Wilton's: The World's Oldest Surviving Music Hall

5 August 2022

During the 1830’s there was an explosion in British entertainment. Public houses had been the natural place for spontaneous singalongs, and publicans had been building on their popularity by bringing singers and entertainers into their establishments. The better the entertainment, the more people turned up, pushing up beer sales and profit margins. Canny publicans realised that there was further potential here. Put in more seats, book an even wider range of talent, and charge an admission fee. Bingo. Britain’s music hall tradition was born.      

Music halls were riotous places.  Unlike the traditional, more staid theatres, these were places where audiences could really unwind. And they were springing up everywhere.  The same canny publicans who bought into the early potential were knocking down their pubs and building brand new, purpose-built music halls in their place. Audiences crammed into the venues to watch magicians, singers, acrobats and more. Music hall songs were loud, bawdy, and worked as satirical comment on the politics and society of the day and the singers that sang them became the scene’s first superstars, with the likes of Marie Lloyd and Little Tich touring the country with their acts.

By the time the First World War was over, music hall had begun to morph into something more sophisticated. The advent of jazz and swing music meant that crowds were changing with the times. Music hall faded, and the variety show took over. 

Rebuilt during the heyday of the music hall phenomenon, Wilston’s Music Hall was originally a seventeenth-century pub built into a row of terraced houses in London’s East End. The pub was bought by John Wilton in the mid-1830s and he extended what had been a saloon bar with a stage into a full-blown music hall that could seat 1,500 eager punters. Wilton went to town on the exterior, installing the very latest in heating and lighting. Soon Wilton’s Music Hall became one of London’s hottest spots.       

However, following a fire, the hall went on to change ownership a number of times, before ending up in the hands of a Methodist church in the early twentieth century and the building’s role as a house of entertainment was forgotten until the late 1990’s. Since then, though, Wilton’s Music Hall has been on the up and up. It’s now a Grade-II listed building and trusts have been in place to care take of the space since the early 2000s. The project set up to renovate the building has succeeded remarkably. The world’s oldest surviving music hall, today Wilton’s is a thing of great beauty.      

You’d be forgiven for walking past the entrance. Music hall frontage was expensive in the nineteenth century, so the way in is via what looks like a (ornate, admittedly) front door.  Once inside, though, you know you’re walking through history, such is the quality of the preservation. The licenced The Mahogany Bar on the ground floor serves a satisfying range of drinks (including cocktails), and then there’s the pizzas. Oh, the pizzas! Made fresh to order, Wilton’s pizzas are top of the range. Available by the slice, people come from miles around just for the pizzas, and there are other snack-style bits available, including gelato from Hackney Gelato, fat olives, ham croquettes, and even a goose meat sausage roll.  Drinks are available to pre-order online before a visit and if the downstairs bar is full, there’s a cocktail bar on the top floor, along with extra seating in various ante rooms.

As for the theatre itself, Wilton’s auditorium now has a capacity of 334 seats, most of which are in the stalls. The hall’s original gallery that runs around two-thirds of the space is still in place and seats another 60 people. Careful restoration means that as many of the original Victorian architectural features have been retained as possible, and it’s easy to imagine raucous music hall crowds cutting loose back in the day. It would be easy to criticise Wilton’s in terms of accessibility but, by its nature, this is an old building full of narrow corridors and stairways. That said, the whole of the ground floor and auditorium is wheelchair accessible and there’s an accessible, gender-neutral toilet on the ground floor.  Wilton’s is staffed by lovely people and they’re more than happy to accommodate individual needs if they can. The nearest tube station is Aldgate East, a ten-minute walk away.

Quite rightly for a theatre space with so much history, the programming at Wilton’s leans towards the interesting and unusual. This is the perfect place to see, for example, German expressionist theatre or a folk music gig. If that’s not your thing, the team also programme plays by emerging and established writers, light opera, cabaret, vaudeville, and the more inventive types of tribute bands. Watching a production at Wilton’s feels like being part of something special, and the whole building manages to encapsulate music hall life in Victorian London, miraculously transported into the 21st century.