How a rural market town was transformed in Victorian age

Croydon might be undergoing drastic changes in the next few years, but they are nothing to the transformation which happened in the mid 19th century. In an extract from his book, historian JOHN GENT charts how Croydon was shaped in the Victorian era

Crystal Palace drawing

The Crystal Palace was, girder by girder, pane by pane, dismantled in Hyde Park and re-assembled close to the Croydon boundary

The year 1851 saw the Great Exhibition of Science and Industry take place in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. As an exhibition it was undoubtedly a great success but it failed to succeed in its aims of fostering trade and international relations. No doubt many Croydonians visited the exhibition and were captivated by the great glass edifice which has somehow come to symbolise the Victorian age. Only three years later the building was re-erected in a much enlarged form on the Norwood heights, just across the road from the Croydon boundary. Its presence attracted much building development in the adjacent areas. Large detached villas in spacious grounds soon spread through Upper Norwood as wealthy Londoners made their homes near the Palace.

The town of Croydon now had a Local Board of Health, a good water supply, and a drainage and sewage disposal system which was held up as a model for other towns to follow. It was poised to develop at a faster rate than almost any other town in the land, the population growing from 20,343 in 1851, to 30,240 in 1861, and to 134,037 by 1901. But it was still a largely self-contained town, surrounded by open country, and remained so until beyond the end of the century.

Grays Commercial & General Directory of Croydon for 1853, which would probably have been compiled the previous year, states, “There is a cattle market on Thursdays; great improvements have been made for the accommodation of persons frequenting it, by the erection of a new enclosed market, with all convenient appurtenances, near the site of the old cattle pens, between the Brighton and Selsdon roads. The Corn Market on Saturdays, is held in the lower court of the Town Hall. The market for Butter, Poultry, Fruit, etc. being held on the same day, in the Market-house, opposite the Greyhound hotel.

“The Fairs are on the 5th of July and the 2nd of October, the latter being very numerously attended, both for business in horses, sheep, and cattle, and by pleasure seekers. A Fair for Wool is usually held early in July, and the Sheep and Lamb Fair in August. Croydon is the place of Election for Members of Parliament for the Eastern Division of the County; and the Summer Assizes are held alternately with Guildford, when, besides the criminal cases, a very heavy ’cause list’ usually keeps the town in a state of considerably increased bustle for a fortnight or three weeks.”

The directory lists new parish churches at St Peter’s (Croham, 1851), Christ Church (Broad Green, 1852), St Mark’s (Norwood-by-Railway, now South Norwood, 1852) and Shirley Chapel-of-Ease. There were several nonconformist chapels. Also listed are a number of Religious and Benevolent Societies, including Croydon Coal Charity (established 1838), Croydon Clothing Society (established 1830), Croydon Dispensary (established 1835) and the Croydon Savings Bank (established 1819).

Pissarro, the French impressionist painter, painted a number of scenes around Croydon when he lived here in the 1870s: this is of Fox Hill, Upper Norwood

Pissarro, the impressionist, painted a number of scenes around Croydon when he lived here in the 1870s: this is of Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, and shows how rural the area was 150 years ago

The Victorian zeal for good works was already evident and as the town grew so did the number of charitable organisations.

Education was becoming more widespread during this period. Croydon British School had been established in 1812 and a Ragged School was opened in 1846.There was at least one Dame School serving the village of Shirley and there were several church schools and about a dozen private schools, some taking boarders. The Friends School had moved to Park Lane from Islington in 1825.

Despite the efforts of the Local Board of Health there were several outbreaks of typhoid and other fevers in the 1850s, ’60s and ’70s. These led the Society of Friends to move their school from Croydon to Saffron Walden in 1879 but had little impact on general urban development, which proceeded apace.

Forster’s Education Act of 1870 led to the setting up of the Croydon School Board in 1871. The Board took over several existing schools and opened new ones at Bynes Road (Purley Oaks), and Oval Road two years later. These schools were non-sectarian, though there was much jostling between Anglicans and nonconformists for places on the Board. Fees were charged even though attendance was compulsory.

School log books record many fascinating details of life and conditions at the time. In 1876 Brighton Road Girls School recorded that, “Kelly and Collins were playing about shoeless, nearly naked”. The same school recorded absentees watching ploughing matches and gleaning!

Croydon Past: a new edition of John Gent's book is now available

Croydon Past: a new edition of John Gent’s book is now available

The summer break was called Harvest Holiday, even in the town schools such as Parish Church and Oval. At Addington National School, still in the heart of the country, children walked long distances from Coombe, Sanderstead, Selsdon, Fairchildes, Fickles Hole, Ham Farm, Spring Park and Shirley.

When heavy snow started to fall in school hours the vicar called to send children straight home.

The youngest left school in the autumn and did not return until spring. Some of the older boys left school for the summer months to work for the farmers, as cowherds, etc., returning in October for the winter. May Day was still celebrated widely and this is confirmed by log book entries such as “the usual absences of several boys carrying away garlands”, “many absent garlanding”, and “a small attendance because of maypolling”.

  • John Gent lived in Croydon all his life, and after a career with London Transport, he devoted his retirement to history and local societies, being president of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society three times, he chaired the Old Croydonians Association and was the founder chairman of the Croydon Society. He died in 2011
  • John Gent’s book, Croydon Past, recounts the growth of the town, from a Archbishop’s retreat, to a growing market town, into a suburb of London, in meticulous detail but written in an accessible manner. Richly illustrated, the book has been re-published, price £14.99, by The History Press. You can order a copy by clicking here

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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