(download the PDF index to this book here)
The first impression of John Coulter’s book ‘Norwood Past’ is that it is an extremely well produced and researched record of the past 250 years of life in Norwood, and is an admirable companion to Alan Warwick’s ‘Phoenix Suburb’ which, although written in 1972 and revised in 1982 by the Norwood Society, is still essential reading for anyone with a Norwood interest. Coulter’s book follows very similar chronological lines but has much more detail on the famous and infamous personalities of the day which is supported by dozens of excellent prints and illustrations which have not appeared before.
He describes the development of Norwood as at first due to the rich and powerful wanting an escape from the City of London - and apparently always with their mistresses in mind! Then the rapid change after the Enclosure Acts from around 1800 onwards started the desire for a ’Villa with a view’ from Norwood’s high ridges that gave the economic pressure for development. He then describes with feeling the many splendid houses, so many of which have been lost in recent years. Of particular interest are the details of the cluster of houses that formed the hamlet of ‘Cupgate’ or ‘Copgate’ along the line of Beulah Hill from Gibsons Hill to Biggin Hill.
When describing the Vicar of All Saints’ in 1856 and the contempt with which he treated a campaign against All Saints’ School, he says ‘the old school house survived until one of the Watson’s more philistine successors found an excuse to destroy it.’ It would have been interesting if he could have expanded on this. As far as is known a remaining part of the school, part of which was the headmaster’s house, was still in use in the 1960’s as two classrooms. It was in fact in one of these that Alan Warwick gave the first Norwood Society lecture on ‘The history of Upper Norwood’. They were demolished in the 1970’s by Croydon Council after the Norwood Society had fought a long battle for their repair and retention, even to the extent of offering to pay for the necessary remedial work and presenting this offer at a meeting of Croydon’s Education Committee – but to no avail.
When discussing Norwood New Town Coulter disagrees with the view that New Town was built to house the workers building Crystal Palace. His evidence is that roads had been laid out some 4 years before the Palace came to Norwood. Many of the stories about New Town are without doubt colourful and exaggerated, but it remains more than likely the most of the houses were occupied by the Palace workers.
Coulter does include some personal views, not all of them complimentary, about the Norwood Society. Certainly many of the mansions in the area were lost to developers, but the Society put up a fight to retain the best of them, and took a leading role in setting up Conservation Areas to give additional protection – St Valery in Beulah Hill is one mansion that survived through the successful efforts of the Society against strong pressure from developers.
‘Norwood Past’ by John Coulter is a stunning display both of new research and fascinating photographs never reproduced before. The existence of over half of them would not be known to most people. The cover, for example, is a hitherto unknown engraving of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1854, showing the White Hart on one side and the Royal Crystal Palace Hotel at the other. But one should add that he has not taken the easy way out and devoted half his book to the already well-covered Palace: his book is almost exclusively about the three Norwood suburbs.
Early Norwood is researched just as extensively as later periods, and he advances a new and convincing theory about the location of Lord Thurlow’s house somewhere near Knights Hill. Fascinating details follow about the public and private lives of other eminent people who lived in Norwood. A whole chaper about Mary Nesbit, whose 18th century Norwood House still survives off Central Hill, adds much to the often-quoted chapter about her in Alan Warwick’s ‘The Phoenix Suburb’.
The book jacket curiously tells us nothing about the author, which is a missed opportunity. Though he may be known to some as a senior librarian at Lewisham Local History Library, he has also been a long-standing Norwood resident. In the book, he is tactful in demolishing some of the misstatements or incorrect views of previous historians, but less so in some rather critical and perhaps undeserved comments about the Norwood Society. Coulter’s writing style is particularly attractive, with vivid metaphors and many a skilful turn of phrase. While his grasp of 18th and 19th century English literature is equally imposing, one wonders whether a local history book is the right place to mention casually people like Junius or La Rochfoucauld as people with whom we would all be familiar – many will not be. But that is a minor blemish on an otherwise very attractive and interesting book.
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