A photograph of a dance group performing on stage in a 19th century building.
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Stanley Arts: The ‘Eccentric’ Architecture of Inventor William Stanley

Stanley Halls was built in 1903. Today, it is home to one of South London’s premier arts and performance venues.

Stanley Halls was built between 1903 and 1909 by the inventor and entrepreneur William Stanley as an entertainment venue for the community of South Norwood in South London.

Today, the building is home to Stanley Arts, one of the area’s premier arts and performance venues.

Who was William Stanley?

William Stanley was an inventor, manufacturer, and philanthropist born in Islington, London.

A black and white photograph of a man in a suit holding a newspaper.
A photograph of William Stanley.

In 1854, Stanley 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.

A sepia photograph of a mathematical instrument.
The dividing machine invented by William Stanley in 1861. © Stanley Arts.

Stanley moved his factory to South Norwood in the mid-1870s. The Stanley Works was located near Norwood Junction railway station and, by the 1880s, employed 80 local people to produce mathematical instruments.

By 1903, the firm was the largest of its kind in the world. It operated in South Norwood until 1926 when it moved to New Eltham.

The ‘eccentric’ architecture of Stanley Halls

With the money raised from his business, Stanley decided to build ‘a well-needed public hall’ for the local community.

A black and white photograph of a group of 19th century buildings. Text below the image reads: 'THE "STANLEY" GROUP OF BUILDINGS AT SOUTH NORWOOD'.
The Grade II listed ‘Stanley’ complex of buildings in South Norwood, published in 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Stanley himself designed Stanley Halls and its Technical School next door. The German ‘Gewerbeschulen’ trade schools inspired the Technical School, which was the first of its kind in England.

A photograph of a two-storey 19th century technical school.
The Harris Academy South Norwood in the former Stanley Halls Technical School. © Historic England.

As an inventor, Stanley wasn’t interested in following any architectural blueprints.

The result is a building described by the architecture historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most eccentric efforts anywhere at a do-it-yourself freestyle.’

A photograph of an alleyway behind a 19th century brick building with a small staircase.
You’re never short of a staircase at Stanley Arts. © Historic England.

A history of protest and performance

Over the years, the Stanley Halls complex has been used for various educational and cultural events.

A photograph of a dance group performing on the stage of a 19th century building.
Eggz: The Birdgang Youth Company Ltd performing at Stanley Arts in 2022. © Historic England.

In 1912, ‘a spirited debate on Votes for Women’ took place where Alice Abadam (president of the National Women’s Suffrage Society) spoke in favour of women’s right to vote.

Early performances included the composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Hurlstone.

A black and white photograph of a man at a piano.
The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

By the 1960s, singers Shirley Bassey, Matt Munro, and the jazz musician Johnny Dankworth had also taken to the stage at the Stanley Halls complex.

Stanley Arts

In 2007, the Technical School was taken over by the Harris Academy chain, but the future of the rest of the Stanley Halls complex was in doubt.

However, in 2015, the buildings were signed over to the Stanley People’s Initiative, a charity established to save the complex and find a new use.

A photograph of the inside of a 19th century building with a modern bar and lighting.
Inside the Grade II listed Stanley Arts in South Norwood. © Historic England.

At the start of 2021, Stanley Halls was rebranded as Stanley Arts with a return to the original intention of William Stanley: a hub for local entertainment, art, and culture.

A photograph of a dance group performing on a stage, taken from behind.
Eggz: The Birdgang Youth Company Ltd performing at Stanley Arts in 2022. © Historic England.

True to its history, Stanley Arts particularly seeks to foreground under-represented voices, providing ethnic minority artists and LGBTQ+ creatives with a platform to reach out to audiences across South London and beyond.

[The] platforming of underrepresented voices is key to what our future in this building is and, in some senses, represents what Stanley was doing all that time back, 110 years ago.

Daniel Winder, Artistic Director and CEO at Stanley Arts

We have supported repairs to the building as part of our South Norwood High Street Heritage Action Zone.

Further reading

1 comment on “Stanley Arts: The ‘Eccentric’ Architecture of Inventor William Stanley

  1. Susie Barson

    What a super video. Dr Dan Winder and his team at Stanley Arts have made a huge difference to the look and use of this extraordinary, quirky, lovable building erected by inventor and manufacturer William Stanley. I wish them all the best with their programmes in the future; they have firmly put South Norwood on the London cultural map. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to get down there, to Station Road outside Norwood Junction station, this coming Sunday 10th September 2023, for the Carnival of Invention presented by Stanley Arts, from 11.00 am – 5.00 pm. There will be fun and activities around the theme of invention for all the family. Check out the Bureau of Silly Ideas!

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