Leading Croydon businesses, who have been trading for more than 150 years, are angry at the ‘complete dereliction of duty, mismanagement and incompetence in every single aspect’ over the non-development of the town centre. And they offer some prospect of hope, as NEIL BENNETT reports
Two family businesses, founded in the 1860s when Queen Victoria reigned over us, have survived all of Croydon’s post-war convulsions and offer some clues about how solid businesses ride the ups and downs.
House of Reeves, the furniture store which defied the rioters in 2011, is selling plenty of sofas and three-piece suites, and Hewitts of Croydon, which has supplied generations of boys and girls with school uniforms, is still the go-to shop for today’s parents.
But the owners of these two hardy Croydon survivors are sceptical about whether the town will ever arrive at the new retail Westfield promised land and they are scornful of the “powers that be” who have presided over what they see as years of inaction.
It’s been obvious for years that Croydon needs reviving. The £1.4billion Westfield shopping centre was first announced for Croydon back in 2012, but work still hasn’t started. The Whitgift Shopping Centre, which is due to be replaced by the new Westfield development, is in a sad state with empty units, not many shoppers and a general feel of decay.
The department store Allders, which was once the jewel in the crown of Croydon’s shops, went bust seven years ago and is now closed. North End, the heart of the town, has an edgy, unsettling air of insecurity about it.
“It’s a complete dereliction of duty, mismanagement, incompetence in every single aspect,” says Graham Reeves, of the eponymous furniture store.
“You can’t work on something for 20 years and have no result or end up with what you now have – an empty shop and a boarded-up Allders which was probably the third biggest store in the whole country, and which has now gone to nothing.
“Hopefully they will prove me wrong and get a new centre built but it probably won’t be in my lifetime.” Reeves is 60, so the pessimism is long-term.
Martin Hewitt looks back with nostalgia at the days when local politicians talked to businesses about… well…
business. “If you speak to a politician now, all they are interested in is the next election, not longer-term. All the parties are as bad as each other.
“I can honestly say that I do not trust a single word that any political person says, which is sad. I certainly don’t believe a word of what the council says over Westfield.”
Whoever occupies the shops in a new Westfield, if it’s ever built, could take a few tips from the family stores which have been trading in Croydon for more than 150 years. Above all, you have be tough to survive.
It is nearly a decade now since that fateful night, August 8, 2011, of rioting, looting and arson which so scarred Croydon. Croydon, and Reeves’ furniture store, became the poster-child of the riots in 2011 when their showroom was burned down by an arsonist. The photograph of a young woman leaping from a building nearby to escape the flames, which was published around the world, summed up how bad things had become for Britain.
Speaking for the first time about the rioting and fire at House of Reeves, Graham Reeves says: “You know from that moment that your life is going to change.
“You don’t know if you have got a business and you don’t know what’s going to happen to you and your family. Because everything you can see has gone up in smoke.”
By sheer good fortune – and wind direction – one of the Reeves’ two showrooms survived and was able to continue trading. The site of the other has remained derelict for the nine years since.
“The customers were fantastic and came down to support us straight away,” Reeves says.
“We had furniture sold but not collected and we didn’t don’t know how much people had paid for it. But no one cancelled their orders. We just got replacements and carried on.
“That makes you feel good, you can’t believe that people can be that nice. Without that spirit we wouldn’t be trading, we would have just called it a day, but we were out delivering again the day after the fire.”
Knowing what the customer wants, selling at the right price, not borrowing too much and having an eye for innovation have all helped to keep House of Reeves and Hewitts of Croydon in business.
Reeves has maintained his firm’s competitive edge, despite having a giant IKEA just over the road, by embarking on solo trips to out-of-the-way Chinese factories to source good-quality but competitively priced three-piece leather suites.
The business has found it “very easy to compete on price”. It is such a fixture in Croydon, it even has a tram stop named after it – Reeves Corner. You can’t get much more Croydon than that.
A short walk away, on Church Street, is Hewitts of Croydon which began life in 1863 as a gentlemen’s outfitters, has been in the family for five generations.
It, too, kept ahead of the competition by spotting a gap in the market – for school uniforms. “ After the Second World War, my father really cottoned on to the fact that virtually no church or state schools had uniforms, although private schools did,” Martin Hewitt says.
“Existing outfitters thought it a bit downmarket to be supplying the state schools, but he actively went for them. He also saw that there were new materials coming along so you could have the same look but at half the price.”
Hewitts now supplies the families of pupils from more than a hundred schools in the Croydon area, many of them with “eco-blazers”, which the business adopted early. The blazers contain polyester made from recycled plastic drinking bottles which would otherwise end up in landfill sites.
But who are the “powers that be” who these family businessmen are so dismissive about but who have the future of Croydon in their hands?
The first is the Croydon Partnership, formed of two of the world’s biggest retail developers, Westfield and Hammerson, specifically to deliver the shopping mall across the sites of the two existing centres, located not so far from where the Hewitts and Reeves businesses are based.
Westfield and Hammerson still proudly boasts on its website that, “Over the next few years, the Croydon Partnership will transform Croydon’s two main shopping centres Whitgift and Centrale into a world-class retail and leisure destination, which will help transform Croydon back into the best place to shop, work and live in south London.”
It is surprisingly difficult to get answers from any of Croydon’s powerbrokers about where the town is heading and whether a new shopping centre will ever open for business. The Croydon Partnership’s PR agency responded to several specific questions with an unhelpful, “Croydon Partnership won’t be providing comment.”
The council’s press office needed a lot of prodding by email and phone before sending a couple of links to old website announcements “which should give you the information you need”. Of course, they don’t.
The oldest, and wealthiest, powerhouse in Croydon is the Whitgift Foundation – modern marketing slogan: “Passionate about Croydon for over 400 years”.
The Foundation is named after John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583 who stayed at a palace in Croydon as a stopover on his journeys between Lambeth and Canterbury. He was also a landowner who used his wealth for charitable purposes, many of which continue to this day. It was Whitgift’s land, and the school originally built on it, which made way for what is now struggling Whitgift Centre.
The Foundation relies heavily on income derived from the Whitgift Centre to fund its charitable operations – almshouses and homes for older people, or providing bursaries to youngsters attending its large private schools.
The Foundation’s official response to the endless delays to Westfield took weeks to extract from them. It is utterly bland: “The Foundation is aware of the complex nature of the development and we remain confident that Westfield will soon confirm their plans and timetable for the redevelopment.
“Due to the nature of the agreement in place between the Foundation and the developer, we are unable to comment on this question further.”
People can be reluctant to admit that Croydon is their hometown. In her autobiography, East of Croydon, Sue Perkins, the comedian and broadcaster, wrote, “If you’ve not been, and want to conjure the aesthetics of the place, imagine a long scream into oblivion that has been commemorated in concrete.”
Croydon is too well-known for its brutalist office buildings, callous town planning, growing deprivation and high crime. The 21-year-old singer Raye, a graduate of one of Croydon’s outstanding successes, the BRIT School, puts it like this: “I grew up in Croydon. Obviously, someone is trying to steal your mobile phone every four seconds on Croydon High Street. You learn how to become street smart.”
Croydon is always coming up with surprises and high achievers.
Stormzy was born here in 1993, comedian Reginald D Hunter lives round the corner from East Croydon station and the BRIT school’s graduate list is a Who’s Who of modern British music – Adele, Leona Lewis, Jessie J and Freya Ridings among the many. There is also a production line of high-class professional sports people – footballers Victor Moses, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Wilfried Zaha, England cricketers Rory Burns and Jason Roy, and rugby players Elliot Daly and Alex Dombrandt.
None of which required a shopping mall.
Graham Reeves has kept a burnt sofa in the showroom window since 2011.
It survived the fire, will never be for sale and remains as a symbol of the spirit which will help Croydon survive.
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A question. I was discussing the Whitgift debacle last week and the question of owners of the Whitgift Centre cropped up. My view was that Westfield and Hammerson owned it between them. However the other view was that Whitgift still own the place. Can anyone please clarify.
You were wrong.
To be fair to David, as he well knows land tenure isn’t straightforward, especially when you get tiers of sub-leases. Whitgift own the freehold, that’s a known known. But would the developers own the leaseholds and let them to the retail tenants (like if you bought a leasehold flat and rented it out)? Or is it, as I suspect, a far more complicated arrangement?
Fair to David? You having a laugh?