I was born in 1891 at 62 Woodland Road and went to school in the same road, of which my grandfather was Headmaster. One of my earliest memories is of seeing the cows go up and down Gipsy Hill, to and from the meadow at the bottom. This I believe then belonged to the Norwood Central Diary at the top of Central Hill; they used to go into the cow houses through the lane in Westow Street which is still there, by the fish shop. The driver of the van which took the milk churns to and from Gipsy Hill Station was quite a character. He used to be called ‘Dreadful’ (I never knew his proper name) but he was in fact a dear old chap. He used to wear a tall, high-crowned hat and always smoked a cigar, even when he was driving the van. During the Boer War, he would stick little flags in his hat and call out to all and sundry when we had won a victory.
Another memory is of Kingswood, the beautiful house and grounds which belonged to the Johnson family, the proprietors of Bovril. They kept their own horses and carriages and a big staff. My family were friendly with their head coachman, whose children attended the school, and we used to visit them in their house in the grounds. Many a ride have I had on one of the ponies! When the Boer War ended, they gave a fancy dress ball and we were invited to go and watch. As a great treat, my mother took me and we sat in the gallery and looked down upon the dancers. Speaking of the Boer War, I can remember Norwood having a carnival to celebrate Peace. I still have a programme of this, which is interesting, even for its advertisements. I had two uncles who served in the Boer War, and one of them gave me the chocolate box which Queen Victoria sent to the troops. He left a layer of chocolate for me and I still have the box and some of the chocolate. When I received it, we had just had a victory and my box was taken to school for all the children to see. I have always been a singer and was hoisted on a table to sing ‘The Soldiers of the Queen’ right through: it was a very new song then!
Another memory is of the stalls which were allowed to trade on the Croydon side of Westow Hill on Fridays and Saturdays, mostly outside Williamsons and along to the Hollybush corner. They sold mainly fruit and vegetables. The shops used to stay open very late in those days, until eight o’clock, with early closing on Wednesday from five o’clock and on Saturdays until eleven o’clock or even later. Men were not paid until Saturday night mostly and so their wives had to shop late. I used to see the police march out in single file from the old police station on Gipsy Hill, at ten o’clock to the minute each night, also the police patrols on their lovely horses coming up the lane from behind the station to Westow Hill.
When we had a half-holiday from school, my great friend and I used to love to walk to Horniman’s Museum, along the Parade, Sydenham Hill with its lovely houses and gardens, right on to Sydenham Rise and down Lordship Lane. We enjoyed looking at the museum and also the wonderful clock (at least, it was wonderful to us to see the twelve Apostles walk out when it chimed). Another favourite walk was along Church Road. In those days, many well-known people lived there and nearly everyone owned their own carriages; they used to come out from the City each evening to the High Level Station. What is now known as the Old House was in my young days called Rosseta and was owned by a lady called Mrs. Magaw. It was noted for its beautiful gardens and in the summer the whole roof of the music room was bordered with plants of all colours. The Queen’s Hotel was beautifully kept up, and at the ballroom and receptions rooms you might often see the gentry arriving for dinners and functions.
Now I come to the Palace days. We always had season tickets: ten-and-six for children, a guinea for adults: and we seldom wanted to go anywhere else, as we had everything: concerts, variety, theatre, roller-skating and special days each year. In the winter, there were the Police Minstrels, all blacked and with good voices, and in the summer Police Fete days and Brock’s Benefit. Our fireworks were something worth seeing, twice a week on Thursday and Saturdays, and crowds used to come to them.
I think the most popular place in the summertime was the North Tower Gardens. There was the lake with the waterchute, and round the lake the Fairy Archipelago, as it was called. We always had one of the Guards Bands for the season, and our own Palace Military Band, under its conductor, the late Mr. Herbert Godfrey, so well-known in Norwood. When it was dusk, men would arrive with long poles and light all the hundreds of little different-coloured gas globes all over the gardens and terraces. I know illuminations are very fine now in electricity, but this wanted some beating, as the natural surroundings added so much to the whole. Nor must I forget the fountains which played on the terraces, changing colour all the time.
In 1911, the year of the Coronation of Their Majesties King George the Fifth and Queen Mary, it was decided to have a Festival of Empire at the Palace and I remember wheeling my invalid uncle down as far as the Tollgate in College Road to see Their Majesties and the Prince of Wales (now Duke of Windsor) and Princess Mary (now the Princess Royal) drive up to the Palace to open the Festival. There was also a pageant that year and many local people took part. My uncle and I used to go to the North Tower terrace and watch them go into their dressing rooms and then try to identify them as they came out. I am afraid we had many a laugh at their expense. They used to have plays also most spectacular pantomimes every year, with lovely transformation scenes and of course the harlequinade. There was also a fine circus every year at Christmas, which hardly a child ever missed. A small menagerie at one time had some elephants and one Sunday one of these escaped into the Palace. On some Sunday afternoons sacred concerts had been started in the Palace, a move which was not popular with the local authorities, who tried to stop them. The joke was that what they could not do, the elephant did, because everyone flew out of the Palace as fast as they could. The elephant was finally caught somewhere in Beckenham or Penge.
When the First World War came in 1914, the Palace was taken over by the Admiralty and we were inundated with sailors, who, I may say, livened things up considerably. I remember great excitement when I was out shopping one Saturday morning because there was a raid by Fokker aircraft on the City. You could see them as little dots from the top of the hill. The anti-aircraft guns we had in those days used to run round the streets during raids. After the Armistice in 1918, Norwood slowly adjusted itself again but things were never really the same at the Palace. Really, it was miserable to go in there, as it was cold in the winter and nothing seemed to be done to put it back on the map. Exhibitions which could have been held there, went to other places like Wembley.
My memories of the fire of November 30th, 1936 are very vivid. I was, of course, married then and we were living at the top of Cintra Park, so we were very, very near. My husband was just going out about seven o’clock in the evening and when he opened the door he called me to come and look: the inside of the Palace looked as if a ball of fire was inside. Then people came running from all directions, and our road became blocked with people who pushed into our gardens and stood on our steps to get a better view. All this impeded the fire brigades and before much could be done parts of the Palace began to collapse. Fortunately for us, the wind was blowing down the grounds, but the smoke and the sparks were very dangerous. Also they were afraid of the South Tower falling on us, so they dynamited all round it to stop the fire catching it alight.
© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547