In this, the first in a mini series of blogs about Croydon’s heritage, Secretary of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society, Brian Lancaster, looks at the varied and unusual history of Old Palace one of Croydon’s most remarkable buildings.

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Manor House, Palace, Factory, School: such are the names applied to the former home of the Archbishops of Canterbury in Croydon. Now the Old Palace School of John Whitgift, Old Palace remains the oldest and most prestigious complete building in Croydon and a unique survival. In the middle ages the archbishops had several manor houses between Canterbury and London but Croydon’s is the only surviving one that remains more or less intact. Lambeth Palace is the principal home of the archbishops but in the early nineteenth century one archbishop decided to demolish and rebuild much of it. No such fate befell Croydon’s Palace. Additions have been made, outer buildings demolished and land sold, but the great hall, chapel and private quarters, all built in the fifteenth century, survive.

It might well have been demolished in the civil wars of the seventeenth century when it was occupied by republicans in Oliver Cromwell’s regime. Archbishop Laud was executed ahead of Charles I and the office of bishop abolished. The lead on the roof was removed for making ammunition. The chapel was turned into a kitchen. Fortunately the military commander must have admired the building as he stayed on as tenant when Charles’s son was restored to the throne as Charles II. When the archbishops decided that Croydon Palace was too costly to maintain and also  located on an unsuitable site, the Palace itself and its very extensive lands were sold off in 1780.

The Palace survived through many centuries because it was near enough to London for it to be the country home of the archbishops of Canterbury. London had to be their main place of residence as they were often one of the principal advisers to the monarch. They wanted somewhere near as a place of retreat away from the unsavoury capital. Most archbishops took advantage and stayed there in the summer and even at other times. Monarchs, Elizabeth I for example, came to them, took up residence in the Palace and hunted, banqueted and watched the horse races on Duppas Hill. When the archbishops resided there, local tradesmen were delighted as there were many servants and courtiers to feed.

After 1780 it had a chequered history. Because the river Wandle flowed beside it, the Palace became a place for calico printing which required a great deal of water. Several such firms came and went. Eventually, in 1887, a duke of Newcastle, inspired by the religious revival known as the Oxford Movement, bought the disused Palace and gave it to a sisterhood to use as a school for girls. The sisters ran the school until the 1970s when they left it to others to run, most recently as one of the schools owned by the Whitgift Foundation, a charity set up by one of Queen Elizabeth I’s archbishops. John Whitgift bequeathed land and money for the care of the elderly and the education of the young, and the Foundation now maintains three schools and three care homes besides giving information and advice to carers. As with the other two, Old Palace School is an independent, fee-paying school, but the Foundation also offers bursaries and scholarships.

Since the Palace is still a school, the general public can only visit it in term time when the Friends of Old Palace organise tours to raise money for improvements such as the new doors for the fourteenth century porch. The next tours take place on 22, 23, 24 and 25 October. There are no tours in the summer holidays because they are the best time to carry out repairs and such like. More details can be found on the Friends’ website.

Tours of the Old Palace are taking place between 10am and 12.00pm Saturday 15 June. Admission is free, no booking is required.