The handsomest hall in town

Wilton's Music Hall, Grace's Alley, Tower Hamlets, London (1995)

Wilton’s Music Hall, Grace’s Alley, Tower Hamlets, London (1995)

At the gym I sit on the exercise-bike, retarding the ageing process and idly watching the music-video channel on the flat-screen TV.  Much of the footage is pretentious twaddle, but it’s entertaining to spot the locations used.  Recently I noticed some dramatically lit, high-powered dancing going on around barley-sugar columns that could only be Wilton’s Music Hall, in Grace’s Alley, Tower Hamlets, built in 1858 behind an earlier pub called the Prince of Denmark, otherwise known as the Old Mahogany Bar.

Like many music halls, Wilton’s auditorium was built on back-land behind an existing pub.  Invisible from the street, it was, and is, entered through the pub frontage in a terrace of five houses.  John Wilton intended his spacious hall to be used purely for variety entertainment:  the proscenium is set high above the auditorium floor and there is no wing-space to speak of.

The helical twist ‘barley-sugar’ columns support the balcony of one of the few surviving pub music-halls of the mid-nineteenth century.  Its bombé-fronted balcony is decorated with papier-mâché gilded leaves and flowers.  The original flat floor was gently raked after a serious fire in 1877, yet it was clearly originally intended for patrons to sit at tables to drink, rather than in seated rows to watch.

Like most such halls it closed shortly after the passing of the Metropolis Management Act of 1878, which tightened the licensing requirements for auditoria, and it became a Wesleyan Mission Hall from 1888 to 1956 and then a rag-warehouse.

It was rescued by the Greater London Council ten years later, and a series of restoration schemes gradually brought it back to life.  Richard Attenborough used it as a location in Chaplin (1992) in a scene where Geraldine Chaplin plays her grandmother, Hannah.

Now it is in the care of the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust, with a varied diet of entertainments and a full diary of private bookings, including music-video shoots.  Their website includes full details of what’s on and an excellent virtual tour.

Update:  The Ancient Monuments Society Newsletter (Autumn 2012) reports that Wilton’s Music Hall has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £1,641,800.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.


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