The rich stories of Fairfield Halls

By - Friday 7th October, 2016

Sean Creighton hears the echoes of past performances in the now-dormant concert hall

A revolver shot reverberates round the new Fairfield Concert Hall just before the start of an audio test concert on 13th October 1962. Then the British pianist Valerie Tyron plays the first movement of the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto in C minor, with the Croydon Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arthur Davison.

Tyron would have been playing the newly acquired Steinway grand piano, which she had selected for the hall. Back in May, the Fairfield Halls Manager wrote to thank her for her help acquiring it. That letter and her invitation to the official opening on 2nd November, along with programmes and press cuttings of her recitals and concerts at the Fairfield Halls up to November 2012, are in her archived papers at Canada’s McMaster University.

Between 1963 and 1978, she performed several times at the Halls with Arthur Davison as conductor of the Croydon Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic and the Goldsmiths Orchestras, and other conductors such as John Pritchard. She also did lunch-time recitals with the violinist Alfredo Campoli between 1966 and 1970.

It is the stories of people like Valerie Tryon and Arthur Davison that bring the history of the Fairfield to life

Having settled in Canada there is a long break in media coverage of her until May 1986, when the Croydon Advertiser welcomed her return. Then further gaps to 1992, and then to 2008 after which she performed each year to 2012, bar 2010.

Arthur Davison was another important figure in the history of the Halls, particularly because of his family concerts. A Canadian by birth, he studied music at the Royal Academy of Music going on to work with the London Symphony, Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. He ran the ‘Concerts for Commerce’ and ‘Arthur Davison Family Concerts’. After his death in 1992 his son Darrell continued the family concerts. He spoke of his regret at the two year closure of the Halls at the Save Our Fairfield public meeting on 6th April, and on his ‘My Fairfield’ YouTube video.

It is the stories of people like Valerie Tryon and Arthur Davison that bring the history of the Fairfield to life, and open up multiple windows into local, regional, national and international music and theatrical life.

It was used to film scenes in the 2014 salsa dancing film with Nick Frost, Cuban Fury

There are also the stories of the staff such as Michael Tearle, the Deputy Director from 1965 to ’72 and then Director from 1972 to ’83. Earlier there was Geoff Camden-Wiles, the stage manager at the Ashcroft until he joined Butlins as an entertainments officer, later moving across to Pontins, and then running an important entertainment complex in Newcastle upon Tyne. He and his wife have run Car Boots Cornwall since 1989.

It was not just music and theatre that took place at the halls. One of its important functions has been as a meeting and conference centre. 2007 for example, saw its use for the annual meeting of Provincial Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of Surrey (freemasons), with an appreciative explanation on its website. There is material in other archives, like the TUC’s meetings between 1968 and 1971, the reports of which are at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. It was used to film scenes in the 2014 salsa dancing film with Nick Frost, Cuban Fury.

It is archive material – programmes, leaflets, press cuttings, film and video recordings – which are the foundations for telling the stories, supplemented by biographies and autobiographies.

The collection includes the portrait of Dame Peggy Ashcroft in her role as Shakespeare’s Juliet

There already exists a large collection of material about the history of the Halls at the council’s museum/archives. Back in 2011 the charity handed over a collection of material, which had been assembled by the Ashcroft Theatre Club from its foundation in 1973. The collection includes the portrait of Dame Peggy Ashcroft in her role as Shakespeare’s Juliet. The club also sponsored the mural on the safety curtain, which remains in situ in the Ashcroft Theatre.

There is also likely to be material about events in other parts of the Croydon museum/archives collections, for example in the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor collection, which I am currently listing.

There are over 2,500 items on the online Fairfield @50 archive created for the building’s 50th anniversary. The British Library has dozens of recordings on tape of performances at and broadcasts from the Halls, including Arthur Davison conducting Handel’s Water Music in 1974. Archives of organisations that have held events at the Halls may contain material not already in Croydon’s museum/archives. Such organisations should think about how to safeguard their archives and make them publicly accessible.

Staff, audience, volunteers and performers will all be contributing to the Fairfield Collection Project

As I discussed in my previous article in the Croydon Citizen (19th July) the Heritage Lottery Fund is funding the Fairfield Collection Project. Outline details of the project were press released in July. It will amass stories and notable performances from the Halls’ history, and will culminate in a major exhibition and film at the Croydon Heritage Festival in 2017. Staff, audience, volunteers and performers will all be contributing to the collection, while volunteers will learn how to support community heritage projects.

From my experience as an archive mapping and research officer assisting volunteers on HLF and other funded projects I suspect that the short-term timetable will require the collection team to stay tightly focused on what is already in the museum.

Therefore it will be important that other researchers keep their eye on Fairfield Halls material to draw to the collection project’s attention. Fuller details about the project will be made available in the coming weeks.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Ian Marvin

    Great article. Would be interesting to gather an archive of live recordings available too. This one maybe an obvious starting point. Live at the Fairfield Halls, 1974

  • Andy Hylton

    Thanks Sean. Looking forward to seeing the Fairfield Collection Project and it is fantastic that the 20th century memories and heritage of Fairfield Halls will live on regardless of what the 21st century future holds for the venue. Here is my contribution, a unique view of the fabulous Fairfield Concert Hall.

  • David Aston

    If I can be of any assistance to you please get in touch. My name is David Aston, but you wont recognize me now from the picture on the opening night in 1962!!