David Mason, Wilton’s Music Hall
When I arrived to meet David Mason yesterday afternoon in the bar at Wilton’s Music Hall, the only person sitting there was a man who looked so at home I imagined he must be the caretaker, not David. In fact, this was David, who grew up in the flat above Wilton’s when his father was caretaker in the nineteen fifties and – more than half a century after he moved out – he still feels comfortable in the old place.
Although it was known as the Old Mahogany Bar when David’s family moved into four rooms up above in 1951, the building was not a music hall then but a Methodist chapel. “My father knew it had been a music hall,” David explained to me, “The story we were told was that Wilton’s was thought to be a place of debauchery, and one day three Methodists walking past were so shocked they bought tickets and kneeled down in front of the stage and prayed that it would one day be a place of worship – and, lo and behold, eighty years later the Methodists got it!”
Even in this incarnation, the old music hall was a place of wonder for a small child, granted free run of the building. “When I was eight, my father had to spend ten nights away in hospital. He said, ‘You’re the man of the house.’ and I had to go round with a torch in the dark checking all the locks at night. It was scary, I thought every single noise was someone creeping up on me,” David recalled affectionately, as we walked through the atmospheric empty theatre yesterday.
In 1951 when David was three, his younger brother and sister, John and Jean, were born unexpectedly as twins and the family could no longer live in two rooms in the Peabody Buildings in John Fisher St. His father, Harry, was offered number three Grace’s Alley by Mr Willis the minister in return for care-taking duties, stoking and lighting the boiler, laying out tables and chairs for prayer meeting and some occasional do it yourself, which included knocking up the little wooden cross for the altar. “My parents were married here in the Old Mahogany Bar,” David told me, gesturing around the empty bar where we sat, “He worked for the Port of London Authority as a docker in St Katherine’s Dock and his nan’s family were sugar bakers, they came from Ship Alley in Wellclose Sq – and my mother’s family came from Backchurch Lane.”
David went to St Paul’s opposite the music hall, a Church of England school presided over by Father Joe Williamson known as ‘Holy Joe.’ “He could walk into a fight in Cable St and kneel down and pray and they would stop brawling,” David assured me. The difference between the Methodism at the chapel and the Church of England practices at school was a source of bewilderment to David at an early age. “I was deeply confused, they covered their cross sometimes but we never did, and ours didn’t have a Jesus on it while theirs did. I asked one of the Methodist sisters why our cross did not have Jesus and she said, ‘We believe Jesus rose from the cross,’ but I think the real reason was that my dad made the cross and he couldn’t carve.”
In those days, the London Docks were still active and Wapping was scattered with bombsites where, as a child, David was free to wander. He remembers ships chandlers and mapmakers in the surrounding streets that were inhabited by a closely-knit community including significant numbers of Greek, Maltese and Turkish people. Before the slum clearance programme, Wellclose Sq and Swedenborg Sq stood lined with shambolic old houses and connected by a warren of alleys, in which was Roy’s sweet shop that David remembers as the last place he spent a farthing.
“My dad said that before the war they used to have a book appreciation club and I remember going with him to a Jewish-owned record shop in Aldgate where he reminisced about the record appreciation society. They had a Boys’ Brigade, Scouts, Magic Lantern Shows and there were Methodist Union meetings where ministers from other religions came to explain their beliefs. When we moved in, there was a still a youth club and there were always old ladies sitting knitting and chatting, but during the fifties they had fewer and fewer prayer meetings and my dad had to open up less and less, until it died.”
“In 1959, we were given fourteen days notice to leave by the Methodists and nobody was willing to help.” David confessed to me, “My dad wasn’t a bible bashing type, he wasn’t overtly religious even, but he went to church all his life and he carried the soldier’s prayer in the pocket of his battledress jacket. So I think it hurt him after all this time to feel we were being thrown out. The upshoot was we ended up in three rooms belonging to the Port of London Authority near the Woolwich Ferry and that was the end of our contact with this place.”
At fourteen years old, David came back to get his eyes tested at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and took a stroll alone down to Wapping to see what was going on at his former home, now owned by the GLC. “I rang the bell that said ‘Ring for caretaker’ but no-one answered so I turned to walk away and a gruff voice called, ‘Who are you? What do you want?’ I explained that I used to live there and I knew how many steps there were up to the flat, and he let me in, saying, ‘You really did live here, didn’t you?’” Since David left, the building had become a warehouse for rags, guarded by fierce dogs that were described to him by a friend as “all-stations.”
Returning in recent years to witness the re-opening of Wilton’s Music Hall and visit the space he once knew intimately has been an equivocal experience for David, as he confided to me, “The first time I came back there was a lot of strings being pulled in my heart. I never thought I’d stand in the Old Mahogany Bar in the Methodist chapel and have a glass of wine to drink!” These days, David teaches Painting and Decorating at Barking and Dagenham College and now hopes to bring his students along to Wilton’s to repaint the old place one day, once the structural work is complete.
“I have only got happy memories here, we laughed all the time – but when I lived here there didn’t seem to be as much love for the place as there is now, even though it is in such a state” he concluded, “When I come back now it isn’t like the place I grew up in, it’s a foreign country. It wasn’t the best of places then, yet it did have something – you could call it soul.”
Wilton’s Music Hall was known as the Old Mahogany Bar when David grew up here in the fifties.
Davis’s parents, Anne & Harry Mason, were married in the Old Mahogany Bar at Wilton’s.
St Paul’s School Wellclose Sq where David went to school.
St Paul’s School viewed from the living room window at Wilton’s.
The infants class at St Paul’s photographed on the lawn outside Wilton’s – Miss Webb and Father Joe Williamson (known as Holy Joe) officiate. David sits in the front row directly to the right of the sign.
David’s mother and younger brother John on the roof of Wilton’s where they grew tomatoes and flowers.
David stands in the space once occupied by the flat where he grew up.
David with his mother and the twins in the living room at Wilton’s.
David sits by the fireplace of his former childhood flat. “We used to light this fire at Christmas and have fourteen relatives round – nan, uncles, aunts and cousins..”
David with his nan and the twins. “Her name was Elizer Wiegle and she was of German extraction, and used to attend the Lutheran Church in Alie St.”
David sits on the big staircase at Wilton’s.
Methodist activities at Wilton’s in the fifties.
David recalls reading the theatre’s foundation stone by torchlight with his father as a child.
John Claridge’s portrait of the caretaker at Wilton’s, 1964, after the theatre became a rag store.
Sarah Ainslie’s portrait of Frances Mayhew, current director at Wilton’s Music Hall.
Caretaker portrait copyright © John Claridge
Frances Mayhew portrait copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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