This is a short alley leading to a former public square lined with nice houses, but the alley is now much more famous than the public square.
Originally called Well Close Square, the area was laid out in 1694, with a Danish and Norwegian Church in the centre. Daniel Defoe mentions the square is his book “A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain” (1724). He says that there used to be a well in the centre of the square. It was also known as Goodman’s Field’s Well.
The Danish church was demolished in 1870 as the congregation had generally moved away by then and it had long ceased to be a parishioners church. The land was sold off for a school for the children of seamen, and they built their own church for St Paul, and that’s where the school, St Paul’s Whitechapel gets its name.
So what was a grand square is now a sealed off plot of land for a school.
But leading to the square is an alley, Graces Alley, and it would normally be an unremarkable passage, lined with houses, if it wasn’t for something else that’s down here – Wilton’s Music Hall.
This is one of the last surviving music halls in East London, and was built in the back gardens behind the row of 18th-century houses facing the alley, with three houses that had been an alehouse converted into space for the music hall staff. So when people go inside, they’re effectively walking through what would have been the living room and kitchen of someone’s home to get to the hall behind.
The hall’s history is well documented, being burnt down in 1877, rebuilt, handed to a church mission, and eventually closed down in the 1950s. A campaign to save the hall from slum clearance succeeded in preserving the building, but it was sold by the GLC to a private company for redevelopment. Fortunately, it was saved again by a campaign to link the nearby development to saving the hall, and it staggered for a couple of decades until finally, the current Trust that runs it took over in 2001, and after some structural repairs, it’s now regularly open as a theatre and concert hall.
Retaining much of its appearance of decay, the outside of the Hall facing Graces Alley looks delightfully shabby, but structurally sound and gives the alley its unique air of a hidden gem down a side passage you wouldn’t otherwise walk down.
The rest of the alley is occupied by a modern row of flats built in the mid-1990s, Sapphire Court, which officially has its address on the side road, Ensign Street, rather than the alley they face.
The south side of the alley was also lined with houses, and a pub on the corner, but the area was badly damaged during WW2. In the post-war slum clearance, the area was designated for a new primary school, which still occupies the site today. The former row of houses are now the playground for the school.
However, that’s all set to change as the school closed last August due to declining pupil numbers making it unviable. The future for the site is not decided yet, but it’ll almost certainly be housing built by the council.
But the alley’s main attraction is undeniably the Music Hall.