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Big Read: Wilton’s Music Hall in Shadwell to be rescued with help from Newham craft students

PUBLISHED: 15:02 07 July 2013 | UPDATED: 15:31 07 July 2013

Managing director Frances Mayhew at the Wilton's Music Hall auditorium.

Managing director Frances Mayhew at the Wilton's Music Hall auditorium.

Archant

Only two years ago the managing director of the world’s oldest music hall feared for its future after losing out on more than £2million of lottery funding.

The Wilton's Music Hall in Graces Alley.The Wilton's Music Hall in Graces Alley.

Wilton’s Music Hall, a Grade II listed building tucked away in Graces Alley, off Cable Street, Shadwell, was literally falling down around Frances Mayhew – with the wind blowing through cracks in the crumbling brickwork.

But after years of battling for the home of the original Can Can dance to be rescued she is feeling “relieved” as the venue’s future has been secured thanks to a £1.85million Heritage Lottery grant.

It was announced in June and will rescue the five Georgian houses that make up the front of Wilton’s.

Due to finish in 2015 the restoration project will open up a further 40 per cent of the building, currently derelict, bringing unseen and unused spaces back to life and making them accessible for the first time.

A paper reproduction of the old Victorian theatre at the Wilton's Music Hall shop.A paper reproduction of the old Victorian theatre at the Wilton's Music Hall shop.

“This is finally it. There were times when staff must have doubted what they were doing here. But the building will now be saved for generations to come, ” she said.

It is not a glamorous make-over bringing the theatre back to its cabaret heyday, when Can-Can girls strutted their stuff and famous actors such as Champagne Charlie trod the boards after its opening in 1858.

Instead it is all about making the building structurally sound and preventing the floors and ceilings of the three storey building from falling in.

So despite the decadent charm of the venue which many love, it was a hard sell to raise the funds needed, Ms Mayhew explains.

Theatre volunteer Kerri Sullivan, left, and her mother Jill look at cabinet curiosities inside Wilton's Music Hall.Theatre volunteer Kerri Sullivan, left, and her mother Jill look at cabinet curiosities inside Wilton's Music Hall.

But after losing out on a their lottery bid back in 2011, so much support poured in from fans and small organisations that the trust behind the venue was able to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds towards restoring the auditorium, which has just re-opened.

Ms Mayhew said: “The publicity after we lost the bid really helped and it was thanks to all the money raised that we could then go back to the lottery to say we then needed £1.85million instead of £2.3million to do the work.”

The money raised has also helped open up the top floor, where space has been put into use as a cocktail bar along with a ping-pong room.

The place is buzzing as Ms Mayhew takes us through to the downstairs Mahogany Bar where live music is often performed. Everyone from theatre folk to nearby city workers and locals pop in, and with a large block of student accommodation about to open nearby Ms Mayhew is excited that they will soon have a new audience.

History of Wilton’s Music Hall

Wilton’s is the oldest surviving grand musical hall of its kind in the world.

It belongs to the first generation of public house music halls that appeared in London during the 1850s and which only 50 years later had all but disappeared.

Originally five terraced houses, John Wilton opened Wilton’s Music Hall in 1858.

It was build by Jacob Maggs on the site of a former concert room of a pub.

The bar itself was retained as the public entrance and the hall was built in the area behind the existing block of houses. This was common practise as street frontage for music halls were very expensive.

Wilton’s heyday as a music hall lasted just 22 years

It was taken over by a Methodist Mission, which used the building until 1956. It served 2,000 meals a day during the first dockers’ strike of 1889 and was used as a safe house during the 1936 Battle of Cable Street.

During the Second World War it provided shelter for those bombed out of their homes and in the 1950s it became a sorting place for rags.

It is now run as a theatre and arts venue owned by the Wilton’s Music Hall Trust.

Inside the auditorium the stage is set for a current production of the American novel The Great Gatsby, which was also recently given an up-to-date Hollywood makeover for the cinemas.

Wilton’s has itself served as a film location for the recent Sherlock Holmes sequel and a BBC period drama.

It is also regularly provides a backdrop for fashion shoots and auditions and has hosted pop concerts. The venue is even hired out for weddings to help keep it afloat.

But the space is also used for history tours and community meetings and nearby school children visit to learn about the Victorians, as part of their curriculum.

Ms Mayhew said: “One of the difficulties is that the communities around here are very transient so it’s places like schools that we need to reach out to to make sure future generations know about and care about this building.”

The restoration project includes creating a new learning and participation studio for children and others to learn about theatre productions.

Students from the Building Crafts College in Stratford are also being brought in to help with the restoration project, under the guidance of expert conservation architects firm Tim Renolds.

They will not only be learning about repairing the fabric of the building but also how to “fake it” as they set about putting in a missing period ceiling.

The music hall was built on the site of a former pub and at the back of five existing terraced houses, and water pipes still run under the middle of the theatre.

But the pipes don’t run anywhere, as they did not have drainage in the 18th century when people lived in the houses.

In the past the basement has therefore regularly flooded, costing thousands of pounds to bring in a drainage company.

So putting in pipes to provide proper water supply and wiring the building to give it electricity for the first time are some of the basics needed.

The lighting will also help put on later shows, as parts of the building are currently too dark to use in the evenings. So the show can now go on.

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