Old Mahogany: Wilton's Music Hall archive acquired by the V&A

An archive recording the glory days as well as the decay and near collapse of Wilton’s Music Hall has been acquired by the V&A theatre collection.

The archive includes a tattered and yellowed campaign poster, showing a shattered window in a mouldering brick wall, a reminder of the half century of attempts to save the rotting building, which claims to be the world’s oldest Victorian music hall. The poster will need expensive conservation work before it can be preserved as a precious relic.

Archivist Sabrina Offord said: “Normally we wouldn’t even try to save a piece of paper in this state, but its state after being moved from noticeboard to noticeboard over the years is part of the story.”

The archive traces the extraordinary history of building, including rare images of the hall in its 19th-century pomp, and photo shoots and videos shot there in the late 20th century when art directors were seduced by its picturesque decrepitude.

One of the most famous videos shot there was for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, in 1984. Its sweaty images of handsome leather-strapped young men in an S&M club setting got it banned by both the BBC and MTV. The live tigers were the least dangerous part of the shoot: the main scenes were set in a space lit by flaming cauldrons set on a straw covered floor.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood Relax music video shoot at Wilton’s Music Hall, 1984. Photograph: V&A

“It’s an absolute miracle that the whole building didn’t go up like a box of matches,” Offord said, looking at the stills.

In 1853 five narrow houses on an alley near the docks in east London were joined into a large pub by John Wilton, who added a handsome music hall behind the houses. A pen and ink sketch from 1871 shows a happy audience including soldiers in uniform eating and drinking, and paying scant attention to the singer on the stage, while up in the cheap seats in the gallery women and dock workers sit – the noise probably drowned out the performers.

The site was much better known as the Old Mahogany than as Wilton’s, and the name, together with the bar, the distinctive barley sugar twist columns and a near perfect acoustic, survived many later uses after the music hall failed, including a Methodist mission and a rag sorting warehouse. The building survived the blitz, but came closest to destruction in wholesale demolition and redevelopment of the district in the 1960s. By the time the building became listed and the first of many preservation trusts was set up in 1970, it was danger of falling down.

Save Wilton’s Poster, 2008.

Save Wilton’s Poster, 2008. Photograph: V&A

As the campaign rumbled on, proposals included a national centre for music hall studies, a shopping centre and a pub and restaurant complex. But 1997 became a landmark year for Wilton’s when it reopened with an acclaimed performance by Fiona Shaw of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland – a desolate poem perfectly matched to the building’s decaying surroundings. Salvation finally came through a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, and the building reopened in 2015, structurally sound but still atmospherically shabby.

The archive holds letters and signed photographs of the many celebrities who threw themselves into the preservation campaign, such as Liza Minnelli and Spike Milligan, who pestered the great and good including politicians and royals. Many of his letters preserved in the archive, all signed off “love, light and peace”.

Milligan’s letter to Lord Goodman, then chair of the Arts Council, began: “Feel not ashamed of your lamentable ignorance concerning Wilton’s Music Hall”, and continued: “Needless to say what we need now is what Captain Kidd also needed, ie, loot … Remember, your great-great-grandmother may have been a fan dancer.”

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