South Norwood - The Society's Forgotten Suburb

Though it is a large part of the Society’s area of concern, more often than not I search vainly in the Review for reference to this lively, crowded, rather shapeless area, so here is an up to date sketch of life in South Norwood. At the moment of writing we have just come through a period of acute traffic confusion and congestion due the re-laying of a gas main at the foot of South Norwood Hill, and have returned to the normal level of congestion consequent upon two highways crossing in the centre of the suburb. The High Street is no place for asthmatics on warm still days when the slow-moving traffic spills out its fumes and soon besmirches any redecorated frontage. Round the corner in Whitworth Road years of pollution had blackened the coloured ceramic sculpture over the entrance to the pleasing 1930’s built St. Chad’s Catholic Church, but passing the other day I noticed that a long personal but gentle campaign had achieved success. The sculpture had been thoroughly cleaned and the Holy Mother and attendant cherubs could be seen once again in all their beauty – but the operation will need repeating from time to time.

To return to the High Street. It has at last seen the arrival of WETHERSPOONS, those modern and enlightened providers of pubs, in a central and most presentable block in this Conservation Area. Instantly popular, how much it has brightened and enlivened the area visually and socially in this still busy but struggling shopping centre. Hopefully it will act as a fillip for other outlets and shops to fill the vacancies common to most district centres nowadays. The name chosen for this addition to the area’s many but rather tired pubs is “THE WILLIAM STANLEY”, after South Norwood’s guiding father in its formative years from the 1860’s onwards. Inside, as is Wetherspoon’s custom, Stanley and his works given a good spread on the walls, and attention is also drawn to other local notables of the past – actress and beauty LILY LANGTRY, composer COLERIDGE TAYLOR, and firework manufacturer WILLIAM BROCK. Strangely the CONAN DOYLE/SHERLOCK HOLMES connection is ignored, though both of their spirits can still be sensed in this area they once inhabited. There is also a timely history of Selhurst Park Stadium, starting with its opening on an old brickfield in 1923.

So Stanley’s name still dominates South Norwood, more than a century after he first made his home here. However, the STANLEY WORKS in Belgrave Road, the old Victorian factory which Stanley built in 1875 for the making of mathematical and drawing instruments, and which has remained in some sort of manufacturing use ever since, suffered a disastrous fire just before Christmas. Within the Conservation Area, it now stands open to the sky by the railway, and there must be some doubt as to how and whether it can be meaningfully restored. Notwithstanding, solidity was the watchword of this builder, architect, manufacturer, inventor and subsequent generous benefactor. The commodious Stanley Halls “built last a thousand years “ will no doubt be as busy as they ever were when they celebrate the centenary of their initial opening in 2003. One seldom passes without seeing these Grade II listed buildings in use for a variety of events. In addition to dramatic presentations they also accommodate events as diverse as dog shows, dancing classes, psychic fairs, grand wedding receptions and, on Sundays, the new churches. And the number of keep-fitters, mostly feminine, one can see on many days through its open doors gracefully cavorting, should ensure the basic fitness of the neighbourhood. The present Manageress of this Halls complex is preparing a plan to form the basis of a Heritage lottery bid to be made by the Council. This is aimed at restoring the Hall’s Edwardian characteristics, particularly the frontage, diminished during the War and by the disappearance overnight in March 1966 of the bronze heads of seven eminent Victorians stolen by thieves for their metal content. May the bid succeed!

Next door, at the Stanley Technical High School, the original buildings of which are included in the English Heritage Listing, things have been happening - not always as planned. Originally designed by its donor for less than 300 boys and latterly teaching 600, it was permitted to increase its intake over the next few years to reach 900. To do this the grant-maintained school took over an empty office block in the top part of the High Street, close to the school, and set about converting and adding to it: the alterations and additions adding character and interest to what was a nondescript 1960’s block. It was three quarters finished when the builders went into liquidation and has remained empty ever since while desperate attempts are being made to raise the finance to complete the job. I am not sure of the up to date position but South Norwood has to prepare itself for the disgorgement of up to 900 large lads into its centre at various times during the day.

The upper half of the High Street, once a full extension of the lower, is now a mere skeleton of a shopping centre, with takeaways, odd and strange lettings and untidy empties, a throughway for traffic topped by the Goat House bridge and over the bridge the large Goat House pub. Their common names commemorate the earliest beginnings lost in the mists of time, of the area that is now South Norwood. The present pub is a 1920’s rebuild of the original Victorisn building which took the place of the Goat House Farm which took the place of – well, we are not quite sure. It was originally shown as the “Goathouse” on a parchment map in 1678 of the Lanes of the Archbishop of Canterbury and was situated in extesnsive woods marked “Croydon Woods called Norwood” though there is mention of it under another name in a 15th Century document. For 150 years after the original mapping it is usually the only place marked on old maps of the area. These outcrops of the Great North Wood were formally very sparsely inhabited until development caused by the coming of the canal and railway commenced.

Returning to the present, South Norwood is cleanly cut in two by the railway, the prime connecting link between the two halves being the road under Portland Road railway bridge, where the road originally went over the canal. In Victorian times the lower was mainly occupied by the artisans and working classes and the upper half by their “betters”, but this distinction is now of course obscured.

In recent years the dark area under the bridge was taking on the nature of a sewer, with flooding and large puddles after rain, filled with pigeon droppings and sometimes dead pigeons and soggy litter. The new Council, however, has rendered a transformation, by a complete refurbishment of the bridge in league with the Railway authorities, the fixing of anti-pigeon netting and improved lighting and street cleaning. The exercise has been crowned by the installation on one side of an extensive mosaic depicting the life and history of South Norwood, in the production of which local school children were closely involved – a noticeable piece of public and municipal art.

Variety has been added to the district in recent years by changes in the population. The shops are no longer the old familiar names and part of a chain, but now reflect changes in dietary preferences, although the long-established fish and chips are still popular. Also contributing to the cosmopolitan flavour are the Poles of South East London. Round the corner in Oliver Grove they acquired after the War two houses behind which they built, first a hall, and then a cosy and discreet church for their community. Much used by our former Allies, it was honoured last year by a visit from the Polish workers’ leader LECH WALESA. Opposite is the commanding Police Station opened in 1988 and now the joint headquarters of the new huge Croydon Division of the Metropolitan Police. It gives South Norwood a sense of security and also provides it with its background street music of the insistent police car sirens.

It was the railway that gave South Norwood birth and it is at Norwood Junction over the last 140 years that most people have arrived at the suburb. Even now it is a busy station and likely to remain so. The Station within the Conservation Area, has large and spacious buildings and a sizeable forecourt wherein I can just remember in the 1920’s, horse-drawn carriages waiting to take off the trains the last of the Norwood Gentry to their large houses, many now gone. Since 1909 the eyes of those arriving have been drawn up Station Road to the Grade II listed clock-tower, the gift of grateful residents to the Stanleys on their Golden Wedding and around which South Norwoodians still tend to gather and circulate for shopping and business. It is a vital road containing the district’s two largest and most important shops – SAFEWAYS and EMERTONS the ironmongers, but particularly near and around the Station it was allowed to decay most awfully. There has been much improvement in recent years due to substantial Council works and property refurbishment, but much remains to be done. There needs to be a comprehensive plan to make the station forecourt more attractive, with fewer cars.  Above all, attention needs to be given to the Station itself. While having regard to its Conservation Area status this important railway and transport centre needs modernizing and upgrading as its use increases. This should include modern refreshment and toilet facilities accessible to the public as well as travellers, comfortable adequate waiting rooms and perhaps some commercial letting and a suitable restoration of its frontage spoilt by tasteless re-rendering in the past. South Norwood should be given a station in which it can take pride and rail travellers should feel they are arriving at a place of significance and importance.

The suburb will never recapture fully its happy and cohesive heyday of the first half of this century, engendered in the Victorian years – its population is too fluid and its traffic too destructive. Times have changed but none the less its modern inhabitants should be given the opportunity to take pride in the area in which they live and to develop a responsible attitude towards the environment so that the great ogre of urban decay can be thrown back and vanquished.

There is a lot going for South Norwood, not least the existence of two fine parks on its edges both bearing its name, and it is worth close attention from the Norwood Society.

Hugh Byford (1999).

Note: This comprehensive article was written by the late Hugh Byford, and much has changed since he wrote it. See below:

Wetherspoons have remedied their wall display, and now show Conan Doyle. They have however retained Lily Langtry, even though there is no evidence to support the belief that she was once resident in South Norwood. There are plans to improve the forecourt to Norwood Junction Station. Some work has been done, and the Station now has a refreshment facility. Sadly, the Goathouse has now been demolished

Ed (2012)

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