So, what was all that about? Report on the Croydon Heritage Festival 2013

By - Tuesday 9th July, 2013

Liz Sheppard-Jones threw herself into the Croydon Heritage Festival last month. Now, she tells us why

Tudor dancing lessons in the historic chapel at Old Palace School

The new arrival even took its parents by surprise. Delivered by the Whitgift Foundation, Croydon’s 400 year old educational charity, between June 3rd and 23rd 2013, Croydon Heritage Festival was the brainchild of its first Marketing and Communications Manager, Catherine Shirley, appointed in early 2012 to bring the eye of a modern marketeer to a venerable institution. As she got up to speed in her new role, it seemed to Catherine that Croydon venerates its history and traditions too little. Regeneration news is of course positive and retail giants and the opportunities they bring are welcome as we seek to address our borough’s relative economic decline, but it can sometimes seem that the future is all about shopping centres.

Heritage struck Catherine Shirley as Croydon’s under-used resource. She put the idea of a celebration, perhaps a heritage day or one-off occasion, out for consideration by potential partners via the Local Studies Forum in the spring of 2013. And from that first discussion arose (in a remarkably short time) a three-week celebration the length and breadth of the borough supported by 47 partners and Croydon Council. Financial support came chiefly from commercial property agents Stiles Harold Williams and the Croydon Partnership (formed by Westfield and Hammersons, partners in the creation of Croydon’s new retail centre) and PR expertise from White Label, a well-known local firm.

150 events in six categories were staged in fifty locations. On festival launch day, Saturday June 8th, over 153,000 people visited Croydon town centre for music, street entertainment, and a past times fancy dress competition judged by the Mayor – that’s 34% up on the same day in 2012. Crystal Palace Football Club brought along its speedometer to tell you how fast you can kick a ball. From gruesome murder investigations to thoughtful examinations of Victorian paintings, from Dick Turpin to Tramlink – Croydon’s first Heritage Festival embraced them all.

Groups large enough to block tramlines went on guided walks. The borough was definitely buzzing

Trams are part of Croydon’s heritage as well as an icon of modernity

The Whitgift team is still crunching the numbers and data collection over such a wide-ranging event presents its own challenges. received 8,321 visits during the festival period (a figure which, although pleasing, fails to give an accurate sense of the level of community engagement for reasons to which I will return) and over 4,000 of those visitors returned for further information. Ticketed events ran waiting lists. Talks in libraries were crowded on hot and stuffy evenings. Groups large enough to block tramlines went on guided walks. The borough was definitely buzzing.

There are three reasons why the festival thrived. The first was Croydon’s good fortune (and of course good planning) in having at its disposal the resources of the Whitgift Foundation and the skills of all those who worked, professionally and as volunteers, to make the festival happen. The foundation drew on a borough-wide network then provided the professionalism to co-ordinate and promote what these helpers had to offer. The festival has been rated as excellent or good by 83% of respondents analysed so far. It was created by the right people in the right place at the right time. It worked.

When rapid change unsettles us we seek reassurance in continuity – the riots of 2011 sent us into collective shock from which we have not yet fully emerged

Success lies in the spirit of our times

The second reason was Croydon’s response. Heritage is something people want to know about and the public responds eagerly. The Bygone Croydon Facebook page and now website had already demonstrated this as its membership exploded from a few hundred to over 9,000 in just a few months during 2012/13.

Why does modern Croydon love heritage? My theories are that when rapid change unsettles us we seek reassurance in continuity; that the riots of 2011 sent us into collective shock from which we have not yet fully emerged, but that as we do our anger has given us a shot of energy, expressed in the will to work for Croydon’s recovery and to focus on all that is good in it; and, (my favourite) that we may just be growing tired of the negative coverage of a place for which many care deeply and be gaining the confidence to challenge this. Heritage is a part of identity and self-image – as Britons it is coded into our DNA – and a real boost for the self-image of Croydon.

That Croydon is itself an ancient place is news to many and it’s exciting to be able to join the party

The third reason for success lies in the zeitgeist – the spirit of our times. Whether due to uncertainty about the future or pride in the past, popular history is sexy for adults and fun for children in a way it never used to be. Think of Horrible Histories, Dan Snow, Baldrick-actor-turned-populariser Tony Robinson, huge interest in the discovery of Richard III in a Leicester carpark, our national obsession with ancestry websites and the seemingly unending appetite for all things Second World War. That Croydon is itself an ancient place is news to many and it’s exciting to be able to join the party.

More of the same, but not exactly the same

Croydon Heritage Festival was also, it is to be hoped, a beginning. Catherine Shirley’s analysis of the feedback forms handed out at every venue and event indicates strong support for more of the same, with 97% of attenders believing the event should become an annual feature. Not, however, more of exactly the same, and her team’s evaluation is now underway, taking a careful look at what worked well and what didn’t.

Some well-meaning arrangers failed to grasp what they were part of (understandably, perhaps, since nothing like it had happened before) and therefore under-delivered against the high expectations of visitors who had read stylishly-designed guides, visited an impressive website and seen the full-page promotional ‘wrap’ about the festival in the Croydon Advertiser. Fine events can also have teething troubles – one guided walk led by an expert whose enthusiasm shone out left her exhausted participants crawling to the pub for sustenance after hours on the road – but passion for your subject is no criticism. All that was needed was tweaking.

Brian Lancaster delivering a lecture at Coulsdon Library

My biggest concern was the grey factor. Conscious as I am that this will sound ageist, I was nevertheless too often the youngest participant at the events I attended. That must also (with respect to the many silver surfers out there) have kept the online hits down, for with an engaged younger audience web traffic would surely have gone through the roof. That’s frustrating when by captivating the young, these events would have primed an audience for the future and the festival must, as Catherine Shirley recognises, now seek to engage across the generations.

Above all, the first Croydon Heritage Festival felt joyously uncommercial

Efforts had in fact already begun and Rose Farrar, White Label PR’s indefatigable project manager, described to me with some frustration her efforts to involve schools beyond Whitgift and Trinity. With Heritage Lottery funding cited as a future possibility, the involvement of schools and the potential value of the festival to the curriculum will become key. These are early days but if, as is hoped, the festival becomes a regular feature of the Croydon calendar, there will surely be opportunities to plan inclusively.

Above all, the first Croydon Heritage Festival felt joyously uncommercial. Corporate social responsibility is a hot current topic and these three weeks in June demonstrated how business can contribute to the community around it. But most of all, the warmth of volunteers and enthusiasts doing what they love was evident. There were free teas (and jaffa cakes) and no-one tried to sell you stuff or keep you hanging round the shops, a sometimes tiresome feature of Croydon’s otherwise enjoyable local business-sponsored community parties. This was the best of us, and it has left Croydon feeling good and wanting more.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles



    Great article. This was a wonderfully diverse collection of events to make up a great festival. Croydon Soroptimists enjoyed being part of it.

  • Adrian Winchester

    An interesting insight into the Festival. I agree that Croydon was ‘buzzing’ on 8 June although I’m curious as to how a number as specific as 153,000 visitors is arrived at! I hope it continues. It’s good that it was welcoming and inclusive, although there could be a case for being a little more selective in terms of what’s included, as the programme become a bit cluttered with some tiny events that would have happened anyway and didn’t really offer a sense of participating.

    • Liz Sheppard-Jones

      Point of information – footfall in Croydon Town Centre is recorded by automated counts of the number of people passing electronic measuring points.

      • Adrian Winchester


  • Diana Lyne

    My friend and I were the only people at the talk we attended, which was a pity. Maybe because it was poorly described don the Heritage leaflet.