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Who were the great Victorians? Names like Gladstone and Disraeli, Dickens and Tennyson, spring to mind, but one of the greatest Victorian achievers was neither a politician (although he did serve as a Liberal MP later in life) nor a writer, but a gardener, Joseph Paxton, known to Norwood residents as the designer of the Crystal Palace. In her admirably succinct biography (the text runs to just 250 pages and the rest consists of notes, bibliography and an index) Kate Colquhoun tells the story of how a humble farm labourer’s son from Bedfordshire became the greatest horticulturist of his day and then an architect, designer, entrepreneur and one of the heroes of the early Victorian age. The book was serialised by BBC Radio as its ‘Book of the Week’ in July 2003 and it deserves to have many readers.
Betty Griffin, a long-time member of the Society, and a stalwart of the Local History Group, has written a splendid and fascinating history of Biggin Wood. The history of Biggin Wood is traced from its origins as part of the Great North Wood, through the Middle Ages, when the woods were spread along the South Side of Beulah Hill, to its present size of about twelve acres. Interesting maps of the Croydon Enclosures of 1800 and Roberts’ map of 1838 are included with a description of Biggin Wood House that stood in the North of the present woods and was built around 1830, when it was owned by James Epps, the person renowned for the manufacture and marketing of Epps’ Cocoa.
There have been many publications attempting to put into print what is known about the erection of a new Crystal Palace at Penge Place in 1854. This book goes back as far as the Norman Conquest in giving a comprehensive history of the commanding Penge Place site chosen for the new Palace. It brings together interesting maps and sketches not all of which have appeared before. One shows men felling trees and clearing the site for the Palace in 1852 with the Penge Place mansion in the background. Others show the less well-known original square water towers replaced by Brunel’s imaginative landmarks in 1855 - alas no longer with us. We are told, incidentally, that Brunel’s towers were not round but twelve-sided. The author has quoted a fitting description of the building by William Thackeray as ‘a blazing arch of lucid glass’.
This book is a very welcome addition to published material about the area. One hopes for yet more in this series, but there must be a limit to the number of photographs which have not yet reached the light of day. Yet every now and then as houses are cleared and attics converted into loft rooms further items of interest are discovered (some from other parts of the world) and passed on to authors of such books as these. A postcard with a local view from Auntie Nellie of, say, 1910, would at one time have been tossed aside as of no interest, but such is the current and growing interest in local history it is now preserved and, thanks to the efforts of people like John Coulter and John Seaman, reaches publication and thereby immortality. One should also thank the publishers for producing their results in a high quality form.
John Coulter has provided us with an excellent pictorial reminiscence of Norwood and its surrounds. The book is essentially a portrait of Norwood one hundred years ago, with a few illustrations from the twenties and thirties and a short commentary to set the scenes. Mr Coulter has taken pains to include a number of unfamiliar pictures except, of course, for those who remember Norwood of fifty or sixty years ago when many of the locations still existed ‘in the flesh’ so to speak. His reference to ‘Wesleyans’ instead of to ‘Methodists’ needs however to take into account that the three branches of that denomination jointed together under an Act of Parliament in 1932.
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.
This third edition of Nicholas Reed’s book about Camille Pissarro and his paintings of the Norwood area (it is rather more than a booklet) is both revised and enlarged, and includes an 8-page supplement of discoveries from 1993 to 1995 of further examples of Pissarro’s work, and their location. The paintings are reproduced in colour, and matched with later photographs taken from his seventeen viewpoints. Interwoven are nuggets of local history, and many will find these of considerable interest, quite apart from appreciating Pissarro’s genius and his Impressionist interpretation of various parts of Norwood.
Rivers have always been used for transport, but the idea of constructing an artificial waterway using all sorts of devices to ascend and descend hills took root in the late 18th Century and into the 19th when the railway mania began to replace or run alongside the canals. A canal from London to Portsmouth and Southampton was seen as highly desirable during the French Revolutionary Wars, and several schemes were put forward. Croydon occupied an important place on most of the routes surveyed, and a scheme to extend the Surrey Docks - New Cross (the Grand Surrey) canal to Croydon was eventually accepted and built, opening with the usual municipal ceremony in 1809. Unfortunately it did not attract enough traffic to make it profitable and it closed in 1836 on being sold to a railway company which used most of its route.
The introduction of Picture Houses to show moving pictures, and their development into virtual palaces of entertainment in the 1930’s, left its mark on Croydon, and of course Norwood. Croydon Cinemas by Allen Eyles, assisted by Keith Stone, is a rich source of information about the change, from High Street shop front with a hastily erected auditorium behind, to the luxurious buildings of the inter-war years. The introduction of talking pictures created a huge demand for ever-larger Cinemas, as they came to be called. Individual cinema owners flourished for a time, but could not compete with the luxurious surroundings offered by ambitious (and sometimes extraordinary) buildings capable of accommodating up to 2,000 seats – the record was held by the Empire State at Kilburn with 4,000 seats! The Davis Theatre in Croydon followed closely behind, showing films, staging ballet and giving excellent classical concerts.