Why is Croydon shaped the way it is today? Why are the public spaces where they are in the borough? Let’s explore the history of major changes in the landscape of central Croydon. By understanding some of the issues of the past, we can understand a little more about how decisions are made around spaces and places today.
We often assume that public space is owned by the council or another public body. But many open urban spaces – squares, shopping centres, even streets – are privately owned. Croydon has been, and still is, shaped by its major private landowners.
It is really difficult to establish the landownership of property in England. As Guy Shrubsole’s project, ‘Who Owns England?’ shows, the property-ownership database of the Land Registry, which is the government department responsible for registration of land transfers in England and Wales. It was not mandatory to register land after its sale until 1925. Even then, land that was gifted, for example, in a will, was not included, until 1998. So even now, around 12 percent of the land in England still remains unregistered.
Significant parts of Croydon and its outskirts are owned by the Church of England through two major landowners, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners who manage its property, and the Whitgift Foundation.
Archbishop John Whitgift set up his Foundation in 1596. Croydon Palace, now part of Whitgift school, was a stopping off place for the archbishops in the sixteenth century as they made their way between Lambeth and Canterbury. Whitgift bought up the land in the centre of Croydon for the for almshouses and Trinity school (the site of which, the Whitgift Centre replaced in 1965). The Foundation own and manage the Whitgift estate around Lloyd Park. In the nineteenth century, the archbishops made their summer residence at Addington Palace, to enjoy the cleaner air at Addington Hills. The Whitgift Foundation are one of the most influential private landowners in the borough.
The development of Croydon from a small market town into a mass suburb began in the early nineteenth century with the enclosure of the commons. Enclosure was a process of removing rights to use the land from local commoners, and consolidating private landownership. Croydon Enclosure Act was passed in 1797. The act enabled a large part of the open fields to be divided up and sold or leased into plots, thereby shaping the way in which the landscape in many ways looks today. The London Road history website has a link to the 1800 enclosure map superimposed on modern Croydon, and you can see the extent of the parcelling up of the land. Large parts of Croydon were owned by the Archbishops of Canterbury, who benefited from the enclosure. Croydon was still small in size, and had a population of 6,742 in 1801. Other than the street spaces of the Surrey Street-High Street-George Street triangle, there was no public space to speak of other than Fair Field, where the annual fair was held
Extract from the 1800 Croydon enclosure map, in John Corbet Anderson, Plan and Award of the Commissioners appointed to Inclose the Commons of Croydon (1889), showing central Croydon, Fairfield, and Park Hill.
The archbishops of Canterbury leased the Park Hill estate into 13 plots for building middle-class villas. The railways came to Croydon early, with the London to Brighton line opening in 1839. As London expanded, suburbia grew rapidly, not least near East Croydon station. A growing divide emerged between tightly packed northern working-class areas and the southern leafy suburbs, leaving a continuing legacy of social and economic inequality today.
Perhaps the most obvious type of public space is the park. Greenspace is one of the best things about Croydon: we have lots of it. Croydon has 120 parks, playgrounds and open spaces managed by the council (on a side note, I’m not sure why Duppas Hill park isn’t on the list on their website). Of these sites, 20 are less than 100 square metres in size, 68 are medium sized, and 22 are large, over 1000 square metres in area.
A postcard with a photograph of Duppas Hill, Croydon
Until the 1840s, England didn’t really have public parks, apart from the royal parks in London such as Hyde Park. The Victorians worried about the impact of mass urbanisation on people’s health. But the social elites also were concerned about the potential for social disorder. Parks were designed to control the urban masses. Visitors were meant to promenade, engage in polite conversation, look at the flowers and shrubs. The local authorities suppressed the popular fair held on Fairfield from 1868, concerned about what they regarded as immoral behaviour, and because it had become hugely popular with people travelling in on the train from other boroughs.
There was no overall master plan for public parks in Croydon. The first public park was not acquired until 1865, when the local Board of Health purchased Duppas Hill from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. When Croydon Corporation was set up in 1883, it purchased Park Hill in 1887 for £4000, again from the Church of England who had reaped the profits since enclosure. Even then, local ratepayers complained that another open space was a waste of money. Most of the other parks were only acquired after 1900.
Lockdown in 2020 really showed the disparities in people’s access to open space. North and West Croydon have historically always been more densely packed, with residents on lower incomes with less private space.
I really enjoy Croydon artist Pear Nuallak’s work which plays on the open spaces of the borough and its history of enclosure and regulation. One of their pieces from 2022 is a knitted version of an old council sign, ‘This land is open for public use until further notice. Highways Act 1981 Sect 31 (3). Croydon Council do not intend to dedicate the footpaths in these woods as public rights of way’. Pear is photographed holding the knitted sign in situ, on the grounds of Heathfield House. The site was acquired by the council in 1964 and opened to the public as gardens and an ecology centre, though there is now uncertainty about its future.
The postwar ‘property boom’
The other major factor shaping the landscape of modern Croydon was postwar development. Public ownership of land reached its peak in the post-war decades of reconstruction, nationalisation of industries, and council house building.
Sir Patrick Abercrombie, architect of the postwar reconstruction plans for London and other big cities, visited Croydon in June 1943. He noted that the council already owned more than 10% of the area of the borough. Much of this was open space in the south-east of the borough, purchased in part through the London County Council’s Green Belt loan scheme in 1938. In 1947, the Addington estate was sold by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners to a golf club and to Croydon corporation, who completed the New Addington council estate that had already been begun by private developers before the war (Croydon Development Plan, 1951; and link to aerial photo, 1948).
The same sort of pattern was happening in cities across the UK. But Croydon was different in the way the council used its newly acquired land purchases. Sir James Marshall pushed for special legislation, the Corporation Act 1956, which empowered the council to buy up land without having to conduct local public inquiries. Marshall was not only chairman of the council planning committee and the finance committee but also chairman of the Whitgift Foundation. He spearheaded the corporate speculation of 4 acres of land bought by the council in the centre of town. 52 office blocks were built by 1972.
The rest of the land compulsorily purchased by the council was used mostly for road widening, the Wellesley Road tunnel, and the Flyover, which opened in 1969. The Fairfield Halls theatre complex and college were completed in 1962. Marshall sold the lease of the site of Whitgift school in the town centre to property developers in 1965 for the shopping centre.
Croydon writer John Grindrod compared the development with other towns. Whereas elsewhere, postwar slum clearance and town centre redevelopment ‘represented a socialist urge to bring great swathes of land back under central ownership and set them to work for the good of the people’, by contrast, ‘the Croydon Corporation Act was an expression of pure capitalism, designed to encourage the vigorous commercial exploitation of land that was currently occupied by inconvenient schools and houses’ (John Grindrod, Concretopia (2013), p. 249).
The more recent redevelopments of the town centre have essentially followed the same street plan as laid out in the 1960s. Potential open spaces (Reeves Corner, the hole in the ground that was part of George’s Walk which was most recently sold to developer R&F, and has fallen prey to the recent issues within China’s construction industry) remain boarded up and inaccessible. College Green is not really usable as a civic space: Park Street creates a busy barrier between the area and the refurbished Queen’s Gardens. The ‘public realm’ offered by the glossy marketing of the private developers of the new towers is windswept, sterile, and under-used. Do people feel welcome in these privately-owned public spaces? There is a lot of potential in Croydon yet still to be uncovered.