One hundred and thirty years spans little more than two generations but in that time there have been many changes in Beulah Hill. As the Dark Ages recede before settled cultivation and the gradual accumulation of records, Beulah Hill appears as part of the dense woodland which once covered the greater part of England. As the population of each settlement increased, so gradually the woods were cleared, and Beulah Hill was no exception. Almost within living memory green fields served as rich pasture for the meat and milk London required.
Sixty years ago Upper Norwood was conscious of itself as a sequestered retreat from the bustle of London: a place of natural beauty abounding in sylvan walks and picturesque drives. Indeed, there were popular guide-books on the neighbourhood (they are treasured relics if you can find them now) which set out the local attraction to the visitor. ‘Picturesque Norwood, 1899’ makes the observation that no houses, roads or recreation grounds can take away the poetry and romance one always associates with the name of Norwood.
It is nearly 30 years ago since I had my first view of Norwood. That view was literally a bird’s eye view. A friend of mine, a Major Brackley, took me for my first aeroplane flight from Croydon aerodrome and gave me my first sight of Norwood and its environs. We did not fly very high and I remember the impression of trees and large well-kept gardens and open spaces. It was no surprise to me to be told that the road leading to Norwood from one direction was ‘Beulah’ Hill.
One of the more unusual buildings in the Norwood area is the former New Church (Swedenborgian) in Waldegrave Road, just off Anerley Hill and a short walk from Crystal Palace Station. Now skilfully converted into a block of flats called “New Church Court”, the building was used for religious worship for over a hundred years. Completed in 1883, it is of particular interest as one of the earliest buildings erected in mass-concrete. From the middle of the last century improvements in the manufacture of Portland cement allowed concrete to be exposed externally without the need for brick or stucco facing.
The days when Croydon echoed to the sound of pounding hooves and cheering crowds are recalled in a fascinating new publication called “THE CROYDON RACES”. The author, Jim Beavis, paints an enthralling picture of the time when thousands flocked to Croydon to enjoy the steeplechase races which, in their heyday, were second only in importance to those run at Aintree, the home of the Grand National.
My grandest memory of those days was the Crystal Palace. It was natural that people of our temperament, having the Palace at our doorstep as it were, should be frequent visitors. Familiar as it was, I always got a thrill when I surveyed the Palace from the Crystal Palace Parade. It was a monument to the Victorian’s capacity for showing off, and I am very sorry it has gone. We have nothing left that so perfectly conveys the magnitude and assurance of the Victorian era.
Seen by the light of the times in which we were trapped, the children from the frayed edges of a severely shaken society saw nothing amiss with the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1920. That Sir Joseph Paxton would have disapproved of it and Ruskin let fall some gems he never meant to lose was not a matter for sad reflection. Paxton was the name of a fish merchant in the High Street and Ruskin identified a London Park!
Back in the Summer John Brown of the Streatham Society gave a fascinating talk to the Society’s Local History Group with the intriguing title ‘The Dead Centre of Streatham’. This was not about urban blight and regeneration, but about the graveyard of St Leonard’s Church, the parish church of Streatham which is situated at the corner of Streatham High Road and Mitcham Lane, at the dead centre of what was once the old village.
The motor car had arrived. There was a high advertising propaganda programme by BP in the late 20’s and early 30’s: half pages of the main newspapers of cartoons, popular song parodies and so on, extolling the virtues of BP motor fuel, and showing the little man in his little car. Only a minority could afford one of course, but those who could were also discovering the unspoilt joys of the bluebell country.