Changing Croydon: Shopping

By - Thursday 24th January, 2013

They say things ain’t what they used to be. According to Anne Giles, they’re better than ever. In the first of a series on the changing nature of the borough, Anne describes first-hand how Croydon’s retail history is as rich as it is long

I came to live in Croydon in 1972, renting a small, unfurnished flat in Thornton Heath, and later purchasing a property near Selhurst station. I used to shop regularly in the Surrey Street market, travelling by bus, as I had no car. It was a nightmare. I had to struggle home with a shopping bag on wheels and once was thrown off a bus – the driver had insisted that I had to carry the heavy bag upstairs, which I was unable to do. My groceries ended up all over the street!  Every weekend I had exactly the same scenario.

Weekend shopping  in the town centre was unpleasant, particularly at Christmas. The town centre was not pedestrianised then and it was a struggle trying to get through the crowds on the pavement. I cannot recall there being any nice cafés where one could sit and relax either. The Whitgift Centre had been in existence since 1969, and we also had Allders and Grants – both good department stores. Allders’ main competitor was Kennards, renamed Debenhams in 1973 and still in existence. Grants closed down in 1985, to reopen in name only as an entertainment centre in 2000. Allders, sadly, closed down last year. What will become of it remains a mystery, though the Croydon rumour mill has not stopped buzzing about it.

I moved away to live in London and did not come back to Croydon Borough until the mid 1980s. In 1989, North End was closed to traffic and pedestrianised. Shopping then became a much more pleasant pastime.

A relaxed day at the Whitgift Centre (Photo by SouthEastern Star)

The Centrale shopping centre opened in 2004, with many shops, including the House of Fraser. It was developed from the existing, but much smaller, Drummond Centre. The whole centre is huge and there are cafés there too, so it is a pleasant experience going there. Shops now in existence  include The Body Shop, 101 Records, Boros, Boots, Debenhams, French Connection, Miss Selfridge, and others.

Surrey Street market is located behind the Croydon Grants cinema. It stretches the whole length of the road, with approximately 90 stalls in the street, as well as shops including Iceland and KFC. It is regularly used as a location for TV, film, and advertising. Since 1997 Croydon Council has run an annual “Good Stall Award” to encourage stall holders to maintain good trading practices. I buy fruit there on the occasions when I am in the area. It is very good value for money.

From Croydon’s past, to Croydon’s present, to Croydon’s future. We recently heard of the excellent news that Hammerson plc and Westfield have signed a joint venture for the redevelopment  of the retail centre of Croydon. They plan to redevelop and combine the two main Croydon shopping centres, the Whitgift Centre and Centrale, to deliver a comprehensive and transformational change to Croydon. Construction is expected to start in 2015. I am really excited about this!

When I cast my mind back to the struggle through the crowded streets all those years ago, with no seating provided and no cafés to stop and relax in, and then compare it to the wonderful experience of shopping now in the pedestrianised street, with occasional buskers to entertain us, and cafés where one can sit outside in the summer, I find it hard to believe that this is the same Croydon, but it is – it is the new Croydon, the lively, multicultural, friendly one with a truly continental feel.

Shall we go shopping?

Anne Giles

Anne Giles

I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the daughter of an Anglo-Argentine mother and English father. I went to an English school and worked for a British company out there before coming to live in the U.K. I spent many years teaching Spanish in adult education in various centres in Croydon Borough and have got to know so many different areas – North and South. We have been living in Selsdon since 1989 and I love it. I feel passionately about Croydon and have spent many years writing blogs – firstly for the Croydon Advertiser, then the Croydon Guardian, and eventually my own blog entitled “The Good Life in Croydon”. I am very much involved in the community, attending regular meetings with the Croydon Community Police Consultative Group and am also a member of the British Transport Police PACT (Police & Community Together) Team.

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  • Liz Sheppard-Jones

    I agree that shopping in the 70s was dismal. I spend my late childhood and teens in Worcestershire and I remember my mother, who was stylish and interested in fashion, complaining bitterly and making long expeditions to Cheltenham for an acceptable selection of clothes. Until young adulthood I thought that coffee was a nasty, bitter drink and cafe culture didn’t exist even in London when I moved here in 1983. Cappuccino was still an exotic concept – day-to-day quality of life has risen so much for so many of us in the last 30 years and Croydon has benefitted from this.

    Like you I am an adoptive Croydonite and I listen with interest to people’s memories of how exciting a shopping venue Allders was when they were growing up. I’m interested because (although I love Croydon and am personally very committed to it), the Allders I knew was a shabby embarrassment – the kind of place my mother would have pulled a face at. I dislike Centrale as well – I don’t think it has worked since opening. What was with the weird, empty upstairs food court? House of Fraser is upside-down, with a basement full of failing food franchises no-one knows about. There’s no information point, the marketing campaigns are soooo tacky and as a result we have seen the predictable demise of prestige outlets like Pier and Nike.

    Absolutely anything is better than the 70s. But my observation of Croydon is that the spending power of the local economy cannot yet support what I would call ‘enjoyable retail’ – the destination shopping environment which is now the only way to get people away from shopping online. The short-lived Stuff market in Middle Street, which failed after only 10 weeks in April 2010, is clear evidence of this. Everything about Stuff should have worked, but Croydon couldn’t deliver enough shoppers in the necessary purchasing bracket. Recession, of course, has made a poor situation far worse.

    To create a truly thriving retail environment, we have to pull in that kind of shopper. Like you I am very excited about Croydon Westfield as the Westfield name has the power to do this. Like the editor of this newspaper, I do not believe in redemption by retail alone, but I do believe that redemption is still badly needed.

    • Kake

      Allders did have its good points! I liked the haberdashery (small though it was), and Joshua’s tea room had retro charm. The main issue I had with Allders was not so much the shabbiness but the difficulty of finding step-free routes through the store — you could actually get to pretty much all of it without negotiating steps but in some cases you had to be really persistent to find where the ramps were hidden.

      I think the House of Fraser basement worked a lot better when there was an actual food hall there. For a time it was the only place in Croydon to buy decent cheese. (This was during my first stint of living in Croydon, so would have been, hmm, around 2005–6 I think.)

      I’m not hugely personally excited about the Westerson/Hammerfield development, as I’ve found the security policies at Centrale and at London’s existing Westfield malls are rather over-zealous (this is not, in my experience, from the individual security guards’ own personal choice, but rather comes from higher up). The Whitgift Centre feels much more relaxed. But I do recognise that the redevelopment will be useful for Croydon as a whole.

  • Alessandro Zambelli

    I grew up near Croydon and shopping there at the weekend was a treat – I
    was born in 1968. I loved the Whitgift Centre of the early 70s – the
    long travellator rising through the concrete fountains was always a
    I too left for London, though I
    returned regularly and then moved back to central-ish Croydon about 6
    years ago. In the meantime The Whitgift Centre had undergone a kind of
    modish, urban, plastic surgery – as with all good examples of any given
    ‘style’ this kind of starkly beautiful and functional architecture will
    have its day again and we will regret its loss.
    In any case, this
    ill-advised attempt to compete with the upstart Drummond Centre only
    served to create a kind of axis of evil across North End when the
    Drummond Centre expanded as Centrale. We are left with an ersatz
    culture of ‘buskers’ selling Jesus at high volume, meanwhile small and
    even large ‘Croydonian’ retailers (Beanos, Allders) find it increasingly
    difficult to compete with the behemoths surrounding them. The joys of
    Surrey Street market survive despite not because of them.
    Actually I
    kind of enjoy the way Centrale weaves its way between high and low, new
    and old Croydon, but not as much as I enjoyed, even as recently as 5
    years ago, walking down the faded but still dignified St George’s Walk.
    hope the Hammerson-Westfield development is successful – it was hard to
    glean much detail from their public consultation sessions – but I fear
    instead a deadening consumerist mono-culture.

    • Kake

      That’s brilliant — I’ve seen a few old photos of the Whitgift but had no idea there was a travelator!

      I’m a little worried about potential monoculture from Westfield, but their existing malls do seem to try to accommodate some smaller/independent traders. I think it’s worth pushing them to ask what they’ll do to retain businesses such as Uncle Lim’s and Bishop’s Wine Bar.

  • Martin Murphy

    It’s almost 6 years after this was posted and still no work on Westfield in Croydon.

    The problem Croydon has is they have more retail units than shops who would fill them. In the late 1990s the whole of the ground floor of the Whitgift Centre was occupied however when Centrale opened some moved from Whitgift to Centrale because the new Centrale had more suitable size shops and were near a new car park. There are some units in Centrale which have never been occupied in the almost 16 years it’s been there. The new Westfield won’t change this. If you think of it like you have a 10 litre bucket of water and you buy a 20 litre bucket of water and pour your 10 litres in that bucket you still have 10 litres of water. Buying a 50 litre bucket would and pouring it in there would again not change that you have 10 litres of water.