The Whitgift Arms, Croydon

I couldn't find any reference to The Whitgift Arms on the web, other than bleak referrals to its sad demise, so this blog hopefully breathes new life into it and puts it squarely on the map of 1960's youth counter-culture.

Some of my fondest memories are of my part-time Beatnik youth.  In 1964 I lived on the outskirts of Croydon and my convent grammar school background prepared me perfectly, at the age of 16, for the joys of the Beat scene, its pubs and clubs and a weekend lifestyle lived in magnificent contrast to the weekday experience of school and home.  I slammed into it all with gusto and I'd do it all again, but more so, given half the chance.

Having first gone to Youth Clubs, then on to experience the pleasures of pubs and alcohol, I was ready to move on to bigger and better things.  Somehow or other I was introduced to the Beat scene and that led me to 'The Whitgift Arms'.

The Whitgift was a small local pub, a free house, on the corner of Church Rd and Scarbrook Road, not far from Surrey Street Market and the old Swimming 'Baths' in Croydon.  It was built at the end of a terrace of Victorian brick cottages and had a very small area to the side with a tree where we gathered and sat about in Summer.

We never used the saloon bar, only 'the public', with its bare floorboards, dart board, and piano in the far corner.  The ladies toilet was in the saloon.  I remember this because of course I usually drank way too much and had to run outside then back in through the saloon door and past the locals to get to the loo at the back.

The landlord sold two ciders, Gaymers and Coates, 'real' ciders from old wooden barrels which stood on the counter behind him, lovely stuff, nothing related to the awful pop ciders those companies later produced.  I've always retained an affection for ‘proper’ cider, the smell and the taste of it takes me back to those days at The Whitgift.

I was introduced to cannabis here, sitting outside in Keith's car in my jeans, sloppy jumper, sneakers and duffle coat, hair long and straight, being shown how to roll a joint...

Ralph McTell was brought up in Croydon and he and his backing band used The Whitgift Arms.

He featured the pub on the cover of his album 'My Side of Your Window' which was eventually released in 1969 and became Melody Maker magazine's Folk Album of the Month.  He even put in the pub sign and the door in the picture is the door to the public bar, the door to the saloon just visible to the right.  Peter Thaine, Ralph's friend from Art College days, designed the album sleeve as a 3-D cut-out theatre featuring the pub with musicians and characters from the album songs.

'Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes' by Michael Gray is a book about blues musician and songwriter Blind Willie McTell after whom Ralph McTell named himself.  On page 13 Ralph is quoted as saying:

"It was all intoxicating for me; a music that made sense when I was living through the confusion of being a teenager. And then there's that mysterious process where like-minded people find each other. People came from all over to the Whitgift Arms in Croydon, to drink cheap cider and discover this music. And in London, too, I knew people who were into Blues and Beat poetry. A time of finding that sense of freedom through art and travel and music that I'm still very sentimental about".

Folk music became big in my life and Steve Benbow was the person to hear locally.  He ran the Folk Club at The Swan & Sugarloaf in South Croydon in a room upstairs where we crammed in and sat on the floor drinking and smoking. But there were loads of others, it’s just that his name has stuck, probably because his posters were everywhere.

It was through the people I knew at The Whitgift that I was introduced to the Blues and the music of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon etc.  I'm still a fan, shivers down the spine whenever Smokestack Lightnin' starts up or I catch the sound of acoustic guitar and harmonica ...

The music of Charlie Parker and Ahmed Jamal ... they also excited me at this time.  I was ready for all these new sounds.

I was also passionate about art and poetry and even wrote some (in retrospect, awful) poetry myself -I cringe now because I let my friends read them, but it was the thing to do then.  I don't have them now, never kept them, but would love to read them again if only to get back into the head of me in those days.  Of course I read J D Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' and, a bit later, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn,  'One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich' ...  Oh My!

The pub closed in about early 1966 to make way for a car park and the Croydon Flyover. A sad day, the end of an era.

Some people from those 1964/65 Whitgift days are-

Jacky Nicholas, my best friend (where are you now? Please get in touch)
Anthea Hamilton
Dave Pollard
Bob Pollard
Malcolm Shakespeare
Nick (Malcolm Nixon), big guy, long hair and glasses, worked at the PO sorting office, very distinctive
some students from Croydon Art College
and ...
Terry from Glasgow - (we went out together for a while.  Terry, if you should ever happen to read this you may like to read an article I had published in the Guardian - remember the occasion?  Think you’ll understand!) ........
Scroll down to Playlist: The Unsuitable Boyfriend:-

Further up Church Rd from The Whitgift Arms was 'The Gun Tavern' which, most unusually for those days, had a beer garden.  This was used for jazz nights, balmy evenings sitting under the apple trees.  Fab.

'Ye Dog & Bull' in Surrey Street Market was another great pub, downstairs in the basement it was dark and good to be there on a Saturday lunchtime.  I took my 12/13 year old sister there at that time ... showing off, of course ... what was I on?  And no-one took a blind bit of notice .. was it that dark?

'Under the Olive Tree' in South Croydon was another terrific venue. Coffee bar and jukebox on the ground floor and live music club in the basement with Folk and Blues. Heaven.

Not far from Under the Olive Tree and around the corner was 'The Woodman'.  This gave me my first introduction to politics and lots of talk about socialism, exciting!  I'm still a socialist and even got involved with the Trade Union movement as a shop steward in the late 70's, militant action in the Winter of Discontent and all that.  The Woodman's fault.

For the folk scene we also went to the 'The Star' at Broad Green.  Some big names played there, at least they were soon to be big.  Later Jimi Hendrix played there twice, missed that. They also had a cracking Blues Club at the back. Somebody else remembers The Star and writes here -

There were some good gigs at Croydon Art College, I loved the arty atmosphere and being amongst the art students.  I would have loved to have been a student there but that was not to be, but I did take art as my main subject when training to be a teacher.  There were also frequent trips to the London art galleries especially the Tate and the National.

And somewhat further afield but near enough for a night out was 'The Bromel Club' at the Bromley Court Hotel, another venue for excellent music.  I remember seeing Sonny Boy Williamson there in 1965.  It was a small place so you were up close to the stage, it was like having them perform in a large lounge. Pink Floyd played there in '67 and so did Jimi Hendrix, Georgie Fame, The Moody Blues and many more.

Saturday afternoons often saw a group of us upstairs at Lyons CafĂ© near Kennards Arcade for tea from a huge teapot poured into thick cups by a lady in a pinny.  The great thing about this place was that there was plenty of room so a crowd of you could sit together and stay as long as you wanted without having to spend more money.

Then of course there was 'Eel Pie Island' with Long John Baldry ...

and 'Les Cousins' in a basement in Soho's Greek Street, with Zoot Money ...

and hitching to Brighton to sit around on the beach, say no more ..

and then ... Bob Dylan bust onto my scene along with Joan Baez, Julie Felix, Donovan and a heap more. Jackie and I saw Dylan and Baez in early '66 at a rally in Trafalgar Square, perfectly viewed from the steps of the National Gallery.  The protest movement was well underway and I was ready for it ..

I was given a second-hand guitar for my birthday, imagined myself as Joan Baez, never got anywhere with that though, despite a few lessons later on when I was at College in 1966.   My mother has a photo of me at that time, standing in a field somewhere, guitar in hand and long hair 'blowin in the wind', got to laugh now, but I remember how I felt then and thought this was the new me.  Dream on.

I live with my partner now on a traditional family farm in Devon, in a caravan in an old cider orchard.  The apples go to a local farm to be made into real Devon Cider; we've just bought a crate.  The pattern was set all those years ago in The Whitgift Arms. Stonking good days, all too short.

If you have any pictures of these places or from this time I would love to see them and of course I welcome your recollections and comments:

and finally, some more sites to read -

Read this, it's great!  Lots about the music scene in Croydon at this time

Great book, 'Rockin' around Croydon' - the music scene in Croydon 1960 - 1980:

Another excellent site detailing pubs which no longer exist

and another excellent site

and can recommend reading this book: 'Boom Baby' by Brian Neville

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