Woolwich Works boss: My Robin Hood approach will help local community

James Heaton
James Heaton will finally open the doors of Woolwich Works on Thursday

Woolwich’s multimillion-pound, new 15,000-square metre creative district will open its doors for the first time this week. The boss of Woolwich Works, the venue at the heart of the venture, took NIKKI SPENCER for a look around.

James Heaton is the first to admit that there were a few times in the past year or so when he wondered whether we’d ever see the day when Woolwich Works would open its doors.

The venue’s chief executive and creative director is clearly very excited at the prospect of finally welcoming visitors.

“I can’t wait for it all to come alive!” he says. “We were due to be open in October or November last year, but the pandemic changed that, so we have had a year’s delay.”

The main building, which spans four sides of a large central courtyard, will host everything from live music, theatre, comedy and dance performances to exhibitions, conferences and parties, along with community meetings and events. There are also rehearsal studios, a recording studio and an education suite.

Woolwich Works courtyard
The courtyard at the heart of Woolwich Works

Nearby buildings will be home to five resident artistic companies – the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra Chineke!, as well as Woolwich-based dance company Luca Silvestrini’s Protein, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair.

After arriving through the stage door – the finishing touches are still being applied to the reception area – we begin our tour with the biggest and most impressive space, The Fireworks Factory.

It takes its name from its use in the 18th century, when fireworks were made here for national occasions such as coronations, peace treaties and royal jubilees.

We enter through the only newly-built part of the project, a huge shiny glass and steel foyer, which stretches along the courtyard. Work is still taking place on the floor so we can’t walk around, but even from a distance it is quite stunning.

Despite it being a very gloomy and grey day, the room feels incredibly bright and it has a definite “wow” factor.

“They needed lots of light when it was a factory,” explains James. “It actually doesn’t look that different from all those years ago.” Although now, of course, there is state-of-the art lighting and sound.

Inside Woolwich Works
The Fireworks Factory can host concerts for up 1,800 people

At the front there is a large stage and there will be seating around three sides. “It’s a bit like a big Ronnie Scott’s with tables and chairs for everyone, and then six rows of upholstered lacquered wood benches at the back which are absolutely lovely,” he says.

The maximum capacity is 1,800 standing, or 936 seated, but the space can be configured to suit smaller audiences too. “It is big, but it will still feel cosy and intimate,” he adds.

Events already planned include an audience with Lemn Sissay for National Poetry Day on October 7, and the next evening there’s a performance by Shingai, the Lewisham-born frontwoman from The Noisettes who has just released her debut solo album.

There’s also the Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair from November 11-14 and a comedy show headlined by Sara Pascoe on November 23. Tickets start at £10, rising to £30 for some music performances.

“We are cheaper than elsewhere, but we do realise that even buying a ticket for a pound can be a barrier for some people so we will have some performances that are free, and also offer concessions and discounts,” James says.

Woolwich Works is run by an independent trust which was set up by Greenwich Council. “We are not a commercial venue, we are not-for-profit, so the more successful we are, with people attending events and buying drinks, the more we can do.

“It’s a bit of a Robin Hood approach. All the money we make goes back to creating opportunities for people in the borough.”

Inside Woolwich Works
The Knight Gallery is named after the suffragette Adelaide Knight

We walk through the reception area and up a curved steel staircase and wend our way through a variety of beautiful, large brick-walled rooms with exposed beams that will be used for everything from exhibitions and performances to rehearsals and community events.

“All our spaces are flexible and there will always be something going on,” says James as we continue to explore.

“Wherever I show people around they can’t believe there is yet more,” he smiles as we walk through to a room overlooking the river that will be available for events and parties, and into another overlooking the courtyard. Hire rates will be on a sliding scale, James explains.

“There will be different rates for cultural and community groups and commercial events. If a big bank wants to host an awards ceremony, then we charge more and the profits from that subsidise other things.”

All rooms at Woolwich Works have names that reflect the building’s history. Some are unusual. Beanfeast, on the first floor, comes from an annual holiday given to Arsenal workers by King George III during a visit in 1773.

The Knight Gallery, on the ground floor, celebrates suffragette Adelaide Knight and her husband Donald Brown, whose portraits are at either end of the room. Donald worked at the Royal Arsenal and saved countless lives when a rocket exploded at the site.

“We want to keep the history and heritage alive,” says James.

Inside Woolwich Works
Woolwich Works hopes to make more money for community events from hiring its spaces to large companies

Eventually we arrive at the ground-floor Visitors Book Café, which James says will be at the heart of Woolwich Works.

“This will be a busy, buzzing space where everyone can come together. You can just drop in here for food and drink or just sit and read a book or listen to some music. It’s a great way to get a feel for what’s going on”, he says.

The café, which will be open daily – including until 11pm on Wednesdays to Saturdays – takes its name from the book that was signed by visitors to the Royal Ordnance factories from all over the world. Some of the signatures have been recreated on the walls.

At the other end of the room there is a portrait of Lillian Barker, who oversaw the welfare of the 30,000 female munitions workers at the Royal Arsenal during the First World War. The women were nicknamed “the canary girls” because the explosive chemicals stained their hair and skin yellow, and a flight of neon yellow birds pays homage to them.

James is keen to point out, however, that Woolwich Works is “not just telling stories of Woolwich in the past but showcasing the best of Woolwich today”.

The Visitors Book will be serving up signature dishes created by local chefs, starting with Tenzin Dakpa from the Nepalese restaurant Kailash Momo and Shewa Hagos from the Eritrean-Italian café, the Blue Nile.

For Black History Month in October, Woolwich Works is hosting Black in Full Colour, a free exhibition from The Collective Makers – two local visual artists, Lison Sabrina Musset and Joseph Ijoyem – highlighting the work of emerging black visual artists from Greenwich borough and beyond.

The space also includes a small stage for live music performances, with a piano which James describes as one of “the last Yamahas in the country”. Apparently so many people ordered pianos during lockdown they are now in very short supply, so he breathed a sigh of relief when the three ordered for Woolwich Works arrived a few weeks ago.

Inside Woolwich Works
The venue comes with views of the Thames

We end our tour by visiting the Woolwich Works education suite and recording studio which James – who studied music at Goldsmiths before working in West End theatres and at the Roundhouse in Camden – is particularly excited about.

“When I was at university, I appreciated that I had access to everything I needed, but many don’t,” he says.

There are 13 workstations with Final Cut Pro and video design software that will be overseen by professional producers.

“If someone has an idea in their head, they can bring it here and we can not only give them access to our facilities but access to musicians and dancers and so much more. It will be a real catalyst for collaboration,” he says.

James says that he has been keen to employ local people who may not have previous experience in the arts. “A lot of arts organisations put barriers up for entry, saying you need three or four years’ experience, but if you are good with people, we can teach you the rest.”

The last preparations are now being made for the opening day this Thursday, which will include free live music in the café that will run into the weekend. James predicts that the first day will be an emotional one for everyone involved. “I may have to find a cleaning cupboard somewhere to have a little cry where no one will see!”

Woolwich Works opens to the public on Thursday. See woolwich.works for more information.

NIKKI SPENCER is a freelance journalist who has also written for The Guardian, The Independent, Lewisham Ledger and Peckham Peculiar.

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