Victorian Silvertown church keeping music hall alive
PUBLISHED: 12:00 25 September 2016
Tucked away in a Victorian church, 200 metres from the runway of a busy international airport, first-time visitors to the Brick Lane Music Hall would be forgiven for thinking they’ve come to the wrong place.
St Mark’s, in North Woolwich Road, Silvertown, has been home to the theatre since 2003, but that is just the latest chapter of its colourful 154-year history.
Music hall founder Vincent Hayes, 60, says: “We’re here in this beautiful church and I’m sure it’s been put to a use that the architect would be very happy with, because it’s for the good of the community.
“This is the first building they see when they’re flying into City Airport and this is the only theatre of its kind in the country.”
After a severe outbreak of cholera swept through the Silvertown in 1859, an appeal was placed in The Times to raise funds for a church to serve the beleaguered community.
Designed by architect Samuel Teulon, the building has played a vital part in the community since opening in 1862, offering schooling to the local children.
During the First World War the nearby Brunner Mond chemical factory was used for making TNT explosives.
In January 1917 a freak explosion – said to have been heard 100 miles away in Southampton – completely demolished the factory and devastated a substantial part of Silvertown, killing 73 people and injuring 400 more.
Somehow still standing, the church was used as a temporary home for many of those rendered homeless.
An import industrial centre, the surrounding area was bombed heavily during the Second World War and some services were forced to take place in bomb shelters.
The neighbouring vicarage was reduced to rubble through the raids and the area where it stood subsequently turned into allotments.
Following the decline of the Dockside industries through the 20th century, the church closed its doors in 1974 and almost burned down in 1981.
Luckily, an almighty stack of pigeon guano fell through the collapsing roof and put out the flames.
Allocated for continued community use, the building was finally rescued and restored and offered to the music hall following its temporary relocation from Brick Lane to Shoreditch.
Since then the grade II listed building has played host to family-friendly variety shows bringing vaudeville and slapstick back to the Docklands.
“It’s entertainment for the people,” added Vincent, who was made an MBE in 2003.
“It’s all about proper gags, there’s no bad language or anything offensive – it’s a gentle experience.
Despite never having advertised or been awarded a grant, the venue is a testament to the power of word-of-mouth and is booked up until 2018.
“I love making people happy,” he added. “Who wouldn’t want to do that?
“Newham is not filled with grade II listed buildings but this is one they can be really proud of because it ticks all the boxes.”