Political Croydon: The Sixties

By - Tuesday 11th February, 2014

In the first of a new series, Croydon resident and political animal David White recalls what Croydon’s political scene was like fifty years ago

Clockwise, starting top left: Londoners protest Britain’s support for apartheid; Hugh Gaitskell, Labour leader 1955-1963; David Winnick, Labour MP for Croydon South 1966-1970; Sir James Marshall oversees plans for the future of Croydon; Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister 1964-1970 (and 1974-1976); Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Conservative Prime Minister 1963-1964.

My first real memory of politics in Croydon is the 1959 general election. Nationally the Conservative Macmillan government was standing for re-election under the slogan “You’ve never had it so good”. The Labour Party, under Hugh Gaitskell, was the only real opposition, as the Liberals held only six seats in parliament.

My father was a working class Tory. I remember him driving round the streets of Croydon South in 1959 with a loudhailer urging people to vote for Sir Richard Thompson, the Conservative MP who was standing for re-election and who duly won. My Dad was annoyed afterwards as apparently Sir Richard didn’t bother to show up at the committee rooms to thank Party workers.

By this time I had already sussed out that my politics were to the left. I joined the Young Liberals in 1962, at about the time of the Orpington by-election which was won by Liberal Eric Lubbock (who is still doing excellent work today as Lord Avebury).  The Young Liberals were radical and active in Croydon and elsewhere, particularly on issues like apartheid.

Sir James Marshall was an autocratic figure who once said “the best committee is a committee of one”

I was, however, very much in a minority. Croydon was a Tory town. Local politics in the fifties and sixties were dominated by one man – Alderman Sir James Marshall.  He had been an alderman since 1936, and by the sixties he had managed to combine the roles of Leader of the Council, Chairman of the Finance Committee, Chairman of the Planning Committee and Chairman of the Governors of the Whitgift Foundation (Gavin Barwell MP, eat your heart out!).

Marshall masterminded the Croydon Corporation Act which produced most of the town centre sixties redevelopment which we have to live with today. He was an autocratic figure who once said “the best committee is a committee of one”.

I was by this stage a pupil at Trinity School (which was where the Whitgift Shopping Centre is today). Sir James used to appear at prizegivings and similar events and deliver (as I saw it!) long pompous speeches.

In 1966, it looked as though Tory Sir Richard Thompson had scraped home, but the Labour agent noticed a bundle of 100 votes which had not been counted

The closest Labour came to winning the council in the sixties was in 1964 when they won 21 seats to the Conservatives’ 39. Some of the Conservatives stood as “Ratepayers” or Residents’ Association candidates (this carried on right up to 1978), but they all took the Tory whip when elected.

In 1968 Labour won only one seat on the council (in New Addington).  The Tories and their allies won the other 59.

However, Labour had something to cheer two years before 1968. David Winnick won the Croydon South parliamentary seat (very roughly equivalent to today’s Croydon Central) and became only the second ever Labour MP in Croydon. His majority was wafer-thin – only 81 votes.  At one stage in the count it looked as though Tory Sir Richard Thompson had scraped home, but the Labour agent Sayed Shah noticed a bundle of 100 votes for David Winnick which had not been added to the count. Winnick lost the seat to Thompson again in 1970, but would become MP for Walsall North in 1979 – a seat he still holds today.

Peter Hain and I were arrested along with about a hundred others after we ran on to the pitch at Twickenham and disrupted a Springbok rugby match

In the late sixties there was a lot of political activity which wasn’t centred on parliament or the council, such as demonstrations against the US involvement in Vietnam. I and many others were also involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

Peter Hain lived nearby in Putney. I and other Croydon Young Liberals joined him in the “Stop the 70 Tour” campaign, which opposed the all-white rugby and cricket teams from South Africa which were due to visit the UK. At the end of 1969, Peter and I were arrested along with about a hundred others after we ran on to the pitch at Twickenham and disrupted a Springbok rugby match. The campaign was ultimately successful as pressure mounted and the 1970 cricket tour was called off.  The ANC and Nelson Mandela later said they felt buoyed up by sporting boycotts like this (and also trade boycotts) and that they played a part in the ultimate downfall of apartheid.

By 1970, I felt my aims would be better served in the Labour Party, rather than the Liberals. I joined the Labour Party in that year.

In my next article I hope to comment on Croydon politics in the seventies.

David White

David White

David lives in Park Hill, Croydon. Until his recent retirement he was a solicitor specialising in elderly client matters. He is a member of the Labour Party.

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  • Sean Creighton

    Nice one David. A small group of us are slowly looking at the radical history of Croydon. If you email me at I will send you a copy of the first newsletter.

    • David White

      This sounds interesting, Sean, and I would certainly like to hear more.

  • Terry Coleman

    I was too busy working my butt off in local industry to be concerned about the politics in those days. But I lived through the changes and saw first hand the 1960s development of the town.
    People like Sir James Marshall had vision and actually got things done then. To my mind it was mostly for the public good.
    We had a large and thriving industrial sector then and that underpinned everything.
    I sincerely hope that our industrial sector will be supported and encouraged today, it’s importance should not be overlooked in the latest round of Croydon’s development.

    • David White

      I very much agree about the industry. Tech businesses should also be encouraged and nurtured, as highlighted by Croydon Tech City.
      Sir James Marshall and his colleagues certainly put Croydon on the map as a commercial centre, rather than the dormitory town it had been previously. However this was at the cost of dreadful architecture and even worse road schemes, the effects of which we are still grappling with today.

  • Brendan Walsh

    Well done on your early activism, the whole Basil D’Oliveira story seems so shameful now so good on you for getting stuck in.
    Amazing how Labour could win a constituency in Croydon in ’66 but only 1 Council seat in ’68. Could hardly have been representative of the population at the time could it?

    • David White

      Thanks for your comments, Brendan.
      I think the changes in Labour’s fortunes 1966-68 were largely due to national factors. In 1966 the Wilson Government, which had been elected with a tiny majority in 1964, was looking for a stronger mandate. It had become very unpopular by 1968, and in the local elections that year Labour even lost boroughs like Hackney and Islington.

  • Nick Wagner

    Good on you David.
    Sir James Marshall was a friend of my not quite so autocratic grandfather Frederick Wagner (of Allsop and Wagner – did you buy your first Woodies from them?). In my last year at Whitgift he visited the Biology Sixth and our tame squirrel jumped on his shoulder and pissed down his back. We were thrilled by this and I’ve often wondered what lady M thought he’d been up to. Although all my family were Tory (I can recall an enormous poster of Harold Macmillan in our front room window in 1959) once I was able to vote (I was twenty one in 1966) I voted Labour, largely due to my experience of how badly the Allsop and Wagner workers were treated. Incidentally, a cousin of my mother, who lived in Downe, was a Liberal party activist and I was roped in to help at a pre election Sunday drinks party, serving Black Velvet to an excited Eric Lubbock who scented something special in the air.
    Viva Croydon (tho’ it’s not the same).