From Covid casualty to community hub – the rebirth of Sister Midnight

Lockdown left the music industry in tatters with venues closing left, right and centre. But one community-led project is breathing new life into Lewisham’s music scene

You would be forgiven for thinking this derelict building filled with asbestos had come to the end of its time – but not if Sister Midnight has anything to do with it. The three-woman-strong organization – led by Lenny Watson, Sophie Farrell, and Lottie Pendlebury – has grand plans to transform this once grotty working men’s club into Lewisham’s first community-owned music venue by 2025.

Sister Midnight’s previous venue, an event space and record shop in Deptford, fell victim to lockdown. After what was supposed to be a temporary closure, the venue never reopened and lost a lot of revenue. In 2022 the group came close to finding a new home in the disused Ravensbourne Arms pub, but the owner demanded too high a price.

Eventually, Lewisham council offered up the Brookdale Club site for “meanwhile use” (it is earmarked for demolition in the future). The council bought the building, which has been empty since 2017, and has granted Sister Midnight a 10-year rent-free lease. Sister Midnight submitted plans for renovations which were approved in March. They estimate the work will cost £500k – of which a fundraising campaign has already raised £350k.

The project is being fronted up by three female directors who are all under 30. Watson was the original founder of the Deptford Sister Midnight which closed in 2020. Farrell is a professional photographer and videographer who is also a vinyl DJ and was one of the founding members of the DJ collective Social Records Society. She joined Sister Midnight in 2021 and co-founded a community benefit society within Sister Midnight. Pendlebury is a professional musician who fronts local band Goat Girl. She used to play at Sister Midnight’s old location with a side project.

Sister Midnight is reimagining what it means to run a music venue. They are abandoning the traditional commercial approach in favour of a co-op model. Members of the community are encouraged to buy shares in the project – each costing £100 – in return for partial ownership and democratic control.

The group want to appeal to local music lovers from within Lewisham, Southwark and South-East London who are interested in community-led projects. But, most importantly of all, Sister Midnight wants their space to be open to everyone who loves music and to become a place where people can come together and enjoy some of the best local talent and get involved with community projects.  

Before opening, the Sister Midnight team have a big job on their hands. The currently derelict building must be totally transformed. Sophie Farrell, one of the directors, says the building had seen “better days” and a “lot of work was needed”. She says: “It’s not great. It’s got potential, parts of the roof in the venue room need replacing, the plumbing and electrics need redoing. It’s basically been out of use for several years. It’s deteriorated a lot in that time, while the council has had it and it’s not been in use. We are working out the best way within our budget to bring it back to life.”

Pic: Sister Midnight
Pic: Sister Midnight

Farrell said she hopes the project can inspire others to think about pursuing the community route, but warned that it is not easy: “If we manage to pull this off it’s going to be a big achievement for the sector but also for the city. It’s so hard to bring projects like this in London into fruition. If we manage to achieve this, it will be a big inspiration for other projects to carry out similar things.” 

The new venue will have a 250 capacity. As well as providing a platform for local artists, it will also have a community cafe and a rehearsal space. As a not-for-profit organisation, Sister Midnight hopes to be able to keep entry and drink prices low. This will make the venue more accessible to locals, young people and students. 

Lenny Watson, Sophie Farrell and Lottie Pendlebury are the directors of Sister Midnight. Pic: Sister Midnight

When it reopens, Sister Midnight is aiming to bring live music back as the beating heart of South-East London. In addition membership sales, they have raised £93k through community investment, £18k through a crowdfunder, and £30k through investment from Co-Ops UK. They also put on eight fundraising events in 2023 where 44 local artists and DJs played.

Sister Midnight has worked closely with Music Venue Trust, a charity who, in their own words, “acts to protect, secure and improve grassroots music venues” and their support has helped to launch the community ownership initiative. The MVT have also helped other small music venues that may be facing closure.

Mark Davyd, the CEO of MVT, says that music venues need more help from the government to deal with increasing bills. He says: “The government has a £5m Supporting Grassroots Music Fund administered by Arts Council England. Incredibly, that fund can help you buy new lights, but it cannot help you pay the electric bill needed to turn the lights on. Sensibly using this money to avert music venue closures should be prioritised.”   

Sister Midnight worked with the Mayor’s office to secure their venue and the former mayor of Lewisham, Damien Egan praised the project: “I’m delighted we’ve helped Sister Midnight to secure this space and establish Lewisham’s first-ever community-owned live music venue – a fantastic legacy for our year as London Borough of Culture 2022,” he says. “This will provide a valuable meanwhile use for the building which can be enjoyed by all the community, support our local arts and music scene and help grow our night-time economy.”

Click here to discover more on The ELL Music Trail

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was updated on April 15 to reflect the correct relationship between Sister Midnight and the MVT.

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