The Fairfield Collection reminisces on Croydon’s entertainment history

By - Thursday 29th June, 2017

How a collection of documents and memorabilia is keeping Fairfield Hall’s vibrant history alive

Photo by Viva Msimang for FABCroydon, used with permission.

When Croydon’s Fairfield Halls opened in the swinging sixties, it was the place to be. It was where the Beatles sang “Please Please Me” and Princess Margaret brought her young son on a secret visit to the circus.

Schoolgirls swooned at the sight of their idols on stage. Eric Clapton and The Who both appearing in ’69, closely followed by Elton John and David Bowie in the seventies.

Over the past five decades, the venue hosted everything from all-star wrestling to the world premiere of an opera. It also served as a performance space for schools and the wider community. The concert hall’s top-class acoustics made it ideal for all kinds of music, ranging from pop to the classics.

“It was the people’s personal stories of what Fairfield Halls meant to them”

When the building closed for refurbishment in July 2016, all the artwork, trophies, and busts were held in storage. They have now been catalogued as part of an archive known as the Fairfield Collection. There was something else, of equal importance, which needed to be recorded for posterity. It was the people’s personal stories of what Fairfield Halls meant to them.

With these aims in mind, the Fairfield Collection Project was set up in September 2016, to preserve the venue’s rich cultural heritage. With the support of the charity FAB Croydon, an application was made for funding and the project was awarded a grant of £80,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A team of volunteers began the huge task of archiving countless documents dating back to the official opening in 1962. They also interviewed actors, staff, musicians and audience members, to record the most memorable moments in the history of Fairfield Halls.

The Fairfield Collection’s logo.

Many of the volunteers previously worked there as stewards, and have maintained their connection with the venue through their commitment to this project. The Museum of Croydon has served as a hub for weekly sessions on archiving, oral history and training workshops.

A touring exhibition traveled to classrooms and residential homes, allowing people of all ages to see items in the Fairfield Collection and share their memories about Fairfield Halls.

A group of residents from the three Whitgift Trust homes – Whitgift House, Wilhelmina House and Whitgift Almshouses – heard the history behind the trophies awarded for boxing, wrestling and cricket, so former steward Jim Howard organised a performance of songs by artists who had appeared at Fairfield Halls over the years.

Dame Peggy Ashcroft gave her name to the Ashcroft Theatre

On a three-day visit to Park Hill Junior School, volunteers talked about their personal experiences of Fairfield Halls. In a lively hands-on session, school children had the chance to take a close look at trophies, posters and programmes from the Fairfield Collection.

The pupils also took part in an art project to create their own pictures inspired by the Ashcroft Theatre safety curtain, designed by Henry Bird in 1982. Photographs have been taken as a record of the design, but the curtain itself is not being preserved as part of the Fairfield Collection, ironically for safety reasons.

The curtain’s design draws its themes from Croydon’s theatrical history. It shows Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who gave her name to the Ashcroft Theatre, as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The remaining pages are filled with signatures from countless performers over the years

An Evening Standard Theatre Award given to Dame Peggy takes pride of place in an exhibition about the Fairfield Collection, now on display at Croydon Museum. Also among the exhibits is a signature book first signed by Her Majesty the Queen Mother at the opening ceremony in 1962. The remaining pages are filled with signatures from countless performers over the years.

Actors, staff, musicians, performers and audience members all tell their stories through audio interviews, illustrated by images on touch screen monitors.

Among them are photographer Frazer Ashford, who captured the stars of the stage and screen on camera, actor and former Croydon resident Martin Jarvis and conductor Darrell Davison. Davison’s father Arthur pioneered the Arthur Davison Family Concerts, which were a bust of Sir Arthur features in the exhibition.

There are also interviews with the stewards themselves, who bring with them a wealth of experience, inside knowledge and entertaining anecdotes about their most memorable moments while on duty.

He was also on hand to help out when teenage girls fainted at pop concerts in the ’60s and ’70s

Long-serving steward Ron Morris, who worked at Fairfield Halls for just over 50 years, was on duty for several circus performances, including one secretly attended by Princess Margaret and her young son David, now Earl of Snowdon, when he was about seven years old.

“I was advised that she was coming and told to fob people off if they recognised her”, recalls Ron, who also acted as a personal steward to stars such as the TV presenter Leslie Crowther and comedian Joyce Grenfell.

He was also on hand to help out when teenage girls fainted at pop concerts in the ’60s and ’70s.

“We had to help them out of their row of seats and St John’s ambulance staff gave them first aid”, says Ron. “After that I took a first-aid course myself!”.

Archive material from the Fairfield Collection Project is held at the Museum of Croydon, and is now available to the public. Visitors can arrange to view specific items and research events that took place at Fairfield Halls, including lunch time concerts, pantomimes, Friday night is music night and more. Cataloguing all events which took place over the years is an ongoing task.

A specially commissioned film about the project is being given a private screening at the David Lean Cinema during the Croydon Heritage Festival Week. There will be a public screening on 20th July before the feature film, My Cousin Rachel, for ticket-holders only. The short film will also be available for viewing in the Croydon Now Gallery.

In the meantime, Croydon can only wait and hope that the re-opening will live up to its promise

The Croydon Heritage Festival, organised by the Whitgift Foundation, runs from Saturday 24th June until Friday 30th June. This year’s theme of evolution looks at the changing face of Croydon from the past, present and future.

As to the changing role of Fairfield Halls, a £30 million refurbishment is now under way, aiming to reestablish the venue as the centrepiece of a new cultural quarter in Croydon. This is the first stage in a major regeneration scheme for the area, including further plans for a new college, art gallery, shops, offices and housing.

While the closure of Fairfield Halls last summer marked the end of an era, its future is assured by the millions being spent on renovation. In the meantime, Croydon can only wait and hope that the re-opening will live up to its promise.

The Fairfield Collection is currently on display in the Croydon Now Gallery, Museum of Croydon, until 4 November, open from Tuesday to Saturday. Entry is free.

Artwork from the Collection is on show in The Art of Fairfield exhibition, which runs until Saturday 28 October in the Exhibition Gallery.

Further information about the project and its progress can be found on the Fairfield Collection website.

Angela Lord

Angela Lord

Angela has been involved with the Fairfield Halls as a performer, reviewer and audience member. Her interest in the venue's past, as well as its future, led her to volunteer with FAB Croydon to help preserve the venue's rich heritage. She is a contributor to the Fairfield Collection blog.

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