Saving Wilton's

Wilton's Music Hall

Once one of London's leading Grand Music Halls, by 1964 Wilton's Music Hall was destined for demolition. It took decades of passionate campaigning to bring the building back to life and then to make it safe. Conservative repair was finally completed in October 2015 and we look back at the long journey it took to save Wilton's.

Wilton's Music Hall had been taken over by the Wesleyan East End Mission in 1888, transforming its reputation as a centre of vice to one of moral guidance. Staying until 1956 the Mission was Wilton's longest serving tenants.

The charitably funded Mission could not maintain the building and sold the decaying structure to Coppermill Rag Merchants who used the hall as a warehouse for sorting materials.

London's East End had been badly damaged in the Blitz; much of the surviving buildings were demolished during subsequent slum clearances. This notice lists Wilton's at Nos. 1/4 Grace's Alley as scheduled for demolition.

Although badly damaged, Wilton's was one of few surviving Victorian music halls. Its significance and looming destruction alarmed preservationists and veteran performers.

Building surveyor and theatre historian John Earl took an early interest in Wilton's and prepared a briefing to combat the London County Council (LCC) at a planning meeting to discuss preservation or demolition

Writer and broadcaster John Betjeman, as a well-known public figure, presented the case and successfully convinced the LCC that Wilton's was worth preserving.

The LCC, soon to be renamed the Greater London Council (GLC) took ownership of the site.

Wilton's survived but over the following years almost the entire surrounding neighbourhood was razed, with few immediate replacements.

The Campaign Begins
Spike Milligan, the famous comedian and writer, took the lead in campaigning for Wilton's in 1970. The GLC owned the site but responsibility for reinvigorating Wilton's would rely on external groups.

Spike wrote to the great and the good to highlight Wilton's plight. This cheeky message to HRH Prince Charles eventually convinced him to become the first patron in 1971; a position he revived in 2006.

As a successful television star himself, Spike convinced the BBC Head of Comedy, Michael Mills, to produce a television special 'The Handsomest Hall in Town' in 1970, featuring major variety stars of the day.

The production crew were able to make cosmetic improvements to the hall but the building remained in a perilous state. Plans were considered for full restoration but momentum could not be sustained, nor sufficient funds raised.

Grand Plans
In 1972 after the initial surge of interest lapsed, Peter Honri took charge of the campaign for Wilton's. Honri had music hall in his blood, as the grandson of music hall star Percy Honri. Along with actor Marius Goring, Honri established the first Trust for the Restoration of Wilton's. He wrote tirelessly to the leading lights of entertainment to raise awareness of Wilton's struggle.

The Trust drew up plans which would include a school of music hall. A disagreement with the GLC erupted when the Trust was denied the lease in favour of the 'socialist' Half Moon Theatre company.

The bitter fight for control delayed any substantial repairs to the building but eventually put the lease back in the hands of the Trust who wished to promote Wilton's as a centre for variety entertainment

The battle for Wilton's had split the Trust members and in 1978 new plans were drawn up on a smaller scale by Peter Honri and architect Peter Newson.

Peter Honri wrote an 'Artistic Blueprint for Wilton's'; the first document to look at programming the venue again as a theatre. It was strongly devoted to variety entertainment and catering in the spirit of the original.

Peters Honri and Newson, enlisted the help of Peters Drew who was redeveloping the nearby Katherine Docks and Delaney, Vicar at the historic All Hallows by the Tower. The group created the new London Music Hall Protection Society.

A launch party was held at All Hallows by the Tower and the project began to build momentum.

Rev. Peter Delaney introduced Liza Minnelli to Wilton's. She went on to host a fundraising gala in support of Wilton's at the Café Royal.

The building was too dangerous to host performances so fundraising events had to be held elsewhere.

A series of events: Wilton's on the Green, on the River, at the NFT, raised awareness but only a small amount of revenue.

Eventually sufficient funds were raised to do initial repairs, first to the exterior of Wilton's, and a new charitable London Music Hall Trust was established.

The auditorium roof was repaired but the building still remained unsafe for performances.

Fantasy and Reality
By the mid-1980s momentum had slowed and many of the original Trust founders were no longer involved with the project. The new Trust changed direction from fundraising to more commercial activities, inspired by the rapid redevelopment of London's Docklands.

New proposals were drawn up which looked less at the restoration of Wilton's and instead at the redevelopment of the area as a themed retail centre called Wilton's World.

Although Wilton's could not be used for live performance it was often used as a location for film, television and music videos. The risqué video for Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Relax was banned by both BBC and MTV.

Whilst the building could be made to look glamorous on screen, the reality was that the structure and especially the front houses were deteriorating.

Wilton's World never developed beyond a concept and income relied on film shoot hires and occasional tours of the derelict site.

By the late 1990s much of the surrounding neighbourhood had been rebuilt and Wilton's remained perilously derelict. In 1997, for the first time since the 1880s, a theatrical production had a short, very successful run.

The Waste Land starred Fiona Shaw. The audience had to be guided into the hall and warned to wear jackets in the unheated December cold. The production was a critical success and proved Wilton's as a viable, if challenging, performance space.

Low to High
By strange fortune, the Broomhill Opera Company had not long lost their Theatre and were looking for a permanent base. After the success of The Waste Land, Broomhill were interested in taking on Wilton's but a massive investment was needed to bring the hall into regular use. Comedian Rory Bremner, who was writing their translation of Kurt Weill's Der Silbersee, led the effort to make urgent, essential repairs.

Mark Dornford-May was Musical Director of Broomhill Opera, previously based at David Saloman's House in Kent. The company had been running since the early 1990's with a focus on making opera accessible to all.

With support from the local community and Jewson builders, Broomhill repaired the auditorium enough for limited theatrical performances.

The Silver Lake, Bremner's translation of Weill's opera Der Silbersee opened at Wilton's in 1998. Broomhill offered a 'pay what you can' policy to attract local residents who might otherwise not see opera.

Under Dornford-May and Music Director Charles Hazelwood, Broomhill staged productions including The Beggar's Opera and The Turn of the Screw.

In 2000 Broomhill started a collaboration with the Spier Festival, South Africa. Productions were cast cross-racial and across gender, performed in seven languages and drew on South African music heritage.

Yiimimangoliso, a reinterpretation of the Chester Mystery Plays was a critical success and performed in repertory with the second collaboration Carmen at Wilton's in 2001, followed by Ibali Loo Tsotsi, the Beggars Opera in 2002.

Return of Wilton's
After failing to win BBC competition programme RESTORATION, which would have funded further repairs, and with Broomhill Opera focusing on touring their successful productions, Wilton's required new management. In 2004 Frances Mayhew took over as the Artistic Director, leading the newly formed Wilton's Music Hall Trust. Initially given six months to improve the fortunes of the site, she increased the scope of productions and events.

Performances included straight plays, some of which incorporated the atmospheric space of Wilton's to the production such as The Leningrad Siege and Amadeus.

Other eclectic events and programming brought in much needed income which was used to stabilise and gradually improve the building.

Wilton's became a producing and receiving house, with a number of successful partnerships, including music from the Kreutzer Quartet and a return to opera in a series of shows with Transition Opera.

Sasha Regan's Union Theatre brought all male productions of Pirates of Penzance and Iolanthe.

And Wink the Other Eye brought music hall traditions back to tell the story of John Wilton's music hall.

Ping Pong tournaments provided another use and the Mahogany Bar was able to be reopened. With much greater numbers of people coming through the doors Wilton's became a popular venue, renowned for it's 'shabby chic' look.

Although more open that it had been in 50 years. Wilton's remained structurally unstable, with 40% of the building still derelict and inaccessible.

Major fundraising was needed to finally save the building, after an initial failed Lottery bid the SITA Trust, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and many other trusts and individuals came forward to donate funds and raised just over a million pounds to restore the auditorium.

The restored hall reopened in 2013. Tim Ronalds Architects made the structre sound but retained the unique patina of the space.

The hall returned to hosting an eclectic programme of productions.

And Wilton's cemented its status as an East London landmark. Here providing lighting for A Ship's Opera event in the Pool of London.

With the success of the hall, Wilton's was given Heritage Lottery Funding to complete restoration across the remaining building, following a policy of conservative repair with minimal intervention.

The challenge was to maintain the unique charm and character of Wilton's after decades of disrepair with as few interventions as possible, yet make the building watertight and structurally sound.

The completed restoration has delighted audiences with quirky features. Different layers throughout the building revealing hidden roofs and windows.

Severely derelict and abandoned spaces were repaired. No. 1 Graces Alley had no rear wall and a dangerous second floor.

The formerly inaccessible area became a studio space. Across the site, heritage features were maintained whilst allowing new spaces to greatly increase the scope of Wilton's offer.

Reopening in October 2015, the restoration won four RIBA awards.

Wilton's runs a popular theatrical programme, as well as learning and outreach programme, activites and history tours.

As well as hosting events, filming and community groups.

And the Mahogany Bar serves guests every night of the week, a suitable end to 50 years of fighting for survival.

Credits: Story

Exhibit curated by James White

Wilton's Music Hall

Holly Kendrick, Executive Director
James White, Archives and Interpretation Manager
Carole Zeidman, Researcher and Historian

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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