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8:31 AM 17th June 2020

World's Oldest Music Hall Survives Global Pandemic

Settle, a small North Yorkshire market town, has become a shining success story for social enterprise, thanks in large to one woman. Ann Harding, a driven social entrepreneur, along with a team of volunteers has not only helped the town survive, but thrive, in response to the global pandemic.

Ann Harding
Ann Harding
As theatres, venues and arts organisations are mothballed across the UK, a small rural North Yorkshire town, has turned disaster into opportunity.

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.

Miss Victoria's Second-Hand Pop-Up Emporium: a collection of curiosities, curios and clothing for the modern cost-conscious consumer opens at the arts venue on Wednesday 17 June (10am).

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.

Turnover falls to ZERO

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 said at first things were 'tough'.

Ann 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. 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, phonelines 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."

A Community response

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 over 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% 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 that someone is at the other end of the phone. It's a comfort for their families."

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.

Founded in 1853, Settle Victoria Hall is the world's oldest Music Hall. A charity and social enterprise, it normally supports a huge range of community groups and classes during the day, with a packed events programme at night.

Victoria Hall has been supported over the years by the north's leading social investor, Key Fund, who provided loans so the venue could buy cinema equipment, which helped double its turnover.

Ann, an experienced company director turned community pioneer, has for over 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 that 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."

She added: "It's about understanding the balance of social impact and business, which is what social enterprise is about. It's understanding it's all very well to do these fantastic things in the community, but if you can't pay the bills?"

Settle Victoria Hall declined the option to just close the doors of the Hall, we couldn't just 'do nothing' and risk the permanent closure of the world's oldest music hall.