10 Things You Didn't Know You Needed To Know About Croydon

10 Things You Didn't Know You Needed To Know About Croydon

Croydon is London Borough of Culture in 2023 — and there's more to it than just multi storey car parks and Peep Show. Here are 10 things you didn't know you needed to know about the south London borough.

1. The Victoria line was supposed to run to Croydon

A retro cartoon of a Victoria line train pelting through a station
"The next station is Croydon Central". We can but dream. Image: TfL

This will still be difficult for Croydonites to stomach well over 50 years on, but original plans for the Victoria line, which opened in 1968, would've seen the Underground line stretch down to Croydon. As Jago Hazzard explains in this video, during the 1940s and 50s, there were serious plans for the tube line to run a station named either Croydon Central or Town Hall — alas, all-too-familiar budgetary issues put the kibosh on this.

2. But Croydon did have a station called "Jolly-sailor"

Jolly-sailor station in 1845, the atmospheric pumping station, with its gothic chimney/exhaust vent, in the foreground. Image: public domain

That's right, before Norwood Junction was Norwood Junction, it was named Jolly-sailor — after the local boozer. And the Jolly-sailor played a particularly interesting role in rail history; it was part of Croydon's atmospheric railway — a pioneering, if ultimately flawed, piece of kit that propelled trains from one pumping station to the next, via a vacuum in a pipe laid in between the rails, attached to a piston on the bottom of the train. (Jolly-sailor was home to one such pumping station). The railway was opened in 1845, but shut down by 1847 — in part due to the fact rats kept gnawing through the equipment.

3. Lots of mediocre things were invented by Croydonites

If you think the pneumatic railway sounds like a damp squib, wait until you hear about some of Croydon's other great inventions. Among the gizmos coined by Croydonites are: the 'baby billiard table'; the' water bike'; a basket for milk bottles that can be attached to your letterbox; and the 'man-lifting kite'. Now we can hardly imagine life without them...

4. Charlie Chaplin was once kidnapped at Croydon Airport

chaplin arrives at croydon airport while his abductor lurks in the crowd
Kinematograph Weekly, 13 October 1921. From British Newspaper Archive

The former Croydon Airport/Aerodrome is a cornucopia of did-you-knows. For instance, did you know that the "mayday" distress call was created here? One of the most perplexing stories from the golden age of air travel is when a desperate Clapham cinema owner moonlighted as the film star Charlie Chaplin's chauffeur, picking him up from his inbound flight from Paris, and whisking him straight off to his cinema, for an impromptu performance. More on that strange tale here.

5. There are White Cliffs of Croydon

The White Cliffs of London in Riddlesdown. Image: M@

Perhaps Vera Lynn never sang about Croydon's White Cliffs because they weren't famous enough — or maybe it's because it's hard to find a rhyme for Riddlesdown. Whatever the case, this surprisingly verdant swath of the borough does indeed feature a disused chalk quarry, which sparkles quite magnificently in the sun.

6. Croydon had the first self-service Sainsbury's

The West Croydon Sainsbury's that became the first self-service shop for the chain, back in 1950. Image: Londonist

When it first arrived on the scene, self service at Sainsbury's had nothing to do with unexpected items in the bagging area. Back then, it meant you no longer went to the counter to ask a chap in an apron for individual items — instead you were given a basket and *gasp* filled it yourself. The Sainsbury's on London Road, West Croydon was the first to pioneer this newfangled American style of grocery shopping, and although the building went on to become other things, today it's once again a Sainsbury's. Bonus fact: The Store in South Croydon — a very good restaurant/cocktail bar — also used to be a Sainsbury's, and has many of the decorative tiles still in situ.

7. Croydon also had some of the world's most decadent department stores

A palatial redbrick department store
The former Grants department store. Image: Safe Haven Books

Before the days of the tenaciously moribund Whitgift Centre, shoppers had the choice of not one but three great department stores in the heart of Croydon. Grants was so posh, the Queen and her husband once popped in for tea here in 1960. By the mid 1970s, Alders had become the the third-largest department store in the UK, only behind Selfridges and Harrods. As for Kennards, this retail mecca boasted its own miniature railway, golf course, a restaurant fitted out with a huge pipe organ... and at one time even its own zoo. Today, all three stores have bitten the dust.

8. The Crystal Palace mascot is nicked from Portugal

The club logo with an eagle on a ball and the Crystal Palace in the background
Crystal Palace FC may date back to 1905, but that eagle certainly doesn't. Image: public domain

There is one football shirt you'll see worn in Croydon more than any other — and that's the one belonging to Croydon FC Crystal Palace FC. Take a closer look at the club crest, and you'll spot an illustration of the long-burned-down Crystal Palace (makes sense, because the club originally played here before moving to Selhurst Park). But the most blatant thing on the badge is a bald eagle. So what piece of local folklore does this winged beast derive from? Er, from 1973, when then-manager Malcolm Allison decided to nick Benfica's avian mascot, in a bid to make his club look cooler.

9. Sherlock Holmes did a lot of sleuthing in Croydon

Black and white headshot of Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote (and set) many Sherlock Holmes stories in Croydon. Image: public domain

At least 20 Sherlock Holmes stories were penned in Croydon — at 12 Tennison Road in South Norwood to be precise — where Arthur Conan Doyle upped sticks to after deciding there might be a living to be made in this mystery writing lark. The area clearly rubbed off on him, because Croydon features quite a bit in the Victorian mysteries, including The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, and The Cardboard Box which begins with the delivery of an innocent-enough-looking package to a respectable Croydon lady.

Agatha Christie featured Croydon in her novel Death in the Clouds, which involves the mysterious death of a French moneylender, as her plane comes in to land at Croydon Airport. There's also a book by Freeman Wills Crofts called The 12.30 from Croydon, in which there's another peculiar fatality on a flight — this one setting off from Croydon Airport. Just as well they shut the place down, what with all those sky-high murders...

Speaking of detective writers, while the name Raymond Chandler conjures up images of bourbon-swilling private dicks traipsing around Los Angeles, the noir writer lived as a youngster on Auckland Road in Upper Norwood, where you'll now find a blue plaque commemorating this fact.

10. You can walk from Croydon to Lambeth to Southwark to Bromley back to Croydon in about two minutes

We indulged in a little borough-hopping a few years back (see video below) at London's own version of the Four Corners in the US. Look out too for the site of the old Vicar's Oak, which historically marked the meeting point of the parishes of Lambeth, Croydon, Camberwell and a detached part of Battersea.

Last Updated 09 January 2023

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