wife, and upon which these words have been inscribed: 

'To Great God Apollo, God of Early Morn, Who wakes the songbirds from eastern sky, we consecrate this shrine of gentle music, music that alternates from smiles to tears, smiles emanating from the purest mirth, and tears of sympathy that speak not sadness.’ 

What a wonderful ode that is – and what a shrine to Apollo was made because, even today, when in such a crumbling state of decay, the glory that is Wilton’s hall seems to seep through the building’s fabric. You can almost hear the clatter and bang, the laughter, the shouting, the pop of champagne corks. You really do feel yourself to be transported back into a bygone age. 

Wilton’s Hall was crucial to the early era of the music hall scene. That scene was very vibrant, especially after the British Copyright Act of 1842, which protected the reproduction as well as the performance of music, therefore stimulating the market for composers, performers – and the publishers who reproduced the sheet music, often with wonderful artwork on front. 

What initially went on in glee clubs at taverns migrated into larger halls. Among the principal venues in London were The Bedford in Camden Town, The Canterbury, and then Gatti’s, both in Westminster Bridge Road, The Forresters in Cambridge Road, The London Pavilion at the top of the Hay Market, Evans in Covent Garden, The Metropolitan at Edgeware Road, The Oxford on Oxford Street, The Cambridge on Commercial Street, and Lusby’s Palace in the Mile End Road. And what went on inside those halls, well, I am going to quote to you now from the Dickens’ Dictionary of London, 1879, which describes the world of music hall as something that – 

'...was started many years ago at the Canterbury Hall...The entertainments proving popular, the example was speedily followed in every quarter of the town. The performance in no way differs, except in magnitude, from those which are to be seen in every town of any importance throughout the country. Ballet, gymnastics, and so-called comic singing form the staple of the bill of fare, but nothing comes foreign to the music-hall proprietor. Performing animals, winners of walking-matches, successful skullers, shipwrecked sailors, swimmers of the channel, conjurers, ventriloquists, tight-rope dancers, campanologists, clog-dancers, sword swallowers, velocipedists, champion skaters, imitators, marionettes, decanter equilibrists, champion shots, living models of marble gems, fire princes, mysterious youths, spiral bicycle ascensionists, flying children, empresses of the air, kings of the wire, vital sparks, Mexican boneless wonders, white eyed musical Kaffers, strong-jawed ladies, cannon-ball performers, illuminated fountains, and that remarkable musical eccentricity the orchestra militaire, all having had their turn on the music hall stage.' 

Perhaps the only sort of ‘turn’ omitted from that Dictionary list would be the drag performers, such as Vesta Tilley, whose appeal was such that she even went on to influence masculine fashions of the day.

And if you want to get an idea of quite how appealing such acts could be, Youtube has footage of Hetty King –

Hetty's success came somewhat later, at the end of the Victorian era, but who followed a well worn tradition and worked in the halls for seventy years, still performing when in her eighties – and still very charismatic and droll! And for those of you who have not read Sarah Waters’ Tipping The Velvet, that novel provides the most wonderful view of life in the theatre for just such acts.


Returning to the extensive Dictionary list, for Kings of the Wire – read acrobats – such as the famous Jules Leotard, the Frenchman about whom a song was composed – That Daring Young Man on His Flying Trapeze – with lyrics by George Leybourne – another daring and handsome young man who often sang at Wilton’s. But before any act could appear there, the hall had to be created.

John Wilton’s plans for a music hall began when he took over as the proprietor of The Prince of Denmark bar – a public house which dated back to the 18th century, and was infamous from 1828, when it had been kitted out with the most magnificent brass and mahogany fittings. Sadly, those fittings have now been lost. 

Today the bar looks like this – still an atmospheric setting – but before, in its glory days, it was said to be so well-known that, even in the docks of San Francisco, every sailor knew the Mahogany bar, but few would have known St Paul’s Cathedral if they were to fall upon it. 

And speaking of falling, some of them might have been aware of the trap door next to the bar itself, which, should any punter become too drunk or boisterous, was opened up, and down they went – to wander about through a tunnel beneath, through which the Fleet River then flowed, coming out somewhere nearer to the Thames. That is if they ever emerged at all!


It was a little nearer to St Paul’s cathedral that John Wilton first gained experience of chairing bar entertainments, while working at Dr Johnson’s Tavern in Fleet Street: another historic venue that is still open to the public today. In the role of chairman he would literally sit in a chair that was placed directly in front of the stage, facing out at the audience. When a new act, or turn, came on he might well bang down with his gavel – a little wooden hammer – to keep order or gain the punters’ attention, a loud and melodious voice then calling the introductions, or sometimes even leading the audience in a bit of community singing.


By 1850, when John Wilton was running The Prince of Denmark bar, a concert room did already exist. It was called the Albion Saloon and had been built behind the Mahogany bar as early as 1839 – which was at that time licensed by the owner, Matthew Eltham. But John Wilton had much grander ambitions, intending to rebuild that room and create something a little less bourgeois: his very own Temple to Apollo which at around 75 by 40 feet was smaller, but just as magnificent, as anything that could be found in the salubrious West End theatres. 

To do that he purchased five Georgian houses adjoining the pub, after which he employed architects and designers to redevelop the acquired land and create the venue he had in mind – which was not quite a theatre, not quite a concert space, and not quite a public bar – but something new and exciting – a giant, flat-floored hall where a mixture of entertainments were provided to amuse those who paid the entrance fee.

To give something of a flavor of one of the demurer acts that patrons might have experienced, the following is a transcript of an 1872 review, regarding one Annie Delemonte when she performed at Wilton’s Hall – 

'Miss Delamonte, who has a beautiful voice and is a superior vocalist, sang serial comic ditties in a way which charmed all who listened to her. Sarah Ann – a servant...a cantoneer who is the pet of the whole brigade... and Prince Jolly were the characters assumed. Her singing is extra delightful and her manner is ladylike and winsome to a high degree.’

Those who listened to the winsome Annie would not have been sitting in rows of seats, but in chairs at dining tables – coming and going as they wished – for an hour – or the whole of the evening, during which time they could eat and drink while surrounded by decorations that were not dark wood and red velvet plush as in many traditional theatres, but an elegant and somewhat more subdued palette of white, with glints of gold relief, with arched niches for mirrors and glittering burners. The stage was built in such a way that, whether in the main body of the hall, or else upstairs in the balcony, patrons could almost reach out with their hands and touch the flesh of whoever was then performing on stage.  And that stage was first set in an apse and lined with ornately framed mirrors, until, after a fire in 1877, it was to be reborn with the proscenium arch that we can still observe today – shown here in a view from the balcony -

Just as with the Mahogany Bar, many of the hall’s original features have now been lost. Gone is the enormous sun burner chandelier that once gleamed with hundreds of crystal drops, with prismatic feathers, spangles and spires – which was said to be the largest chandelier of its kind at the time, though the only proof now visible are the scorch marks still scarring the ceiling.


Something else that is not lost, but is in fact anachronistic, in that it never existed in the Victorian era at all, is the mural set painted on the wall, at very back of the balcony – and this is something referenced in my novel - though not until after I’d finished the book did I come to discover that these images were actually made as part of a Wilton’s stage set, to tie in with a much more recent play about an East India Company officer who turned ‘native’ on duty in India. But, I decided not to edit that out, because those glorious images suited my purposes very well, with my story dealing with the trade then coming in from India – all the spices and exotica imported via the nearby docks, as well as the cloth and antiquities that feature in an emporium that is owned by one of my characters – being based to a great extent on the origins of Harrods department store. 

But returning to Wilton’ hall, and something else that does remain of the original structure, and that is the balcony itself which laps around three walls of the room and is fronted by the most exquisite papier-mache design. 

That balcony is supported by what, for me, anyway, makes Wilton’s very special indeed – and those are the iron barley twist pillars that add such an edge of glamour. And that glamour, and how I felt when I first entered Wilton’s hall, is something that I tried to convey through the mouth of Phoebe Turner, who is my main narrator, in the story of The Somnambulist – 

I’d been to Wilton’s Hall before. I would have been seven or eight at the time, and somehow Aunt Cissy persuaded Mama to allow me a trip to the pantomime. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves it was, and as we rushed off to climb in a cab, Mama called after us down the front steps, ‘You watch that child . . . there’ll be forty thieves in the audience!’ 

I heard Cissy’s sudden intake of breath as she paused to look back from the pavement edge, ‘Oh, Maud . . . you know we’ll be perfectly safe. I promise to bring Phoebe home by ten.’ 

And we were quite safe, and home by ten, though perhaps Mama’s fears had been justified because something was stolen – and that was my heart; coming home in a giddy excitement, unable to sleep that night for thinking of all the sights and sounds, the thick smells of greasepaint, tobacco and sweat. That show had been mayhem, like nothing I’d ever seen before, with Alf Merchant’s ‘astonishing, leaping, juggling’ dogs, and the high-stepping dancers, and the swaggering swell – and humming his chorus all the way home, though, when the cab pulled up for a while, caught in a jam on the Mile End Road, Cissy leaned closer, touching my arm, saying, ‘Best we don’t sing that in front of Maud . . . I don’t think your mama would approve.’ 

‘I know,’ I answered with sad resignation, repeating my Mama’s favourite chant, ‘‘‘The halls are all seething with drunkards and sin’’. But Cissy . . .’ I frowned, biting down on my lip, staring up at my aunt in confusion, ‘you’re not a sinful drunk, and you used to work in the theatre too.’ 

‘Yes,’ Cissy sighed, her face slowly lighting up in a smile, ‘and you know, there were nights when the opera house closed, when we all stayed in costume and jumped into broughams, driven at breakneck speed across town . . . performing at Wilton’s all over again.’ 

Well, as a writer, I was surprised when researching my novel to discover that opera singers did actually do just that – a second shift in the music halls where they sang all the favourite arias that most of the public knew by heart, rather than entire operas. But such a tradition goes to show that ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture were not quite as rigidly differentiated as we might imagine them to have been. And it is quite true that West End toffs, and literary and artistic types, mingled with the middle and lower classes who frequented most of the East End halls: the dockers, sailors and labourers with whom they had one thing in common – which was to have a good night out, when the realities of daily lives were exchanged for glee and fantasy. 

When my narrator, Phoebe Turner, returns to Wilton’s a second time, when she is somewhat older, it is for a ‘special performance’ of Handel’s Acis and Galatea – the very same operetta put on when I first visited the hall. But Phoebe also chances to see something – or rather someone – who I would have loved to observe at first hand, and that was George Leybourne; the real life singer who appears in my novel’s plot after the main operatic performance, when, during a private party, he performs one of his famous songs. Not That Daring Young Man On His Flying Trapeze, but another that I am sure many of you will still be familiar with today – and that is Champagne Charlie

George Leybourne was one of the Lyon Comiques – the music hall singers known as Gentleman Swells, who acted as if they were one of the Upper Ten Thousand, those aristocratic men about town who were confident, blasé, and stylishly dressed, and whose songs were full of references to drinking, and sexual innuendo. George – whose real name was Joe Saunders – but then again that might not be true – was born in 1842. He came to London from the midlands – then again it might have been Gateshead – the records are by no means clear. But wherever he might have hailed from, it seems that he had once been a mechanic, until giving that profession up for something more lucrative on the stage. In London, 1864, he first performed at the Whitechapel Music Hall, where he proved to be a great success, and something of a heart throb, being muscular, lean and very tall, and so handsome that ladies were said to swoon as soon as he appeared on stage.


In his act, he would take on various guises that complimented his latest songs, but as far as Champagne Charlie went, the rumour was that Leybourne had been commissioned by Moet and Chandon Champagne to write and perform a music hall song to celebrate their product, and – in the words of the song itself – to sell it as broadly as possible: ‘From Dukes and Lords to cabman down, I make them drink champagne.’ 

Today, Moet and Chandon claim to have no records of such a sponsorship deal – although it is still fair to say that Leybourne was more than fond of champagne, and any endorsement of the drink would help to sell bottles in the halls, thus raising his popularity with the booking managers. And such advertising branding, whether formally or informally done, was actually not unique in the halls.

There was one popular ditty that went - 

‘She wouldn’t call for sherry; she wouldn’t call for beer;
She wouldn’t call for cham, because she knew ‘twould make her queer’ She wouldn’t call for Brandy, rum or anything they’d got’
She only called for Bovril – hot! hot! hot! 

As a certain Mr Anstey wrote when alluding to that particular song in a contemporary article, not even the Brick Lane Temperance Society could have taken offence at that; though they certainly would have disapproved of another of the Lyon Comiques – a direct rival to Leybourne - a certain Mr Alfred Peck Stevens, who appeared on stage as The Great Vance, and who also performed boisterous drinking songs.

Vance was supposedly sponsored by the makers of Veuve Cliquot Champagne - and something of a public sparring match was said to have risen between the two men, often bating each other professionally. So, when Vance had a hit with his song, ‘Walking in the Zoo’ (the term zoo only just then coming into common parlance, rather than saying Zoological Gardens in its entirety), George Leybourne countered with a song called: 'Lounging at the Aq';  inspired by, and also promoting the London Aquarium – though that shortened version never did catch on in quite the same way as Zoo had done. 

But returning to the Champagne Charlie personae, this is the act that Phoebe describes when observing from Wilton’s balcony – 

A great cheer went up when ‘Charlie’ strode out, wearing his topper and fancy striped pants, and his whiskers resembling walrus tusks. His stage name was really George Leybourne, and very famous he was in those days, driving around in his carriage and four, always waving a bottle of Moet champagne: a living and breathing endorsement for his generous sponsors’ brand. There’d been a time, a few years before, when he’d taken a fancy to my aunt, turning up in the square at all hours of the night, serenading her from our front porch. Cissy always used to ignore him, but Mama would come rushing into my room – which happened to be at the front of the house – insisting I cover my ears with my hands, before raising the sashes and shouting out that George was a scandalous libertine. The last time it happened, she ran down the stairs, opened the door and flew down the steps, trying to hit George on the head with a poker while screaming at the top of her voice for someone to fetch the constabulary. 

In fact, rather than relying on the constabulary, Phoebe’s ‘Mama’ – the prudish Maud – more often takes matters into her own hands, being a great advocate of Temperance, and also a member of my entirely fictional Hallelujah Army: a quasi military organization, very loosely based on the Salvation Army, which often heads out onto the streets with its members waving banners and flags while campaigning against the halls and bars, and any use of alcohol. No doubt they were often singing the hymn,  Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free, with lyrics composed by General Booth, the real-life leader of the Salvation Army – but sung to the Champagne Charlie song, because, as Booth so wisely said, ‘Why Should the Devil have all the best tunes?’ 

So, inside the halls, George Leybourne might be strutting on the stage, entertaining the sinners and drinkers. And meanwhile, outside, the Temperance campaigners would be singing along to the General’s hymn – and my poor narrator – Phoebe – is caught between the two extremes; very much enjoying the glamour and sparkle of the hall, but also feeling guilty, because of her mother’s teachings, and because of those real religious groups (such as the local Methodists), a number of whom once happened to enter the doors of Wilton’s hall and were then so shocked and appalled by whatever they happened to see, that they fell to their knees, right there and then, and prayed for God to break the power of the devil in that place

Phoebe also fears the devil when she goes to stand in the entrance hall and peers through the door that leads on into the Prince of Denmark Public Bar, when – 

...the Devil must have been in me that night, for I was intrigued to step nearer and take a sneaking glance at all of the glistening bottles and glasses, the gleaming brass and mahogany fittings and everything so warm and inviting, glowing with red from a blazing fire. But through the roar of those leaping flames, I’m sure I heard Mama hissing her warnings of Satan and Sin and Inebriation, of Lust and other such Wickedness. From inside came deep rumbles of masculine laughter, some slurred conversations, and then, through the fug of tobacco smoke, I found myself face to face with some weaselly, grinning character. A grog-blossom nose. Two eyes like black buttons that narrowed to slits when he croaked, ‘Why don’t you come in and join the fun? Come on, missy . . . don’t pretend to be shy.’

I worried that Mama was right all along, that drink only led to one thing in the end, and that was ruin and debauchery...A cracked laugh, a crude oath being sworn, and then the bar door was closed again, and the shaft of fiery light from within became no more than a thin line of red – the line over which I must not pass. 

Apart from the sins of alcohol, there was another ‘evil’ that Phoebe’s mother campaigns against, and that is the presence of prostitutes, those missys who did cross the line, and who would definitely not be shy when conversing with any gentleman – although it was said that John Wilton was always striving to enhance his venue’s reputation, and therefore the girls who worked his hall – and I quote from a contemporary newspaper source, were – ‘more wholesome and straightforward looking than the harlots of the Haymarket.’ 

Many of those prostitutes would have mingled with the so-called respectable married men whose wives were allowed musical entertainments – but safely, in the privacy of their drawing rooms, when singing or playing pianos; performing as angels of the hearth, rather than those upon the stage who were often considered to be as doomed as any of those sinners trading their flesh in the balcony.


Towards the end of The Somnambulist I imagined another balcony in an entirely fictional hall that I named the Hoxton Victoria – a larger and grander theatre than Wilton’s Hall could ever be, and the place where Phoebe Turner becomes part of a musical act herself – one of the more romantic ones, when joined by a pianist friend, and a handsome young crooner called Quin Mackenna – and Old Riley who creates all their costumes, and who once worked as a dresser at Wilton’s hall. And here is Phoebe recalling the success of that joint venture – 

We did a stint at the Alhambra, the finest variety theatre in town, but I loved the Hoxton Victoria best. It was where I first started, where we were so often booked to go back, where the decoration was rumoured to be as grand as the Paris Opera House. There were three enormous balconies, curving round to three rows of boxes in front, all reds and golds and exquisite relief. There were classical statues and fancy lights, a domed ceiling that looked like the night-time sky, a painted firmament of stars. 

That decor fitted our act to perfection for there was one song so popular the punters came back again, time after time. And while Mr Collins played the piano, with notes swirling round the hall, Quin – welcomed on by the ladies’ sighs, dressed in his elegant evening attire, a white tie at his throat, a top hat on his head, and holding a silver-topped cane in his hand – would stand beneath the proscenium arch, serenading the box in which I sat, and whenever it came to the final verse he would reach up and hand me a single white rose. 

When we first did it I felt so self-conscious. Honestly, I thought I might faint or be sick. But Old Riley said my quivering nerves only helped to enhance the effect of young love; that the way my cheek flushed then paled so white ensured that the audience really believed. And as time went by, I got used to it all, smiling sweetly whenever I lifted that rose, and then, whoosh, dropping down from above, there came a thousand fluttering stars, all twinkling silver and gold in the limes while the audience sang along with Quin . . . 

There’s a star shining brightly above. 

And now that I’ve seen her my heart is beguiled. 
Cupid has sent out his glistening dart, 
Drawn by the lure of my Phoebe’s smile. 

When night falls and the silver moon shines, 
When the lamps throw out golden puddles of light, 
I dream of drowning in those dark eyes, 
Lying next to my angel, my heart’s delight. 

When Quin wrote those sentimental words, I didn’t mind at all, and years later, ‘Phoebe’ became ‘Phoebus’ with such luminaries as Marie Lloyd taking it up as a part of their acts. But then, at the start, it was all about Quin – and Old Riley had truly excelled herself, though her own appearance grew yet more eccentric – a continuing penchant for wearing hats as individual statements of theatre, with long feathers, stuffed birds, even waxed fruits. I wondered she didn’t steal the act that was currently heading up the bill; I think that performing Russian cat would have happily sat and purred on top.

Well, there really were performing cats – and I’m sure you’ve all heard of Marie Lloyd (who was born in 1870, at the time when Miss Annie Delamonte was singing so demurely at Wilton’s.

Marie was christened Matilda Victoria Wood. She was certainly born to be on the stage, always craving attention – so much that, so that the story goes, when she was no more than a child she attended the funerals of local strangers, where she would weep and wail so convincingly that every eye in would turn her way. She first appeared in a solo act at the tender age of just 15, in Hoxton, at the Eagle Tavern, when she called herself Bella Delmare, and sang of her Soldier Laddie, after which she danced a jig – and so successful was that act that, well – the rest is history.

Although she doesn’t appear as such within my novel’s actual plot, I couldn’t resist mentioning such a vibrant star of the music halls, with whom even the poorest Londoner could easily identify; rather than aspiring to be a wealthy indolent swell in the manner of George Leybourne. Marie used vernacular patterns of speech, rather than florid metaphor. Her act was very strongly attuned to the growing desire to see and hear the more natural ‘Cockney performers’. When she sang: ‘My Old Man said Follow the Van, and Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way’, she was actually describing the scene of a family doing a midnight flit, without hanging around to pay the rent. When she sang ‘The Boy I love is up in the Gallery’ every one in the audience could respond to the heartfelt yearning in Marie’s voice.

But there was more often parody – that cheeky staple of the music hall – making light of everyday problems (personal, professional, and social) and also embracing the imperial craze for patriotic songs of war, such as ‘Now You’ve Got Yer Khaki On.’ 

But what all these music hall songs had in common were their hooks, their catchy choruses, to encourage the audience to sing along – and also to make them laugh. Maire’s lyrics were full of saucy puns, expressed with a knowing but ‘innocent’ smile – and a great deal of charisma. When called before the Vigilence Committee, who were then investigating complaints regarding vulgarity in her work, she called their bluff entirely by launching into a rendition of Tennyson’s Come into the Garden Maud, and with such a degree of lechery that her point was very clearly made: It’s the way you tell em, missis. And Marie could tell em in such a way, the committee were shocked into silence that day! 

Marie was not silenced. She became an international star. When she died, over 50,000 fans lined the streets at her funeral, weeping and wailing as if they had indeed lost their very dearest friend. And yet how ironic it seems, that the child who first performed with her siblings in a troop called The Fairy Bells Minstrels – who sang Temperance songs in the local church halls with titles like, Throw Down the Bottle, and Never Drink Again – that she, very much like George Leybourne before her, died, in part, because of the drink – that, and the exhaustion and stress that accompanied such successful careers.

Both were very young when they died. George was only 42. Marie was just a decade older; both falling ill while on the stage, Marie whilst at the Alhambra. 

The Temperance campaigners sorely failed to persuade them to give up the alcohol. But, the ardent prayers of those Methodists who once fell upon their knees in shame when they saw what went on in Wilton’s hall, were well and truly answered. By 1888 Wilton’s music hall was closed and became a Methodist chapel instead, known as the Mahogany Bar Mission. During the great Dock strike of 1889, it provided some 2,000 meals a day for the starving dockers and their families. It saw Mosely’s March and the Battle of Cable Street. It survived the London Blitz, during which time it was used as a bomb shelter. After that it became a rag warehouse. But by 1971 that enterprise was abandoned and the building was in danger of being demolished by developers – the sad fate of so many other music halls. But, thankfully, when aided by passionate supporters, such as John Betjeman, Wilton’s was protected when granted a Grade 2 listed status by English Heritage. And then, in 1999, its theatrical doors were re-opened again for productions by the Broomhill Opera – back to opera, to where this talk began... 

And just as explained at the start of this talk, you can still visit Wilton’s hall to view regular stage performances – or to join the monthly conducted tours. And I do urge you to do so – to experience its magical, if somewhat faded glory – to actually be able to see one of the original grand halls – and hopefully the hall will endure well into this new century because, though its survival has been at risk, with the building’s fabric so desperately in need of restoration and repair, only last week there came the news of a substantial grant from English Heritage – which means that the future of Wilton’s Hall is now a great deal more secure. 

Perhaps, you’ll see this Wilton's fan, sitting in the audience, raising a glass of Moet Champagne while singing the Champagne Charlie song!


  1. Fascinating read, very informative. Makes me want to go to Wilton's.
    I think it was used as a locatio in the film Dorian Gray?

  2. It's very often used as a screen location, Horus - more recently in The Crimson Petal and the White, and also the latest Poliakoff drama on TV: Dancing on the Edge.