King’s Cross gospel singer fulfils her dream by founding choir for homeless
After TV choirmaster Gareth Malone started teaching schoolchildren to sing, charity worker Marie Benton decided she was going to do the same for the homeless of north London.
Unlike Malone, she could only draw from her experience of singing for two years in a gospel choir and passing an A-level in music. But Marie, then an employee at St Mungo’s charity for the homeless, was undaunted, setting up The Choir with No Name in King’s Cross in March 2008.
The 37-year-old said: “When I joined the gospel choir, I had just moved to London and it helped me to make friends,” she said. “I thought that a choir for homeless people could help other people who hadn’t got the best social networks to have the same experience that I had.”
This year, Marie was nominated for the annual Women of the Year Awards and was last month invited to conduct the Military Wives Choir – which featured in TV series The Choir and bagged last year’s Christmas No 1 – at the ceremony.
“I’ve never felt so proud to be a woman and of what women have achieved,” she says.
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Although it started with just a handful of members, The Choir with No Name now has around 50, as well as a dedicated team of volunteer cooks and musicians.
Shortly after they formed, the choir struck gold when it was featured on Channel 4’s Secret Millionaire, in which millionaires go undercover in deprived areas to help them decide where to donate money. The cash it received – �5,000 – along with help from trusts and other donors, helped Marie to set up another choir in Birmingham. This month, she is setting up another in south London.
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With its youngest member aged just 19 and its oldest in his mid-70s, the King’s Cross-based choir attracts many nationalities, including Moroccan, American and Polish. Many choir members have little or no musical experience.
Their songs range from Tears for Fears’ Mad World and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Rehearsals take place weekly at Only Connect, in Cubitt Street, a theatre for ex-offenders.
The choir’s name, says Ms Benton, was an accident. “Six weeks in, we still had no name. When we first advertised, we referred to it as ‘the choir with no name (yet)’ – and it just stuck.
“It’s a good name as homeless people often feel anonymous and ignored.”
Four years on, the choir is anything but anonymous. In 2010, it performed alongside Coldplay at concerts in Liverpool and Newcastle, in aid of the homelessness charity Crisis. Last year, it was a support act at a Paul Weller concert at the Hammersmith Apollo in front of over 3,000 people. The choir also recorded their first album.
“Confidence is the main thing that members gain from the choir,” says Marie, who lived in Finsbury Park until recently.
“In their first week, people will walk in barely able to speak to anybody. Within a year, they are singing a solo and happily chatting away over dinner.”
Often, she notes, homeless people lack the confidence they need to go in search of help and her choir is way of giving that to them.
“One choir member in his 40s was living in a hostel and unemployed when he joined,” she says. “Now he is living in his own place and is on a catering course.” Despite no longer being homeless, he is still a dedicated member of the choir.
“As much as we are trying to encourage people to move on,” says Ms Benton, “it’s important for them to have a constant in their lives.”
Next year, to mark its fifth anniversary, the choir will record its second album. Its next performance will be at the Union Chapel in Upper Street, Islington, on December 11th.