Millionaire Mayor who made sacrifices for others and an ideal

Sorry state: Heathfield House today, the building and gardens showing the signs of decades of neglect from current owners, Croydon Council

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: One of the borough’s most-revered figures from the Edwardian era lost everything when he declared himself bankrupt.
DAVID MORGAN recounts the noble story of Howard Houlder

Mayor of Croydon: Alderman Howard Houlder. looking every inch a figure of Edwardian pomp and circumstance

With Heathfield House and its gardens falling steadily into a state of decay, it is interesting to note that the name of one of the grand, Italianate villa’s former owners appears frequently in the archives of Croydon Minster.

It was in May 1919 that Howard Houlder bought the property at the top of Gravel Hill for £30,000. Houlder was a major figure in the life of Croydon. He had made his vast wealth from running a shipping line out of the then busy ports of London, Liverpool and Glasgow.

When he died from heart trouble in October 1932, it brought the curtain down on a life which had many setbacks and challenges, but one in which he did his very best for the people around him.

It was as Mayor of Croydon that Houlder would be best remembered.

He was elected to the office in February 1916 following the sudden death of Frank Denning. The years which he held the office during World War I were difficult ones and the leadership principles which he set as civic head were admired and appreciated by all. Houlder and his wife, Mary, gave unstinting personal service and sacrifice as Mayor and Mayoress. Houlder was re-elected to the post in 1917 and 1918.

There were many initiatives during those war years which Houlder championed. One of them was the War Loan Scheme of 1917. Thanks to the generosity of Houlder and Sir Frederick Eldridge, the people of Croydon were able to buy £100 shares at £95, which could be paid for in easy installments over two years. In total £94,000 was raised in this way – equivalent to more than £8.3million today.

Shipping business: an ad for the Houlder Brothers from 1923

Only a couple of months after taking office, Houlder had encouraged and led Croydon’s response to the War Savings Week. Children processed through the borough and Saving Societies were formed in schools. Houlder led by example, and subscribed £250-worth of War Savings Certificates and placed them in trust as a stimulus for others to raise funds to support those in distress.

Houlder was a leading figure in the Croydon YMCA, helping them to raise more than £6,000 in one appeal.

However, his greatest achievement in fundraising was the money collected for the Croydon National War Bond Tank Week.

“The success… was so marked that it seems only right for me to congratulate the borough on the result,” he said. “It was no small achievement to have subscribed the sum of over £462,000, especially when it is borne in mind that so many residents having the business in the City prior to the War Tank Week had largely subscribed for War Bonds in London.”

When he was nominated to the role of mayor by Alderman Major Fox, Houlder replied to the council, “I will do all I can and I hope I may be able to give sufficient time and have sufficient strength to do my duty in the position to which I have been called.”

Subsequent events proved how successfully Houlder had fulfilled their trust.

Howard Houlder was born in Camberwell in 1858, the son of Alfred Houlder, a director in the firm of Houlder Bros, Shipowners. Houlder Bros began trading in 1856, at first chartering vessels until they acquired The Golden Horn five years later.

Alfred Houlder died in Hawaii in 1878. Howard had been working for his father’s company, but he left and started up his own shipping insurers business, H Houlder and Partners, based in Glasgow, and with offices on the other side of the Atlantic.

Under threat: the Whitgift Almshouses, which might have been demolished had Houlder not intervened

The company was very successful and Howard Houlder became an underwriter at Lloyds of London and worked in the Baltic Exchange. He also set up another company Houlder, Middleton and Co, shipowners and ship managers.

Houlder settled in Croydon in 1885. He soon became heavily involved in both parish and civic life. As a man who held a deep Christian faith, he became a lay reader in the church, often taking a leading role in services at St George’s, Waddon, and at St Edmund’s. He held the position of People’s Warden on the Parish Church Committee for 11 years, beginning in 1895.

Standing for membership to the old Croydon School Board in 1900, he came top of the poll. His work on the school board led him to be coopted onto the education committee, before becoming a member of Croydon Council. Houlder was chair of the education committee when he became mayor.

Houlder’s greatest impact on the borough during the war years was his vehement opposition to the demolition of the Whitgift Almshouses. “It would be a thousand pities to take away that old landmark which was one of the glories of Croydon, one of the town’s greatest assets,” he said, an intervention to the debate that won the day.

After the Great War, Houlder’s life changed. Initially, he was on the crest of a successful wave. His purchase of Heathfield House was testament to that, having previously lived in St John’s Road and Duppas Hill Terrace. That same year, 1919, he stood for parliament in an attempt to become the MP for South Croydon.

Representing the Liberal Party, he lost to the Conservative, Sir Allen MacGregor Smith, by 11,777 votes to 9,573. While he was campaigning, he was especially concerned about those who were struggling. He spoke about the need to provide adequate education for all and that young people and children needed to be nurtured and championed because they were the country’s future.

Freedom of the Borough: Mary Houlder

As a result of his hugely appreciated term of office as Mayor, in 1920 Houlder and his wife Mary were granted the Freedom of the Borough – the same honour invested on Stormzy last month.

With the honour conferred by the then mayor, Councillor Heath Clarke, Houlder and his wife were described “as having rendered services which had not probably been excelled by any of the predecessors whose names were on the role”.

The stamina and energy of Houlder was amazing.

As well as all the commitments already described, Houlder also spent time as chair of the Whitgift Governors, was a member of the Governing Body of Croydon High School, was a member of the Mitcham Common Conservators and, during the war, frequently chaired the sessions of the Croydon Tribunal. To think that he fitted all these commitments around being a magistrate and the Deputy Lieutenant of Surrey, too.

It was estimated that at the end of the war, Houlder’s personal fortune was £1million.

However, he felt that something wasn’t right. The successful approach to the war, as he saw it, was that it was won by the finance and determination of everyone, all pulling together. He determined that the peace after the war could only be truly won with the same approach.

Using his personal fortune, Houlder began to look for opportunities to support industry and get people working again. But he began to hemorrhage cash. In 1924, he filed for bankruptcy.

“My petition was filed as a voluntary act to safeguard the interests of others,” he declared. He was forced to resign from his positions in public life.

Houlder had lost money on many projects. One of them was in Llanelli, south Wales. Houlder was a director of the Reliance Fuel Company there and spent £350,000 on the building of their works.

Respect: Houlder may have gone bankrupt, but his good works were well-remembered

After his bankruptcy, Houlder had to face up to the cold fact that he had fallen from his millionaire status to someone who hadn’t a penny to his name.

Heathfield House was sold. Even his gold watch had to go.

Such a blow at the age of 65 was clearly hard-felt, but Houlder faced the world afresh, determined to retrieve some of his losses. He would work hard for himself and his family and though he never again achieved the great financial position he once held, he did manage to secure a comfortable living in the final years of his life.

He died in Cornerways, Rustington, Sussex, in 1932, aged 74. His funeral was held not in Croydon Parish Church but in Shirley, which is where he and his wife Mary were married.

Houlder certainly lived a full life. He found time to serve and look out for those who needed help. His deep faith underpinned the decisions made. There wouldn’t be many people who would have given away a fortune to help others. I wonder what he would have made of the decisions that are being taken by leaders today? Selfless or selfish? For the good of all or just some?

He was much revered at the Town Hall Chamber for the eloquence of his rhetoric. He will have had plenty to say about public life today.

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on and use the contact page

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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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4 Responses to Millionaire Mayor who made sacrifices for others and an ideal

  1. Ed Worth says:

    Remember the Houlder Brothers ships bringing refrigerated meat from South America in the seventies up until the Falklands War put an end to the trade. I had cargo on their vessel the “Royston Grange” that was in collision with a tanker on the River Plate in 1972. All hands were lost. Very sad.

  2. chris myers says:

    Contrast his sense of public duty and Christian faith with what we have before us today – in Croydon and elsewhere. Mind you, he was a Capitalist which might upset IC’s hip young readers.

  3. Michelle Ann says:

    Is he buried at St John’s, Shirley?

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