Event review: Croydon’s evolution

By - Friday 14th July, 2017

Dodgy microphones did not spoil an engaging and detailed journey through the borough’s varied and innovative history, but where were the audience questions?

Photo by Whitgift Foundation, used with permission.

The banqueting hall of the Old Palace School was an appropriately historical location for a discussion on the evolution of Croydon. Expertly hosted by James Naylor, who was a combination of both chairman and compere, the evening consisted of a guided verbal tour through Croydon’s history by a panel of experts, who were asked various relevent questions by Mr Naylor. As the founder and editor of the Croydon Citizen, the chairman was clearly both knowledgeable and fascinated by Croydon, and did his best to bring out the most important aspects of Croydon’s historical development from the assorted panel of experts at his side.

The panel consisted of Martin Corney, chief executive of the Whitgift Foundation; Paula Murray, creative director of Croydon Council; Joseph Watson, London creative director at the National Trust; Richard Plant, chair of Develop Croydon; and Tania Rahman, visitor services assistant at the British Museum. Sadly, the experience of listening to such an erudite panel was somewhat marred by technical difficulties with the microphones, which meant that the more softly spoken experts were rather difficult to hear.

Nevertheless, I left the discussion a lot more aware of Croydon’s evolution and pleased to discover that there were people just as fascinated and enthusiastic about this intriguing, dynamic (if sometimes frustrating) London borough as I am. Croydon, the place that one of the panellists liked to refer to as ‘the capital of South London’, has had an exciting evolution thus far, and could with the right leadership be a beacon of progressive, dynamic and innovative change for the future.

The Anglo-Saxons therefore gave the place the name ‘croh’, meaning crocus, and ‘denu’, meaning valley

It was the Romans who brought an agricultural innovation to Croydon that helped create its name. They brought the beautiful blue saffron crocus from the shores of the Meditterranean and planted it in the hillsides around today’s current town. The Anglo-Saxons therefore gave the place the name ‘croh’, meaning crocus, and ‘denu’, meaning valley, and over time ‘crohdenu’ evolved into today’s name of Croydon. As the saffron crocus flowers in November and produces a harvest that is by weight more valuable than gold, I like to imagine on cold, wet autumnal days that the hillsides of Croydon have once again been turned blue by its pretty little flowers and are now shimmering in the autumnal sunshine.

One of Croydon’s most inspiring and recent innovators, Ally Mackinlay, is to be thoroughly applauded and congratulated for bringing the saffron crocus back to Croydon, initially in a temporarily abandoned building plot that was the site of Croydon’s old town hall, and in future years in the parks and school grounds of Croydon.

The discussion then jumped a few centuries to talk of the influence of Archbishop Whitgift, who became archbishop in 1583 and who has had such a deep and long-lasting influence on Croydon. By that time, English archbishops were using the palace in Croydon (now Old Palace School, where this discussion was taking place) as their summer residence, and Whitgift set up the charitable foundation that still bears his name. He was responsible for starting a school and building the almshouses which still stand today in the centre of Croydon, providing attractive antique homes for some of its elderly residents. The small school which he set up has grown into three independent schools, including Old Palace School.

The 1930s were one of Croydon’s most glamorous and exciting periods

In the age of the industrial revolution the town really began to develop into the place that it is today. In 1801 the population of Croydon was 5,000, but by 1901 it had grown to 135,000. At this time Croydon seemed particularly innovative and though some ventures such as the horse-drawn railway, atmospheric railway, and the canal were rather short-lived, the building of the railway to the centre of London meant that Croydon could become a key trading post, transporting both agricultural and industrial goods up to London.

The railway also meant that it was much easier for people to live further away from their places of work and all of these factors helped to boost the size of the town. Croydon should be proud that it was the first muncipality to set up a water board to try to improve the quality of the water and safeguard the health of its citizens. This was particularly needed as the new factories along the river Wandle and the growing population turned some of the streets of Croydon into open sewers. The industrial revolution brought many benefits and opportunities to Croydon but also a number of serious problems.

It was perhaps the early 1930s, though, when Croydon went through one of its most glamorous and exciting periods. Setting up London’s first commercial airport enabled richer citizens to travel abroad in a way that would have been undreamt of at the beginning of the century. In some ways I feel that Croydon has never ever been quite able to recapture the confidence and dazzle of that period. It boomed again in the 1960s and early 1970s when many businesses such as Nestlé realized that it would be cheaper to have offices in Croydon than in central London, but after a few years they realized that they could find even cheaper locations, and this has left Croydon with many of the empty offices that you can still see today.

Too often it seems to me that those in positions of power and influence don’t have quite enough faith in their most valuable and precious asset, the local people

At present, though, there is something of a resurgence of innovation in Croydon, but this is usually coming from the grassroots of the people of Croydon. These include community projects such as the urban saffron farm, the growing of oyster mushrooms from old coffee grounds, the making of furniture from old pallets, and the numerous local park groups that are trying once again to make their local green spaces more attractive and interesting places to visit. The Thornton Heath Community Action Team deserves special praise as it has taken many practical steps to improve the local environment and to try to instil a sense of pride and ownership of the area within the local community. Although the Fairfield Halls will be shut for a few years yet, Paula Murray was keen to emphasise that her job is made somewhat easier by the fact that there are already so many local groups and organisations working to develop and promote the arts in Croydon.

Yet too often it seems to me that those in positions of power and influence don’t have quite enough faith in their most valuable and precious asset, the local people. Towards the end the experts on the panel made a point of how much they valued the ‘community of Croydon’, yet there was no opportunity for the community within the hall to ask questions of the panel or to engage in the debate. A discussion on the evolution of Croydon was an interesting and worthwhile event to put on during the Heritage Festival, but I would love to see it evolve into something that actually engages more with the people of Croydon. Perhaps next year Whitgift School could put on an exhibition about Croydon’s fascinating evolution, invite all of Croydon’s schools, other local groups, and all Croydon citizens to visit, and then during heritage week have a discussion with a panel of experts, including those working in the arts and local community groups. The main difference to the discussion would be that all the questions would come from those in the audience, as in the TV programme Question Time.

Perhaps the theme could be ‘how can Croydon learn from the mistakes and successes of the past to evolve better in the future?’. Now that would be an event that I’d definitely book for.

Charles Barber

Charles Barber

Adoptive Croydonian, currently trying to publish a book and find gainful employment within the Croydonian urban jungle. Environmental campaigner, Twitter@rainforestsaver, founder of the Croydon Rainforest Club and of the Friends of Whitehorse Park.

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  • Tony Skrzypczyk

    Excellent review and I agrre with Charles that questions from the audience or some sort of participation was needed. There was this year a lack of engagement with local groups and speakers which was present in the all the previous Heritage Festivals.I hope this will be addressed if the Heritage Festival is repeated next year,although it still did an excellent job in promoting Croydon.

  • Robert Ward

    “Although the Fairfield Halls will be shut for a few years yet” – Was anything actually said about the Fairfield re-opening? According to our council it is supposed to re-open in a little over year.

    • Adrian Winchester

      Exactly the point I’d like to raise! If it was actually stated that the Fairfield won’t open “for a few years yet”, that’s a major bombshell considering the widely-announced Autumn 2018 re-opening, so I’m surprised that it hasn’t resulted in alarm and prominent press coverage. Does Charles have any evidence to support this statement?

      • Tom Black

        I was at the event, and believe Charles is offering his personal opinion here. From memory (though it was two weeks ago) there was no discussion of the Halls.

      • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

        Please see my reply to Robert.

    • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

      I did try to reply to this earlier but now I see it’s not shown. This was careless journalism on my part and though it may reveal a certain personal scepticism on my part, no mention was made about the opening date of the Fairfield Halls.

  • Liz Walder

    Old Palace School was not part of John Whitgift’s legacy to education. It was purchased by the then Duke of Newcastle in 1887 and given to the Sisters Of The Church who used it for educational purposes. Their first school opened in 1889.

    Old Palace School joined the Whitgift Foundation in 1993.

    • Tom Black

      That’s quite correct, but on rereading the article, I can’t see anything that contradicts that. Charles only says that Whitgift’s original school grew into a foundation that contains other schools.

      I was responsible to editing it, so would have been alarmed to miss an error like that!

      • Liz Walder

        Thank you for your input Tom. I still beg to differ but do not propose to disagree online.

        • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

          Hi Liz,
          Although I’m grateful for Tom’s support of a fellow journalist, I myself do believe you have a reasonably valid point. I was guilty of repeating something I’d heard or read without looking as thoroughly as I probably should at the exact history of Old Palace School. Indeed I suspect that Old Palace School has an interesting enough history to make a goof future article for the Citizen.

          • Liz Walder

            Thanks Charles. Let me know if you want information on OP School as I’ve been giving guided tours there since 1992, and am an Old Girl (1976-86).