Telling the many tales of Croydon minster

By - Tuesday 20th September, 2016

David Morgan, author of Minster Tales, explains how the human stories of Croydon’s historic minster church were what touched him most deeply

Image by Croydon Minster, used with permission.

After retiring from my role as headteacher of the Minster Junior School in Waddon (formerly Parish Church School), I was asked by the minster’s former vicar, Colin Boswell, to lead tours of the building. I jumped at the opportunity.

Croydon Minster is one of the iconic buildings in our town and yet, for many, it remains both unknown and undiscovered. You could even go as far as saying that the minster hides in full view. Certainly the car drivers hurrying along the dual carriageway that thunders past the West Door rarely give it more than a glance. The passengers on the tram near Reeves Corner hear the announcement that this is the stop for Croydon minster without ever seeing the actual building. The residents of Old Town hear the Sunday morning peal of bells behind curtained windows, often wishing they weren’t so loud!

I was already familiar with the building’s beauty, but once I started work, I quickly discovered that it was the people connected to the place who attracted my attention. Within a few months I was sharing with visitors the story about the Victorian Croydon surgeon who had a practice on the High Street and sailed to Australia on the SS Orient as well as mourning with them the sad story of the organist’s son who lost his life saving a couple who got into difficulties off the beach at Ostend. Both are remembered with wall plaques in today’s church.

It’s the minster’s many human stories which were the genesis of my book, Minster Tales. Researching the material has been a fascinating glimpse into Croydon’s history, some aspects of which are well-known and recorded and others of which still lie in (undeserved) obscurity.

A church stood by the river Wandle in Croindene, valley of the crocus, 1,200 years ago

Quietly and faithfully, a building has stood on this site for centuries, interlacing layers of atmosphere and history that create the feel of the minster today. The current structure dates from the 1869 rebuild after the disastrous January fire when the majority of the medieval structure was destroyed. This previous fine church was itself built on the position of an earlier Saxon building sited by the River Wandle in the valley of the crocus, Croindene. Whilst for many years the earliest date for the church was given as 960 AD, recent evidence points to a minster style building back in AD 809.

Thus our beautiful minster church of today is standing on a site which for over twelve hundred years, has been a focus and a presence for so many. People come to pray, to weep, to mourn, to celebrate, to bless or to be part of a greater throng. Some come to seek. In the quiet tranquillity of a weekday morning, a five minute contemplation watching the sunlight stream though ancient windows, uttering a wordless prayer will be enough to raise hopes or settle fears. With the comforting word of a priest, some find the listening and empathetic ear they require. Some come from afar searching for their roots, to find where grandparents were married, to discover where an ancestor was interred or to locate and photograph where a victim of war is remembered on a plaque or memorial.

Most Croydonians know of John Whitgift but fewer of Archbishop Sheldon, who attempted to curb the excesses of Charles II

Five Archbishops of Canterbury are buried here, testifying to the importance of this place in ecclesiastical history. Most inhabitants in Croydon will have heard the name of the most famous of these, Archbishop John Whitgift, but far fewer will have heard of Archbishop Sheldon who had the invidious task of suggesting to King Charles II that he should curb his excesses of life.

Famously, Croydon Parish Church was burned to the ground in 1867 and rebuilt as it stands today by 1869 (less time that it’s taking modern people to renovate West Croydon bus station). Images of the building which was destroyed are few, but the illustration above is the interior of that building. The grand Avery-built organ (completely destroyed in the fire) stands at the west end of the church high up above what is now the West Door. The organ is the centre of a gallery where musicians and singers would have sat. Although the arches look similar to today’s structure this is the part of the interior that had to be completely rebuilt.

The eagle lectern at the front of the church can still be found in our modern day church. Archbishop Sheldon’s tomb can just be viewed on the left through the first arch. Other memorials can be seen but the side chapels, where there were many tombs and other memorials, are sadly not part of the sketch.

Image by Filament Publishing, used with permission.

The minster is also the final resting place of John Singleton Copley. He was considered by many to be the greatest American painter before the War of Independence. Copley came to reside in London, preferring not to return to Boston and all its changes. He had good company in London as he knew Thomas Hutchinson, the last colonial Governor of Massachusetts who was also buried in Croydon Minster by the vicar of Croydon at the time, Reverend Apthorp, who had himself also been removed from Boston because of his Royalist leanings. Although Copley’s original memorial was destroyed in the Victorian fire, a new plaque was funded by his grandchildren. Copley’s son, Lord Lyndhurst, rose to become a man of significant power and influence and was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer three times.

I have tried to capture some of the interest and humanity about people connected to the building in these ‘Minster Tales’. Using information about the lives of thirteen people, some alive over 500 years ago, I have created a picture of each one which I hope will bring them to life for the reader. They are diverse, they are interesting, they are complex, they are real. Just like Croydon is today. Linked together by the Croydon Minster building, they represent a cosmopolitan past of which we are a present part.

Why not come and pay a visit to the minster? Bring a copy of the sketch with you and see for yourself how it has changed. You contact us on 020 8688 8104 to arrange a guided visit.

The drama team from Whitgift School in South Croydon will be bringing one of the tales to life at 7:00 pm on Wednesday 21st September at the minster in Church Street. (Church Street is the nearest tram stop.) Everyone is welcome to attend.

David Morgan

David Morgan

Retired Croydon headteacher and now education officer for Croydon Minster. Bass lay clerk in the Minster's choir.

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