The first time I went to Wilton’s Music Hall was in 2011. I’d gone to see the film director Michael Winner talk about his life and career. It was a dramatic evening – at one point, an audience member collapsed (can you collapse if you are already sitting down) and later on, Mr Winner himself almost choked on a cough sweet.
The Grade II listed building has a long and fascinating history. Originally a row of terraced houses built in the 1690s, by the 1820s, it had began its gradual transformation as the houses were knocked together – from house to tavern to theatre.
Located near the docks, it became a popular drinking spot where, to quote one 19th century description, “sailors and sea harlots assembled for drunkards’ songs and theatrical exhibitions.” But it wasn’t just the audiences that were tough, according to one story, a performer became so outraged by the drunkenness of one sailor in the audience that he leapt from the stage, bludgeoned him to death and climbed back on stage to continue the show.
As the popularity of music hall declined, and the notoriety of the east end of London grew, the performances stopped. The building became a Methodist hall, and then a warehouse for storing rags. Following the second world war, the building faced demolition but was saved after a successful campaign supported by a range of public figures including Sir John Betjeman and Spike Milligan.
After decades of disrepair, the building is now up and running as a performance space once again following extensive renovation work. The engineering side of the renovation project was overseen by our client Max Fordham and this morning I had the great privilege of going on a guided tour of the building led by Luke Winterton who was heavily involved in the project.
The beauty of the renovation is in the delicacy of each intervention. The rich and colourful legacy of the building has been preserved, ensuring that the building is able to tell its own story. Rather than resorting to pastiche and attempting to restore it to an imagined version of what it once may have looked like, the scratchy, messy, ad-hoc character of the building has been celebrated.
There are stairways that lead nowhere:
Pipes that are no longer connected to anything:
Confusing pockets of the outside world inside:
And possibly the most beautiful light switches I have ever seen:
And the main hall doesn’t look too bad either I suppose: