At Wilton’s Music Hall
Wilton’s Music Hall by Marc Gooderham
When The Gentle Author invited me to take over for a week my first thought – being daunted and flattered in equal measure – was to visit Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley, just off Leman St in Whitechapel, since my book Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders was partly inspired by a visit to Wilton’s a couple of years back in the company of a group of conservation officers and old building specialists.
I work just up the road from Wilton’s in Spitalfields at The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and during that first visit I tagged along on a field trip organised as part of a course being run by the Society. Hard hats were an essential element of our costume for the afternoon since Wilton’s Music Hall was pretty much a building site at that time. But while everyone else was knowledgably tapping the Acro-props in the bar and admiring the exposed, structural elements of the building as they mulled over the gritty conservation challenges ahead, I was inhaling the atmosphere – spellbound by the faded beauty around me and the stories it whispered. I think the seed for Kitty Peck was sown that afternoon.
In 2010, The Gentle Author interviewed Frances Mayhew – the surprisingly youthful guiding hand behind the resurgence of the oldest surviving ‘grand music hall’ in the world. Back then, Frances had been at the helm for five years. Thanks to various grants and donations from trusts and individuals she had already managed to raise enough money to make the auditorium safe for the foreseeable future, but she was keenly aware of the enormous tasks that lay ahead – not least tackling the subsidence caused by crumbling Victorian drains, gently parting the theatre from the Georgian buildings that run along its frontage in Graces Alley.
When I visited at the end of June, the building was buzzing with energy. Glowing with excitement, Frances told me the news. Wilton’s had won its first Heritage Lottery Fund grant – £1.85 million, allowing essential stabilisation and development work to begin on the four buildings (just) attached to her theatre. This is where the offices, front of house, bar and meeting rooms are housed in a warren of intriguing spaces – and now that the auditorium is secure, this area is key to Frances’ plans for the future.
She grinned broadly as she talked about the success of the bid – news so fresh that it was under embargo. “It’s fantastic,” she said. “In effect, it means that for the next three years, as the work goes on around us, I will be running the most amazing community and education project – involving SPAB and the Buildings Craft College and about twenty-five primary schools, three high schools and thousands of volunteers. It’s going to be hard graft – and I think we’re all going to become the modern equivalent of dockers!”
“The grant will enable us to do all sorts of wonderful things. We’ll get to two studios, an archive, a visitor room – to be known as The John Wilton Room – there will be rehearsal spaces and I’ll also put the archive online and improve the cafe. As well as being a performance space, Wilton’s will have rooms to rent, rooms to study in, and rooms to just hang out in. It means we will be open all the time, days and evenings. And, most importantly ,it will be so much fun – a whole new chapter.”
Wilton’s is already crammed with stories but Frances’ own story is one of the most inspiring. She first became aware of the Music Hall while an intern for previous occupants, Broomhill Opera, and as a classically trained recorder player, she expected to be working there as a musician … but she was wrong.
“I had the grottiest jobs. I had to clean out pigeon shit, handle the dead rats and generally remove God-knows-what from the gutters. A few years later, when I found out that Wilton’s was threatened with bankruptcy and that Wetherspoons were on the verge of taking it over – quite honestly – my first thought was not, ‘What a sad thing to happen to such a beautiful building.’ No – what actually went through my mind was, ‘I don’t believe it! I worked my nuts off for that place – day and night for those people, opening and closing and cleaning and sweeping and dusting and delving in gutters. That is not going to happen. I won’t let it.’”
Admitting that she was probably swept away on a wave of romance, Frances stepped in with a bold offer to run Wilton’s single-handedly to pay off its debts.“The experience with the opera company gave me a grounding in how to look after a delicate old building, so I knew what it would entail and what to do. But once I’d done it, there was only me. Every night I’d wake up and I couldn’t get back to sleep because my heart was beating with fear. I used to race in here every day, stay all day, work all weekend and all through the night. I did fall in love with the building, but there was also a huge element of wanting to do the right thing for it.” Nine years later, she and her partner Filippo de Capitani, Technical Director, are still doing the right things for Wilton’s.
Filippo is the creative drive behind the Wilton’s App - centred on the true tale of a nineteenth century female performer who took theatre owner John Wilton to court alleging that her costumes had been damaged due to his his negligence. Wilton argued successfully that the guilt lay instead with a young boy working for the hall, who was ultimately fined. The App revisits that story and takes the viewer on a mystery tour through the building to seek clues to discover what really happened.
As ‘Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders’ is full of strong female characters – a particular fascination of mine – I could not resist asking Frances about some of the women associated with Wilton’s. She reeled off a string of evocative names – The Sisters Gilbey Gifford, daring Jewish trapeze artist, Madame Senyah, and, most fascinatingly, Welsh Nightingale Annie Delamont, who was sent to prison after being convicted of both bigamy and incest. There were obviously plenty of stories there, but let me admit that the tale which most caught my attention involved a murder.
In Wilton’s Victorian heyday, a drunken heckler was attacked so violently from the stage by an angry performer that he died from his head wounds. Astonishingly, when the case came to the Old Bailey, the victim’s wife gave evidence on behalf of the performer, explaining that her husband had been “most excessively drunk and abusive” and probably deserved it. The contrite performer was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to just two weeks’ imprisonment because the victim had provoked his own injury. It makes modern stories of outraged actors admonishing mobile phone users in their audience seem tame by comparison.
Frances confessed she admires the spirit of reckless abandon which infused the music halls of the nineteenth century, adding that sometimes she wishes she could recapture that element of the unexpected. “People came from all walks of life looking for excitement. Alongside the dock workers, there were women in amazing silk gowns, men in gorgeous top hats, and foreign sailors, fresh off the boats and searching for entertainment. You have to remember that Wilton’s was world famous back then, more of a landmark for some people than St Paul’s Cathedral. You came here and you didn’t know what to expect, but you hoped it would be exciting – either as an observer or as a participant. It was simply a great big, rowdy pub with a stage. Occasionally, I regret that we’ve lost that element of surprise …” Frances grins, “Although maybe not the murder!”
One thing is certain. Now that the grant has enabled the next phase of her vision for the world’s oldest music hall to be fulfilled, the next three years at Wilton’s are going to be far from ordinary. I’ll leave you today with an observation about Wilton’s from a newspaper circa 1880.
“Through the little hall, where the lady money-taker sits placidly in her sentry-box, passed two lady patrons who are vainly attempting to come in to the downstairs room, and who are mildly but firmly informed that young ladies without escort are all expected to sit upstairs, and passing into the open you learn that two policemen-looking men at the door are kept there by the proprietor to scrutinise visitors and to exclude all who have been convicted of unruliness or open impropriety. The poetry may not always be as well-chosen as the music, the stars may, to an hypercritical eye, twinkle and grow pale, but there is no doubt that under the paternal despotism which, as a form of government, Wilton’s Music Hall is, in its way, as carefully conducted and affords as much gratification as if it had titled ladies for its patrons, Hanover Square for its locality and the spread of classical music for its aim.”
Frances Mayhew, Director of Wilton’s – “People always ask to speak to Mr Mayhew”
Photographs copyright © Stephen Griffin
Wilton’s Music Hall, 1 Graces Alley, E1 8JB
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