Wilton’s Music Hall is one of London’s most historically significant venues. The oldest surviving Grand Music Hall in the world, building dates back to 1858 and has been both a rag warehouse and a Methodist Mission – but thanks to a dire lack of funding and a rejected bid for Lottery Heritage funds, its future is now in doubt. Exeunt met Wilton’s Director Frances Mayhew to talk about where now for Wilton’s, and how a unique corporate volunteering scheme is helping keep the wolf from the door.
Tucked down a side street in an unlovely part of London, Wilton’s is a venue unlike any other. From the outside, it is relatively unprepossessing, but step through the doors and you might be stepping back a century. The history of the place is writ large over the very structure of the building, from its bare brick walls to the uneven stone floors – so much so that when a woman dressed in period costume strolls past me, having strayed in from a rehearsal, I do a double take, wondering for a moment if I’ve actually slipped through time. It’s hardly surprising that it’s been used as a backdrop filming historical dramas, from Little Dorritt to Guy Ritchie’s sequel to Sherlock Holmes.
But Wilton’s faces a very modern problem: with arts funding stripped to the bone, it is one of the many organisations struggling for survival in the brave new world of Big Society. And if it goes, a priceless piece of London’s theatrical landscape will be lost forever. For Director Frances Mayhew, who has been with Wilton’s for seven years, this would be a tragedy for more than one reason.
“There aren’t many buildings that grab you the minute you walk in,” says Mayhew, a slender, smiling blonde woman who bristles with passion and enthusiasm for her role. “It’s an intriguing place – the hall is stunning, everything you put on there seems to be amazing. You’re in a room that is talking history.”
But Wilton’s is also a cultural oasis in an area that, for all its tourist allure, is one of the poorest in London. “We do a lot that involves the local community – kids’ shows, free film screenings, concerts, even sometimes hosting health clinics.” But these valuable services are at risk thanks to the building’s increasing dereliction. “We used to do a lot of educational work but unfortunately, given how strict schools’ health and safety requirements are, we’ve had to stop doing those until we can carry out the repairs, which is a real shame for us and for the children.”
Given its financial peril, it’s hardly surprising that the organisation relies heavily on volunteer help. “We simply couldn’t survive without our family of volunteers,” explains Mayhew. “We have a lot of local residents who get involved – they help us out with everything from the box office to design work. One volunteer even spent several nights building us a computer server!”