Croydon College: another piece of our civic heritage will be destroyed


By - Tuesday 5th July, 2016

Fifty-six years after a civic celebration of its opening, a notable and historic building in central Croydon faces demolition, says Sean Creighton


Artist’s impression of the new Fairfield and College Green development.
Image by Croydon Council, used with permission.

On Wednesday 2nd November 1960, the queen opened the new linked buildings for Croydon Technical College and Croydon College of Art and a major civic celebration took place. The national anthem was sung by the Croydon Philharmonic Society, accompanied by the Salvation Army Band, and Croydon YMCA’s film about the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme was shown. Tea was served at the Old Palace and a thanksgiving service took place at Croydon Parish Church, nowadays Croydon Minster.

The combined colleges complex cost about £2m to build and equip, using over 2,000 tons of steel to create over 274,000 sq ft of floor space. The building was carefully designed to give the college the full advantage of roomy quarters, good light and plenty of first-class equipment. D. H. Beaty-Pownall, its architect, described the scheme as follows:

“The restricted nature of the site has dictated that the college be planned as a high building; it will rise from three floors above street level at either end to seven storeys in the middle and will be served by lifts… The conception of the college as part of a civic centre has meant that its architectural character assumes great importance, and the building has accordingly been designed to combine the best modern college standards with the added qualities of elegance and dignity required by its position”.

The college’s hall had a full professional stage and an acoustic described as ‘exceptional’

A key component of the complex was the Denning Hall. This was a gift to the town left by Mrs. Elizabeth Dack Denning, the widow of Frank Denning, Mayor of Croydon 1913-1916. The hall stood between the college’s two buildings in the area around where the rotunda is now, serving as a link. The Trustees of the Denning Memorial Fund agreed that the hall should be managed by the council’s education committee. Described as ‘an unusually fine’ public hall, it was available for use by both colleges and for public educational purposes. It had a full professional stage, lighting arrangements, theatre flies and acoustics described as ‘exceptional’.

The foundation stone had been laid in another civic ceremony on Wednesday 23 June 1954. The council noted at the time that by “careful designing and building, the college can easily expand, but still remain compact” and the need to expand quickly developed in the first two years. In its editorial on December 7th 1962 the Croydon Advertiser commented: “When Croydon Technical College was little more than a gleam in the chief education officer’s eye, there were plenty of critics to condemn it as grandiose, unwanted, unnecessary, too big. There were also a few voices saying that it was not large enough; that, within a few years, the need for it would outstrip the provision. Experience has proved the latter to have been right… Today, the college is bursting at its seams, and the contemplated extension, if it materialises in 1964 or 1965, will prove only a partial remedy.”

This distinguished civic building will be demolished and another part of the town centre’s built heritage destroyed

Programmes of events put on at Denning Hall have survived from those early years. In 1961 A Sleeping Clergyman by James Bridie and The Doctor and the Devils by Dylan Thomas were performed as joint productions by the College of Art and other art colleges. There was a series of Denning lectures: their theme in 1962-3 was ‘This Modern World’, with topics including Soviet space research, the future of theatre and British political outlook, then in 1963-4 the theme was Perception and Art, covering perception and sculpture, construction, painting and pop art. In 1964 the College of Art celebrated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and Clifford Williams, the director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, gave a talk.

The present student UNICEF society has a display about its work in the college’s entrance hall. In 1964, its forerunner was able to organise five talks on the work of the United Nations in the Denning Hall during the autumn term alone. The hall itself has long vanished, and under council plans this well-designed civic building will now be completely demolished. Yet another part of the town centre’s built heritage will have been destroyed.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly, and Love Norbury Residents Associations Planning & Transport Committee. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, and of British black, , social action and labour movement history. He co-ordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History Networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint - History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Anne Giles

    The whole thing is tragic!

  • Allen Williams

    As a former Croydonian (1955-1971) I am shocked that this plan seems unstoppable: Since 1959 or thereabouts the attitude has been “tear everything down and re-build”. I deplore this attitude. The Whitgift Centre should not have been built in the first place but even that is now threatened with demolition. Old buildings give character to a place and, while not everything should be preserved, any re-development should be consistent with what is already there. Wholesale re-development is always wrong: it destroys what is unique about a place. It makes it faceless. Destroying the college is but another step towards robbing Croydon town centre of what character it has left and making it an anonymous cityscape.

  • Reena

    You could’ve (perhaps) summarised the proposed changes instead of just focusing on the history of the current building.

    • Ian Marvin

      On the contrary, I feel that Sean has done an excellent job of defining exactly why the College might be considered worthy of saving. Incidentally it hasn’t gone yet and can’t really be demolished until the replacement college has been constructed.

    • Sean Creighton

      Given space restraints and the fact that Ian Marvin had already discussed the whole Council project I did not consider there was a need to:

      http://thecroydoncitizen.com/economics-business/future-fairfield-halls-college-green/

  • Sean Creighton

    I have been informed today that Heritage England advised the Secretary of State for Culture to reject listing of the College buildings back in May. The full details can be seen at http://services.historicengland.org.uk/webfiles/GetFiles.aspx?av=C442A43D-250E-43BF-A436-88845B0F6020&cn=0EFC7565-02F1-4AF5-9C32-1D6C28AF5F45

  • RUTH BIRCHAM

    It’s all to altered bit by bit I saw the blue print in 2003 . They want to build a huge giant dome over the top of it from east Croydon station to west Croydon station, so the whole of that section of Croydon will be torn down. They hope to have it all done by 2030.

  • RUTH BIRCHAM

    Out with the old and in with the new. The glass dome will cover the whole of Wellesley road. I can see that they have already started. The idea is to create a commerce Croydon, that attracts tourists, the more unique and original something looks, more people will come to use it’s facilities. There will be top design stores etc restaurants, cinemas, activity spaces, sports centre etc. the whitgift and Drummond will all be torn down too including all the Sainsbury, marks and spencer, MacDonald, the library the clock tower etc. Driving is going to be a real pain for drivers. I was studying combined art, so I looked at blueprints to give me an idea, if I was to create my own blueprints for my business in the future. Croydon as we see it now is going to be no more, it’s all going to be glass even Croydon collage….

    • Ian Marvin

      This seems a little improbable to say the least, do you have any references to these plans?