How can we protect the heritage of Croydon’s pubs?


By - Wednesday 15th January, 2014

Sean Creighton explores the rich cultural and historical heritage that pubs have given us and is slowly being eroded


Image by Bob Walker and used under Creative Commons license

Over the last 18 months in Croydon The Ship of Fools on London Road has become a Sainsbury’s Local, the Swan & Sugarloaf a Tesco Express, Morrison’s has gone for the Red Deer in Brighton Road, and Aldi for the Red Lion. But it is not just the supermarkets that are targeting pub purchases; other property developers as well, especially to convert to residential use. Residents appear to be powerless to stop the demise of pubs.

The fight-back developments in Wandsworth show that this need not be the case. So far, spurred on by community campaigns over the Castle in Battersea High Sreet, and the Wheatsheaf at Tooting Bec, the council has used the planning tools Assets of Community Value, Article 4 Directions and local listing. At the 4th December council meeting councillors unanimously agreed to explore all the options to try and protect popular pubs.

When I lived in Wandsworth (1970-1995) there were 30 pubs in a 20 minute walk from where I lived in Wandsworth Town Centre, and four minutes from the independent brewery Youngs. I settled on using a Youngs Pub, the Two Brewers, diagonally opposite Wandsworth Municipal Buildings Town Hall. It was the centre of local political discussion among Labour and Conservative councillors after meetings, and a meeting place for organising activities associated with campaigning when people did not agree with what the council was doing. In 1990 an upper floor room of the pub was used by BBC TV to film a 3,000 strong demonstration outside the town hall campaigning against cuts to voluntary organisations and threatened cuts to primary and secondary schools. It was one of the main stories on national news that night.

Leaving aside politics, rock and pop groups start off doing the circuit of pubs. They are an essential part of the infrastructure of popular music. In the early 60s a folk club ran at the Swan & Sugar Loaf, and local resident Ralph McTell played at the Whitgift Arms. The tradition of live music continues today in pubs like the Dog & Bull.

Croydon’s Save the David Lean Cinema Campaign has shown how a pub venue like the Spread Eagle can be used for film shows. It will soon also host theatre, e.g. Babylon from 4th-6th February, combining politics and folk.

The fewer the pubs (and bars) there are, the more street drinking there will be

While pubs can contribute to problems associated with drunkenness, criminality, disorder and violence, they are better environments for responsible drinking compared to street corners outside or near the large number of shops that are now allowed to sell alcohol. The fewer the pubs (and bars) there are, the more street drinking there will be.

Local breweries were important elements in the local economies of many areas, providing employment, and local purchasing. Croydon’s earliest known brewer was back in the 16th century, and later there was Crowley & Overton/Page & Overton. It has a new micro-brewery, The Cronx, based at Vulcan Way. The taste for the unique flavours of different real beers means that they can be transported from different parts of the country. Since 1986 over a million pints of Devon-based Palmers beer has been supplied to the Claret Free House in Lower Addiscombe.

Inns, taverns and pubs have played a variety of roles for centuries, as places for people to socialise, stay over night, hold dinners, have meetings, court, and organise political, cultural and sporting activity. Many have long histories, changing their roles through time, and being re-built or modernised. Just up the railway line at Clapham Junction, Battersea’s Falcon Pub goes back to before 1800, and was rebuilt in 1882/3. It survives today with its curved frontage as a result of being listed in a community campaign against an office and shops redevelopment of the station.

Pubs helped to build mass democracy, welfare provision and civic society

One of the most important historic roles of inns and pubs was in the development of British associational life, particularly of  the labour movement and friendly societies, helping to build mass democracy, welfare provision and civic society. In the 18th and 19th centuries there were very few alternative meeting facilities available. Even business consortia launching a new economic development project would meet in pubs, like the one meeting in Wandsworth Town who planned the Surrey Iron Railway from Wandsworth into Croydon. For publicans having organisations using them meant a regular and steady trade, helping sustain them as viable businesses. Conviviality and fellowship was one of the main drivers for organisations wanting to meet in pubs, for a drink before or after the meeting, and for social and fund-raising activities.

Once cycling became an organised activity in the later decades of the 19th century, club runs from London into the countryside would often stop for lunch or tea at a public house, even if alcohol drink was not quaffed. And for rural and small town pubs, this weekend trade could be an important boost to business.

Since the 1980s Battersea & Wandsworth Trades & Labour Council’s Workers Beer Company has provided beer at political, community and music festivals, including Reading and Glastonbury, generating funds for community, trade union, political and overseas aid organisations, and they run the Bread and Roses pub in Clapham Manor Street.

Understandably the temperance and teetotal movements, and their supporters in organisations that traditionally met in pubs, continually argued for meetings to be held elsewhere. This became easier once churches, local council and other facilities became available. The temperance and teetotal movements also set up their own facilities, including billiard halls, cafés, coffee shops and hotels, which could also be used as meeting facilities. Ironically many of these have now been turned into pubs and bars.

In Croydon the first Ruskin House was set up in The Railway Temperance Hotel which the local trade unions purchased with financial help from Mrs Ada King-Lewis, a member of the Croydon United Temperance Council. The Hotel stood on the corner of St. Michaels and Station Road. Its opening was announced in the first issue of the Croydon Pioneer, the labour movement’s local newspaper. Ruskin House started selling alcohol in the 1940s. The bar remains today an important part of its facilities, and is home of the continuing story of folk music in the borough.

If we value the role of pubs in Croydon then the least we can expect is that councillors work across parties to examine the options to protect those under threat, following the example set in Wandsworth.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

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

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  • Anne Giles

    The folk club at the Swan & Sugar Loaf was still there in the early 70s and I used to sing there on a regular basis. I also sang at The Fountain Head in Thornton Heath and on Monday nights at The Ship in Croydon. This club is now at Ruskin House, where I used to go, but now parking is impossible.

  • Stephen Mann

    Fantastic article Sean.

    Being a CAMRA member I manage to visit many fine alehouses across the country.

    We really should look at some of the excellent work going on in Birmingham and even in Manchester bringing back traditional olde worlde pubs back into existence.

    With the right business model, right landlord a pub can thrive.

    Closer to home my local, which is mentioned in the article, is a thriving community centre for these reasons.

    As a young person however I do notice a trend that most young people in Croydon, IF, they do go to the pub it is one of the wetherspoons houses such as the George, instead of some of central Croydon’s real gems such as the Royal Standard and the Dog and Bull, primarily due to price(circa £3.60-£4.00 a pint).

    When a crate of 30 Carlesberg cost £16 at Tesco last week I wonder why we have disorder on student nights and pubs shutting left right and centre…

    • Jamie

      As you say, price is a big factor. A night in most pubs is simply unaffordable to many now. On top of that, though, in my experience you get far better and friendlier service in the Weatherspoons pub, The Skylark, than you get in places like the Dog and Bull. You get much better ales too!

      I wish there was a way to keep places like the Fox and Hounds, Red Deer, etc open. I don’t begrudge anyone using an affordable option that is more welcoming and offers better beer, though!

      To be fair, the bloke who runs the Royal Standard is a real gent and it’s a lovely little pub.

  • David Clark

    A great article Sean.
    I agree with your piece about people drinking on the streets, which in Norbury is quite common especially around the off licences
    In the 1990′s I used to act as a ‘roady’ for my son’s heavy metal band ‘Midnite Sun’. He was their drummer Paul Clark so there was lots of equipment to transport around. They used to play at many pubs in Croydon including the Gun and the Ship to name but a few and they used to hire a studio room behind ‘Rockbottoms’ in West Croydon for practice sessions.
    Regards
    David Clark