Our History

Our home is in part of The Stanley Halls - a Grade II listed Edwardian arts complex near Norwood Junction. The buildings were donated and designed for his local community by William Ford Robinson Stanley (1829-1909); a prominent local inventor, industrialist and philanthropist. Through the provision of the Stanley Halls complex he sought to provide a range of venues for music, art, theatre and debate for the benefit of local residents. This fascinating collection of unique Edwardian buildings was built through the years 1903-09. William Stanley’s ambition for Stanley Halls was influenced by the Victorian ideal that music and art led to cultural, political and social enlightenment.

A History of Performance

A History of Performance

In the Halls’ early years, both professional and amateur performers trod its boards; including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and W.Y. Hurlstone. Even in the 1960s Shirley Bassey, Matt Munro and Johnny Dankworth were among the professional musicians who rehearsed here for performances at Fairfield Halls in Croydon.

Education and meetings

Standing next to Stanley’s new technical trade school, which was inspired by the German Gewerbeschulen trade schools and was the first of its kind in Britain, it made perfect sense that the Stanley Halls complex should be used for purposes both educational and cultural.

Initially the Halls hosted a wide array of educational classes, exhibitions and political debates. On March 2 1912, for example, it was reported that “a spirited debate on Votes for Women” took place at Stanley Upper Hall where Alice Abadam (president of the National Women’s Suffrage Society and resident of Upper Norwood) spoke in favour of women’s right to vote. Other speakers in later years, who have followed in Alice Abadam’s footsteps on the stage of Stanley Hall, include Harold Wilson and John Smith.

Community and social events

During the War Years, first aid courses are thought to have taken place here and the building may have been used as temporary shelter for residents bombed out of their homes. It was also a centre for community celebrations and festivals such as the 1951 Festival of Britain and the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953.

Records from the 1950s show that social events in the Halls ranged from birthday celebrations, antique fairs, ‘Meet a Mum’ jumble sales, weddings, aerobics, to a Psychic Festival. The fact that the Halls offered a multi-purpose community venue played a significant role in the promotion of local citizenship and civic pride in the post-war period.

The 1970s onwards

As the decades progressed, without a separate cultural identity and no physical separation, the upper and main halls, the gallery and the assembly rooms,  all increasingly became part of the expanding Technical school; known locally simply as Stanley Tech. Though the buildings were used to some extent outside of school hours, the record of separate cultural activity in this period is limited, and to all intents and purposes Stanley Halls and Stanley Tech were the same place.

By the turn of the 21st century, the Technical School, which had by then seen better days, was being absorbed into the Harris Academy chain; and a new school complex was being built on an L-shaped site around the back of Stanley Halls. In 2007 the newly-opened Harris Academy South Norwood comprised the old Technical School building, the Upper Stanley Hall & Clocktower, and a modern new-build school site stretching around behind Stanley Halls.

The rest of the historic Stanley Halls complex, including the main Stanley Hall and gallery, and the assembly & society rooms, were separated from the Upper Hall with a new internal wall that divided the Stanley Halls complex in two.

Over the next five years the future of the larger, lower half, the ‘unneeded’ part of the Stanley Halls complex as it was seen by the developers of the new school academy, was in question. With these remaining buildings under threat, and competing visions for their future, the local community came together to apply to take them on from Croydon Council as a community asset transfer. In 2015 the buildings were finally signed over to the newly-formed Stanley People’s Initiative, a charity established to save this part the historic Stanley Halls complex, and hopefully to find a new use for this extraordinary set of buildings.

Over the first few years of operation this new, reduced, Stanley Halls slowly found its feet; and with it, a renewed sense of purpose. Paradoxically, the pandemic of 2020 helped to re-establish the buildings in the hearts and minds of local people as an essential home for art, performance and community.

This new purpose represents a return to the original intention of William Stanley. In 1901 he had conceived the idea of building a local home for entertainment, art and culture, and nearly 120 years later his vision was to be renewed.

The original Stanley Halls comprised of an upper hall, clocktower, art gallery, main hall and assembly rooms; alongside offices and accommodation. Our trustees are now charged with preserving the offices, studios, art gallery, main hall and assembly rooms; with the upper hall and clocktower having become part of our neighbour, Harris Academy South Norwood.

The start of 2021 saw the trustees launch a new identity for this part of the historic Stanley Halls complex, rebranding as Stanley Arts – a name that honours the past, whilst looking forward to a brighter future.

Stanley Arts seeks to forge a new identity for this part of Stanley Halls, separate from its most recent history as part of Stanley Tech, and one that clearly defines the future of this building as a South London home for community, arts, and culture for the next 120 years at least.

A photograph of the interior of the main Stanley Hall from the pre-war period A photograph of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor sitting at his piano A photography of a 1950s performance of Alice in Wonderland on the main stage A late 20th century photograph of Stanley Tech The Steering Committee of SPI from 2013 A modern photograph of the Harris Academy sign in front of the former Stanley Technical School Building Modern building frontage showing Stanley Arts banners

The Building

The Building

With the £120,000 raised from floating his business, The Stanley Works, on the stock market, William F. R. Stanley announced that he would “provide the district with a well needed Public Hall” (Norwood News, 1901).

The Halls and Trade School next door (now the Harris Academy South Norwood) were designed by Stanley himself; the final result is a building which, according to art historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, is “one of the most eccentric efforts anywhere at a do-it-yourself free style”.

Stanley Halls Built

On its completion in 1903, Stanley invited all the workmen to a supper at the Halls followed by an entertainment to which the wives and relatives of the men were invited. Stanley said that if “the building was not the most beautiful in the world, it was, at least, one of the most substantially built.” He hoped that the Halls would become a pleasant home of entertainment for all of them.

The buildings were completed in stages, with Stanley Public Hall (the main hall and art gallery) opening in 1903, the clock tower and Upper Stanley Hall added in 1904 and the Technical Trade School in 1907. The Assembly room and Society Rooms, alongside offices and the venue secretary’s accommodation, were added in 1909 to complete the complex.

Thanking Stanley

In 1907 the Clock Tower at the top of Station Approach was built by local residents to celebrate Mr and Mrs Stanley’s Golden Wedding Anniversary. It was a visible acknowledgement of William Stanley’s generosity.

A colour painting of the front of the Stanley Halls building complex. An early 20th century photograph of the Stanley Halls complex looking up the hill. A photograph of the 1907 dedication of the new South Norwood clocktower

William Stanley

William Stanley

William F. Stanley (2 February 1829 – 14 August 1909) was an inventor, manufacturer and philanthropist. Born in Islington, it was only when he was 11 years old that his uncle sent him to school, where he studied until he was 14, until joining his father’s business. By the age of 16 he began to study engineering and phrenology at the London Mechanics Institute (now Birkbeck College).

Essentially, however, Stanley was self-taught. He dedicated Sunday to learning; starting with architecture and theology and moving on to English, astronomy, geology, chemistry, mathematics and French.

Stanley the Entrepreneur

In 1854 William set up his own business in Holborn making mathematical and drawing instruments. He invented the t-square, the panoptic stereoscope and a straight line dividing machine; the latter won first prize in the International Exhibition of 1862 and guaranteed his fortune.

Stanley moved his factory to South Norwood in the mid-1870s. Called The Stanley Works it was located near Norwood Junction railway station and by the 1880s employed 80 local people in the production of instruments for civil and military clients. By 1903 the firm was the largest of its kind in the world and operated in South Norwood until 1926 when it moved to New Eltham.

William Stanley died at his home, Cumberlow in South Norwood, on 14 August 1909 and is buried at Beckenham Cemetery.

His untimely death meant that he was not there to see the full completion of the Stanley Halls complex; nor to help the development of an independent cultural identity for Stanley Halls separate from the Technical School at the top end of the building complex.

A photograph of William Stanley
© 2021 Stanley Arts Charity No: 1155680