Norwood: From 19th century common land to City commuters

by John Coulter

From Common to Suburb

Croxted Road, West Norwood, c. 1875

What makes a suburb spring up at one time and place and not at another? Opportunity, location, access, cupidity, and fashion must combine in the first place, and the quality or quantity of each ingredient will determine the nature of the product. One cannot say the finished product. Suburbs never are finished. Perhaps one should not say product either, as their flourishings and witherings and revivals are more like those of plants than anything man-made.

Opportunity is the first thing. The most perfect potential suburb will not grow, or not at the ideal time, if leases or covenants or legal disputes or common rights stand in the way. Location and access go together. Suburbs are essentially for people whose work takes them to the city, so they must be at no greater distance than the transport of the day can manage in an acceptable time. The location must be attractive and healthy if the suburb is to prosper. This might well mean an area of hills, but hills could present serious problems to early providers of both transport and water.

Cupidity was the lever that lifted the inert bodies of the landowners, and tempted developers into the risky business of speculative building. Landowners often lived on their own estates, pleasantly surrounded by fields. The decision to let or sell was also the decision to uproot their families, perhaps after generations, so the price of building land might have to rise well above farm rents before the breaking point was reached. When landowners did decide to put their estates on the market the terms were usually weighted very much in their favour. Some builders made great fortunes – there was the spur – but the majority ended in the bankruptcy courts.

Fashion was the last and most incalculable factor. Most developers set out with the ambition to create an exclusive suburb, but in the long term very few succeeded. Wealthy suburbanites were nearly always in shorter supply than the houses built to attract them. They were also hard to please, nervous, fond of novelty, and highly mobile. This meant that exclusive suburbs were easy to establish, but hard to maintain. Most became the victims of their own initial success, when the attempt to squeeze more and more houses into a popular area spoilt the features that had attracted the early settlers. The desertion of one influential resident could start a stampede.

The growth of Norwood during the nineteenth century is a good example of all these processes in action. The opportunity was provided by the enclosure of the commons that were known collectively as Norwood – the wood north of Croydon. The enclosure movement came to a frantic climax during the Napoleonic Wars, when the need to grow more food at home gave a welcome political justification for this huge land grab. The Croydon enclosure act was passed in 1797, those for Dulwich, Lambeth, and Penge in 1805, 1806, and 1827. The Croydon and Lambeth commons contributed 1350 acres, Dulwich and Penge perhaps fifty each, to what soon became the suburb of Norwood.

The fact of its being in four parishes was one unusual feature of Norwood, and the divided political control that this entailed has had a great influence on the history of the area, more obviously during its twentieth century decline than when it was growing. The four parishes of Croydon, Lambeth, Camberwell (for Dulwich), and Battersea (for Penge) are now represented by the boroughs of Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark, and Bromley.

Even more unusual was the complete novelty of Norwood. Many suburbs have grown enormously when adjoining commons have been enclosed. The neighbouring districts of Sydenham, Dulwich, and Penge are examples of this, but in each case an old village remained the centre of the community. Norwood had no nucleus. There were small settlements on the fringes of the common, but these either withered away before the enclosure, like the manor of Levehurst in the Norwood Road area, or survived as independent suburbs like Woodside or Thornton Heath.

This is not to say that Norwood had no population before 1797. Commons always attracted squatters, licensed or tolerated by the manor courts. Many had found a lodgement in odd corners of Norwood. A few had built large houses – one is now part of the convent in Central Hill – but the majority lived in cottages. The enclosure acts allowed them to remain, sometimes on payment of a fee. Of the very few squatter dwellings that survive the best examples are to be seen in Arnulls Road, Upper Norwood, part of a settlement known as Cupgate before the enclosure.

The Croydon and Lambeth enclosure commissioners are the only men who have had the chance to apply really large scale planning to Norwood; but planning was only a part, and not the most important part, of their duties. Their main task was to weigh the value of competing rights, and to award compensation for the loss of each in the form of land or money. It was the need to provide access to every plot of land that forced a planning role upon them.

The commissioners were conservative in accepting most of the existing tracks across the common for promotion into roads. Their most important new creation was what is now called Church Road. Far more influential in shaping the future of Norwood were their decisions about the size and location of the various allotments of land, for it nearly always happened that small plots produced small houses and large plots large houses. If the small plots were put together the result was sure to be a working class area, possibly a slum.

It was an unwritten rule of suburban enclosures that the large allotments were placed on the more valuable high ground, the small allotments in the plains and valleys. In Lambeth Norwood this meant that the poorer beneficiaries received land in Chapel Road, Gipsy Road, and environs, in Croydon Norwood mostly in Portland Road. This helped to determine not only where the poor would live in West and South Norwood, but where the rich would shop. Allotments on the common imposed a financial burden – for fencing, clearing, levelling, and draining – before they could be put to any use. As the owners of the small plots were often quite poor they were liable to avoid expense by an immediate sale. Small plots were not viable for agricultural use, so builders were usually the only purchasers available.

The development of the Triangle (between Westow Hill, Church Road, and Westow Street) as the first Upper Norwood working class area and shopping centre was not the achievement of the enclosure commissioners, who had left it as open common. The trustees of the remaining Croydon common land sold the Triangle in small lots in 1806, and it was this decision that gave the area its special character. If they had sold it in a single lot the history of Upper Norwood could have been rather different.

The provision of transport, and its changes in speed and reliability, have a great influence over the status and popularity of suburbs. Norwood is six or seven miles from the City and West End. During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, when horses, private carriages, or the expensive public coaches were the only forms of transport available, this distance meant that it was a practical place of residence only for the wealthy commuter. Clerks of the period walked daily to the City from Islington, or even New Cross, but Norwood was too distant.

It was mostly from the City that Norwood recruited its new settlers between 1800 and 1840. Many bankers, solicitors, and merchants figure among the early residents. The “stock-jobbers’ villas” that were William Cobbett’s pet aversion littered the Norwood hills. For the convenience of such men the Rose and Crown Inn at Crown Point offered seventeen coaches to town every working day in 1836. Thereafter the rapid growth of omnibus and train services destroyed the coach business. The suburb’s first station was the Jolly Sailor at South Norwood, on the London Bridge to Croydon line, which began to operate in 1839. This was to open the door for a greater range of commuters, but for some decades the high train fares meant that it was not opened wide. Half a dozen more stations followed as a direct result, or under the influence, of the Crystal Palace.

Into whose hands had fate and the enclosure commissioners trusted the further planning of Norwood? As Lord of the Manor of both Lambeth and Croydon the Archbishop of Canterbury was the great gainer by those two enclosures. Dr John Moore, the archbishop at the time, let nearly all his allotment in Croydon Norwood (340 acres) to his brother-in-law, Lord Auckland. This cosy arrangement did not promote rapid development, as Lord Auckland and his son sub-let most of the land to farmers. Building on a large scale began only when the Ecclesiastical Commissioners took control of the archbishops’ estates. Such development as Lord Auckland did allow in Upper Norwood took the form of detached villas in Beulah Hill, Church Road, and Central Hill. A number of examples from the 1820s and ’30s survive, especially in Church Road.

Biggin Hill Coppice on the south side of Beulah Hill was sold by the enclosure commissioners to pay their salaries, and minor expenses. It was especially valuable land because these south facing slopes were perfect as sites for villas. The commissioners divided it into long rectangular plots for sale, and these were mostly bought by City businessmen. Few of the villas they built have survived, but the division of the land has determined the nature of the area to the present day. Luxury detached houses of the early twentieth century now occupy many of the plots.

Bewlye Coppice, on the south-eastern side of Spa Hill, which was awarded to the lord of Whitehorse Manor, inspired an ambitious but unsuccessful town planning scheme. John Davidson Smith bought the manor in the 1820s, and used a mineral spring in the coppice as the centrepiece of the Beulah Spa pleasure grounds, which opened in 1831 as a belated rival to Ranelagh and Vauxhall. Decimus Burton, a young follower of John Nash, was called in to design the spa buildings, and the pleasure resort enjoyed a brief vogue. But the more serious scheme in the background, which was to build a huge crescent in the grandest Regent’s Park style on the summit of the hill, was never realised. That fashion had been buried with George IV. The Beulah Hill and Grange Road frontages of the estate had to wait for development until the closure of the Beulah Spa in 1856, and then the style was not a crescent but a succession of large detached villas.

Much the biggest Norwood estate outside the area of enclosed common belonged to Lord Thurlow (1731-1806). The aim of that misanthrope was to exclude others from the thousand acres he owned in Norwood and Streatham. It was left to his heirs to dispose of this land, which had been augmented in the year of Thurlow’s death by the fifty acres he was awarded on the common. The executors found it impossible to sell this huge wedge of land between Streatham and Dulwich as a single lot, so they obtained a private act of parliament authorising them to demolish Thurlow’s mansion, make roads, and sell the estate in small portions.

They concentrated first on the area between Norwood Road and Streatham, where the main roads they laid out were Canterbury Grove, Leigham Vale, and Palace Road. But progress in attracting builders was painfully slow. Before 1840 the only solid groups of houses that appeared were in Crown Lane and in Norwood Road south of Leigham Vale. In Crown Lane ten detached and four semi-detached villas of good size and quality were built in the 1820s and ’30s. A dozen detached houses appeared in Norwood Road in the 1830s.

The most ambitious development scheme in West Norwood was Royal Circus, which, with its spokes and outer wheel, was intended to fill the space between Canterbury Grove and Leigham Vale. The projectors, John Wilson and Allen Perring, learnt the same painful lesson as Davidson Smith at Beulah Spa: that the public taste was leaving crescents and circuses behind, and looking only for detached or semi-detached villas. Royal Circus was a complete failure.

In disposing of the Thurlow estate between Norwood Road and Dulwich the trustees had the misfortune to lay out the main roads and sell the land in building lots in 1845-6, less than a decade before the arrival of the Crystal Palace multiplied the value of these sites. The purchasers of 1845-6 made little progress until the great news of 1852 began a scramble to satisfy the huge new demand for houses.

Among the many other competitors in that race were the owners of the Norwood part of Penge Common, where hardly any development had taken place since the enclosure in 1827. More than fifty middle class houses were built in Anerley Hill, Belvedere Road, Fox Hill, Tudor Road, and Hamlet Road between 1852 and 1854. Many are still standing. Another estate adjacent to the Crystal Palace was Dulwich Wood. The Dulwich College Surveyors, Sir Charles Barry and his son, developed this from the late 1850s, mostly in the form of large detached houses. The best of the few surviving examples are in Dulwich Wood Avenue.

The Crystal Palace also raised the ambitions of the landowners and builders of South Norwood, but there the three main developments ended in bankruptcy. They were at South Norwood Park (Warminster Road, Lancaster Road, etc.), Selhurst Park (Oliver Grove, Whitworth Road, etc.), and Eldon Park. The projectors wanted to build large villas, but the distance from the Crystal Palace and the fierceness of the competition for middle class clients meant that the uptake was fatally slow. After the failure of the original builders these estates were eventually filled up with late Victorian and Edwardian terraces. The most spectacular disaster was Eldon Park, where the partially completed houses, or carcasses, stood forlornly in a field for forty years.

Such basic amenities as water and gas had to wait until the stimulus of the Crystal Palace encouraged the suppliers to invest in Norwood. Until the 1850s well diggers were important members of the local community, and their essential services added to the cost of each new villa. To judge from the sixty churches and dozens of schools founded by and for them in the nineteenth century the early residents were more concerned for their souls and minds than for their bodies. Entertainments were not provided on the same lavish scale. The many public houses were the venues for some, but other enterprises were discouraged by the overwhelming competition of the Crystal Palace. With some help from buses, trains continued to be the main form of commuter transport, as trams could not penetrate far into this range of hills.

In a middle class suburb like nineteenth century Norwood the working classes can best be considered among the amenities. The districts set apart for them were largely occupied by gardeners, laundresses, policemen, and other direct or indirect servants of the wealthy residents. The main working class areas were the High Street and Portland Road in South Norwood, the Triangle, Norwood New Town (built from the late 1840s), and the Woodland Road area in Upper Norwood, and Chapel Road, Norwood High Street, Gipsy Road, and environs in West Norwood. What little industry the area possessed was concentrated here, especially in South Norwood.

The fashion for Norwood was declining by 1890, as the demand for the huge houses that were its speciality fell away. From that date more and more of them were turned to institutional uses or converted into flats. What building land remained, or could be released by the demolition of the largest mansions, was filled by small roads of terraced houses. The local authorities began to take a hand after the First World War, Lambeth in Central Hill and Knights Hill in the early 1920s, Croydon south of Central Hill and Crown Dale in the late 1920s and 1930s. Council housing increased enormously after the Second World War.

Norwood is still essentially a nineteenth century suburb in layout and atmosphere. But because many of its original buildings were destroyed in the second half of the twentieth century the Victorian flamboyance of its larger houses is now confronted on every corner by the most discordant of all possible styles, that of the brutal 1960s and ’70s.

John Coulter, August 2002