In the final blog of our Croydon Heritage Festival mini-series, local historian Ray Wheeler writes about the ever changing North End and above all, encourages you to look up.

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Whitgift Grammar School at North End made way for the Whitgift Shopping Centre in the 1960s

The name North End implies the north end of the town. Now a busy pedestrianised shopping thoroughfare, it is hard imagine that the road was formerly a residential street. In fact, up to the mid 19th century, the shopping area in Croydon was concentrated along the High Street leading from the junction with Crown Hill towards Coombe Road. Towards West Croydon station North End retained a rural feel.

Within 30 years in the second half of the 19th century, North End was transformed with many of the late 18th and early 19th century houses converted to shops with a horse tram route running along the middle of the road. In 1862, the 24 year old Joshua Allder set up in business as a linen draper and silk mercer. Extensions to what we now know as ‘Allders’ were made in 1894 and 1926, by which time the store was given its recognisable present facade.

Besides Allders and Grants in the High Street, the other main department store in North End was Kennards. Founded by William Kennard in 1852, the store was famous for its arcade leading to a little zoo and with donkey rides along the arcade! Next door was Batchelars, the furniture store, and later bought out by Kennards.  The store became part of Debenhams in 1973 and redeveloped in 1980 forming part of ‘Drummond Place’, now Centrale.

 During the Edwardian period and the 1920s much of North End was widened with new shop buildings erected on both sides. The first branch of Woolworths in Croydon opened in North End in 1912 but after the Woolworths chain went into receivership the shop premises became occupied by H&M.

In North End there were two cafes owned by J Lyons & Co, characterised by the white-painted shop fronts and gold lettering. One was situated next to Kennards and the other just a few shops along from Woolworths. Older residents will remember the aroma of roasting coffee from W. E. Wilson’s tea-rooms and Oriental Cafe!

There were a surprising number of cinemas and theatres in North End. One of the earliest was the Croydon Cinematograph Theatre opened in 1910 next to Woolworths but bought out by Woolworths when the store was extended in 1930. The entrance to the Whitgift Centre by McDonalds was the site of the Empire Theatre in 1906 later to become the Eros Cinema in 1953. The Scala Cinema opened in 1914 next to Allders which reconstruction in 1926 incorporated the cinema and its entrance. The Scala closed in 1952. The longest lasting was The Electric Theatre, which opened at no.108 North End in July 1909 eventually changing its name to the Picture House. It became part of the Odeon circuit in 1936 and survived until October 1985.

Don’t just look in the shop windows when walking through North End, but look up above the shop fronts to notice the details of the buildings (balustrades, decorative chimney pots, oriel windows etc) including the oriental dome of Prince’s Picture House. Patrons having paid their money went out the back entrance across the path and into the auditorium. It closed in 1922. However the auditorium became a dance hall during the 2nd World War. Opposite H & M is the former Rising Sun pub which can trace its history back to the 17th century. What we see now is the 1906 rebuild in the arts and crafts style, now Burger King. Don’t forget to view the 1920s facade of W H Smith’s with its 10 colour panels of coats of arms connected with their earlier branches mostly at seats of learning – Rugby, Eton, Cambridge to name but a few.

The other famous building that existed behind the eastern side of North End was the Whitgift Grammar School opened in May 1871. When the school located to South Croydon in 1931 Whitgift Middle School (renamed Trinity School) occupied the North End site. In 1965 Trinity moved to Shirley Park and the Victorian building was demolished to make way for the Whitgift Centre shopping mall whose main entrance once led into the school grounds.

North End was pedestrianised in 1989. It’s hard to imagine now that this street had two lines of traffic and crowded pavements on each side. Further transformation will taken place in the years ahead with the new joint retail development of Hammerson and Westfield bringing further change to Croydon’s North End.