BOLTON town centre has been packed with shoppers and people enjoying the winter wonderland.

But amid the hustle and bustle, it’s doubtful anyone has had much time to even look around them.

Yet take a moment, and you may be surprised to discover a fascinating bit of history.

Hidden in plain sight on busy Knowsley Street, its tower looming out between rows of shops, it is a jewel in Bolton’s heritage crown.

The Victoria Hall was opened more than 116 years ago and not only harbours a hub of Victorian history behind its doors, but arts and enterprise.

And now a group of volunteers, Friends of Victoria Hall, who give up their time to run and promote the Methodist hall, are putting together an archive room to show off its past

Volunteer Barry Massey helps to lead tours of The Grade II listed building.

He said: “It is a work in progress at the moment. We have artefacts and lots and lots of stuff dating from way back which we want to show people.

“Over the past 12 months we have been trying to build it up and get a grant to do it all.

“When I have done tours before we never had anything to show off to people but we need to do that now.”

The archive includes original signage, hymn books and photographs ranging from stern looking figures in Victorian dress to laughing youngsters, flags and letters.

There are also music stands and pews which formed part of the hall when it first opened.

Victoria Hall was also one of the first places to show films in Bolton, with its first silent movie in 1903.

An example of the type of projector used at the time has been housed in the archive while the hall still sports its projector room on the upper floors, though it is no longer in use.

In rooms under the looming auditorium seating are ledgers of leather-bound books with records from the very first days of the hall, alongside yellowing original designs for the building.

It is hoped by delving into the archives and opening it up the public, it will drum up more footfall for the building which is in desperate need of funding.

Influenced by a visit to the Manchester Mission, Thomas Walker proposed a similar mission hall be built in Bolton.

And in 1897, Bradshaw Gass architects were commissioned to build the finest hall in England, based on the design of the popular music halls.

An eight-shop terrace was bought with the middle four demolished to create the main hall.

The Victoria Hall Methodist Mission was opened on March 14, 1900.

Mr Massey said: “The idea then was not to take away from other churches but to introduce into the church community a building which offers music, concerts and that sort of thing.

“These are the original doors. Victorian engineering is the best, even the entrance floor has underfloor heating they installed using pipes. The main hall has not been altered, except for lighting.”

The hall hosted penny concerts and films on Saturday night with audiences returning on Sunday for worship.

During both world wars, The Victoria Hall played a vital role in keeping the people of the town safe as Bolton’s fire wardens were based in the chapel.

Today it is best known for hosting concerts in its impressive 1,200-plus seater auditorium, which has played host to thousands of singers and musicians, as well as BBC show Songs of Praise four times. Around 40 concerts a year are held at the hall, which still manages to draw big audiences.

Groups including Bolton Choral Union, Ladybridge Singers, The Brixi Singers, Smithills bands, Bolton Symphony Orchestra, Victoria Hall ADS and the Bolton Music Service have called it home over the years.

Mr Massey said: “When this place is filled it has the most tremendous acoustics - to me they are second to none!”

But the building is much more than that - being home to worshippers, schoolchildren, businesses, actors and those in need.

In October, 1932 a Sunday school was opened teaching young ones reading, writing and arithmetic.

When the evacuees from the Channel Islands came to Bolton, The Walker School served as their reception centre before being placed with families.

At its height during the 1930s there were up to 70 or so teaching staff and though the schools are now gone, the classrooms are still hidden away behind the main stage.

Another hidden gem is the hall’s theatre. There have been drama groups using the hall for 50 years, while the current Victoria Hall ADS celebrates its 42nd anniversary.

Stepping behind its stained-glass doors, visitors will be surprised at how far the mission spreads out along and behind Knowsley Street.

The shops on either side remain part of the mission with occupants paying minimal or no fees to rent the premises.

Underneath the auditorium are more workshops and spaces which little local businesses have come to rely on.

As a mission, the hall also welcomes charitable schemes, for example it is home to the Destitution Project, which is used to bring together and provide food, clothes and household goods for refused asylum seekers who are awaiting an appeal or cannot return to their country of origin.

But the hall is now struggling to raise the £200,000 a year costs that are needed to keep it going.

If the funds are not raised, the prized Victorian doors could close for good.

Mr Massey added: “The front entrance doesn’t tell you what’s here at all, there is so much more to it.

“It’s a wonderful building and I just wish more people would come in to see that. The problem is getting people through the doors.

“There is a lot of upkeep, but we feel it’s worth it for the town.

“I think it is a building worth looking at if nothing else. If we can keep the doors open then maybe when can keep letting people through, but if they shut that’s it, it will be gone.”