WILTON’S FOR THE EAST END: The untold story

I was the lay chair of the Half Moon Theatre Company in Stepney in the mid-1970s when its growing popularity meant larger premises were needed.

At the time the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) was very active in Equity, the actors’ union. WRP members were also very active at the Half Moon, so initially there were mixed feelings about a proposed move to the nearby and near derelict Wilton’s Music Hall, in Graces Alley off Stepney’s historic Cable Street. 

Wilton’s great champion at the time was Marius Goring. A celebrated actor and one of the founding members of Equity, he was regarded as an arch-reactionary by the WRP whose members included Vanessa and Corin Redgrave as well as numerous regular cast members at the Half Moon.

Property speculators were already buying up everything around the old Alie Street synagogue in which Maurice Colbourne, Michael Irving and Guy Sprung had set up the theatre in 1972. The dilapidated building had a great  atmosphere, enhanced by the fact that two of the founders and two Irish setters lived upstairs.

The theatre’s early performances had quickly established the Half Moon as one of London’s most challenging fringe theatres. Opening with Bertold Brecht’s In the Jungle of the Cities, it had followed up Alkestis by Euripides. But the Half Moon really began to attract attention with Will Wat, and if not, What Will?, an ensemble piece about the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and Sean O’Casey’s anti-war play The Silver Tassie. With the welcoming White Swan pub next door and East London’s oldest Indian restaurant, the Halal, across the street, it was the soon the come-to place for London’s lefties.

East enders only began to come to the theatre in numbers when local children took to the stage to reenact the 1911 East End school children’s strike in Fall In and Follow Me by Bethnal Green actor-writer Billy Colvill. Some were shocked and others delighted by Terry Greer’s music hall retelling of the notorious Whitechapel murders, Ripper! which came next. And the theatre garnered support from trades unionists when Communist Jack Dash played the dockers’ leader John Burns in Get Off My Back. Ex-docker Johnnie Quarrell’s history of the London docks tackled a burning current local issue and would later tour Tower Hamlets.

With the theatre’s growing popularity and the changing local environment it was clear a new home would have to be found. A move to Wilton’s would have been a shift in the right direction.

Goring had set up the Wilton Hall Trust with plans to bring music hall back to the East End, but there had been local opposition. Since being forced to close as a fire risk in 1880, Wilton’s had served at various times as a Methodist Mission and as a centre of community activity from the days of General Strike to the wartime years. But it had fallen into disrepair, and during the 1960s languished as a warehouse for old clothes. The Poet Laureate John Betjeman and the London Music Hall Society saved it from demolition and won it listed status. The building was acquired by the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1966. 

Goring was far from happy when, ten years later, the then Labour GLC granted a development lease to the Half Moon in February 1976. His plans had already been thwarted once, when Island Records put in a bid to turn it into a night club but pulled out as they considered the cost prohibitive.

By now Billy Colvill’s touring play about the ‘sus laws’ Spare us a Copper was exciting interest among a new generation locally, and the Half Moon Young People’s Theatre was born. The theatre also hit the headlines with its boisterous production of George Davis Is Innocent OK, which grew out of a sensational campaign run by the friends and family of a local cab driver whom they claimed was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

The next production, The Good Woman of Wapping, another reworking of a Brecht classic, was an attempt by the Half Moon to identify itself with the local scene. Its ‘adult’ pantomimes were also proving very popular and many of the regular performers would go on to become familiar names of stage and screen including Alan Ford, Anthony Sher, Colm Meaney, Ken Morley, Maggie Steed, Phillip McGough and Rynagh O’Grady. 

Its new director Pam Brighton moved into the Stephen and Matilda Tenants’ Co-op close to Tower Bridge, with her son Boris. She wanted Wilton’s to become ”The largest socialist theatre in Europe”.

It was an ambition that won support from local residents but upset Tory councillors on the GLC. To bring Wilton’s back to life, the theatre would have prove it could raise enough money for overall refurbishment, preferably before the GLC elections scheduled for May 1977 when the Tories expected to overturn Labour’s 22 seat majority.

An initial target of £168,000 would make the auditorium habitable, and renovate the Old Mahogany Bar. John Wilton had built his Music Hall in 1858 as an extension to the function room of the adjacent Prince of Denmark Tavern. The pub’s mahogany furniture had earned it that nickname among the regulars, and the Half Moon hoped to regenerate its popularity.

Arbel Jones, who was leading the theatre’s efforts, told the Hackney Gazette they were confident of finding the money not only to reopen the theatre but to revitalise the surrounding area. (‘Music Hall coming back in Stepney and Hoxton’, HG, 27 Feb 1976)

“Eventually we would like to see the site developing into a community arts complex, with a bookshop, a printing press, a pub, a cafe, a day nursery and a variety of workshops.,” she said, admitting that might take ten years, but work on the theatre itself could be completed in six, at a cost of more than £400,000. Meanwhile the plan was to have the place ready for performances within 18 months.

A project office was opened in Graces Alley, next door to Wilton’s and by 14 April 1977 when the music hall was opened to the press and public, the team were able to announce finance packages worth £210,000.  The total included grants of £35,000 promised by the Arts Council and £13,000 from Tower Hamlets Council, which was also offering an interest free loan of £50,000. Fullers Brewery were put in £10,000. The icing on the cake was an unexpected offer from Peter Drew managing Director of St Katharine-by-the-Tower, Taylor Woodrow’s nearby multi million development project, to cover the necessary building works at cost.

Cllr. Bernard Brooke-Partridge, the Tory arts spokesperson on the GLC was dismissive of the Half Moon’s aspirations and it was clear that if the Tories won the upcoming GLC elections, the theatre’s plans would be in jeopardy.

Last minute betrayal 

The Half Moon spent some £11,000 devising its plans and chasing the necessary funding and were confident this would silence the doubters before the 5 May elections. But it was not to be. The Tories romped home, taking control of County Hall with 64 seats to Labour’s 28. And, in extraordinarily cynical move, at the last minute Peter Drew withdrew his support.

Part of my brief as chair of the theatre was to ensure deeper engagement with the local community, and a ‘Wilton’s for the East End’ campaign was launched when it became clear the Tories would not honour the GLC’s commitment to the Half Moon.

I began a protracted correspondence with Cllr. Herbert Sandford, new chair of the GCL Central Planning Board which would make the final decision. He admitted “I got landed with this one. I hadn’t heard of Wiltons till I came into office”. 

Conflicting messages began to emerge about what he and his colleagues had in mind. I met with him on 13 July and he indicated that a decision on Wiltons “will be made in the very near future”.

On 22 July he wrote to say he had met with the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets Council Paul Beasley and suggested we meet again. “My officers are looking into the question of setting up a trust and the extent of your involvement in such a scheme.”

He wrote again on 4 August apologising for the continued uncertainty about the situation, and mentioned an internal meeting he had had that day at which “some new developments and some further points arose”.

A lengthy article in the the London Evening Standard was the first indication we had that Taylor Woodrow were being offered Wilton’s, and even had plans to dismantle it and rebuild it on the St Katharine Dock, to join the Dicken’s Inn.

Brook-Partridge was quoted as saying he would never allow public funds over which he had control to be used to finance a politically motivated theatre. (‘Eclipse of the Half Moon’s theatre hope’, LES, 18 Aug 1977)

Within days Sandford wrote to inform me that the GLC “has had an offer from a commercial company to rehabilitate Wilton’s Music Hall and operate it as a music hall at no cost to the public”. His officers were still investigating the offer, but the message of his final sentence was clear “It does occur to me that … the many offers of financial assistance you have had might well enable you to find larger and more adequate premises.”

In my response I pointed out that the theatre had been waiting for a final decision since the end of 1976, and spent 20% of its annual budget in assembling its proposals and raising cash specifically for the restoration of Wilton’s. “We would remind you that the last commercial offer for Wilton’s proved to be a failure, and that of all the functioning interests concerned with Wiltons we are the longest surviving, and the only one actually producing the goods in the area.”

Shortly afterwards Taylor Woodrow’s Drew claimed to the East London Advertiser that he had been approached by the GLC to save Wiltons without using public funds.  “We have always been interested in seeing Wilton’s reopened,” said Drew, but as a music hall not a theatre. “We have not made any legally binding offer over Wilton’s, and if local people do not want us to take it over then that is OK by us,” he insisted. (‘Wilton’s theatre which way now?’, ELA, 26 Aug 1977)

Agit-prop theatre

Though some at the theatre were disheartened, his words gave added impetus to Wilton’s For the East End campaign supporters. ‘Save it!’ posters and leaflets began to appear in the neighbourhood, along with a fresh bout of fundraising.

Over the summer we persuaded the long-suffering caretaker Joseph Marsham to allow a TV crew to have a look round the old music hall. We smuggled in Patrick Barlow of from the National Theatre of Brent, who quickly transformed into his outrageous alter ego Henrietta Sluggett for a bit of agit-prop theatre. The TV crew came across her ensconced in a room on the first floor, complete with a chintzy tea set. She explained that she was squatting in the building until it was handed back to the East End. That came as a bit of a surprise all round.

It was was one of several stunts we pulled to keep attention on the campaign. Theatre designer Mick Bearwish and I, along with two others, painted ourselves red and donned red overalls like the figures on Taylor Woodrow’s famous logo. Supervised by Tower Hamlet’s Arts chief Phil Shepherd in a full ‘bosses’ outfit including a top hat, we tied a tug-o-war rope to Wilton’s and mimicked the logo by attempting to pull the building towards the St Katharine Dock. Then we leapt into a van and drove to St Paul’s Cathedral where we tied the rope to its pillars and tugged, much to the surprise of Japanese tourists who had no idea what was going on. 

From there we went to the South Bank and tried to drag the National Theatre towards Docklands, handing out leaflets all the while. The Monument got a tug too, though there were few witnesses.  

Sir Ashley Bramall, Labour GLC Councilor for Bethnal Green and Bow, who backed the Half Moon’s bid wrote to me on 6 September saying he was ‘appalled … at the idea that Wilton’s should be moved into an entirely artificial situation within St Katherine’s Dock (sic).’  But he warned that further stunts might be counter-productive.

‘I am afraid that the very strong political orientation of [the Half Moon] has resulted in a reaction on the part of the new Conservative GLC and if anything is to be saved it is important that the steps taken to save it should not be such as to strengthen their hostility.”

On the same day, the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets Council Paul Beasley. wrote admitting that Peter Drew had expressed ‘second thoughts’ about his support as long ago as March because he thought the Half Moon’s productions ‘too political’. Beasley had urged him to inform the theatre but Drew never advised the Half Moon of his intentions. 

By October there was still no formal indication of the GLC’s position. Louis Bondy, a Labour councillor for Islington North sought assurances from Sandford that the building would be preserved for its proper purposes. 

Sandford replied, somewhat cryptically, that he supported “the aim of preserving as much of the fabric as possible” and that it would be in use ”for entertainment of a poplar nature which can be expected to appeal to and be regularly supported by large audience, a large proportion of whom, would, I hope, be Londoners”. 

He went on to say he had been in discussion with “interested parties” and hoped to produce a report on the granting of a lease “at least cost to public funds”.

Asked about the idea of the building being relocated he said “we must have an open mind” but mentioned the possibility that a road might run through it “within the next 20 years” and commented “might not its location have more popular appeal by the riverside”.

War of words

I wrote again to him same day calling on him to declare his hand formally about the future of Wilton’s. I listed more than 60 London theatres and local community organisations supporting our campaign, alongside celebrities including East End stars Alfie Bass, Miriam Karlin and David Kossoff, boxer John H Stracey, comic Spike Milligan, models Patti Boyd and Flanagan, musicians Eric Clapton and Mike Westbrook, singer Queenie Watts and writer Barrie Keefe, as well as Ellis Ashton, Chair of the British Music Hall Society and the Bishop of Stepney Trevor Huddlestone.

Speaking of the disgust felt locally that the lease should be granted to Taylor  Woodrow since they had originally supported the Half Moon bid, I wrote: ‘To even suggest that Wilton’s be uprooted ad transplanted to become a riverside tourist trap is both an insult to East Enders and a ridiculous use of a building which owes its history to the use it has seen in its existing site.’

Acknowledging that Sandford had not joined the chorus of right wing political objections to the Half Moon I explained that members of the charity’s Management Committee shared a wide range of views but ‘it is true that most of us would call ourselves socialists who abhor racism and fascism.

My letter went on: ’To attack the Half Moon’s bid for Wilton’s in terms of the individual political views of its members, is not only to dangerously confuse issues in a way you yourself have decried, but is to ignore the whole basis of our application … – that we have been asked by local organisations to run Wilton’s as a local entertainment centre, and that is what we intend to do. If that is seen as a political act the you must turn to your colleagues for definitions of the terms they are using.’

Sandford visited the theatre to see Andy Smith’s Victorian pre-Christmas melodrama Grand Larceny, then penned a lengthy justification of his decision to reject the theatre’s plans in The Stage and Television Today,. ‘[T]he Half Moon wished to create a theatre workshop, a youth project and community activities. All these things were perhaps desirable in the area but were hardly compatible with the original use of this fine surviving building,’ he wrote. (‘Wilton’s will live again’, TSTV, 22 Dec. 1977)

He was speaking here about a building that had been a focus of community activities for longer than it had been a centre for working class entertainment. 

He went on ’The highly complex and expensive task of restoration and Wilton’s continued visibility, were matters of considerable concern to the GLC. It was understandable that the Half Moon could not satisfy us that the financial support was available to them.’

It should be recalled that the GLC had once wanted to bulldoze the building, and then left it to rot for more than a decade, and that the Half Moon’s financial guarantees had been undermined on the night of the GLC election by Peter Drew’s cynical withdrawal of Taylor Woodrow’s support.  

Sandford continued: ‘Comment has been made of political bias against the Half Moon. Whilst my colleague and I would not agree with some of the underlying messages in some of their productions … the GLC does not act as a censor to theatrical matters. If there is a demand for the Half Moon’s type of entertainment we would have no wish to discourage them, but is Wilton’s the place for it?’ 

The writing was on the wall but all was not over yet. Earlier in December Labour members had threatened to stall any final decision unless the Half Moon were given a chance to say “whether they have further submissions to make”. So the year ended with the door half open, while the Central Area Board continued negotiating with what was described as the proposed Wilton’s Music Hall Restoration Ltd.

In March 1978 Cllr Louis Bondy and his Holborn colleague Cllr Richard Collins were back in action on the Half Moon’s behalf. They demanded to know what was now happening with Wilton’s since Sandford had knocked back the theatre company’s bid before Christmas. The Tory planning chief  had to admit that the people he was negotiating with were still not constituted as a bona fide company, nor had they registered as a charity,

Half Moon administrator Loesja Saunders was horrified. “This is irresponsible’” she told the East London Advertiser “Restoration is bound to cost more, and heaven knows how long it will take for them to sort out all the legal hassles. It took us long enough, and we had been in operation for four years. Wilton’s Music Hall should be a place of fun and laughter, but it is beginning to feel like the biggest tragedy since Hamlet.” (‘A place of fun and laughter! It feels more like a tragedy’ ELA, 31/3/78).

Politics as fun

Meanwhile the Half Moon was continuing to demonstrate that politics could be fun. Its 1978 season began with rave reviews for Simon Callow extra odinary performance as a Chicago gangster in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Then there was the first ever UK performance of the multi-talented Italian Dario Fo’s ‘Marxist farce’ We Can’t pay? We Won’t Pay! with Frances de la Tour and Denis Lawson, which was to go on tour with Miriam Karlin. 

The Half Moon had already become the venue for the leading touring companies of the day including John McGrath’s 7:84, the feminist Monstrous Regiment, and Belt and Braces which brought Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist to Alie Street in 1979, with a barnstorming performance by Alfred Molina.  

The search for a new home was becoming urgent. The possibility of taking over the University House Settlement in Bethnal Green was investigated, but then came the chance of moving to an abandoned Welsh Methodist chapel on the Mile End Road in Stepney Green. Work started on its conversion while productions continued in Alie Street. 

To introduce Half Moon regulars to the new venue a ground-breaking ‘walkabout’ production of Hamlet, with France de la Tour in the title role, took place in the midst of the refurbishment, in 1979. The next production in the new home was Pal Joey with Denis Lawson and Sian Phillips. A musical based on the stories of John O’Hara it too was a huge success and transferred to the West End in 1980.

Denouement

On 25 May 1978 The Times reported the planned rebirth of John Wilton’s London Music Hall Protection Society as a limited company with Peter Honri as Artistic Director alongside two GLC councillors and Peter Drew director of Taylor Woodrow’s luxury development on St Katharine’s Dock.

Launching an appeal for £750,000 Drew, said “The romance of the music hall is easy to sell, but what we need is money, There are too many people in this city who have been talking about the poor East End, and now Wilton’s is an opportunity for them to prove themselves in personal terms.”

In the event Wilton’s did not come back into theatrical for another 20 years, by which time the GLC itself had been disbanded by Maggie Thatcher. A London Music Hall Trust, supposed beneficiary of the GLC’s decision to block the Half Moon bid, was not properly constituted until 1982. But it was not until 1999 that the South African Broomhill Opera Company obtained a lease from the London Residual Authority.

Broomhill changed it name to Wilton’s Music Hall in 2004, when the expensive task of properly restoring the building at last got underway. It was only completed in 2015.

The Half Moon Theatre Company went into voluntary liquidation in 1990 but productions continued with the Half Moon Youth Theatre becoming an independent company and transferring to a new base in White Horse Road, Stepney where it still functions as a community theatre.

The Half Moon’s Stepney Green home retained its name and a theatrical theme when it reopened as a Wetherspoon’s pub in the mid-1990s.

  • The dramatic history of the Half Moon, complete with details of all its productions and filmed interviews with those who knew it well can be found at: <https://www.stagesofhalfmoon.org.uk/
  • For the Wilton’s Music Hall programme visit: <https://www.wiltons.org.uk>

2 Comments

  1. Just finished reading your very comprehensive piece about Wilton’s. What a brilliant article – a tremendous combination of memory and well-conducted research! Some of the finer details were unknown to me so as far as they are concerned I can’t make any corrections. The rest seems fine to me, as far as I can tell. And yes, I particularly remember Henrietta at Wiltons and, of course, the strange looks we got from the tourists at St Paul’s Cathedral!  Anyway, an impressive piece, as I said. And a really good website as a whole, by the way. Looking forward to reading all the other pieces too!

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