CROYDON COMMENTARY: A charitable foundation with assets of more than £200 million could be doing more to make the most of the borough’s historical heritage, says DAVID CALLAM
The Whitgift Foundation is seeking commercial sponsors for a festival in June. It wants to promote itself and to celebrate the wider Croydon community – past, present and future.
But could it be doing more for the town of which its founder was so fond?
The Foundation is the longest-established Croydon institution. It pre-dates the area’s incorporation as a borough (1883) by nearly 300 years.
Today, it owns the freehold of the Whitgift Centre and much other commercial property in and around the borough, using the money it generates from rents to pay to run care homes and three large private schools. It is a registered charity with, according to records lodged with the Charity Commission, total assets of more than £210million and annual income of £46million.
John Whitgift, the son of a wealthy merchant, was born and raised in Grimsby. He came to know and love Croydon when he was Archbishop of Canterbury.
The church owned a manor house adjoining St John’s (now Croydon Minster). In summer, when the heat and bustle of London became too much – at a time when plague and illness was associated with the warmer weather – Archbishop Whitgift and his retinue would decamp south to the peace and clean air of Croydon.
It was Whitgift who first dubbed the house a “palace” and who enthused about “the sweetness” of Croydon.
Whitgift became aware of the needs of the people of Croydon during his visits. He was a trusted confidante of Queen Elizabeth I, at a time when the monarch enjoyed absolute power. She could and did determine life and death with the stroke of a pen.
The queen gave Whitgift permission to build a hospital and a school in Croydon. He established his Hospital of The Holy Trinity in 1596 to care for up to 40 of the town’s elderly poor.
The hospital building, at the junction of North End and George Street, still stands, rescued by the House of Lords in 1923 from a Croydon Council proposal to widen the road.
Whitgift also established a school on land adjoining the hospital. Over time the school became two: the senior one moved to South Croydon in 1931, leaving the middle school as occupant of the town centre site.
Whitgift Middle School changed its name to Trinity in 1954 and moved to Shirley in 1965, when the central Croydon site was developed into The Whitgift Centre, one of the first purpose-built, car-free shopping complexes in Britain.
The Foundation might have sold the site at this point, but it was advised, prudently, to develop the land itself. As a result, it has enjoyed a regular and increasing income from the many tenants who occupy the shops and office space.
It has used its income to provide additional accommodation for the elderly, principally at Whitgift House, in the grounds of the senior school in South Croydon; to provide first-class facilities at its two boys’ schools and, in 1993, to acquire and refurbish Old Palace girls’ school; and to offer substantial student bursaries at all three schools.
The Foundation also invested in a £30million upgrade of the shopping centre in the mid-1990s, adding a glass roof, Italian marble flooring and additional retail units to a design by architect Clark Geddes.
According to its most recent annual return to the Charity Commission, the Whitgift Foundation employs more than 600 people, and in the 12 months to August 2011 it spent £48.16 million – £2.38 million more than it raised from its investments that year.
This reflected a recession-created loss of rental revenue from the office blocks above the Whitgift Centre, as tenants moved out.
It was around this time that the Foundation announced that it had chosen Westfield to redevelop the centre – without any consultation with its major leaseholders, who then chose Hammerson to do the very same task. For a time, this created a stand-off over the £1 billion scheme which was only resolved earlier this year when the two developers agreed to work together on a merged project.
There are some, myself included, who believe that while the Foundation continues to do an excellent job for the young and the elderly in its care, it could and should be doing more for its founder’s beloved Croydon as a whole.
For example: the Old Palace is a light steadfastly hidden beneath a bushel.
It is an important historic building with strong royal and religious connections. Henry III and Elizabeth I both stayed there during processions around the realm.
The present Old Palace dates from the 1400s, but the Manor of Croydon has been associated with the See of Canterbury since Saxon times. Buildings on the site have been favoured by Archbishops of Canterbury since the Norman Conquest. Lanfranc, consecrated in 1070, lived there at times, as did Thomas a Beckett, made archbishop almost a century later.
A succession of Protestant primates, like John Whitgift, made regular use of the Old Palace for 250 years before decamping to Addington in 1807. And yet, Croydon Old Palace will be open to the public for just 10 days this year.
When the Foundation acquired Old Palace School it encouraged speculation that it would move the girls to a more appropriate location for modern education, as it had previously done with both its boys’ schools.
There was even a suggestion, never confirmed by the Foundation, that it might build a new school at Croham Hurst in South Croydon, where it owns a golf course, or develop the playing fields currently used by the Whitgift old boys’ rugby and cricket clubs. The latest development has been to build accommodation for boarders at the previously day-boys-only Whitgift School. Due to open this spring, it gives the school the ability to market its £12,000-a-year education to wealthy parents overseas.
Finding a new home for the girls’ school would leave the Old Palace free to be dressed and opened to the public as the major historic attraction it is. What did monarchs and archbishops do with their time in the country – in general and specifically?
The Anglican Communion, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is spiritual head, has 85 million members in 165 countries. All of them are potential visitors to the palace, to the adjoining minster, where six former archbishops are buried, including John Whitgift, and to nearby St Mary’s Church, Addington, the final resting place of a further five archbishops.
In due course, the Foundation might add the Almshouses to the tourist trail. They are no longer ideal accommodation for elderly people, even active ones. A development similar to Wilhelmina House, one of the Foundation’s other residential homes, would better suit their needs.
The move would have to be made carefully to avoid any unnecessary upset to residents, but the Foundation is more than capable of organising such a delicate matter, taking as much time as is required.
Once vacated, the Almshouses would make a fine setting for an exhibition, maybe showing the lives of residents through the centuries, an interesting contrast to that of monarchs and primates at the Old Palace, just a short walk away.
Undoubtedly, Croydon’s economy would benefit commercially from the development of a world-class tourist industry – but the greatest gift the Whitgift Foundation could give to Croydon at the moment is a change of image.
The town is too closely linked in too many minds to the dreadful television pictures of a fiercely burning House of Reeves. Tastefully promoted, over years rather than weeks, Croydon as a centre of royal and religious history would give the place the change of face it so desperately needs.
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