The history of Wilton’s Music Hall by John Earl

Wilton’s Music Hall is the product of that historically crucial period, 1850 to 1870, during which the first ‘classic’ music halls emerged. It was, until comparatively recent clearances, totally concealed behind what was once the Prince of Denmark pub in Graces Alley, leading from Well Street (now Ensign Street) to Marine Square (now Wellclose Square)

The land which was to be laid out with Marine Square and its approaches was purchased from the Crown in 1682 by Nicholas Barbon. Building leases of terms ‘not exceeding 61 years’ were granted to a variety of lessees from 1683, but progress seems to have occurred slowly over the next 10 years or more. Although seventeenth century artifacts have been found on site no fabric of this first period of building is now recognisable. What is seen today is probably the result of rebuilding when the first leases expired in the mid-eighteenth century, followed by modi€cations and improvements in the nineteenth century. Straight joints between the facades suggest that the eighteenth century rebuildings were sequential rather than simultaneous.

The name of the pub is unlikely to have been inspired by Hamlet, but rather by the presence of Scandinavian merchant families who attended the Danish church in the Square and by the importance to the local economy of the Baltic timber trade. Small, low grade pub concert rooms and dance halls, designed (like the local gambling houses, opium dens and brothels) to attract sailors and part them from their money, were to be found at close intervals along the Highway and other dockside streets.

In 1828, when Matthew Eltham first held the license, the Prince of Denmark was no more than a three-windows-wide building between party walls in a row of otherwise two-bay premises of domestic scale. The neighbours were, at different times, a pastry cook, an importer of leeches, a hairdresser and a tobacconist. The Wellclose Square area was, at that time, socially mixed, with the houses of well-to-do timber merchants a short step away from distressed and dangerous warrens in which one of the principal industries was providing for the entertainment and exploitation of the thousands of seafarers who came to the Port of London from all parts of the world.

The City reaches of the East End had had a strong theatrical tradition. In 1741, David Garrick made his first London appearance in Odell’s Goodman’s Fields theatre in Alie Street, a few hundred yards from the Square. The Garrick Saloon theatre in Leman Street was active from 1831 and the Whitechapel Pavilion, a little farther away, from 1828. The theatre site which was actually nearest to the Prince of Denmark was that of the Royalty, built in 1787, but this had been replaced in 1828 by the short-lived Royal Brunswick which fell down in that year and was never rebuilt.

Eltham’s lease was long enough to justify some investment in what might have been seen as one of the better locations in a visibly declining but heavily populated, hard drinking, fast spending area. He was reputedly one of the first publicans to install mahogany counters and €ttings. As a result, although the pub retained its old name, it became far better known locally as the Mahogany Bar, a name which was, until quite recent times, still current. The Mahogany Bar was said to have been ‘better known on the water fronts of San Francisco than St Paul’s Cathedral’.

The Albion Saloon, as it was known, was not allowed to open before 5pm. Drinking and smoking were forbidden in the auditorium, no refreshment tickets were to be issued (‘wet money’, with the value of a refreshment ticket being redeemable in drink, was the normal way of charging for admission to concert rooms) and the place had to be given a separate entrance through the rear yard so that patrons would not have to pass through bars or taprooms.It could only be a matter of time before all pretence of running a theatre was dropped. Eltham returned to non-dramatic, variety entertainment with a concert room licensed by the magistrates, followed up with energy and enterprise by his successor, John Wilton, from Bath. Wilton took over from Eltham in 1850.

John Wilton had had some previous concert room experience, having chaired the meetings at Dr Johnson’s Tavern in Fleet Street. In 1853 he rebuilt the old saloon as a concert room, 40 to 47ft long by 25 ft wide. This room had a balcony supported on iron columns on three sides and a stage with a light canvas and wood proscenium. It was a more than averagely well appointed performance space for artistes and audience, not a mere room for free-and-easies. Dressing rooms were provided under the stage for singers who, Wilton said, would be ‘singing in character’.

The new room’s location on a totally enclosed site with a 40ft long, narrow entrance corridor passing through the pub, made it, in the eyes of an inspecting official a hideously dangerous place, but there were, at the time, no regulations concerning safety from fire and no legal grounds for refusing to certify the building as fit to receive the public. An of€cial noted that ‘though called a concert room, (this) is to all intents and purposes a theatre’. Similar remarks made around this time by inspecting of€cers in relation to other pub additions, mark the emergence of a new building type – the music hall.

Shortly after opening, an additional link was built, a corrugated iron covered, woodlined bridge linking the balcony with a first floor ‘supplementary refreshment room’ in the pub. Its main purpose was to facilitate drink sales. It had the undoubted merit of being an additional means of escape but its construction, ironically, made it a fire risk in itself. This, John Wilton’s first hall, whose axis lay across that of the present hall, was run up by Thomas Ennor, a builder. No professional designer seems to have been involved, but in 1855 an architect, S.C. Aubrey of Dalston, was brought in to carry out improvements, providing stone staircases to the balcony and making it deeper at the south end.

A Metropolitan Buildings Office record of a conference in February 1853 refers to the activities of an ‘architect from Bath’ who was building a concert room (unidentified) in Whitechapel. If this was the Maggs of Bath, credited with having designed Wilton’s great hall in 1859, it is at least possible that he was also responsible for this building, which was under construction in March 1853. By this time, Wilton was also the owner of at least one, probably two adjoining houses. An enlarged entrance and stone staircase were formed within No.2 Graces Alley, which had probably been acquired by Eltham some years earlier.

It is not clear whether any parts of these works survive today but what is known of the way in which bits of buildings were repeatedly recycled in theatres and music halls (in order to reduce loss of income on closure, as much as to save money on construction) makes it more likely than not that the present state of the entrance derives in part from the 1855 improvements.

Wilton’s first Mahogany Bar Concert Room was calling itself Wilton’s Music Hall in its advertisements from at least 1854 and the foundation stone laid by Mrs Ellen Wilton in 1858 makes it clear that this was to be the name of the magnificent new hall. It was nearly 75ft long and 40ft wide, flat floored, with a carton pierre bombe-fronted balcony on three sides, supported on cast iron columns of curious helical spiral form. The original stage was set in an apse, lined with Gothic-framed mirrors. At the opposite end was a shallower apsidal recess which probably backed a refreshment counter. There was a servery link between the pub and the hall near the stage end.

The gas lighting included, in the centre of the ceiling, a ‘huge sunlight’ or sunbumer by Defries providing both light and forced air extract. The decorative plaster work was by White and Parlby and the decorations, in ‘subdued white’ and gold leaf, by Homan or Holman. There is no architectural warning of the presence of this room. The first patrons who walked through the unremarkable entrance from the Alley in March 1859 and crossed the little stone-paved hallway alongside the main bar room, either walking up the plain stone stairs facing, or manoeuvring themselves through the doorway in the passageway beneath, must have been astonished at their first sight of the great hall.

In such a place and at such a time it would certainly have been a breathtaking experience. The suddenly revealed view is, in fact, as effective today as it was when the hall was new.

Copyright John Earl and Wilton’s Music Hall.