Wilton’s, London: the world’s oldest music hall

Auditorium. Wilton's Music Hall, London
Auditorium. Wilton's Music Hall, London

Step inside this piece of living history and be transported back to an era of decadence and glamour, or join one of the regular tours to learn more about the building’s riveting heyday…

Entrance to Wilton's Music Hall, east London
Entrance to Wilton’s Music Hall, east London

Secreted away in a corner of east London – a maze of dark alleyways and forgotten shopfronts – is Wilton’s, the oldest surviving grand music hall in the world, which still pays homage to the frivolous days of bardy entertainment of the mid 19th century.

From the outside it doesn’t look like much – a rather worn facade may pique your interest, little else – but step through its doors and you’ll discover one of the capital’s best-kept secrets: an exciting theatrical space and opulent drinking den rolled into one.

Beginning life as an alehouse way back in 1743 (or perhaps even earlier), which could well have served the sea captains and merchants who lived in nearby Wellclose Square, today Wilton’s comprises a Victorian grand music hall, an 18th-century terrace of houses and a pub.

The venue opened as a music hall in 1859 under the keen eye of John Wilton, who furnished it lavishly with chandeliers and mirrors, and during its initial 30 years tenure in this guise it was known to host some of the most memorable acts of the day.

During the impoverished years of the end of the 19th century the venue was purchased by the East London Methodist Mission, which used it as a soup kitchen, among other things.

The building miraculously survived the Blitz but post war it was earmarked for demolition before being saved thanks to a campaign by the likes of poet Sir John Betjeman and comedians Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan, which led to it being listed as a Grade II building in 1971.

However, the building lay empty from 1956 until reopening as a theatre and concert hall in 1997 and the current Managing and Artistic Director Frances Mayhew saved it from another period of decay when she took over in 2004.

Auditorium. Wilton's Music Hall, London
Auditorium. Wilton’s Music Hall, London

One of our favourite places for a drink in the capital is the venue’s Mahogany Bar, which dates from around 1725 and is so-called because in 1828 it became one of the first public houses to be fitted with elaborate mahogany furnishings. It was so popular among the sailing community that it was often said that sailors might not have heard of St Paul’s Cathedral but they knew exactly where to find the Mahogany Bar.

Undoubtedly the highlight of Wilton’s though is its auditorium, which still hosts dance parties, and where you can almost hear the cackling of excitable patrons who were tickled by the on-stage antics of the entertainers.

There are regular events in which to soak up this unique atmosphere – think swing dances, big band nights and (new for 2015) contemporary classical music concerts – but the best way to get to know this building is on one of the regular history tours, which take place most Mondays from 6pm-7pm and occasional Saturdays and cost just £6. Check the Wilton’s website for available dates.

Wilton’s is currently undergoing major restoration work, which is due to be completed in autumn, and which will see a further 40% of this magnificent building open up to the public, some parts for the first time. Whether you wait for the work to be completed or visit before, we implore you to search out this evocative place.

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