Down an East End alley can be found the decaying frontage of one of London’s last surviving music halls — and they offer tours of the building.
Wilton’s Music Hall started as a house that turned into a pub, then expanded a bit next door to create a salon theatre, and when that was popular built a small music hall over their back gardens.
That is not the music hall that’s there today though, because in 1859, a much larger hall, with a crowded capacity for 1,500 people was built on the site.
That is not the music hall that’s there today though either, as that one burnt down in 1877, and was replaced, but fortunately, with a near replica, so what we see today looks like the original, but aint.
The music moved out though, and the hall was bought by the Methodist Church, who occupied the site right up to 1956, when it was sold to a warehouse, and nearly demolished in the 1960s as by then it was in quite a poor state.
An alliance of worthies, including Sir John Betjeman, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan campaigned to save it, which they succeeded at, but it kept being passed through different owners, each trying to slow the decay of the building.
It was at the turn of the millennium that a large injection of funding secured its future.
So why does it look like it’s still decaying? Well, that’s partly a deliberate decision to conserve what’s there rather than restore it to some arbitrary point in the past. But also because it’s been hired out for filming so many times that many layers of paint and effects have been added to the walls that they look decaying, but are often quite recent.
It’s now a full-time theatre and venue for hire, with a bar at the front that’s open to locals, and they offer semi-regular tours around the building. The tours are a mix of the history of the building, and a chance to take loads upon loads of photos of the main hall, which isn’t usually possible as the hall is only open when there’s a performance happening.
The first time I visited all the way back in 2009, the ground floor of the hall was empty, but they’ve recently raised money to buy much better seating than they used to put out, much to the relief of many a bum that sat on the old seats.
There’s a lot of artist history here, from the very early days of music halls and the time of Champagne Charlie right up to modern pop songs and films. Some of the film sets being left behind were repurposed around the building, such as the bar, which came from the Sherlock movie. Even the music hall signs on the front door are from an old film set.
The tour winds its way around the building, into a few nooks, and a chance to peer down into a deep void and stand in a newish space squashed in between the back of the old houses and the music hall built on their gardens.
Much like the building, the tours are very atmospheric and it’s a good way of wandering around the building when mostly empty of people coming here for a performance. It’s also a good news story, of a building that was saved from destruction, had many loving but poor carers trying to keep the rain out, and then a triumphant return to life as a public venue.
The tours are generally not during the summer months, as the hall is more often hired out for weddings, so tend to run from September through to around March time.
They always take place on a Saturday at 5pm, and last about an hour.
Tickets cost just £10 per person and are available from here.
Photography is allowed everywhere, except if you wander in on an actor rehearsing.
Wiltons’s Music Hall is a short walk from Tower Hill or Aldgate East tube stations.