Hidden down a small alleyway just off Cable Street in Shadwell sits a building that is something of a time capsule, ready to transport you to the London of days gone by. Indeed, the magical Wilton’s Music Hall is something you really have to see to believe. This atmospheric slice of Victoriana is an authentic celebration of the East End’s musical heritage. This building once housed one of London’s most popular music halls over 150 years ago and has been re-opened today to host many a modern, and many a good old-fashioned, London knees-up.
The quintessential London music hall was a mix of the cultures of the East End’s Yiddish Musical Theatres and traditional working men’s pubs. By the 1850s, the pub was the go-to social destination for London’s working classes, and, a few beers later, often turned into a good old drunken singalong. This trend led to music hall venues being built that were more specifically designed for both performers and punters to drink, sing and dance. They were larger than pubs, often with a stage at the front, but, although they may have looked somewhat like a theatre, the atmosphere was vastly different. Food and drink were served for people to enjoy during the performance. It was a chatty, convivial, singalong atmosphere, far from the prissy theatres of the West End. Music halls were a working class and East End pastime, through and through. So raucous were they, that they often included single-galleried balconies for single ladies to stay away from the drunken rabble below. These creative places were the birthplace of many catchy, innuendo-ridden songs we still know today, from “Don’t Dilly Dally On The Way” to “Any Old Iron”. Many would say the fun-loving, fast-paced, quick-witted nature of the entertainers at these establishments gave birth to a quintessentially British form of variety entertainment. Music halls remained popular in the East End right through until the 1960s, and with subsequent nightlife trends being European ballroom dance halls, American discos and now international-feeling super-clubs, perhaps it could be said that they are the last uniquely British form of nightlife.
The ground on which Wilton’s stands was originally used for an alehouse in the 18thcentury, before becoming a saloon bar with a concert space. When it was eventually opened as a music hall in 1859, its popularity took off almost immediately. It was jam-packed with over 1000 punters, drinking, smoking and dancing the night away. They would queue around the block for the chance to see some of the top showbiz names of the time. In its heyday, it played host to George Ware, who wrote “The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery” and George Leybourne, who wrote “Champagne Charlie”. Despite its popularity, by 1881, it had sadly fallen into disrepair.
However, the beautiful musical hall of a bygone era has returned in its original building in Shadwell. Its period nineteenth-century cast-iron pillars and galleried balcony remain intact, making it a truly special sight to behold. The original features are complemented by a range of Victorian-style décor, including intricate woodwork and glamorous but faded chandeliers, all in keeping with the down at heel 19thcentury feel. It’s all very shabby chic, which only adds to its mysterious charm – you can almost hear “A Long Way To Tipperary” echoing off the walls. Indeed, sometimes you can, as Wilton’s Music Hall continues to host plenty of old school knees-up singalong events, as part of their diverse schedule of theatre, music and cabaret. So stick on your whistle n flute, warm up your Hobson’s choice and get on down to Wilton’s and sing along to the Old Joanna for a truly unforgettable East End experience.
Emma Parker and Shaamar Samuel