Crystal Palace and the Norwoods: The Archive Photographs Series.

Nicholas Reed. The Chalfont Publishing Co. 1995 (£8.99).

and

Brixton and Norwood in Old Photographs.

Jill Dudman. Alan Sutton Publishing with the Lambeth Archives Department. 1995 (£7.99).

The old photograph publishers, in a display of competitive largesse, have spread a rich feast before us. The poor student of local history will naturally ask which book offers the best value for money. Jill Dudman includes 207 pictures, at a cost of fourpence each, Nicholas Reed 192 pictures at fivepence. But it has to be remembered that the former also deals with Brixton, so that only 63 of her illustrations are likely to interest the Norwood specialist. If one admits the slightly doubtful view that Woodside is part of Norwood, then it can be said that all of Nicholas Reed’s pictures are locally relevant, and that makes the cost of the Norwood parts of the books fivepence per picture in Reed and thirteen pence in Dudman.

These figures show what an astonishingly good bargain all the old photograph books offer. To obtain individual prints of these pictures from libraries, or copies of the original postcards, might cost anything from £2 to £30 per item. The average would certainly not be under £5, so that to compile a collection comparable to one of these volumes might require an outlay of £1,000 or more. And that would only secure the images, not the learned commentaries that bring out their hidden points of interest.

Nicholas Reed’s captions are generally longer and more informative than Jill Dudman’s. They are, indeed, one of the most attractive elements of Crystal Palace and the Norwoods, but in such an avalanche of facts and figures it is inevitable that the odd mistake will occur. Two that are striking are in the section on Grangewood. The house was not destroyed by bombing, but by the far more deadly force of Croydon Corporation, in 1956/7. Some people can perfectly remember getting their ice cream there. The lake survived even longer, probably into the 1960’s. Again, there are memories of trawling for tadpoles and sticklebacks. Apropos of this lake Nicholas Reed has some telling remarks on the distaste – the almost Freudian distaste – that all public authorities feel for water.

It is often claimed, by photographers, that one image is worth a thousand words. It has to be acknowledged that there is one photo in Brixton and Norwood that upsets all calculations of value for money by being alone worth the price of the book. That is the view from Gipsy Hill down Woodland Hill, over which the Crystal Palace looms in a way that is positively surreal. What writer could hope to explain more eloquently than this picture the way in which Paxton’s masterpiece dominated the surrounding suburbs.

No single image in Crystal Palace and the Norwoods is quite so striking as this, but Nicholas Reed does include many charming and intriguing items. Among them are the views of the South Norwood ‘Carcases’. These vividly illustrate the way in which the odds were stacked against the Victorian builders, most of whom ended up in the bankruptcy courts. Equally valuable is the series of early photographs of Auckland Road, showing what to us seems quite an antiquated district, when it was little more than a building site. The date of these pictures must be a little later than 1870, as they include a number of features not shown on the 1870 Ordnance Survey map of Lower Norwood, recently reprinted in Alan Godfrey’s invaluable series. Nicholas Reed also features nearly fifty views of the Crystal Palace, which should make his work popular well beyond the confines of Norwood.

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