The Master’s musical theme for his year was continued with a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End of London which 25 of us visited on 9 May.
Wilton’s is the oldest surviving Grand Music Hall and is also the finest surviving music hall in the world. There is an alehouse at the front of the building that was built in the mid 1740’s. In the mid- 19th century the licensing laws forbade the sale of alcohol at theatres but sale was allowed where musical entertainment was provided. Consequently, no new theatres were built at that time and the era of the music hall was ushered in. John Wilton had the vision to build a music hall behind the alehouse and the other buildings at the front.
The Hall, which has now been lovingly restored, is magnificent but it is difficult to believe that well over 1,000 people could attend a performance. John Wilton put a mahogany bar in the alehouse and it is still known as the Mahogany Bar even though no mahogany now remains. The mid-19th century City of London dignitaries of the time were quite upset that the Mahogany Bar was better known by sailors in the North American ports than St. Paul’s Cathedral!
The popularity of music halls faded comparatively quickly and Wilton’s only remained in business until 1881 when it was sold to the Wesleyan Methodists who renamed it the Mahogany Bar Mission to help the poor of the crime ridden East End.
The Methodists sold the building to the Coppermill Rag Warehouse in 1956 following which the building fell into decay. Wilton’s and the surrounding buildings were threatened with demolition but it was saved by a campaign by John Betjeman. However, the extensive renovation has only been possible with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Following the enjoyable tour we adjourned to Leman Street and the nearby gastropub, the Dispensary which, by coincidence, was also built in 1858. The Dispensary prides itself on its good food getting its fish fresh daily from Billingsgate Market and its meat from Smithfield. All seemed to enjoy the 3 course supper with wine and some were heard making a booking to eat there in the future.