Former BBC journalist NEIL BENNETT returned to his Croydon roots to try to track down one of the lost gems of south London – Thornton Heath Cricket Club
In August, television news coverage of the tragic gas explosion on Galpins Road prompted me to return to Thornton Heath. Aerial footage of the aftermath of the blast confirmed what I had observed from a lockdown bike ride.
This is, of course, of minor concern compared to the loss of a four-year-old girl’s life and hundreds of families evacuated from their homes after the explosion.
But I had seen, and now had it confirmed by those television pictures, that the old Thornton Heath Cricket Club ground backing on to Galpins Road was in a sad state, far from its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s when I first played there.
It’s not quite tumbleweed territory, and the ground has at least been used by the neighbouring football club, Croydon Athletic, for their youth teams. But what was once a high-quality cricket square, immaculate outfield and traditional wooden pavilion sadly neglected.
The superb grass courts of Thornton Heath’s once thriving tennis section are now being grazed by a few bored-looking horses.
No sport was being played while glass and other debris was cleared from the grass and for weeks after the explosion, the police kept a 24-hour vigil to stop the land being illegally occupied.
How did it come to this? It was no ordinary ground.
Thornton Heath Cricket Club had made Galpins Road its home in 1927. In the club’s centenary brochure in 1976, a local journalist is quoted: “At the beginning of the 1939 season, the wickets and outfields are beyond reproach. Skippers of visiting teams often express the view that it is too good for one-day matches.”
Thornton Heath was no ordinary club either. There was a close link with Surrey County Cricket Club, which in the 1950s brought a team to play at Galpins Road every summer. Alec Bedser, Jim Laker and Ken Barrington, all of them titans of Surrey and England cricket in the post-war era, held benefit matches at Thornton Heath.
The 1970s were successful for THCC, with strong teams winning league titles over several years. But by the early 1980s things had changed. Hard-pressed state schools were not turning out cricketers, as sport became less of a priority and men were unwilling to spend as much time away from their families at weekends.
Despite spirited efforts by some of my Selhurst Grammar School contemporaries to recruit new cricketers by visiting other schools in Croydon, Thornton Heath cricket club was in decline.
When exactly stumps were drawn at Galpins Road for the last time has been difficult to pin down, which is surprising in an age when everything should be Google-able. Emails to Croydon Council, approaches to local councillors, tapping up my old school mates, scouring the borough archives in Croydon Town Hall, joining a Facebook group and calls to the cricketing powers-that-be all failed to produce the answer. Perhaps Inside Croydon readers can help?
Happily though, this is by no means the end of the story, because despite the club’s apparent demise, the name has been revived in heartening and rather romantic circumstances.
It was around 20 years ago that a then 10-year-old cricket nut called Harshil Trivedi took his bat and ball to Thornton Heath Recreation Ground and discovered that other youngsters were keen to join in. With his cousin helping, this developed into informal coaching and the revival of the THCC name.
Trivedi had no idea that a club had existed before but, as he puts it today, “It was cricket, it was in Thornton Heath, so that’s why we called it Thornton Heath Cricket Club.
“No cricket had been played in the north of the borough for some years and this coaching was a way of getting kids engaged in the local area.”
Like any good batsman, Trivedi built his innings steadily.
By 2017, Surrey County Cricket Club’s Ace Programme, a charity set up to encourage BAME youngsters to play the game, and the Chance to Shine charity were all in there, rooting for the re-born Thornton Heath Cricket Club.
And they had a new home – the leisure centre in the High Street, where up to 150 young players gather for expert tuition every Saturday, supervised by qualified Surrey coach Asad Butt. The enthusiasm and ability of these local recruits to cricket is a pure joy and Trivedi and Butt’s efforts were rewarded with the Chance to Shine Street Project of The Year award in 2021.
Next spring, Thornton Heath’s young cricketers will leave the indoor winter nets for the fresh air of Norbury Park.
But what of the chances of going back to the future at the original ground in Galpins Road, still lying fallow?
A terse statement from Croydon Council says merely: “There are no plans for cricket to be played on the land.” What a shame.
- Inside Croydon has been delivering local community news since 2010. To support independent local journalism in Croydon, please sign up today as a supporter. Click here for more details
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- By having a comment section, we provide all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Details of how this works can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period