Saturday, 29 July 2017

Croydon Museum

Croydon Clocktower
Katherine Street
Croydon CR9 1ET
Friday July 21 2017

Having had three public transport malfunctions this week – one so serious we totally missed a booked outing to the Salters Hall – we played close to home today thinking a simple trip down the Overground would be hazard free, but of course there were cancellations by the time we were making our way home.
The museum is housed in what was the former Town Hall: a splendid  Victorian building complete with statue and celebratory friezes – very much the type of building the proud civic elders would have had built to serve and promote their locality.

Croydon Museum, like ancient Gaul (still in Roman mode after last week’s trip) is divided into three parts of which we managed two. We did not have enough time for the second floor gallery devoted to the Museum’s art collection which focuses on works by those artists born or resident in the borough, and competent artworks of places in and around Croydon.  These you can see in greater detail here.

On the lower ground floor there is the Riesco gallery, a collection bequeathed to Croydon by local businessman  Mr Riesco, or, according to this item, what remains of it. I had been here (between changing buses as several numbers congregate outside the Clock Tower, as the Town Hall is now known.) when there were more ceramics on display and certainly no skeleton. Some of the pots have gone and those left, mainly Chinese, are arranged to show the development of different techniques, the introduction of new colours and more sophisticated designs. I personally love a pot but can also see that in these cash strapped days many councils might feel there was a case to trade in a few of them  to release enough money to refurbish the local theatre and concert halls.

The skeleton displayed in the Riesco Gallery as 'Bones of Croydon' is a relatively recent find and is beautifully displayed here – each bone named and a dating puts him as Anglo-Saxon and with probable healing rickets!!

Having established that there were isolated dwellings and inhabitants in the area, the Museum which relates to the history of Croydon is on the first floor and offers you a circular tour through linked galleries covering the years 1800- to the present   with stories told through individual artefacts.
Even in 1800 there was little except fields hereabouts – criss-crossed by four main roads to Brighton, London Mitcham and Wickham which met somewhere later to become Croydon…

For each group of objects which might contain a tool, a book, a letter, a photo or drawing and a memento there would be a corresponding touch screen, where the visitor could select which item they wanted information on and how much of it, thus: the object, to whom it belonged, the context both local and national and an additional explanation if the object is arcane or archaic… This works very well as you can follow, in a very legible (or audible – where possible, the explanation is provided by an extract from an interview with the donor) form, individual paths, stories and histories. The major flaw of course comes when a display screen does not function as then you have no idea at all what the object might be or its significance… Today two of the many screens were out of order, most annoyingly in the World War II section, but there was plenty to detain, inform and entertain  us.

There are some big exhibits – a large clock from the Greyhound Pub, the stained glass window from a local builder, and most intriguingly a section of pipe, which sucked or pushed air fast enough to propel a train along a track – a relic  from a project to connect Croydon to Forest Hill by such a system.  There is a small model where you can demonstrate this but the Atmospheric Railway was ‘an idea ahead of its time’ in terms of the fit between the concept and then-available materials, which is perhaps why Croydon is not remembered as a pioneer of modern transportation.

Smaller random objects include Fitzroy’s iguana – as it happens that intrepid navigator and companion of Darwin  is considered a ‘local’.

For the early period smaller items include a letter sent by a local MP: they had free mail until the Penny Post was established in 1840 when they paid the same as everyone else. There is an 1849 Board of Health seal which must have been an early fore-runner of local authority health and safety inspections. Talking of food outlets Sainsbury’s had an early store here and the display includes some loyalty tokens given out to customers – what benefits they gave is not explained!

Moving onto the 20th century there is testimony form a local M&S employee who said she worked 74 hours a week but loved it (I’m actually not sure how that is possible as there was no Sunday opening at that time) . One of the more poignant exhibits is a black leather shoe with ‘padlock’ fastenings used to ensure the patients at Cane Hill did not remove their footwear... This website  shows the ruins of the once large and imposing mental health facility but you will not be surprised to know that it is now a vast housing development !

Talking of housing much of Croydon is residential and there was a significant expansion in the Twenties and Thirties with developments round Coulsdon in particular.

These were referred to as ‘Dream Houses’ though whether the rail journeys that transported you into town were quite so dreamy is another matter (some bitterness here as a trip to Farthing Down earlier in the week resulted in a near 2 hour journey and we start south of the river…) .

The other major housing developments are also well represented with the homes for 20,000 people built at New Addington ready to move into in 1955. This was primarily necessary as Croydon had suffered so much from German bombing during the Second World War; this was partly strategic as Luftwaffe targets fell short but there was also enough light industry and Croydon airport as targets in their own right. The third major housing expansion came with the Forestdale building  through the Seventies and as this link suggests,  much improved links came with the tram system.

60,000 homes were damaged in the war and in spite of many children evacuated there were still about 5,000 deaths. On a single night 62 people were killed when a bomb hit Croydon airport though the news was suppressed for ‘morale‘  reasons. Croydon’s war is commemorated among other exhibits in a painting ‘Croydon Courageous’ by local artist Norman Partridge and by a very unusual rendition of the Battle of Britain in lace. 

Part of the major post-war rebuild included both the Fairfield Halls and the Whitgift centre so called because Trinity School (linked to the Whitgift bequest)  moved from its central location leaving the local authority free to build what was one of the UK’s earliest shopping malls., and arguably the start of ‘destination’ shopping. There have been many since it opened in 1970 and inevitably it is now showing its age and changing tastes and demographics and shopping destinations have led to the current decline. As for the Fairfield  Halls, their history is well documented with many posters programmes and photos covering the  numerous celebrities who appeared over the years. They are of course currently closed due to a major refurbishment funded in part by the sell-off of some museum items referred to earlier…

The Sixties and Seventies were a vibrant time for Croydon: many of the Art College alumni went on to greater fame, especially Bridget Riley who taught and Malcolm McLaren who studied there.  

Croydon is a very diverse borough and has a long history of welcoming overseas workers and their families and these are well represented amongst the exhibits – we liked Sisi’s photo as she proved to be the first black woman who worked for the police.  Some samples from the huge Wing Yip outlet reminded us that Purley Way is not just for IKEA..  The articles ‘from home’ are very poignant  as was a rumpled sports bag and blanket belonging to a formerly homeless young man and the history of George, born of indeterminate gender (but clearly his parents opted for him to be a boy) until years of feeling  different allowed him to become Georgina…

As noted earlier, Croydon also has a large art collection which is featured in a specific gallery on the second floor which we did not have time to visit today; however, several of the star works, including the Riley and a Tagore, are integrated amongst the exhibits in the main display.

There are some drawbacks to the Museum’s system of ‘choosing’ what to follow up as it can leave large gaps: if you don’t guess which object is the gateway to a major theme you may miss that strand altogether. But equally it means you can visit and revisit and gain different impressions and experiences each time, so perhaps a good idea after all?

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