I came from Hertfordshire to live in Upper Norwood in January 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and I saw the procession from a lamp-post outside Westminster Abbey. At that time all the large houses in the neighbourhood were occupied by single families and the Indian Princes who came to England for the celebrations stayed at the Queen’s Hotel and some could be seen in the evening smoking a hookah on the balcony of the Hotel, one taking a few puffs and then passing it to his neighbour and so on. Mr Fry, the bookmaker, lived at a mansion in Beulah Hill which is now St. Joseph’s College. Mr Eno, of Eno’s Fruit Salts, lived on Sydenham Hill. Mr Johnson, who produced Bovril, lived in Dulwich Wood Park. Sir William Treloar, the Children’s Lord Mayor and founder of the Cripples Home at Alton, Hants., lived in a large red brick house at the corner of Beulah Hill and Grange Road, originally occupied by Sims Reeves, the well-known Victorian tenor, and recently demolished. Sir Ernest Tritton, M.P. had a large house with lovely grounds in Central Hill. This is to mention just a few of the notable people.
Of course, the centre of attraction was the Crystal Palace. I paid my first visit there before we moved to Norwood and was staying with friends at Woodside Green. It was a very foggy day but my friends insisted that we must ascend the North Tower, so we paid our pennies and climbed the stairs to the top where we were right above the fog and it really was a wonderful sight; the sky was blue and clear while the fog looked like a sea breaking over the central transept like a pier with the South Tower rising like a lighthouse out of the waves. Next it was time to find our way to the central transept to see Wolff’s Circus which used to visit the Palace at Christmas time. We took our sixpenny seats on the wooden benches round the great organ and boys in white coats circulated round the seats shouting ‘Orange, bun or chocolate, a penny each.’ Then the performance began. How we admired the wonderful horses, marvellous acrobats and gymnasts and roared with laughter at the clowns. The show finished with 40 horses in the arena at one time. For this purpose a three-tier platform something like a wedding cake without the icing was placed in the middle of the ring. Herr Wolff stood on the top with a very small pony, other horses revolved on the middle and lower layers, also on the sawdust of ring in opposite directions and the show ended with the National Anthem.
There were toy stalls and all sorts of marvels to behold including Fentumes’ Ivory works, where ivory was carved into brooches and trinkets ‘before your very eyes’ as Arthur Askey would say about fifty years later. Our total expenditure for a whole day’s enjoyment was about half a crown which included a cup of tea and a slice of Bertrams’ Palace cake. In summer, the grounds were very attractive with the beautifully laid out gardens, the statuary and the sports grounds. W. G. Grace’s London County Cricket Club played at the Palace and the Soccer Cup Final was always fought at the football ground. The year Tottenham Hotspur won (it was 1901) over 100,000 came but I am afraid some of them saw little of the match as I noticed many people flat on the ground fast asleep. The parade was packed with horse charabancs and it was said that there were no wheeled vehicles left at Tottenham that day.
Then there was the cycle track and cinder running track inside, where many athletic meetings were held. The most noted professional cyclist was Platt Betts and G. O. Olley, of the Vegetarian Cycle Club, the best-known amateur. The races were from one to one hundred miles; the long-distance races were paced by tandems and quads, the latter used by the professionals. The great attraction on Thursdays in the summer was Brock’s Fireworks and they were really wonderful. Of course, we boys had season tickets, 10/6d. for a year, and we used to spend our evenings playing in the grounds and sliding down the banisters of the stairs leading to the Low Level railway station. On Fridays we used to search for pieces of unused fireworks and have displays in our own back gardens.
Every three years, the Handel Festival was held under the direction of Sir August Manns, with the great organ, choir and orchestra numbering many hundreds. In my early days the organist was Mr. Walter Hedgecock, who played the organ at All Saints’ Church. His predecessor was Mr. Alfred Eyre, a very noted musician who was also organist at St. John’s, Auckland Road. When he had a serious illness he had to choose which organ he should give up and he resigned from the Palace so that he could still play at St. John’s, under the Rev. William La Trobe Bateman, who almost founded this beautiful church. I shall always be grateful to Mr. Eyre for asking me if I would like to be one of his choristers. The church was well known throughout South London for ‘My new service’, as it soon became a favourite communion service for cathedrals and churches.
One of the local events was the performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera by Mr Cellier’s children’s choir each year. I particularly call to mind ‘Iolanthe’ when St. John’s choir was represented by the Lord Chancellor and Private Willis, our two head boys. All choir boys had to wear mortar boards and the gentlemen were resplendent in silk hats, tail coats and patent leather boots. One of our male choristers carried a hairbrush in his cassock pocket so that he could brush his locks and ample beard before proceeding to the chancel. In addition to organ recitals, the Crystal Palace Military Band gave several performances a day under their very popular conductor, Mr Herbert Godfrey, a nephew of the great Dan Godfrey; besides playing practically all the band instruments he was a very clever cartoonist. For many years he was a sidesman at Christ Church, Gipsy Hill, and was an air raid warden in the last year despite his age.
In Westow Street, stood the Royal Normal College for the Blind and Dr. Campbell, the blind principal was a very well-known figure in the neighbourhood. The College taught music, piano-tuning and typewriting. In those days nearly every home boasted of a piano and the blind tuners trained at the College were in great demand. The typewriting and duplicating executed there was wonderful; the spacing, lay-out and finish were really marvellous. The students had a very happy time and indulged in roller-skating and could be seen on the roads in Upper Norwood on their multi-cycle: one man in front was sighted the other seven were blind. Some of the students became quite noted personalities. Mr. Newell had a strong baritone voice and was pianist and organist; for many years he was organist and choir master at St. Aubyn’s Congregational Church. Another was Mr. Ronald Gourlay, the entertainer and composer of the Dickie Bird Hop and a very popular radio artist.
These were the very early days of the motor car and reliability trials lasting a week were held in the summer. They consisted of a run to a different south coast resort each day. I am afraid a good proportion failed to reach their destinations! Asphalt and tarmacadam roads then were almost unknown; the roads were seas of mud in the winter and inches deep in dust in the summer.
© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547