Charles G. (Charles George) Harper.

The Brighton road : the classic highway to the south online

. (page 8 of 18)
Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Brighton road : the classic highway to the south → online text (page 8 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

hill-top, and London seemed far away.

And so to Streatham, once rightly "Streatham, Surrey," in the postal
address, but now merely "Streatham, S.W." A world of significance lies in
that apparently simple change, which means that it is now in the London
Postal District. Even so early as 1850 we read in Brayley's "History of
Surrey" that "the village of Streatham is formed by an almost continuous
range of villas and other respectable dwellings." Respectable! I should
think so, indeed! Conceive the almost impious inadequacy of calling the
Streatham Hill mansions of City magnates "respectable." As well might one
style the Alps "pretty"!

But this spot was not always of such respectability, for about 1730 there
stood a gibbet on Streatham Hill, by the fifth milestone, and from it hung
in chains the body of one "Jack Gutteridge," a highwayman duly executed
for robbing and murdering a gentleman's servant here. The place was long
afterwards known as "Jack Gutteridge's Gate."

[Illustration: Streatham Common]

Streatham - the Ham (that is to say the home, or the hamlet) on the
Street - emphatically in those Saxon times when it first obtained its name,
_the_ Street - was probably so named to distinguish it from some other
settlement situated in the mud. In that era, when hard roads were few, a
paved way could be, and very often was, made to stand godfather to a
place, and thus we find so many Streatleys, Stratfords, Strattons,
Streets, and Stroods on the map. Those "streets" were Roman roads. The
particular "street" on which Streatham stood seems to have been a Roman
road which came up from the coast by Clayton, St. John's Common, Godstone,
and Caterham, a branch of the road to _Portus Adurni_, the Old Shoreham of
to-day. Portions of it were discovered in 1780, on St. John's Common, when
the Brighton turnpike road through that place was under construction. It
was from 18 to 20 feet wide, and composed of a bed of flints, grouted
together, 8 inches thick. Narrowly avoiding Croydon, it reached Streatham
by way of Waddon (where there is one of the many "Cold Harbours"
associated so intimately with Roman roads) and joined the present Brighton
Road midway between Croydon and Thornton Heath Pond, at what used to be
Broad Green.


There are no Roman remains at twentieth-century Streatham, and there are
very few even of the eighteenth century. The suburbs have absorbed the
village, and Dr. Johnson himself and Thrale Place are only memories. "All
flesh is grass," said the Preacher, and therefore Dr. Johnson, whose bulky
figure we may put at the equivalent of a truss of hay, is of course but an
historic name; but bricks and mortar last immeasurably longer than those
who rear them, and his haunts might have been still extant but for the
tragical nearness of Streatham to London and that "ripeness" of land for
building which has abolished many a pleasant and an historic spot.

But while the broad Common of Streatham remains unfenced, the place will
keep a vestige of its old-time character of roadside village. A good deal
earlier than Dr. Samuel Johnson's visits to Streatham and Thrale Place,
the village had quite a rosy chance of becoming another Tunbridge Wells or
Cheltenham, for in the early years of the eighteenth century it became
known as a Spa, and real and imaginary invalids flocked to drink the
disagreeable waters issuing from what quaint old Aubrey calls the "sower
and weeping ground" by the Common. Whether the waters were too nasty, or
not nasty enough, does not appear, but it is certain that the rivalry of
Streatham to those other Spas was neither long-continued nor serious.

Streatham is content to forget its waters, but the memory of Dr. Johnson
will not be dropped, for if it were, no one knows to what quarter
Streatham could turn for any history or traditions at all. As it is, the
mind's-eye picture is cherished of that grumbling, unwieldy figure coming
down from London to Thrale's house, to be lionised and indulged, and in
return to give Mrs. Thrale a reflected glory. The lion had the manners of
a bear, and, like a dancing bear, performed clumsy evolutions for buns and
cakes; but he had a heart as tender as a child's, and a simple vanity as
engaging, beneath that unpromising exterior and those pompous ways. Wig
awry and singed in front from his short-sighted porings over the midnight
oil, clothes shabby, and linen that journeyed only at long intervals to
the wash-tub, his was not the aspect of a carpet-knight, and those he met
at the literary-artistic tea-table of Thrale Place murmured that he was an

He met a brilliant company over those teacups: Reynolds and Garrick, and
Fanny Burney - the readiest hand at the "management" of one so difficult
and intractable - and many lesser lights, and partook there of innumerable
cups of tea, dispensed at that hospitable board by Mrs. Thrale. That
historic teapot is still extant, and has a capacity of three quarts;
specially chosen, doubtless, in view of the Doctor's visits. Ye gods! what
floods of Bohea were consumed within that house in Thrale Park!

They even seated the studious Johnson on horseback and took him hunting;
and, strange to say, he does not merely seem to have only just saved
himself from falling off, but is said to have acquitted himself as well as
any country squire on that notable occasion.

But all things have an end, and the day was to come when Johnson should
bid a last farewell to Streatham. He had broken with the widowed Mrs.
Thrale on the subject of her marriage with Piozzi, and he could no longer
bear to see the place. So, in one endearing touch of sentiment, he gave it
good-bye, as his diary records:

"Sunday, went to church at Streatham. _Templo valedixi cum osculo._" Thus,
kissing the old porch of St. Leonard's, the lexicographer departed with
heavy heart. Two years later he died.

This Church of St. Leonard still contains the Latin epitaph he wrote to
commemorate the easy virtues of his friend Henry Thrale, who died in 1781,
but alterations and restorations have changed almost all else. It is, in
truth, a dreadful example, externally, of the Early Compo Period, and
internally of the Late Churchwarden, or Galleried, Style.

It is curious to note the learned Doctor's indignation when asked to write
an English epitaph for setting up in Westminster Abbey. The great
authority on the English language, the compiler of that monumental
dictionary, exclaimed that he would not desecrate its walls with an
inscription in his own tongue. Thus the pedant!

There is one Latin epitaph at Streatham that reads curiously. It is on a
tablet by Richard Westmacott to Frederick Howard, who _in pugna
Waterlooensi occiso_. The battle of Waterloo looks strange in that garb.

But Latin is frequent here, and free. The tablets that jostle one another
down the aisles are abounding in that tongue, and the little brass to an
ecclesiastic, nailed upon the woodwork toward the west end of the north
aisle, is not free from it. So the shade of the Doctor, if ever it
revisits these scenes, might well be satisfied with the quantity, although
it is not inconceivable he would cavil at the quality.


Thrale Park has gone the way of all suburban estates in these days of the
speculative builder. The house was pulled down so long ago as 1863, and
its lands laid out in building plots. Lysons, writing of its demesne in
1792, says that "Adjoining the house is an enclosure of about 100 acres,
surrounded with a shrubbery and gravel-walk of nearly two miles in
circumference." Trim villas and a suburban church now occupy the spot, and
the memory of the house itself has faded away. Save for its size, the
house made no brave show, being merely one of many hundreds of mansions
built in the seventeenth century, of a debased classic type.


Streatham Common and Thornton Heath were still, in Johnston's time, and
indeed for long after, good places for the highwaymen and for the Dark
Lurk of the less picturesque, but infinitely more dangerous, foot-pad.
Law-abiding people did not care to travel them after nightfall, and when
compelled to do so went escorted and armed. Ogilby, in his "Britannia" of
1675, showed the pictures of a gallows on the summit of Brixton Hill and
another (a very large one) at Thornton Heath; and according to a later
editor, who issued an "Ogilby Improv'd" in 1731, they still decorated the
wayside. They were no doubt retained for some time longer, in the hope of
affording a warning to those who robbed upon the highway.

At Norbury railway station the railway crosses over the road, and
eminently respectable suburbs occupy that wayside where the foot-pads used
to await the timorous traveller. Trim villas rise in hundreds, and where
the extra large and permanent gallows stood, like a football goal, at
what used to be a horse-pond, there is to-day the prettily-planted garden
and pond of Thornton Heath, with a Jubilee fountain which has in later
years been persuaded to play.

Midway between Norbury and Thornton Heath stands, or stood, Norbury Hall,
the delightful park and mansion where J. W. Hobbs, ex-Mayor of Croydon,
resided until he was convicted of forgery at the Central Criminal Court in
March, 1893, and sentenced to twelve years penal servitude. "T 180," as he
was known when a convict, was released on licence on January 18th, 1898,
and returned to his country-seat. Meanwhile, the Congregational Chapel he
had presented to that sect was paid for, to remove the stigma of being his
gift; just as the Communion-service presented to St. Paul's Cathedral by
the company-promoting Hooley was returned when his bankruptcy scandalised
commercial circles.

The estate of Norbury Hall has since T 180's release become "ripe for
building," and the mansion, the lake, and the beautiful grounds have been
"developed" away. Soon all memory of the romantic spot will have faded.

Prominently over the sea of roofs in the valley, and above the white
hillside villas of Sydenham and Gipsy Hill, rise the towers and the long
body of the Crystal Palace; that bane and obsession of most view-points in
South London, "for ever spoiling the view in all its compass," as Ruskin
truly says in "Præterita."

I do not like the Crystal Palace. The atmosphere of the building is
stuffily reminiscent of half a century's stale teas and buttered toast,
and the views of it, near or distant, are very creepily and awfully like
the dreadful engravings after Martin, the painter of such scriptural
scenes as "Belshazzar's Feast" and horribly-conceived apocalyptic subjects
from Revelation.

[Illustration: STREATHAM.]

At Thornton Heath - where there has been nothing in the nature of a heath
for at least eighty years past - the electric trams of Croydon begin, and
take you through North End into and through Croydon town, along a
continuous line of houses. "Broad Green" once stood by the wayside, but
nowadays the sole trace of it is the street called Broad Green Avenue. At
Thornton Heath, however, there is just one little vestige of the past
left, in "Colliers' Water Lane." The old farmhouse of Colliers' Water,
reputed haunt of the phenomenally ubiquitous Dick Turpin, was demolished
in 1897. Turpin probably never knew it, and the secret staircase it
possessed was no doubt intended to hide fugitives much more respectable
than highwaymen.

The name of that lane is now the only reminder of the time when Croydon
was a veritable Black Country.

The "colliers of Croydon," whose black trade gave such employment to
seventeenth-century wits, had no connection with what our ancestors of
very recent times still called "sea-coal" - that is to say, coal shipped
from Newcastle and brought round by water, in days before railways. The
Croydon coal was charcoal, made from the wood of the dense forests that
once overspread the counties of Surrey and Sussex, and was supplied very
largely to London from the fifteenth century down to the beginning of the

Grimes, the collier of Croydon, first made the Croydon colliers famous. We
are not to suppose that his name was really Grimes: that was probably a
part of the wit already hinted at. He was a master collier, who in the
time of Edward the Sixth made charcoal on so large a scale that the smoke
and the grime of it became offensive to his Grace the Archbishop of
Canterbury in his palace of Croydon, who made an unsuccessful attempt to
abolish the kilns. I think we may sympathise with his Grace and his soiled

We first find Croydon mentioned in A.D. 962, when it was "Crogdoene." In
Domesday Book it is "Croindene." Whether the name means "crooked vale,"
"chalk vale," or "town of the cross," I will not pretend to say, and he
would be rash who did. The ancient history of the place is bound up with
the archbishopric of Canterbury, for the manor was given by the Conqueror
to Lanfranc, who is supposed to have been the founder of the palace, which
still stands next the parish church, and was a residence of the Primate
until 1750.


By that time Croydon had begun to grow, and not only had the old buildings
become inconvenient, but a population surrounded those dignified
churchmen, who, after the manner of archbishops, retired to a more
secluded home. They not only flew from contact with the people, whose
spiritual needs might surely have anchored them to the spot, but by the
promotion of the Enclosure Act of 1797 they robbed the people of the
far-spreading common lands in the parish. Croydon by that time numbered
between five and six thousand inhabitants, and was thought quite a
considerable place. A hundred and ten years have added a hundred and
twenty-five thousand more to that considerable population, and still
Croydon grows.

In those times the woodlands closely encircled the little town. In 1620
they came up to the parish church and the palace, which was then said to
be a "very obscure and darke place." Archbishop Abbot "expounded" it by
felling the timber. It was in those times surrounded by a moat, fed by the
headspring of the Wandle; but the moat is gone, and the first few yards of
the Wandle are nowadays made to flow underground.

The explorer of the Brighton Road who comes, by whatever method of
progression he pleases, into Croydon, finds its busy centre at what is
still called North End. The name survives long after the circumstances
that conferred it have vanished into the limbo of forgotten things. It
_was_ the North end of the town, and here, on what was then a country
site, the good Archbishop Whitgift founded his Hospital of the Holy
Trinity in 1593. It still stands, although sorely threatened in these last
few years; but it is now the one quiet and unassuming spot in a narrow, a
busy, and a noisy street. Fronting the main thoroughfare, it blocks
"improvement"; occupying a site grown so valuable, its destruction, and
the sale of the ground for building upon, would immensely profit the good
Whitgift's noble charity. What would Whitgift himself do? When we have
advanced still farther into the Unknown and can communicate with the sane
among the departed, instead of the idiot spirits who can do nothing better
than levitate chairs and tables, rap silly messages, and play
monkey-tricks - when we can ring up whom we please at the Paradise or the
Inferno Exchange, as the case may be, we shall be able to ascertain the
will of Pious Benefactors, and much bitterness will cease out of the land.

Meanwhile the old building for the time survives, and its name, "The
Hospital of the Holy Trinity," inscribed high up on the wall, seems
strange and reverend amid the showy shop-signs of a latter-day commerce.

There is, of course, no reason why, if widening is to take place, the
_opposite_ side of the street should not be set back, and, indeed, any one
standing in that street will readily perceive it to be that side which
should be demolished, to make a straighter and a broader thoroughfare. It
is therefore quite evident that the agitation for demolishing the Hospital
is unreal and artificial, and only prompted by greed for the site.

It is a solitude amid the throng, remarkable in the collegiate character
of its walls of dark and aged red brick, pierced only by the doorway and
as jealously as possible by the few mullioned windows. Once within the
outer portal, ornamented overhead with the arms of the See of Canterbury
and eloquent with the motto _Qui dat pauperi non indigebit_, the stranger
has entered from a striving into a calm and equable world. It is, as old
Aubrey quaintly puts it, "a handsome edifice, erected in the manner of a
college, by the Right Reverend Father in God, John Whitgift, late
Archbishop of Canterbury." The dainty quadrangle, set about with grass
lawns and bright flowers, is formed on three sides by tiny houses of two
floors, where dwell the poor brothers and sisters of this old foundation:
twenty brothers and sixteen sisters, who, beside lodging, receive each £40
and £30 a year respectively. They enjoy all the advantages of the Hospital
so long as of good behaviour, but "obstinate heresye, sorcerye, any kinde
of charmmynge, or witchcrafte" are punished by the statutes with


The fourth side of the quadrangle is occupied by the Hall, the Warden's
rooms, and the Chapel, all in very much the same condition as at their
building. The old oak table in the Hall is dated 1614, and much of the
stained glass is of sixteenth century date.

But it is in the Warden's rooms, above, that the eye is feasted with old
woodwork, ancient panelling, black with lapse of time, quaint muniment
chests, curious records, and the like. These were the rooms specially
reserved for his personal use during his lifetime by the pious Archbishop

Here is a case exhibiting the original titles to the lands on which the
Hospital is built, and with which it is endowed; formidable sheets of
parchment, bearing many seals, and, what does duty for one, a gold angel
of Edward VI.

These are ideal rooms; rooms which delight with their unspoiled
sixteenth-century air. The sun streams through the western windows over
their deep embrasures, lighting up so finely the darksome woodwork into
patches of brilliance that there must be those who envy the Warden his
lodging, so perfect a survival of more spacious days.

[Illustration: The CHAPEL, Hospital of the Holy Trinity.]

A little chapel duly completes the Hospital, and here is not pomp of
carving nor vanity of blazoning, for the good Archbishop, mindful of
economy, would none of these. The seats and benches are contemporary with
the building, and are rough-hewn. On the western wall hangs the founder's
portrait, black-framed and mellow, rescued from the boys of the Whitgift
schools ere quite destroyed, and on the other walls are the portrait of a
lady, supposed to be the Archbishop's niece, and a ghastly representation
of Death as a skeleton digging a grave. But all these things are seen but
dimly, for the light is very feeble.


The High Street of Croydon really _is_ high, for it occupies a ridge and
looks down on the right hand on the Old Town and the valley of the Wandle,
or "Wandel." The centre of Croydon has, in fact, been removed from down
below, where the church and palace first arose, on the line of the old
Roman road, to this ridge, where within the historic period the High
Street was only a bridle-path avoiding the little town in the valley.

The High Street, incidentally the Brighton Road as well, is nowadays a
very modern and commercial-looking thoroughfare, and owes that appearance,
and its comparative width, to the works effected under the Croydon
Improvement Act of 1890. Already Croydon, given a Mayor and Town Council
in 1883, had grown so greatly that the narrow street was incapable of
accommodating the traffic; while the low-lying, and in other senses low,
quarter of Market Street and Middle Row offended the dignity and
self-respect of the new-born Corporation. The Town Hall stood at that time
in the High Street: a curious example of bastard classic architecture,
built in 1808. Near by was the "Greyhound," an old coaching and posting
inn, with one of those picturesque gallows signs straddling across the
street, of which those of the "George" at Crawley and the "Greyhound" at
Sutton are surviving examples. That of the "Cock" at Sutton disappeared in
1898, and the similar signs of the "Crown," opposite the Whitgift
Hospital, and of the "King's Arms" vanished many years ago.

The "Greyhound" was the principal inn of Croydon in the old times. The
first mention of it is found in 1563, the parish register of that year
containing the entry, "Nicholas Vode (Wood) the son of the good wyfe of
the grewond was buryed the xxix day of January." The voluminous John
Taylor mentions it in 1624 as one of the two Croydon inns, and it was the
headquarters of General Fairfax in 1645, when Cromwell vehemently disputed
with him under its roof on the conduct of the campaign, urging more severe

Following upon the alteration, the "Greyhound" was rebuilt. Its gallows
sign disappeared at the same time, when a curious point arose respecting
the post supporting it on the opposite pavement. Erected in the easy-going
times when such a matter was nothing more than a little friendly and
neighbourly concession, the square foot of ground it occupied had by lapse
of time become freehold property, and as such it was duly scheduled and
purchased by the Improvements Committee. A sum of £400 was claimed for
freehold and loss of advertisement, and eventually £350 was paid.

[Sidenote: RUSKIN]

I suppose there can be no two opinions about the slums cleared away under
that Improvement Act; but they were very picturesque, if also very dirty
and tumble-down: all nodding gables, cobblestoned roads, and winding ways.
I sorrow, in the artistic way, for those slums, and in the literary way
for a house swept away at the same time, sentimentally associated with
John Ruskin. It was the inn kept by his maternal grandmother, and is
referred to in "Præterita":

"... Of my father's ancestors I know nothing, nor of my mother's more than
that my maternal grandmother was the landlady of the 'Old King's Head' in
Market Street, Croydon; and I wish she were alive again, and I could paint
her Simone Memmi's 'King's Head' for a sign." And he adds: "Meantime my
aunt had remained in Croydon and married a baker.... My aunt lived in the
little house still standing - or which was so four months ago[7] - the
fashionablest in Market Street, having actually two windows over the shop,
in the second story" (_sic_).

There are slums at Croydon even now, for Croydon is a highly civilised
progressive place, and slums and slum populations are the exclusive
products of civilisation and progress, and a very severe indictment of
them. But they are new slums; those poverty-stricken districts created _ad
hoc_, which seem more hopeless than the ancient purlieus, and appear to be
as inevitable to and as inseparable from modern great towns as a hem to a

The old quarter of Croydon began to fall into the slum condition at about
the period of Croydon's first expansion, when the [Greek: ohi polloi]
impinged too closely upon the archiepiscopal precincts, and their Graces,
neglecting their obvious duty in the manner customary to Graces spiritual
and temporal, retired to the congenial privacy of Addington.

Here stands the magnificent parish church of Croydon; its noble tower of
the Perpendicular period, its body of the same style, but a restoration,
after the melancholy havoc caused by the great fire of 1867. It is one of
the few really satisfactory works of Sir Gilbert Scott; successful because
he was obliged to forget his own particular fads and to reproduce exactly
what had been destroyed. Another marvellous replica is the elaborate
monument of Archbishop Whitgift, copied exactly from pictures of that
utterly destroyed in the fire. Archbishop Sheldon's monument, however,
still remains in its mutilated condition, with a scarred and horrible face
calculated to afflict the nervous and to be remembered in their dreams.

The vicars of Croydon have in the long past been a varied kind. The
Reverend William Clewer, who held the living from 1660 until 1684, when he
was ejected, was a "smiter," an extortioner, and a criminal; but Roland
Phillips, a predecessor by some two hundred years, was something of a
seer. Preaching in 1497, he declared that "we" (the Roman Catholics) "must

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryCharles G. (Charles George) HarperThe Brighton road : the classic highway to the south → online text (page 8 of 18)