Settle Music Hall hits the right note

The world’s oldest music hall has survived the coronavirus pandemic by reinventing itself as a pop-up charity shop.

Friday, 3rd July 2020, 3:17 pm
An early photograph of Victoria Hall in Settle (year unknown). Note the chimneys, ground -floor windows in place of the modern doors and the datestone over the door.
An early photograph of Victoria Hall in Settle (year unknown). Note the chimneys, ground -floor windows in place of the modern doors and the datestone over the door.

Founded in 1853, Settle Victoria Hall is 165-years-old, which predates the Settle-Carlisle railway by 13 years and Wiltons’ Music Hall in London by five years.

Ann Harding, a driven social entrepreneur, along with a team of volunteers has not only helped Settle survive, but thrive, in response to the global pandemic.

Settle Community Response, based at Settle Victoria Hall, not only became the heart of the community’s Covid-19 response, it has helped safeguard its future by opening a new pop-up charity shop.

The actdrop that hangs in front of the stage today was painted in 1882 by Operatic Stalwart Edmund Handby, from an 1822 original by George Nicholson.

Miss Victoria’s Second-Hand Pop-Up Emporium: a collection of curiosities, curios and clothing for the modern cost-conscious consumer is now open at the arts venue.

It was the idea of Settle Victoria Hall project manager, Ann Harding, when they received countless donations after Ann established Settle Community Response at the hall at the start of lockdown.

After turnover went from an average of £6k per week to zero as the 150 events it holds each year including festivals, live music, cinema and stand-up comedy were cancelled indefinitely, Ann admits at first things were ‘tough’.

She said: “I had to literally physically sit in a corner and cry, and then said to myself right, okay, lets switch my mindset from disaster into how can I create an opportunity? Because I cannot control Covid-19, but I can control what our future is going to look like.

Interior of the 'Music Hall' (afterwards called the 'Victoria Hall), in 1886.

“The moment I turned my mindset, that’s when things got better - everyone else moved as well, and we started coming up with ideas.”

Looking at the hall’s assets - space, phone lines and a strong volunteer network - the hall was repurposed as Settle Community Response. Ann said: “I knew I needed to prove to people that our venue is important - not just as a night-time venue - but to be here for them in moments of crisis.”

More than 200 volunteers came forward after a small team of volunteers issued 4,000 leaflets across the community. They set up dedicated phone lines, a rota of volunteers, and to date have delivered more than 1,500 prescriptions, 500 lots of shopping, taken the elderly to hospital, hung out their washing, set up a jigsaw library and opened a pop-up foodbank.

“In our demographic 31.6 per cent are over the age of 70,” Ann said. “We’ve sat here in tears sometimes at the things people have said, it’s just so lovely - the letters, the phone calls from people all over the world saying they can’t express how grateful they are that we are there for their mother or father. Just to know someone is at the other end of the phone. It’s a comfort for their families.”

Ann Harding has set up Miss Victoria's Second-Hand Pop-Up Emporium in the World's Oldest Music Hall, Settle Victoria Hall, to fund its existence during the coronavirus lockdown. Picture Tony Johnson.

Settle Community Response was only able to use around 70 volunteers, leaving many frustrated.

More wanted to give donations, including eggs from local hens, surplus allotment fruit and veg, and home baked cakes, with local supermarkets donating food too.

Harnessing this community spirit, alongside the charity shop, Ann has commandeered a field behind the hall, owned by the council, to home a café to use the donated produce, an outdoor stage and cinema, bar and BBQ, with 15 tables made from upcycled materials by volunteers with a donated gazebo over each to ensure social distancing.

She also plans to host a Repair Café and plant shop at the venue. Victoria Hall has been supported over the years by social investor, Key Fund, which provided loans so the venue could buy cinema equipment, which helped double its turnover.

Ann Harding has set up Miss Victoria's Second-Hand Pop-Up Emporium in the World's Oldest Music Hall, Settle Victoria Hall, to fund its existence during the coronavirus lockdown. Picture Tony Johnson.

Ann, an experienced company director turned community pioneer, has for more than a decade, used the social enterprise model to transform and ignite her community in Settle.

In 2009, Ann was one of three founding directors of Settle Hydro - a community-owned hydro-electric scheme which was built with support and finance from Key Fund, which plugged Settle into the National Grid helping its fragile rural economy.

The new enterprises at Settle Victoria Hall will ensure jobs are safeguarded until it reopens for indoor events; it has even resulted in a new job role to help manage the new projects, and Ann hopes to create even more job opportunities.

She plans to continue Settle Community Response as a new social enterprise.

Ann said: “I said from day one, this (pandemic) will not be the thing that makes us close our doors, we’ve not closed our doors for 167 years. The benefit we have over other theatres is that we have already had to be very entrepreneurial in what we do in order to survive.

“We’re not funded by council or grants. It’s about understanding the balance of social impact and business, which is what social enterprise is about.

Miss Victoria's Second-Hand Pop-Up Emporium in the World's Oldest Music Hall, Settle Victoria Hall, to fund its existence during the coronavirus lockdown. Picture Tony Johnson.

“It’s understanding it’s all very well to do these fantastic things in the community, but if you can’t pay the bills?”

From as early as 1801, occasional shows and plays were being put on in a ‘barn on Duke Street’ in Settle.

The Craven Assembly Rooms served as a base for Settle Choral Society, formed in the early 1850s, but they weren’t suitable for concert premises. Otherwise, for the people of Settle to visits concerts or plays in the 1850s, they would have had to travel to Leeds and stay overnight.

In 1853, the Settle-Carlisle Line was not yet built, gas lighting was just beginning to come into Settle, Queen Victoria has been on the throne for 16 years and purpose-built music halls were a relatively new concept, recently evolved from the pub back rooms where Music Hall began in the 1820s.

From 1816, the ground where Victoria Hall now stands was occupied by the National School. In 1851, the Rev J Robinson acquired the land occupied by the National School, and also a small area of land used as a garden by The Spread Eagle Inn , on condition that he built a new school in Upper Settle. This was the land that was to become Victoria Hall. The secretary of the Settle Choral Society, Reverend J Robinson, came up with the idea to provide a purpose -built music hall for the people of Settle. To build his music hall, Robinson hired Edward Graham Paley, an architect, who would go on to design Lancaster Cathedral.

Victoria Hall was the only music hall Paley ever designed.

The Leeds Intelligencer newspaper reported on the opening of Victoria Hall that it consisted of ‘a handsome music room’ of about 50 by 30 feet, plus ‘convenient waiting and refreshment rooms.’

The stage and auditorium extended the full length of the building, which in those days had no canopy over the front, and the stage was not yet enclosed.

Seating was on pew-like benches, and raked, so that the point nearer the stage was roughly four feet lower than the current floor, with no balcony. It would have been cosy in those days, the hall could reportedly hold up to 400 people; by comparison a standing-room-only show today has a maximum capacity of 330 people, including the 70 balcony seats. The formal opening and dedication of ‘The Music Hall, Settle’ as it was then known, was on Monday, October 11, 1853.

Settle Choral Society hired vocalists and instrumentalists from Leeds Choral Society to join them in a performance of Haydn’s Creation, altogether more than 60 musicians and singers. Among the soloists was a Madame Weiss, who was to appear again in a concert in 1870, billed as a soprano of the English National Opera.

The second concert, billed as a ‘Grand Dress Concert’ featured a variety of vocal and instrumental pieces, from many of the same singers and instrumentalists as had performed the previous night. Although the Leeds Intelligencer reported rather derisively that a ‘simpler composition (than the music chosen), would have suited the Settle audience better’, and the Lancaster Guardian lamented that the singers and players were out of time, lacked a conductor and that the music ‘did not come up to their idea of perfection’. But the music hall was to thrive and within just five years , would be so popular that the 400 seats were not sufficient.

Only five years after opening, it was necessary, by hook or by crook,to install not one , but two galleries.

The two galleries were built from wood. The front gallery, grandly known as the ‘Dress Circle’ was a little higher than the present balcony and much steeper. To make space for the ‘Upper Circle’ the back section of the ceiling was open to the roof. Today, the roof space above the back part of the balcony still contains glossed and moulded beams. The stage was not as enclosed in those days as it is today, but the view would still have been compromised where the lower ceiling came in, and certainly not suitable for those with a fear of heights.

James Robinson intended his Music Hall to be used by and for the whole of Settle and it seems the population had tastes as wide ranging and eclectic as any city audiences, from classical music to caricaturists, magicians to educational lectures , and even one of P T Barnum’s sideshow acts all gracing the boards at Victoria Hall. The earliest record of the name ‘Victoria Hall’ comes in November 1892, and the name has stayed ever since.