From air-raids to riots – does Croydon still have what it takes to survive?

By - Tuesday 2nd April, 2013

Long-term resident Terry Coleman shares his early memories of Croydon, and wonders how far the town has come since the blitz.

I was born in 1940 during the blitz, which was a desperate time in the history of our nation when the Luftwaffe was attacking us with ferocious might. I can vaguely remember the air raids, the sound of exploding munitions and drone of the bombers. A look of fear in Mother’s eyes, the sound of the siren and being gathered up, sometimes in the small hours, to be taken to the air raid shelter.

In our early years children saw much of the devastation that war had brought upon our town, the sight and smell of burned out buildings, etc. Yet some of us knew no different and in time bombsites became our adventure playgrounds ideal for Cowboys and Indians.

That is how my generation started life.

We went to school and then on to work, we got married and some of us had children of our own who played Cowboys and Indians.

I look back over the last sixty odd years to recall the momentous change that I have been privileged to see in and around my home town:

The town can no longer be described as a medium-sized market town, or a dormitory suburb of London

Sir James Marshall’s great plan to regenerate Croydon was formulated in the 1950s. It soon gathered pace and the large office blocks along Wellesley Road were built, along with the Whitgift Centre, the Fairfield Halls, and Croydon Flyover. The pedestrianisation (good word) of the town centre came soon after. Social housing was built, mostly high rise flats to replace the many terraced Victorian cottages that were no longer fit for purpose.

I have seen great social and industrial change too and can remember Harold Macmillan saying ‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent’. (He was talking of Africa)

I’ve seen the great migration to our shores of peoples from our colonial past, and more recently from Europe, all striving to make a good life for themselves. They enrich us with their energy and enterprise; their various cultures bring vibrancy to the town.

Then there’s the ‘The White Heat of Technology’ that Harold Wilson phrased.

The technological advances in our industries; automation, solid state electronics, materials science development, have all radically changed our manufacturing profile.

(No longer will you hear the 6 0’ clock hooters along Purley Way and see what looked like the massed start of the Tour de’France, as my mates and I poured forth from the factory gates after a hard days graft.)

The town can no longer be described as a medium-sized market town, or a dormitory suburb of London. It seems to me to no longer have a tangible positive identity. Our civic leaders are keen for it to have city status; they promote the Manhattan skyline image. I’m not so sure that their optimism is well placed.

Croydon has much to commend it: a good transport system with tram, bus, and rail connections. It has a thriving open air market; there is a good number of small and medium sized quality independent shops. There remains a significant industrial sector, of technical renown within the engineering and scientific community at large. There is an emerging high tech hub of development engineers that is doing very well and shows much promise for the future.

On the cultural side we have the Fairfield Halls but unfortunately we have lost the Warehouse Theatre. There is a number of small venues, as there always has been, catering to their capacity. We have public libraries.

Even as a man of no faith, I can recognise that Croydon has a strong and diverse set of faith communities, and this too is a blessing for the town.

There is much talk of the regeneration of Croydon, plans have been drawn up and contracts are being signed. It seems that we will have brand new shopping malls to replace the old, and leisure centres and cinemas too. Apartments are also to be built. All very laudable I am sure – let us hope that the townsfolk will have money in their pockets to spend in the new malls.

The terrible riot in 2011 should have been a wakeup call for all of us but I see little evidence that lessons have been learned

Things, however, are not all bright and beautiful in Croydon. I have noticed over the last six years or so much tension in the air: there is poverty, there is hopelessness, and there is cynicism. There is far too much crime and there is too much drunkenness on our streets. All the signs of a society that is not easy with itself.

The terrible riot in 2011 should have been a wakeup call for all of us but I see little evidence that lessons have been learned – we still live in a ‘them and us’ culture of blame and recrimination with no practical suggestion to change things for the better. Repairs and compensation for the victims is still outstanding. There is an ever-rising curve to burglary and robbery crime statistics. We must surely mend our ways for our future and for our children’s sakes.

But the future is not bleak: there are people of good will in this town, there are people of talent in this town, and there are people with energy, integrity, and enterprise in this town. It is the people that make our town. Our civic leaders, our faith leaders, our commercial leaders, and our political representatives must all draw together and regain the sense of unity and purpose that the citizens of Croydon deserve and expect.

Terry Coleman

Terry Coleman

Retired bloke having a lot of fun doing what he wants after 51 years doing what the bosses wanted. Croydon born & bred. Politics-Blairite, Faith-Agnostic, Interests-Music (mostly Ellington), Reading, Pilates, Gym.

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  • Philip George Harfleet

    An honest and straightforward article by a chap who tells it like it is.
    I am five years older than Terry and agree wholeheartedly with his post. I wonder which school he first attended? Mine was Elmwood, where Mr Thatcher, the headmaster, ran a great school – firmly and fairly.
    I too spent a short while working in one of the Purley Way factories – ‘Walterisation’ it was called, where bicycle frames were dipped in some strong smelling chemical tanks to stop rusting of the metal.
    Well said, well written Terry Coleman. Enjoy your retirement.

  • Terry Coleman

    Thank you for your kind words Philip. I remember Mr Thatcher, headmaster of Elmwood Rd Junior School, I was at that school between 1948 and 1951 (or thereabouts). ‘Old Thatcher’ was quite stern and could wield the stick on occasions I recall. They were all good teachers in those days. I remember Miss Baker who taught English and Music making us to sing ‘Saw a youth a morning rose, blooming in the heather’ amazing words by Goethe, music by Schubert. What a wonderful gift for any child to be given.