Wilton's Music Hall is the world's oldest surviving grand Victorian music hall. The Wilton's Music Hall archive, now part of the V&A's National Collection of Performing Arts, charts the chequered history of this iconic performance venue, from its Victorian music hall heyday to its dereliction, restoration and redevelopment as a vibrant contemporary multi-arts venue.
Founded by John Wilton in 1853, the music hall was constructed from five houses on Grace's Alley in London's culturally diverse East End. Located close to the London docks, Wilton's Music Hall attracted the transient audiences who came to variety shows and to the famous Mahogany Bar, as well as the greatest music hall talents of the day. A sketch dating to 1871 – one of only two known depictions of Wilton's during its time as a music hall – shows a lively scene at the height of the hall's fame, including the stage, the "artistes", the Mahogany Bar and the audience sitting drinking at tables. The hall's distinctive 'barley twist' columns are still recogniseable today.
Wilton's had a varied career over the next 100 years. As a Methodist Mission from 1888 until 1956, Wilton's offered support for the poor East End neighbourhood and campaigned against crime and vice. It acted as a soup kitchen during the docker's strike of 1889 and worked to bring tea to air raid shelters throughout the Blitz during the Second World War. Having survived the Blitz, the building stood in as a rag sorting warehouse in 1956. But by the 1960s the threat of destruction loomed. The Music Hall archive includes a London County Council Demolition notice from 1964 informing local residents of the intended imminent destruction of Wilton's properties 1 – 4 Graces Alley and 17 Wellclose Square.
However campaigners fought to protect the beloved former music hall. Among them was the poet and comedian Spike Milligan, whose letters can be found in the archive, alongside photographs and sketches that document the campaign. In the 1970s, the building was awarded Grade II listed status and attempts were made by various groups to restore Wilton's. The building itself stood in isolation, all neighbouring structures having been demolished. Enough money was raised for essential repairs to the roof, but not sufficient to secure the building. Despite initial repairs, the music hall became derelict.
The disused, atmospheric space began to attracted artists, filmmakers and television producers. The first film to be shot there was Karel Reisz's Isadora (1968), followed by Spike Milligan's recreation of a night at Wilton's The Handsomest Hall in Town (1970), and the music video for Kate Bush's Wow (1979). British pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood shot the notorious music video for their debut single, Relax at Wilton's in the early 1980s. A behind-the-scenes photograph in the archive documents the risqué video shoot, which saw Wilton's converted into an S&M club, filled with leathermen, live tigers, and perhaps more dangerous for the vulnerable building, straw floors and real fire cauldrons. The video was later banned by both the BBC and MTV.
The earliest known plan to restore Wilton's Music Hall dates to around 1969. The elaborate designs envisaged by Roderick Gradidge were conceived as restoring the glamour of its music hall heyday. In practice, they would have destroyed much of the historic fabric of the building and the restoration plan failed.
Neverthless, in 1997, Wilton's reopened as a live performance venue with a limited run of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw, which was hugely successful. Many critics commented on how suited Wilton's was to the desolate mood of Eliot's poem. The archive includes photos of the façade of the building during the run of the performance as well as a poster, which will join photographs of the original production captured by the V&A Department of Theatre and Performance. The archive also includes handmade tickets, fashioned from old beer boxes and stamped with Wilton's logo, from the years before Wilton's restoration. Without the funds for a ticketing system, the hall's Marketing team had to improvise and operate a make do and mend policy to keep the venue open.
In 2015, some 50 years after the first restoration plans were made, a Heritage Lottery Funded programme of conservative repair, designed by Tim Ronalds Architects, completed building restoration. Maintaining Wilton's unique character, the conservative repair has been hailed as a success and has won four RIBA awards. Today Wilton's is fast becoming one of the UK's most vibrant multi-arts venues, home to a year-round programme of live music and theatre productions.
Now part of the V&A's National Collection of Performing Arts, the Wilton's Music Hall archive has been reunited with other documents relating to the venue already held in the Museum's collections, including the venue's first photographic survey, as well as some of its earliest depictions in film. The archive will continue to expand and the V&A will work with Wilton's Music Hall to capture performance at the historic venue by recording productions for the National Video Archive of Performance.
Find out more about Music Hall and Variety Theatre in the V&A's collection.