What is this thing called ‘gentrification’? How history may shape personal opinions

By - Wednesday 9th October, 2013

In the Croydon Citizen’s final piece on the gentrification debate (for this week, at least!), long-term resident Terry Coleman shares his family’s century-long view of class and change in Croydon

Victorian Ironwork revealed by upgrade to East Croydon station.
Photo by Lucy Fisher. Image used under Creative Commons license.

There seems to be a debate forming around the social mix and mobility of our townsfolk. It’s an important subject and I would like to join the discussion by putting some of my personal history forward – perhaps it may be useful.

Both my parents’ families came originally from Sussex; they were classed as agricultural labourers (Ag Labs). That was nothing unusual because over 90% of the population was similarly placed during the period between 1800 and 1900.

Great changes took place in the 19th century: The Enclosures Acts, the various Corn Law and Poor Law Acts of Parliament too. All to the detriment of the common people. It was also the time of Industrial Revolution.

My father’s grandparents came to Croydon in 1871, David Gaius and Sarah Celia Coleman. My mother’s parents came to Croydon in 1901, Henry and Jane Matilda Taylor.

They came to improve the lot of their respective young families, to seek the opportunity of work and stability that they could no longer rely upon living in the rural areas. They were not alone; at that time people were coming in droves to live in the towns and cities.

My people had to find what they could get; there was nothing on a plate for them, jobs and housing was scarce. (I’m sure that a lot of our folk today could relate to this situation.)

We lived in one of the poorest areas of West Croydon and there was a sense of community

Both my parents started life in tiny victorian cottages, Dad at Addiscombe and Mum at West Croydon. I started life in the same cottage that my mum was born in, the same cottage that my grandmother had raised nine children in.

Not exactly the lap of luxury; outside toilet, no bathroom. We did everything at the kitchen sink, food preparation, laundry, personal cleansing. As kids we were bathed in a tin bath in front of the living room fire, mum had to heat the water in saucepans on the stove.

We lived in one of the poorest areas of West Croydon and there was a sense of community. I can remember being taught to write my name and address; Master Terence H Coleman… West Croydon, Surrey. It gave me a sense of identity and place as well as the satisfaction of having the ability to write!

There were much better-off areas very close by to us and we mostly mixed in together quite well at school. Elmwood Road Junior Boys School for my pals and I, under the stern eye of Mr Thatcher the headmaster.

I am describing a period in the 1940s, just after the war, and things generally were pretty bleak; Industry was on its knees, food rationing was in place and so many staple things were simply not available. (It was a standing joke for many years among my younger siblings that ‘poor Terry never had a banana until he was 7 years old’.)

After Dad’s military service he, like millions of others, had to find work. And he did: first driving trucks, he later joined the Croydon Ambulance Brigade. Not many mums worked in those days; keeping a house then was a darned sight more labour intensive than it is today. (Perhaps the Industrial Revolution came late to domestic science)

What is this thing called ‘gentrification’? I find the word slightly uncomfortable

Us kids mixed in quite well with the better-off’s who lived in places like Broad Green and Kidderminster Road, etc. I have the sense that our parents ‘knew their place’ a bit more than we. I remember that dad always addressed the doctor or head teacher as sir, said it was correct because they were professional people and better than us working class. It’s understandable looking back, because before the war there really was a class conscious society.

My dear mum, together with her sisters, started her working life ‘in service’. Mum was a kitchen maid in a big house somewhere in South Croydon or Purley.

I can recall getting a practical on the subject of shirt ironing by Aunty Daisy when I was a teenager, I was impressed and she said she had to do several of those every morning before breakfast when she was a girl in service: ‘they had to be done perfectly for the gentlemen of the house’.

Enough self indulgent potted history. But if nothing else, it helps to identify my own sense of place within the town.

It leaves me with a question; what is this thing called ‘gentrification’? I find the word slightly uncomfortable; perhaps I don’t fully understand it – a man of the past, eh!

The question should be directed at the young, the shakers and movers of the town. It’s your future, not mine.

So dear people; you can have the flatpack and instructions, be sure to assemble them carefully. I don’t want a wonky chair to sit upon in my old age.

Bless you one and all.

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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  • George Harfleet

    SNAP! – You were almost writing my biography. Dear old Mr. Thatcher: I remember him well. Firm and fair. His is the only teacher’s name I can recall.
    My interpretation of ‘gentrification’ is rocketing property prices.
    A cousin of mine lived in a house in Brixton in the 50s/60s, paying rent. It was a three-storey place and a relative lent them £3k to buy it (as sitting tenants then). They moved to Eastbourne where they still live.
    I was in the waiting room at the surgery and read an item in House Beautiful where it said that a ground floor flat in a similar house in Brixton had just cost them £350,000 – just for the ground floor!
    That’s gentrification as far as I’m concerned. From the ghetto to the ‘grandeur’, if you have got the dosh to be posh.

  • Christian Wilcox

    I am half in favour of gentrification.

    We need a decisive clean-up in the City Centre ( it is a war-zone after all ). But the last thing we need is a Rich Man’s enclave forcing more and more locals into the already very full North Croydon and New Addo locations ( thus creating ghettoes ).

    New Housing is great. New unaffordable housing is actually the recipe for disaster.

    • Terry Coleman

      Ah well, if it all takes off perhaps I could sell my 2 up – 2 down for half a Mil and clear off to Littlehampton – buy a penthouse overlooking the marina, a Jag and live happily ever after. All within the spirit of the new aspiration driven society that we must surely embrace. Ho hum.