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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.

Earlier in June, as part of Croydon Heritage Festival, the Croydon Almshouses, home to 15 residents, opened its doors and invited Croydonians to step back to experience over 400 years of history at one of the London Borough’s most historic landmarks. In this, the second of our Croydon Heritage Festival blog mini-series, Almshouses tour guide Yvonne Walker shares some of the of building’s ghoulish secrets.

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In these modern times, Croydon has sometimes been referred to as ‘a concrete jungle’ and ‘place of little history’. True, there was a great deal of development after the last war, obviously needed after the damage inflicted by air raids and particularly the flying bombs. But look carefully. The town boasts several historical gems of fascinating interest, not least the Hospital of the Holy Trinity built by Archbishop John Whitgift at the end of the 16th Century. Whitgift loved Croydon and it was his dream to establish an Almshouse in the area. He set about his task in 1596 when he built on the site of the Old Chequer inn, which he bought for £200. His final bill came to £2716 11s 11d – a few million in today’s money.

The Almshouse was for the care and maintenance of 30-40 poor people, particularly for the Archbishop’s old servants from Croydon and Lambeth. However, they had to behave themselves. They would be admonished, fined or even expelled for offences such as witchcraft, blaspheming, fighting, and they couldn’t haunt taverns or alehouses. The Archbishop said that the women must not outnumber the men. That may have been the case in his time but it certainly isn’t now; most of today’s residents are ladies.

The Almshouse is not without a dark side for a sinister tale has been handed down over the centuries. Archbishop Whitgift had enjoyed a pleasant evening dining with his pensioners in the Common Room. Afterwards, he retired to his bedroom set high in the eastern gable. Whitgift had his own private army. One of the soldiers was crossing the courtyard when he noticed a man scrambling on the rooftops. The intruder was a would-be assassin with a knife and it was his intention to lower himself down one of the chimneys to reach the Archbishop in his bedroom. The soldier sounded the alarm and shot the man, who fell right down the chimney and that was the end of him.

John Whitgift had a lucky escape but he took the warning to heart. Thereafter, his bedroom door was safely secured with many locks, inside and out, and in an alcove halfway up the staircase leading to his chamber, a trusted servant would be on guard. However one night, the armour clad servant, who perhaps had over indulged at the nearby Swan Inn, fell asleep, fell out of the alcove and tumbled down the stairs, which are extremely steep. Sadly, the poor man broke his neck. Reputedly, he returns to haunt the area, as does the murderous intruder. Another phantom is a lady in long grey robe smoking a pipe. At night time, she flits around, sometimes trying the door handles of the flats. She is quite harmless but if anything strange happens, she usually gets the blame.

The Almshouses will next open to the public in September for Open House London. Stay posted for exact times and dates by following The Whitgift Foundation on twitter at @1596whitgift

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.