Zola’s exile in Upper Norwood and case for two blue plaques

It’s arguable, though probably not worth pressing the point, that the Queen’s Hotel on Church Road, Crystal Palace, could qualify for having two blue plaques for two individuals with the same name.

The blue plaque at the Queen's Hotel on Church Road

The blue plaque for Emile Zola at the Queen’s Hotel on Church Road

The plaque which does exist on the walls of the hotel there is for Emile Zola, the famed French man of letters who – with poignant resonance to the tragic events in Paris over the past 24 hours – stood up for justice and his rights to freedom of speech.

Emile Zola was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. It may have been more, and he may have been more successful, had he not died in suspicious circumstances in 1902.

But it was to escape his 1898 prosecution for perhaps his most famous piece of writing – the open letter J’Accuse about the Dreyfus case and a significant miscarriage of justice – that Zola fled to south London and stayed at the Queen’s.

Zola had been to London five years earlier, invited as the guest of honour at a lavish banquet which was staged at the Crystal Palace, and this may have been behind his choice of location when a fugitive. The area around South Norwood already had some notable literary associations, since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived not far away, down the hill in South Norwood (another blue plaque).

More than a century ago, the Queen’s Hotel provided a fashionable Victorian residence in a fashionable Victorian suburb, with Paxton’s construction wonder of the age just a short walk away.

Michael Rosen looks at Emile Zola's south London connection on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday

Michael Rosen looks at Emile Zola’s south London connection on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday

Author and broadcaster Michael Rosen tracks down Emile Zola and his sojourn in south London in a Radio 3 programme due to air this Sunday (January 11).

Rosen recounts the Dreyfus case, an instance of institutionalised anti-semitism which saw the French army officer falsely convicted of treason and transported on a life sentence to Devil’s Island, off the coast of what was then French Guiana, a prison made notorious by the book and film, Papillon.

Zola researched Dreyfus’s case and took a campaigning stand, and the French government responded by sentencing him to a year’s imprisonment and a hefty fine, which prompted his flit across the Channel.

“Rosen explores the political, literary, and personal tensions and overlaps in Zola’s life during his 11-month exile,” the BBC says. Anton Lesser and Harriet Walter are the voices of Emile and Alexandrine Zola.

Emile Zola, from an engraving of around 1898

Emile Zola, from an engraving of around 1898

During his stay, Zola wrote a novel (Fécondité), a ghost story, many letters and a memoir, between going on regular cycling trips and taking hundreds of photos of the new suburbs in Surrey and Crystal Palace. He observed the English and lamented his isolation.

The photographs of the area taken by Zola between 1898 and 1899 remain a valuable record of the period. According to the Croydon Museum, “The Crystal Palace stands out magnificently on the skyline, Church Road and the White Hart Hotel at Norwood Triangle are just some of the places easily recognised.”

The Norwood Society has published a book, Emile Zola – Photographer in Norwood, which is available from the Central Library and contains pictures of these places and many more, and “provide an intriguing glimpse of the huge glass structure that dominated the Sydenham skyline from its opening in 1854 through to 1936 when the building was destroyed by fire”.

And that other Queen’s Hotel blue plaque?

It is just a flippant suggestion, but in 1985, when she was “on the run” from the British press, the Queen’s Hotel was one of the bolt holes used by her managers for the South African-born athlete Zola Budd. Over the course of her abbreviated career as a British runner, she may even have spent as many nights at the hotel as her more literary namesake.

Zola Budd in action at Crystal Palace: worth another blue plaque

The barefoot Zola Budd in action at Crystal Palace: worth another blue plaque?

This latter Zola’s notoriety followed her UK all-comers’ record in being granted a British passport by the Thatcher government and then her tripping of American favourite Mary Slaney in the previous year’s Olympic 3,000 metres final.

Budd could rarely use the house in Guildford which had been bought for her to establish her “residency” as a British athlete, and she often had to take refuge at the Queen’s Hotel, a regular venue for sports press conferences and used as accommodation for international athletes competing at the stadium just down Anerley Hill.

The Peugeot Talbot Games in July 1985 at Crystal Palace had to be extended from a one-evening meeting to a two-day event, such was the public clamour for tickets when it was announced that Budd was to have a re-match against her weeping American rival following the Los Angeles race the previous year. Little was made of the presence in the re-match field of the gold and silver medallists from the Olympic final, Romania’s Maricica Puica and Wendy Sly of Britain.

As it was, Puica ran away with the race and a modest $5,000 in prize money, while Budd banked a very generous £90,000 appearance fee. But then, her manager was also the meeting organiser. What would the original Zola have had to say about that?

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2 Responses to Zola’s exile in Upper Norwood and case for two blue plaques

  1. mandolin456 says:

    I often wondered where Zola got his inspiration for Germinal from, now its clear it was Croydon and the coal mines of Caterham!

  2. Pingback: Another Day | newauthoronline

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