The house on the corner of Harold road and Beulah Hill bore on its walls the date 1875. The houses to replace it are now going up and to be occupied this year, 1975. What happened to Harold Road in the century between those two dates?
In the 1880’s and 1890’s there was great development in Harold Road carried out by that Victorian developer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. His estate kept the freeholds and the houses in the road were let on leases, all of which terminated in 1981, regardless of the date when the house was built. The first house in the road was built in 1882 on a 99-lease: my house, built in 1899, was given an 82-year lease.
As Alan Warwick tells in his delightful book, ‘The Phoenix Suburb’, there were only a few cottages between Beulah Hill and Central Hill in mid-Victorian times. What made expensive development popular in this area? The answer is transport.
Arrival of the railways
A hundred years ago, if your place of work was more than two or three miles from your home, you could only go to work by train. In this respect, Upper Norwood was exceptionally fortunate. The arrival of the Crystal Palace was followed by the arrival of the railways, all anxious to share in the Palace traffic. This was considerable, as is shown by the size of both High and Low Level stations. From these stations you could travel to the City or West End. A great attraction of the district, which made it famous, was that it lay over 300 feet up, well above the foul air and fog which was the curse of Victorian London. My neighbour, Mr Gibbs, of 22 Harold Road, told me in 1940 that he had held for 61 years a season ticket from the High Level station: he was the last survivor of an era.
The size of the houses built in Harold Road showed that they were meant for affluent occupiers - mostly City Gentlemen: in other words, Harold Road was a Victorian stockbrokers’ belt. The houses had three storeys. The top storey would be for the staff, as each house would have three or four servants; even we, poor as we were, had three before the War. There be three commodious reception rooms on the ground floor and the family would sleep on the first floor.
Open and rural
In 1922, when we married, my wife and I took a flat in Cintra Park. In our weekend walks, we frequently visited Harold Road and its surroundings. The neighbourhood was still delightfully open and rural. The west side of Highfield Hill had only two houses: the rest of that side was taken by the gardens of the huge houses in Beulah Hill. Eversley Road had four houses at the Harold Road end. The rest was a field to which, every morning, a herd of lovely black Kerry cows would come to graze from a dairy in Gipsy Hill.
Our baby daughter, placed in a high chair in the corner window, would wait for those cows. Excitedly she would greet their arrival by banging hard with a large spoon, as they turned slowly and majestically into Eversley Road to spend the day.
Between Hermitage Road, which had only about three houses, and Queen Mary Road there were only market gardens. The Government regarded the area as undeveloped: in 1928 they produced a plan under an old Act, scheduling Harold Road and its surroundings for four houses to the acre! little did they know what was coming.
A house is bought
My wife and I loved Harold Road, but were such larges houses for the likes of us? Then, in 1930 came the terrible slump and property, as at present, was unsaleable. No. 14 Harold Road was put up to auction, but did not reach the reserve. We were tempted and bought in October, 1930. We were foolish - it was the great folly of our lives. But as we grew older we felt that we were handsomely recompensed.
In 1930, the houses in Harold Road were spick and span. Every Spring the painters would appear in the Road. The gardens were trim and well kept. But the occupants of the houses were mostly elderly. When the householder died, his children would try, in vain, to sell the house. In the ‘thirties, large houses were a drug on the market; so houses fell vacant and remained vacant. We had arrived in Harold Road at the end of the Victorian era.
The War and after
The War came. In 1940, we organised a fire-watching squad. The empty houses worried us. They had no water supply and were a serious fire and bomb hazard. We could not get the keys; so one Sunday morning we had an exercise and broke into all of them; thus we knew how to get into them. The one house which was destroyed by a bomb, No. 24, was unfortunately occupied and there were casualties.
When the War ended, the situation changed completely. Here were numerous large empty houses at a time when accommodation was desperately short. In 1945, there would be about 36 years of the leases unexpired. Speculators appeared, bought these leases cheap, installed a few fittings and let the houses off into multi-occupation. Six families lived where there had been one before.
So many of these large and solid houses took the road to dereliction. Parts of the road degenerated into a slum, which was very apparent in the gardens, which were totally neglected.
In 1952 the Church Commissioners started selling off the freeholds. Owner-occupiers could buy them, if they had more than 30 years to run. The rest were sold en masse to Messrs. Wates, who have carried out various developments in Upper Norwood.
Messrs. Wates are now busy developing the area between Beulah Hill, Harold road and Highfeld Hill. They will sell the 170 dwellings to Croydon Borough Council. Meanwhile the rest of Harold Road has been declared a Conservation Area. That is a purely negative policy and is of little value. In these days of inflation, the cost of maintaining the beautiful houses facing the Recreation Ground has become crushing. How you ‘conserve’ an insupportable burden?
So, in a period of a century, we have seen Harold Road change from green fields to solid middle-class mansions, many which became derelict slums and are now being replaced by a large council estate. In all this, Harold Road is a microcosm of national change. But we still have many glorious trees. The heart of the land between Beulah Hill and Central Hill is safe in the 17 acres of the Recreation Ground. We still can claim that our road, 300 feet up, with its lovely views, is outstanding and we love living in it.
The Norwood Review Edition #60. Published 1975