By Wilton's Music Hall
In its day it was said that in the ports of San Francisco Wilton’s was more famous than St Paul’s Cathedral. Music hall is a form of variety performance popular in Britain from around 1850. An evening of music hall might include singing, dancing, comedy, circus and novelty acts.
Wilton’s hosted some of the biggest names in music hall history, including the dashing Champagne Charlie. After decades of neglect, this iconic venue has reopened. In this Expedition, you’ll explore Wilton’s Music Hall and hear about some of the stars of the stage.
Wilton’s Music Hall sits on Graces Alley in the heart of London’s East End. This area was built in the late 17th century and supported the nearby London Docks. John Wilton bought 1–4 Graces Alley one by one in the 1850s, and in 1858 he built the auditorium in the back gardens of the houses.
Originally, this was a narrow street lined with shops. Few of the original neighbouring buildings remain due to bombing during World War II and demolitions in the 1960s.
No. 2, Graces Alley
Long before the music hall came along, many families shared these houses. In 1785, sea captain William Bartlett lived at No. 2. London was the largest trading port in the world, and many sailors and dock workers lived in this area.
No. 4, Graces Alley
The houses were also used as shops and were altered and rebuilt over the years. John Wilton made them into one building. He added Victorian decorations like these lintels to the Georgian-style houses.
Champagne Charlie Arrives
Champagne Charlie was one of the most popular and successful music hall stars. He performed at up to 6 halls a night and arrived at Wilton’s in an open carriage drawn by 4 white horses.
John Wilton Welcomes You
The audience entered Wilton’s through this entrance. Today, Wilton’s has a unique ‘shabby chic’ look. After it closed as a music hall, it was used as a Methodist mission, and then as a rag warehouse.
At one time, it was threatened with demolition and, although saved, it remained semi-derelict for decades. Neglect and unfinished attempts to restore it have altered the building, and the effects have been left to show the hall’s history.
John Wilton had the buildings lavishly decorated with painted panelling and plasterwork with gold leaf. Over the years, this decoration was lost. When Wilton’s was repaired, it was decided to leave it as was to show the journey the building has been on.
John Wilton was a hands-on manager—he lived on the premises, engaged acts, and provided food and drink. One of his greatest responsibilities was to keep an ‘orderly house’ in a ‘notoriously difficult neighbourhood’, or risk losing his license.
Wilton’s became so popular it soon outgrew its first small hall behind number 1 Graces Alley. To accommodate more people, a larger ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’ was built in 1859 across the back of all 4 houses on Graces Alley.
In 1860, Wilton founded the Music Hall Protection Society, which prevented a bill from being introduced in Parliament to restrict music hall entertainment to music and songs without spoken material, scenery, costumes or dramatic content.
Champagne Charlie, Music Hall Star
In this room, Wilton’s celebrates its heritage with a look at the music hall artists that graced its stage and the various organisations that have taken care of the building up to the present. Above the fireplace is a photograph of John Wilton himself.
On display are objects recovered from beneath the floors that tell the story of people who visited and lived here. Champagne Charlie, one of the greatest ‘lions comiques’, dominates the room.
Champagne Charlie’s real name was George Leybourne. He was tall, handsome and very charming, with a deep, baritone voice and a powerful stage presence, all of which helped make him one of the best-remembered stars of music hall.
Moet & Chandon
Leybourne was paid the unprecedented salary of £120 per week. With his cigars and champagne, he kept up the appearance of an upper-class ‘toff’ on and off stage. He was later sponsored by the champagne producers Moet & Chandon.
This is John Wilton, sporting fabulous mutton-chop whiskers. Leybourne wore a style of whiskers known as Piccadilly Weepers. He also wore a top hat, a yellow or puce jacket and tight striped trousers, which showed off his extraordinarily long legs.
Rise and Fall
Leybourne lived in a grand house in Mayfair and was known for his philanthropy. At the age of 42, he died penniless of liver disease and exhaustion, perhaps a victim of the lifestyle he had to maintain as Champagne Charlie.
Annie Adams and the Old Mahogany Bar
Originally called the Prince of Denmark, tradition has it that Wilton’s bar was renamed the Mahogany Bar when the first-of-its-kind mahogany bar was installed.
So well-known was the ‘Old Mahogany Bar’ that the name was kept even when the place was taken over by the teetotaler (non-drinking) Methodist Mission.
The original bar was ‘well-nigh black with age, beautifully carved and very shiny’. The current bar was made for the movie ‘Sherlock Holmes: Book of Shadows’, which was filmed here.
Before the Music Hall
Early music halls, including Wilton’s, originated as concert rooms behind bars. Wilton’s first concert room was built behind the Mahogany Bar. Even when the larger hall was built, the bar served directly into it.
In 1845, the adjacent building collapsed, bringing part of the bar down with it. When this venue ‘where sailors and sea harlots assembled for drunkards’ songs, and theatrical exhibitions’ was rebuilt, it was made even grander.
Annie Adams was one of the stars of early music hall. Born in 1843, Annie was the daughter of a pub and hotel owner. The strength of her voice rattled the glasses in her father’s pub.
London and America
In 1862, Annie made her debut at Barnard’s Music Hall in Chatham and her London debut at Weston’s Music Hall. She was one of the first music hall stars to find fame and fortune in America, where she worked from 1871–1873.
Ellen Wilton, a Perfect Lady
Food and drink was an integral element of music hall. This landing is currently used as a restaurant serving visitors before a show in the hall. Here you can see the different levels across the houses that were joined to form Wilton’s.
You can also see the wall of the music hall that would have originally been outside but is now inside the building. Wilton’s has numerous old exterior walls, roofs and skylights that are now part of the interior.
In 1859, the Theatrical Journal described John’s wife, Ellen, as a woman ‘who is a perfect lady in her manner, and who is very attentive to her own sex’.
Ellen likely played an active part at Wilton’s. Later she became a licensed victualler—she was licensed to sell alcoholic drinks—and took over the Queen Head Hotel in George Street, Richmond.
Mr. and Mrs. Wilton
Ellen Wilton remarried after John’s death but divorced her second husband after 2 years. She was buried next to her first husband, John, in 1896.
Sam Collins at the Cocktail Bar
Wilton’s was derelict for decades, and the decay has been retained to reflect the building’s history. For example, in the bar, the dirt on the windows remains, and a broken pane was left as is. The staircase now goes nowhere. The original outside terrace is now inside.
Despite looking rundown, Wilton’s is a thriving and popular venue. Rundown surroundings like this would have been familiar to the many music hall performers who came from poor backgrounds.
Sam Collins began his working life as a chimney sweep, earning extra money as a pub singer. He became one of the most popular singers of the 1840s and 50s, singing in taverns, supper rooms and large music halls like Wilton’s.
Unlike the toff character Champagne Charlie, Collins wore a brimless top hat, long caped coat, knee breeches, and thick woollen stockings. He carried a shillelagh (a wooden stick) over his shoulder.
Collins was best known for singing Irish comic songs and portraying Irish characters. Among his greatest hits were ‘Paddy’s Wedding’, ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’ and ‘Limerick Races’, which he sang on Wilton’s opening night in March 1859.
Star and Owner
Described as corpulent with a jovial face and cheery manner, Collins was a successful performer and went on to own his own music venue. Collins’ Music Hall opened in 1863.
Madame Senyah’s Leap for Life
This hall was built by John Wilton in 1859. The stage is high to ensure that even those sitting in the balcony had a good view of the performers. Downstairs was reserved for ‘civilians’.
Unaccompanied women were not permitted to sit downstairs and joined sailors and their dates upstairs. Illuminated by a sunburner lamp with 500 gas burners, the hall would have been very bright.
Monsieur and Madame Senyah
All kinds of acts appeared at Wilton’s, including acrobats who performed on tightrope, trapeze, or ropes above the heads of the audience. Trapeze artists Monsieur and Madame Senyah reversed their real name—Haynes—to create an exotic sounding stage name.
Madame Senyah’s Flying Finale
For the show’s climax, Madame Senyah launched herself from the balcony above the audience holding two rings on ropes. Letting go, she grabbed onto Monsieur Senyah, who was hanging upside down on a trapeze, somersaulted, and landed on the stage.
Madame Senyah was the main attraction, but her husband was also an able gymnast. He was able to raise himself on rings while holding on with only one finger of each hand.
The Wilton’s stage is high so that the performers could be seen by audience members sitting on the ground floor as well as those on the balcony. John Wilton sat in front of the stage and acted as Master of Ceremonies, announcing each act.
The hall was not only brightly lit, but also very noisy—the audience ate and drank throughout the performance and were encouraged to sing along to well-known songs.
Wink the Other Eye - Can Can (2008-07-17/2008-08-16)Wilton's Music Hall
In August 1868, the Lucelle Sisters, described as ‘young and captivating damselles’, performed a refined version of the can-can at Wilton’s. The can-can was a high-energy dance popular in the 1840s.
Cross Dressing Can-Can
A male version of the can-can premiered at Wilton’s in 1866. In December 1867, Mlle Finette gave a sensational can-can performance while dressed as a man.
Like most music halls, Wilton’s has very small wings on either side of the stage, so there’s no space for sets or large props. When it first opened, the music hall had mirrored panels across the back of the stage.
Feeding the Audience
These doors lead to the bar. In John Wilton’s day, this area was open to allow food and drink to be served directly from the bar to audience members in the hall, who sat at long tables instead of rows.