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Sister Midnight are making space in South East London

The Sister Midnight posters going up around South East London depict a lively world under a cityscaped skyline where people are dancing and cooking, DJing and watching music – and carrying kit into and out of a busy building. The words at the bottom sum it up: A New Music Venue for Lewisham: designed and built, danced in, performed in, run and owned by YOU!

It’s an invitation to find out more about a new community-generated cultural space. And beneath the artwork is a powerful story of making space and dreaming big, which led earlier this year to not-for-profit co-operative Sister Midnight acquiring a ten-year rent-free lease on The Brookdale Club, a disused Working Mens Club in Catford, in the London borough of Lewisham. It will be the first community-owned music venue in the area and it is led by three women under 30 years old: co-founders Lenny Watson and Sophie Farrell, and musician Lottie Pendlebury of Goat Girl.

The plan is to turn the currently derelict building and private yard into a 300-capacity venue, a community lab, a bar, workspace and kitchen with upstairs studios. Whilst all of the above is dependent on planning permission, one aspect is already in the world – Sister Midnight FM broadcasting under the tagline ‘from Catford to the world’.


Words by Emma Warren

Launched in August, shows come from Worldwide FM’s Laani, hip hop label First Word’s DJ Gilla and Daytimers’ Rohan Rakhit. There are also programmes hosted by communities including football team The Deptford Ravens, soundsystem operators Unit 137, folk crew Shovel Dance Collective and Deptford Northern Soul Club. A Community Benefit Society is political by its very nature, and the station reflects an engaged and active philosophy, also featuring shows by Lewisham Anti-Raids Group.

The story begins in Deptford, on the other side of Lewisham, when Sister Midnight founder Lenny Watson was volunteering at record store and basement venue Vinyl Deptford. When the owners announced they were moving on, Watson took over: “I didn’t want it to close”.

It was a big leap, but one that opened up new opportunities on a personal and community level. In the pandemic the space closed permanently and the group decided to establish Sister Midnight as a co-op, not for profit and Community Benefit Society – and to look for a new space. An ambitious funding campaign launched the idea of community shares, where individuals and groups could buy a £100 share in a proposed venue (or a portion of a share) so that Sister Midnight could take over The Ravensbourne Arms, which was then for sale. The short version of what happened next is that the group did the seemingly impossible and raised £300k through community shares alongside significant investment from record label Beggars Group and Co-ops UK, as well as support from Lewisham Council, Music Venues Trust and organisations Power To Change and the Plunkett Foundation.

The sale was then refused by the building’s owner, who wanted more money. Sister Midnight picked themselves up and found another venue. The Ravensbourne Arms remains empty, although this gloomy picture is somewhat brightened by the presence of a Sister Midnight poster on the other side of the road.

Sister Midnight spent the last year on their planning application for the new venue and expect to hear back by the end of the year. If all goes well, they’ll be open in winter 2024. In the meantime, they’re launching a new campaign to encourage more community share-holders and investors. The new round relates to fitting out the building and getting it ready for a new life as a community hub and multi-purpose venue.

Right now, they’re just happy to see their vision celebrated on BUILDHOLLYWOOD billboards, around Lewisham. Extended family member Toby Evans-Jesra designed it, with the intention of capturing the welcoming energy of the space. “It was a bit of a task,” says Lottie, “because we have so many ideas of what we want to house here. We wanted to visually represent all of that in one brilliant Hieronymus Bosch style painting. It was a challenge, but Toby did a really good job of capturing all of those things. Representing all the different parts of the community we want to have, and all the different activities. To make it look like a utopia.”

How did the BUILDHOLLYWOOD poster campaign come about?

Lenny: It was actually a really strange thing. Me and Sophie were at the pub with Marina and India from Brainchild Festival, and Marina asked if we’d thought about reaching out to BUILDHOLLYWOOD. The next day they got in touch. I asked Marina – did you do this?! It was one of those things where it had been spoken out into the universe and it just happened.

There’s a lot to do, and you’re only three people. What bits of the work are each of you taking on?

Lottie: Helping out in any way possible. Research for our manifesto, a code of ethics, a manual of how we’ll operate as a space. There are so many little jobs to be getting on with. Talking to people. Meetings. Putting on shows. Helping out with whatever comes up.

Lenny: Don’t forget you were instrumental in hooking us up with Beggars who gave us that 50k. You’ve done some pretty amazing industry networking.

Lottie: It’s been quite helpful with people I know already, connecting with local musicians. I try and recycle the information I’ve learned so far in my career.

Sophie: This summer I was doing a lot of the communications side, designing posters, assets, doing photography, that side of the campaign as well as general emailing and paying the invoices. It’s different every day.

Lenny: Admin, finances, Secretary stuff for the society. We have a very collaborative way of working amongst the three of us. We have vague roles, we know our individual strengths and we have a good spread among the three of us, but the important stuff – everyone inputs. It’s quite a rotational way of doing things.

I’m wondering about your creative, organisational ancestors. Who have you learned from, to be like this?

Sophie: I think Brainchild festival is the biggest one for me. I don’t think I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for them. I’ve been going since I was 18. It was the first space I’d been in where I felt inspired to be within and to be involved. What they’ve created has lived on. It pushed me to want to do this. To be part of something that is creating spaces and has some legacy to it.

Lenny: My mum. She was such a huge support when I started Sister Midnight.

Lottie: From a music side, all the DIY collectives that existed in London, especially in South East London: DIY Space, The Montague Arms, Windmill in Brixton. Learning – how could things be a bit better? How can we make it more sustainable? How do we build roots? Politically a lot of interesting things that happen in the local community like The Field and Pie and Mash in New Cross. Collectives I’ve learned a lot from.

What’s the history of the building you’ll be in?

Sophie: We’ve been digging in the archives. It was a music hall, there were dances and charity events.

Lenny: There were a lot of news articles that contained random bits of information that helped build out the picture of what used to happen there. Everything from music, parties, birthdays, weddings, fights that made headlines. Auctions, wakes, coroners inquests. Life, death and everything in between has happened in that building. It’s really exciting for us to be able to take over a space that has a socialist and political history that aligns with our organisational values. We’re bringing it back to its roots and breathing life back into it.

What were the venues or spaces that were important for the three of you, pre-Sister Midnight?

Lenny: The Five Bells, Montague Arms, DIY Space. They’re all part of the same legacy of music and community organising and politics that fed into Sister Midnight.

Lottie: Five Bells was a big one. You could go in on your own and there would be a band you knew playing or someone you knew. It was quite a nice community space for a while. Ormside Projects, DIY Space, especially in the way it was run and how that’s connected to what we want to do.

Sophie: Corsica Studios. I was part of the dance music scene, pre-Sister Midnight. I was more in club spaces.

What do you think these spaces offer or bring to music, community, life in general. Why are they important?

Lottie: A lot of those spaces, it didn’t feel like there was too much of a gap between audiences and performers. It felt like you were one and the same, which is a really motivating environment to be in. You can really see the potential of yourself getting on stage. It felt really welcoming, and inspiring.

Lenny: I don’t know how these spaces do it, but when you’re watching the music, dancing, you feel part of it. You’re all the same person in a way. It brings you together, one entity, one community, all different but all the same, experiencing the music together. It’s very joyful, it’s very powerful. I don’t get that in all venues. Sometimes it’s just me in my corner, separate from everyone else. There’s a very unique feeling – some kind of magic happening.

Why did you go for community shares as your fundraising idea?

Lenny: It was the right thing to do. I had a lot of time to think during the pandemic. It just really hit home that there was this whole community that made it what it was. It made sense that they should have ownership, democratic voting rights over it. Community shares would raise money. Two birds with one stone. It was giving the power back to the community. A really challenging one as well, because Sister Midnight was my baby that I’d built and it was hard to give that power away but I’m grateful I did it. It’s been so amazing having other people like Sophie and Lottie involved. Opening up it was definitely the best shout.

What allowed you to be so ambitious? I’m not talking about personal gain, just about how you were able to think so big.

Sophie: We were so ambitious at the start [laughs]. I think it was born out of Covid a bit. Everything felt like it was crumbling and there was a moment to dream big. I don’t know if it’d be the same starting now, in this climate.

Lenny: There was a lot of sitting, thinking, letting your thoughts run away with you. That sense of power. I think a lot of credit goes to the community that existed as Sister Midnight. If we needed someone to work the door, they would. When someone got drunk and smashed in one of our windows, everyone clubbed together to put on a fundraiser to repair it, because we wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise. There was so much power in that little community and it was a foundational thing for us, knowing that there were a group of people that loved Sister Midnight unconditionally, that were Sister Midnight. If we could do that in two years, we could do anything. I also felt the responsibility to take Sister Midnight forward because it meant so much to a wider group of people.

Tell me about the other things you’re doing.

Sophie: We’ve just wrapped up a few fundraiser gigs. One was the launch of Sister Midnight FM. It’s still part of Sister Midnight but it’s run as its own separate thing. It’s been quite nice handing over the responsibility to another part of the team. We’re about to launch another round of shows. This year has been very admin, architect heavy so the radio has been a nice creative thing to be involved with.

Lenny: We’ve done some amazing shows. We did one in July with Public Service Broadcasting, raised 10k. We’re so grateful to PSB for that. It covered the running costs of the campaign over the summer. We had a great one this weekend with seed. It’s been so nice bringing the artists we love together and giving a sense of what we want to platform. Historically, Sister Midnight has been DIY, punk, guitar bands but we all have such broader musical and creative interests, so the vision is to open it up in terms of genre. Dealing with a lot of community engagement stuff and getting feedback from people. We’re going to go into hibernation for the winter before more fundraising shows. We’ve got an end of year self-care day where our friends at Plug in Peckham are doing pay what you can haircut. We’ll have some DJs. Then we’re going to take a rest and get ready for next year, because it’ll be a busy one.

What do you want the poster to do?

Lottie: Spread the message. I hope it’ll make people stop for a brief second in their day, even if it’s just to look at the art and appreciate it. It’s a nice break from ads for multi-million pound companies, to have something beautiful to look at. For people to see themselves in that poster and to see where they could get involved – I never thought about a music venue having a record shop in it, or a kitchen. There’s a bit of something for everyone.

Lenny: It’s pretty rare to get the opportunity to occupy so much prominent space in this way. We thought about promoting the share offer because we desperately to raise money – and we still hope that’s the by-product. It’s such a rare opportunity and we decided to use the space to share this vision with people. It was Marina (Brainchild) who came up with the messaging, which we all love because it encapsulates what’s going on in the image and in the project: ‘A new music venue for Lewisham, designed and built, danced in, and performed in, run and owned by you’. I think that says it all.

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