Train spotting in Crawley 1960-1964

By David Stoker

At first sight, Crawley was not a particularly good place to be a train spotter in 1960. The nationalised British Railways (BR) had been in existence since 1948 and five years previously they had published a modernisation plan phasing out steam power in favour of diesel and electric traction. However, the Southern Railway (SR) the predecessor of BR in the area, had rather jumped the gun and electrified the Brighton main line through Three Bridges in 1932 and the Arun Valley Line through Crawley in 1938. Thus, most of the passenger trains in the area were rather boring green electric multiple units, which by 1960 were beginning to show their age.

green and yellow electric train in a station.

SR 2-BIL Electric multiple unit,  Photo © Oxyman (cc-by-3.0).

The stopping trains on these lines consisted of 2-car BIL or HAL units or else 4-car LAV units. The latter were so designated because one of the coaches contained a lavatory which deposited its contents directly on to the track. As naughty boys in the 1950s, when returning from a trip to Horsham swimming baths, my friends and I would attempt to score a direct hit on the High Street level crossing as the train slowed to enter the old Crawley station. However, by 1960 we’d grown out of such childish games.
Even the express trains, passing through Three Bridges station at 60 mph were boring green multiple units, except for the twice daily ‘Brighton Belle’ which did at least have a brown and cream ‘Pullman’ livery.

Brown and cream pullman carriages on track with countryside behind.

The ‘Brighton Belle’ 5-car unit 1964
Photo © Tony Hagon (cc-by-3.0).

The only locomotive hauled express train was the daily Newhaven-Dieppe Boat Train (whose timings varied according to the tides) which was then hauled by one of three Southern Railway electric locomotives of 1940s vintage.

There was, however, one line in the area that had not been electrified and was still operated by steam locomotives. This was the hourly shuttle service from Three Bridges to East Grinstead operated by small tank engines converted to push-pull working, so that the locomotive did not need to run around its train at each end of the journey. Thus, for return journeys the locomotive and fireman would be at the rear of the train with the driver sitting in a compartment in the front coach. As boys we often used this service to go swimming at East Grinstead during the summer holidays since Crawley had no swimming baths until 1964.

Locomotive at railway station. two people are on the platform.

Class ‘H’ tank engine at Three Bridges station in Jan. 1962.
Photo John M. Cramp
http://disused-stations.org.uk/t/three_bridges/index.shtml

The service was hauled by steam locomotives until January 1964 when diesel-electric multiple units, nicknamed ‘Thumpers’ for reasons obvious to their passengers, took over. The service struggled on for three more year but in January 1967 the line through to Tunbridge Wells was closed as part of the cuts to the rail network recommended by Dr. Beeching. He happened to live in East Grinstead and when part of the track bed was later used for the A22 relief road in the town, a local wag suggested they named it ‘Beeching Cut.’

There were a lot more goods and freight services than there are today, which were still operated by steam locomotives. Many everyday products were collected and delivered by rail. As with most market towns and some larger villages, Crawley station had sidings and a goods depot which was visited once or twice a day by a ‘pickup-goods train.’ Deliveries of the merchandise were then made around the town by three-wheeled Scammel Scarab trucks. There was also a goods yard north of Three Bridges on the Gatwick Road industrial estate, where coal and other minerals were brought for re-distribution by road and rail.

Red and cream truck. Writing on side reads 'British Railways'

A BR ‘Scammel Scarab’ truck.
Photo © Infrogmation (cc-by-sa/2.0).

A larger freight yard to the south of Three Bridges station was only partially used. During the First World War, Three Bridges had been chosen by the Rail Operating Department as a nodal hub for the receipt of munitions and their onward transmission to Newhaven and later Littlehampton harbours for shipment to the Western front. This location was presumably chosen as the area (now part of Furnace Green) was sparsely populated. Thus, the existing sidings were rapidly expanded and new ones created so that supply trains could be received from elsewhere in England. In April 1918 one of these ammunition trains ran into the wreckage of a derailed goods train in Redhill tunnel. It was only through a miracle that there was no fire and the unsung heroism of railway workers which averted a major disaster for that town.

There were occasional steam ‘specials’ passing through the Crawley stations, especially on summer Bank Holidays when excursions from Birkenhead and Manchester to Brighton and Eastbourne were often run. These might be hauled by a locomotive from another region such as a ‘Black 5’ class. One day, in the spring of 1959 several local junior schools chartered a train from Crawley for a day trip to Southampton Docks. The train was headed by a huge slab-sided locomotive with the curious name ‘Appledore’. I later discovered that it was a member of the ‘West Country Class’ named after Devon villages.

Green locomotive. Front reads: Southern. 21C123

A ‘West Country’ class locomotive
Photo © Richard Hoare (cc-by-sa/2.0).

However, the focal point for serious loco spotting in Crawley was the former London Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) depot at Three Bridges, situated in the fork between the lines to Brighton and Crawley. It was a brick built three-lane shed, opened in 1911, replacing an earlier building dating from 1848 which was demolished during the enlargement of the station. The structure included a large water tank above a workshop, a separate coal stage, a hoist for lifting locomotives and a 60ft turntable.

Brick locomotive sheds and tower. Locomotives on tracks in front of this.

Three Bridges Motive Power Depot in May 1962.
Photo: copyright unknown https://thesussexmotivepowerdepots.yolasite.com/three-bridges-mt.php

The Depot was approached by a cinder path which ran from just outside the station, under the line to Crawley. It was a medium sized depot with an allocation of about thirty-five steam locomotives throughout the 1950s reducing to 29 between 1959 and 1962, but also servicing visiting locomotives from other depots. This number rapidly declined during 1963 until its eventual closure to servicing steam locomotives in January 1964. It then became a ‘Mixed Traction Depot’ where steam, diesel and electric locomotives were stabled overnight or else stored awaiting disposal but were no longer serviced. The depot closed altogether in April 1969, although the buildings were occasionally used for rolling stock repairs over the next few years before they were demolished in the mid-1970s. It is now the site of the Siemens Three Bridges Traincare Facility. As youngsters we never experienced any difficulty in gaining access to the shed, whereas we were sometimes prevented from accessing that at Redhill and were thrown out and threatened with the police at Guildford.

Three Bridges depot retained some medium-sized tank locomotives to run the East Grinstead shuttle services. For most of the time three fifty-year-old South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR) ‘H’ class locomotives were used which were popular with the local crews. An attempt by managers to replace them with even older London and South Western Railway ‘M7’ class 0-4-4 tanks about 1960, was not popular as they were more difficult to operate in push-pull mode. However, with the electrification of the main lines in Kent during 1961 more examples of the ‘H’ class became available and the last three survivors of the class saw out their days working from Three Bridges during 1963. The last survivor no. 31263 was in traffic until 4 January 1964, when it was withdrawn and stored at the shed until the following November, It was then hauled away to preservation, initially at Robertsbridge, although it eventually found its way to the Bluebell Railway.

Green locomotive. Number on side - 253. Words on side - S E and C R

‘H’ class no.263, as preserved at the Bluebell Railway
Photo © Ben Brooksbank (cc-by-sa/2.0).

The freight locomotives allocated to the depot in the 1950s and early 1960s were principally of LBSCR designs. The ‘C2X’ class 0-6-0 locomotives had once provided the mainstay of freight motive power in the area. There were eight of them at the depot in 1958, all then fifty years old. They were withdrawn during 1960 and 1961 with the last survivor leaving in February 1962. A friend and I were once given an unofficial footplate ride on ‘C2X’ No. 32522 around the shed yard in the Spring of 1961 by a cleaner. These were replaced by newer Southern Railway ‘Q ‘class recently made redundant from elsewhere in the region.

Black and white image of locomotive.

C2X Class 32532 at Three Bridges Depot in 1948.
Photo © Ben Brooksbank (cc-by-sa/2.0).

My favourite class were the larger mixed-traffic ‘K’ class, introduced just before the First World War. These had done prodigious work hauling both munitions and troop trains and had also later come into their own during the lead up to D-Day landings. They were robust locomotives, popular with the crews and capable of doing the work of much larger classes. Nine of the seventeen of them were allocated to Three Bridges and by 1961 they were the last pre-World War I class in the country still extant. Then, in December 1962, the entire class was withdrawn en-bloc. The decision to do so was due to a wish to keep up with the Southern Region’s withdrawal programme rather than any consideration of their usefulness or condition. This upset many local crews as most of them were in good working order and the replacement ‘N’ class, although newer, were thought to be inferior locomotives. The withdrawn ‘K’ class locos were stored at Hove Goods Yard for many months before they were cut up. No. 32345, was stabled at Three Bridges until September of 1963 in the hope that it might be purchased by the Bluebell Railway, but they needed rather to concentrate on buying the freehold of their track.

black and white image of locomotive on tracks.

K Class 2-6-0 No. 32342 at Brighton.
Photo © Ben Brooksbank (cc-by-sa/2.0).

The ‘K’ class duties were partly taken over by the ‘N’ class and the powerful ‘Q1’ class of 0-6-0, built by the Southern Railway in the early years of the Second World War. Four of these unusual looking locomotives were transferred to the depot in September 1962, followed by four more in September 1963 when the depot lost its locomotive allocation.

dark green locomotive on tracks. Yellow writing on side reads 'Southern'.

Q1 Class 0-6-0, C1 at the Bluebell Railway 1992
Photo © Ben Brooksbank (cc-by-sa/2.0).

Three sixty-five-year-old veteran tank loco-motives were allocated to the depot in the early 1960s. These were members of the ‘E4’ class, originally built for London suburban passenger trains but were still being used for shunting and short distance freight trains in the area until 1961. One of them even lasted until June 1962. Another survivor, no. 32473, formerly working at Nine Elms depot in London, was sold to the Bluebell Railway on 16th October 1962, where it was restored to its original livery and given the name ‘Birch Grove’.

Brown locomotive. writing on side reads: 473. Birch Grove.

E4 ‘’Birch Grove’ at Sheffield Park, Bluebell Railway Photo © Ben Brooksbank (cc-by-sa/2.0).

The two largest tender locomotives at the Three Bridges depot in the early 1960s were of the British Railways standard class ‘4’ mixed-traffic locomotives. The first of these, no. 75075 was transferred to the depot in May 1959 and the second, no. 75070 followed soon afterwards. Both were still relatively new having been built at Swindon Works in 1955. One or other of these was often to be found at the depot but I never did discover what duties they were used for.

Black locomative in steam, pulling red and cream carriages.

A British Railways Standard Class ‘4’ 4-6-0.
Photo © David P Howard (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The depot also retained four large modern class ‘4’ tank locomotives which were used on the morning and evening passenger services over the East Grinstead and Tunbridge Wells lines and also on steam services over the unelectrified lines between London, Brighton and Eastbourne via Oxted or Tunbridge Wells. These locomotives had been designed and more than one hundred built at Brighton Railway Works which was a significant builder of steam locomotives throughout the 1940s and 1950s until its closure in 1958.

Dark green locomotive with number 80151 on front.

BR Standard 4 Tank Engine No. 80151
© Helmut Zozmann (cc-by-sa/2.0).

The late fifties and early sixties therefore saw the rapid replacement of steam locomotives with their diesel equivalents. This began with the appearance of BR/English Electric (EE) diesel electric shunters of the standard 0-6-0 type (later BR ‘class 08’) which started to appear in the Three Bridges goods yards from the mid-1950s, although they were never allocated to, or serviced at, the depot, which concentrated on servicing steam locomotives. They were sent down from Norwood Junction depots, which housed and serviced numbers of them, to work for a week at a time before returning to their homes. The only regular mainline diesel sightings in the area were the BR/Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company (BRCW) ‘type 3’ Bo-Bo class, known as ‘Cromptons’ (later British Rail ‘class 33’). These were introduced in 1960 and were gradually spreading throughout the Southern Region as new examples were being delivered. By the summer of 1963 they were beginning to be stabled overnight at Three Bridges Depot although they were all allocated to Hither Green Diesel Depot in east London.

We were also lucky in Crawley living only twelve miles from the Bluebell railway at Horstead Keynes, which could easily be visited by bicycle. In the spring of 1961, when I first visited, they only had two tiny
0-6-0 tank engines operating. These were a Wainwright ‘P’ class of the SECR named ‘Bluebell’ and an ‘A1X’ class of the LBSCR, named ‘Stepney’. The ‘A1X’ class built between 1872 and 1880, were nicknamed ‘Terriers’ and were the oldest steam locomotives still at work.

Locomotive with word 'Bluebell' on side. Brown passenger carriages.

‘P’ class tank ‘Bluebell’ on Bluebell Railway at Sheffield Park.
Photo © Ben Brooksbank (cc-by-sa/2.0).

During the next three years the railway would acquire further interesting locomotive types from British Railways, including another A1X named Fenchurch. Other interesting acquisitions included the Adams radial 4-4-2 tank No. 488 from the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) or the former North London Railway (NLR) ‘goods’ locomotive No. 58850. Ultimately the Bluebell Railway would save about fifty steam locomotives and become the largest collection outside the National Railway Museum at York as well as relaying a substantial section of the original track as far as East Grinstead.

Green locomotive. Number on front is 488.

Adams radial tank 488 on Bluebell Railway
Photo © Ben Brooksbank (cc-by-sa/2.0).

As young teenagers our trainspotting activities were by no means restricted to Crawley, My friends and I made several visits to the Motive Power Depots at Brighton, Horsham (officially closed but still used for storing locomotives), and Redhill (usually accessible on Sundays when the offices were not manned). We travelled on non-electrified routes where steam still operated, such as Horsham to Brighton, Three Bridges to Tunbridge Wells, and Redhill to Guildford and Tonbridge, all funded by our earnings from our paper rounds. There were also opportunities for day trips to London the great centre for loco enthusiasts where there were a dozen or more large depots. My brother and I likewise used family holidays as opportunities to go trainspotting further afield.

By March 1964, when I was sixteen, trainspotting had begun to be depressing as so many locomotives that we loved were being scrapped. Also, I acquired a secondhand motor scooter and so my interests moved on. However, I have never regretted the five years that I spent as a keen train spotter and in the process I learned a great deal about economic history, political geography, mechanical engineering and many other subjects without being aware that I was doing so.

(David Stoker, May 2020)

West Green Primary School

There has been a primary school in West Green since 1824. When the New Town was built, so was a new primary school. A temporary building was built in 1950, and the permanent buildings followed soon after. Here are some photographs from our archives of the New Town school. For memories of the old school in the 1940s see https://crawleymuseums.org/memories-west-green-school/

West Green Primary School - brick built 1950s school building, with three cars parked outside.
October 1951
West green Primary School - brick built 1950s school building with large windows
October 1951
Group of young children weeding a flower bed outside a school classroom.
West Green Primary school with children gardening, c1953. From Crawley Museum’s Collection.
Group photograph of 5 men and 6 women. Five of them are on chairs, 6 are standing behind. The men are wearing suits and the women are in summer dresses.
Group photo of teachers, 1959 or 1960

In the photograph of the teachers, we know that the man at the back on the left is Derek Slack, and the woman second from the right at the back is Sheila Parr. Molly Richards is front left. The man in the middle of the front row is the headmaster Mr Dennis. If you know who anyone else is, or would like to share your memories of the school please get in touch!

Woodall-Duckham House – A short story

Woodall-Duckham House

At 11 The Boulevard in Crawley the “Platform_” building is a modern condominium of flats which opened in 2016.
Mia lives together with her parents Sonya and Allan on the second floor in the West Wing in a nice two-bedroom apartment overlooking the shops on the opposite side of the Boulevard.
Mia, 6 years old, was drawing and colouring on her new Ipad when something in the corner of the room attracted her attention. First, it seemed like something small caught fire and a thin cloud of smoke was raising from near the ornamental plant in the corner of her room. As she was watching the cloud became brighter and Mia started to think she should alert her mother when suddenly the air popped slightly and to her amazement a desk with an old computer materialised in the corner of her room !…and that was not all, a man was concentrating on the computer screen , typing now and then on his keyboard and apparently unaware of Mia’s presence.
Mia could hear the loud clicks on the keyboard when the man stopped typing, looked up from the screen and with mild surprise fixed his eyes on Mia.
– Hello, said the man, I’m John…who are you?
– My name is Mia and I live here with my Mum and Dad and this is my room…said Mia in one go…
The man seemed to Mia both surprised and humoured by the whole situation, he smiled at her and asked again:
– Who brought you here today? …must be one of my colleagues, he thought, some did bring kids to work just to show them around although it did not happen very often.
Mia did not understand how anyone could have “brought her” to her own room so she addressed John with superiority:
– This is My room. Who brought You here?
– I work here, said John. I’m an Engineer and I have been working at this desk for many years, even after 1989 when this desk was moved, together with our company, from Great Dover Street in London to Crawley.
Mia thought about it.
– What’s a company?
John thought about it for a bit, how to explain “a company of engineers” to little Mia?
– Well, it’s a place where many people work together to design things …they draw them first then they get made …we here design big furnaces in which coal gets burned to make hot water and steam, the steam then turns big wheels called turbines and all this turning makes electricity so that your Ipad can be charged when it’s running low on power.
John seemed very pleased with his explanations but to his dismay he noticed Mia frowning towards the end.
– OK, said Mia, I’ll just tell Mum…and with a quick turn she opened the door and ran along the corridor to the living room where Sonya was working today from home.
Sonya looked up Mia and extended her arms to Mia.
– How are you little bear?
– Mum, Mum, there’s a man in my room with a big desk and a computer…he makes electricity!
Sonya laughed with incredulity:
– I see…is he still there?
– Yes, said Mia, please Mum, come, come…
– OK, let’s see him…said Sonya lifting herself from her comfortable study chair and grabbing Mia’s little hand they both started walking towards Mia’s bedroom.
Sonya opened the door.
– There, in the corner, said Mia, pointing to the ornamental pant.
– That’s just the pot with a plant ?! Sonya pretended to be disappointed whilst smiling at Mia.
– But it’s true…said Mia, now a little upset, he Was here, he said things like “company” and “furnace” and “coal”….

Mia was right, she did see something. The quantum universe making up space and time has strange properties that scientists have just started to unravel. Mia has witnessed a quantum superposition maybe enhanced by the inherent quantum entanglement of past, present and future.
An engineer from Babcock Woodall Duckham Ltd working on his designs sometime between 1970 and 1980 appeared in her room in 2019 and for a short while the two realities became one.

The building now called “Platform_” was built in 1964 and its name at the time was Woodall Duckham House.

Image of Woodall-Duckham House

Woodall Duckham Construction Ltd., the engineering company covering a large range of engineering projects from chemical to oil, energy and construction moved from London to Crawley in their new house in 1965.

Advert for qualified chemical engineers

From 1965 to 2016 Woodall Duckham House has seen many engineering companies coming and going, being renamed or just being dissolved.
In 1989 Babcock Power, a spin off Babcock International, moved to Woodall Duckham House from their historical headquarters in Great Dover Street in London.
I joined them in 1992 and remained employed by them until 2017.
Soon Woodall Duckham Ltd. disappeared, Babcock International took over the building and Babcock Power remained the only company in Woodall Duckham House. Babcock Power was later acquired by Mitsui Shipbuilding ( Japan) and renamed Mitsui Babcock. Much later Mitsui sold the business to Doosan Heavy Industries ( South Korea) and the company was again renamed Doosan Babcock which is its name to this day.
In 2010 Doosan Babcock moved out of Woodall Duckham House to new premises in Manor Royal. Work started later on converting the now empty Woodall Duckham House into flats.
The result is “Platform_”, the building which has been given a new lease of life and in which many families live happily to this day.

Whether Mia will choose to become an engineer and work for a “company” it’s unlikely that she will become involved with designs for “coal furnaces” which seem to have been beaten at the moment by green alternatives such as wind turbines, “biomass furnaces” and nuclear power.

Woodall-Duckham House 2010

2010

Woodall-Duckam House 2020

2020

By: Adrian Bruder

Inspired by Crawley History? Share your writings online.

A Crawley Parody – a poem

A Crawley Parody

Prelude
Free time free land free love
Everything was free

It was the season for bicycles
And we wanted to race
On a track with lots of features
Tough, very little grace

Someone thought to ask Don
Because he had the tools
Implements borrowed from
The councils unused pools

Donald a real skivvy
Ready within two days
Hump jump corners skiddy
We had nothing but praise

Poems are happy at core
But then comes a sad bit
Police at Donald’s door
Cops with a big transit

Took two hundred or more
Tackle of the menders
They said it’s quite a haul
We said they were lenders

Our track Complete success
Played on every day
With free public access
A winner all the way

How to build a new town
Vision plans and Labour
Borrowed tools, surplus pound
Careful of the vapour

By Tim Holt

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West Green Adventure playground, with child coming down a ramp on a go cart.
West Green Adventure playground, date unknown. From Crawley Museum’s Collection.

Do you remember The Tree?

The Tree building, before restoration

 

We need your help!

We’re currently writing some new text for the museum about the history of The Tree building, and want to include quotes from people who remember it before it became the museum.

Do you remember when it was council offices?

If you have any memories or photos you’d like to share with us and our visitors (once we’re open again), please get in touch. 

https://crawleymuseums.org/contact-us/

Thank you! 

Where’s the Queen? – a poem

WHERE’S THE QUEEN?

When I was young I saw the Queen,
Opening a building new and clean.
I thought she’d be in royal gown,
With jewels and sceptre, wearing crown,
Like the queens in all my books;
I expected Royal looks.
The crowd were cheering; “Hip hooray!
Oh, this is a lovely day!”
Mum, excited, “There’s she is!”
I looked and looked, but what a swizz.
“Where is she Mum? She can’t be seen.”
“Right there, the centre of the scene.”
My disappointment can’t be told
(I really wasn’t very old)
‘Cos she was dressed like me and you!
Green suit and hat, and normal shoes.
She looked just like the others there
It really wasn’t very fair!
Her jewels are saved, this I now know
For special days, but even so
For all my life I’ll not forget
The day she made me so upset!

(On 17th December 1969, H.M. The Queen came to Crawley to open the new Crawley Council offices. My Mum and I were in the crowd that came to see her.)

By Sue Ganz

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Photograph of the Queen in 1958 planting a tree in Queens Square, Crawley
Queen planting a tree, Queen’s Square, 1958. Photograph from Crawley Museum’s Collection

Crawley Rent Strike 1955

(Written by Graham Crozier, 2019)

Painting of rent strike - crowds with banners
Painting of the Rent Strike from Crawley Museum’s collection.
Painted by J.E. Fuller, 1955, Crawley.
90cm x 78cm.

The Rent Strike of October 1955 has all but disappeared from the awareness of people living in Crawley today. However, it can be seen as representing an example of community action in the face of frustration at a perceived lack of progress in the fulfilment of the promise of the New Town project. The actual issue of a rise in the cost of renting from the Crawley Development Corporation (CDC) by two shillings and sixpence per week, was a catalyst for wider concerns about the quality of life in a place seen as lacking the security and stability of the London communities which most of the newcomer population had left.

Concern about housing reflected the insecurities of both the new and existing population. People moved down to Crawley on the understanding that not only was their standard of living going to be much better, but that the costs associated with it were going to be affordable. Early migrants had believed that their rents would be at a fixed level. The actions of both national government and the Development Corporation seemed to be proving them wrong.

This was against a background of a major campaign by the Labour government in the late 1940s to publicise the advantages of moving to one of the New Towns being built around London, in particular the prospect of people having their own, modern home. This, plus the promise of stable employment, was the reason that Crawley’s first ‘settlers’ endured the hardships of poor facilities and the unforgiving clay soil. There was very much a sense that the New Town represented part of the dream of a better, socialised way of life held out by the Attlee government. This, plus the new demographic of the town, accounts for the strong support enjoyed by working-class organisations in Crawley in the 1950s.

However, another factor affecting the issue of housing in the town was that those who lived in Crawley before 1947 could not gain access to new accommodation. The remit of the CDC, the unelected body charged with designing and building the New Town, was to house people moving out of London, not pre-existing residents. This was an obvious source of local resentment, as was the fact that the CDC had the power to compulsorily purchase property and land within the ‘designated area’ that would comprise the heart of the new urban development, including older properties mainly in the High Street. Council housing for those already living in the area remained in the hands of the elected local authorities.

The issue of rents was partially down to the policies of central government. Despite coming to power in 1951 on a programme including investment in house building, the Conservatives moved to remove rent restrictions and security of tenure for council tenants. The physical devastation of the war still being a major issue across the country, Conservative policy was to give encouragement to private construction firms to meet building targets, rather than support local authorities in building social housing.

Rent increases were partly a result of the higher cost of building materials due to shortages of supply. This had an impact on the ability of the CDC to meet its house building targets. By 1952 average rents in Crawley were some six shillings higher than in other local authority areas. Crawley rents were among the highest in the country, with only 5% of authorities charging more. This was at a time when wage levels in Crawley were generally lower than those in London, where rent levels were often capped at pre-war levels.

As an appointed body, answerable to central government and with specific targets to be met, the CDC was very much an instrument for the application of central government policy. Government loans were subject to high interest rates, and the CDC was required to run a balanced budget, with housing income a major source of revenue. This argument for increasing rents did not sit well with the largely left-wing membership of the Crawley Tenants Association (CTA), who argued that housing should be seen as a social service, as much as health and education.

By 1953, the demands being made on working people meant that paying the rent was leaving people with less and less disposable income, with an impact on general standards of living. A newsletter sent out by the CTA portrayed rent increases as a drag on the economic development of the town. Many families were dependent on overtime earnings to make ends meet. This at a time when many firms were forced put their employees on short-time or flat week working due to a general downturn in the economy.

However, it is also the case that the general standard of living of people in Crawley was much higher than they had before moving from London, even before the war, and many were able to benefit from the availability of modern consumer goods, albeit financed through hire purchase.

By mid-1952, Crawley rents were some 50% higher than those for London County Council properties. The fact that many ‘New Towners’ regularly returned to their families in London made the comparison all the starker. However, housing shortages and a lack of jobs in London made a return to their old neighbourhoods impossible for most.

In November, 1952, a Rents Committee was set up by the CTA. This Committee was supported by a wide range of trades unions representing workers on the industrial estate, by the Crawley Trades Council, Crawley Co-operative Women’s Guild, and by the local Labour and Communist parties. The 1950s saw very high trade union membership in Crawley firms; the decade between 1947 and 1957 saw the peak of working-class migration to Crawley, as the infrastructure of the New Town was developing. The CTA was led by Vic Pellen, a local schoolteacher and socialist, and by the Labour parish councillor and local magistrate, Hephzibah Carmen.

The role of the Crawley Branch of the Communist Party in action over local concerns is interesting, because members of the CDC later portrayed the rent strike as the work of outside ‘agitators’ rather than a reflection of the genuine feelings of the local working people.
Crawley Communists saw the ‘displaced’ working class population of the New Town as a promising platform to foster widespread co-operation on issues like rent control. Communist activists were in the forefront of the campaign against rent increases from 1952.
Richard Vines was Convenor of Shop Stewards at APV and also on the Branch Committee of the CP. In an interview with an American academic, Jacob Fried, in 1972 he said that:
‘… people were very concerned that they would not live in Crawley under worse conditions than they had in London … they found mud, no street lights, lack of roadways … trade unions … were deeply committed to action in the community itself … Schools were just not being built and available for the great influx of people … People could express their needs through the Tenants Association … rather than the Labour Party or Communist Party … Neither I nor Alf Pegler (union Convenor at Edwards High Vacuum and not a member of the CP) was officially on it (the CTA) but always our friends were on it, and we could influence it.’

Indeed, the Secretary of the CTA, Joe Sack, was also Secretary of the Crawley CP; David Grove, a CP member who worked for the CDC, made the proposed rent increase known to Vines, Sack and others. This allowed them to prepare to oppose it, including a leafleting campaign that highlighted issues of interest rates, subsidies and building costs, in contrast to the military and colonial spending programmes of the Churchill / Eden Governments.

Concern about the influence of the far left would also undoubtedly have been expressed by Ernest Stanford, who represented the Labour Party on the CDC and was Chairman of Crawley Parish Council. Stanford had helped found Crawley Labour party in 1919. He had been the Labour candidate for the Horsham and Worthing constituency (which included Crawley) in the 1923 and 1924 General Elections. Thereafter, he had been instrumental in getting Communists out of the Labour party after 1925, and had been a staunch supporter of Macdonald as Labour Leader in the National Governments of the 1930s.

However, as a representative of local democratic institutions, Stanford’s voice was probably weak. It is fair to say that the leadership of the CDC was fairly dismissive of the ability of the Parish Council to run any services in the New Town. Fried describes both the County and Parish Councils as ‘timid, unimaginative, and hardly to be considered as equal partners in development’, perhaps a rather harsh judgement although it is certainly true that the demands of the New Town were far beyond anything that local authorities had had to deal with in the past.

In the spring of 1955 central government subsidies to support public sector house building were reduced, resulting in rent rises across the board. Requests to modify these policies fell on deaf ears.

Then, on 17 October 1955, 5,000 Crawley tenants were sent notices to quit by CDC, but with the offer of a new tenancy at higher rents. This unsurprisingly led to protests and demonstrations. A meeting outside the CDC offices in The Tree was broken up by the police. On 26 October, a march through Manor Royal lead to a stoppage on the industrial estate.

A meeting of some 5,000 people in the town centre led to agreement not to pay the rent increases, with the threat to shut down industrial production in some of the towns’ biggest factories, such as APV. Richard Vines told Fried:
‘At APV we decided to have a work stoppage on a certain day as a protest … APVs marching past factories, all the other workers trooped out to join us in the march – along with the building workers from construction sites … it was a marvellous thing to see the whole of the people march into the square in their working clothes protesting the rent increase.’

The protestors carried banners that encapsulated their grievances, including: ‘Hands off Housing Subsidies’, ‘We build them but we can’t afford to live in them’ and ‘Port and Pheasant are very Pleasant but We Can’t Afford the Rent at Present.’

Some of the participants may have remembered rent protests in London before the war, such as the 1938-39 Stepney rent strike, which was never resolved due to the outbreak of war; the sense of excitement in collective working-class action is palpable in Vines’ recollection of the event.

Reaction to the rent strike clearly reflected the political interests of the groups involved. Robert May (General Works Manager at APV during the strike and first chairman of Crawley Urban District Council on its formation in 1956), told Jacob Fried that:
“It went on for a few weeks and it was the women who paid up, in the end. They feared being turfed out, to lose their homes. So it was the women who undermined the Rent Strike. The men did not know and were militant.”

It should be noted that workers at APV were amongst the more militant supporters of the rent strike. May was certainly concerned enough about the loss of productivity at the firm to be included in the deputation to the CDC.

Again, interviewed in 1972, Robin Clarke, assistant to Col. CAC Turner, General Manager of the CDC, saw the strike very much in political terms; for him the strike represented a struggle between the CTA on the left and the CDC on the right:

“…the Development Corporation was not a democratic organisation and there was no elected representative the tenants could go to complain … we could not be got at … The Corporation did not react to these pressures but only held its ground … just played it cool … After this, the Tenants Association faded away… We did not lose our nerve over all the fuss.”

As chair of the CDC, Thomas Bennett conducted most of the meetings with the CTA representatives. He held to the line that the rent increases were to remain, and that they were even fair. It should be noted that as a New Town, Crawley was given a higher central government housing subsidy than that given for local authority housing elsewhere. In Bennett’s interviews with Fried, he hardly mentions the role of the Tenants Association or the strength of local support for the strike, instead placing the blame on outside ‘agitators’.

The strike gradually weakened, from a highpoint of non-payment of 58% in the first week. It is clear that the non-representative nature of the CDC was an asset in adopting a hard-line position, with central government, along with rising costs, being held to blame for rent increases.

By the mid-1950s, central government policy had turned its attention to the costs of slum clearance and urban regeneration nationally, which resulted in a reduction in the subsidy for general house building. In a statement to the House of Commons in November, 1955, the Minister of Housing, Duncan Sandys, an aggressive free-marketeer, made it clear that using subsidies to keeping down rent levels was not possible, and indeed was seen as unfair to general taxpayers and ratepayers.

Sandys said he recognised that the New Towns were a special case when it came to subsidies because of the lack of low-cost pre-war housing that could be used to bring down the overall levels of rent.

Frederick Gough, the Conservative Member for the Horsham constituency, which included Crawley, praised the CDC for the progress it had made in building new homes in Crawley, and highlighted the fact that the majority of the New Town population were ex-Londoners: ‘We have gone nearly two-thirds of the way to completing our plans, but the new people who are coming to us may upset these plans … Is a new town to be deprived of that sort of help (subsidies) and assistance because it is managed, not by a local authority, but by a corporation?’ (This was clearly seen as a rhetorical question, as no reply was given by the Minister!). Gough had previously attacked the CTA for its ‘left-wing bias’.

In his annual address in April 1956, Thomas Bennett stated that the rent rises were ‘the lowest amount which would permit the Corporation to carry out its obligation of producing a balanced housing account.’

Richard Vines, unsurprisingly, saw the consequences of the strike from a different viewpoint:
‘It changed the Government’s outlook on New Town housing and from then onward they went to privately-built houses and this tended to rub out what the towns were built for – to accommodate by rental housing the working people … Now the split began between house-owners and renters.’

In the end, the Rent Strike did not achieve its main goal of keeping rents low. By Christmas 1955 77% tenants were paying the higher rent. By February 1956 everyone had moved on to the new rents. However, a three-year rent freeze had been agreed. Ultimately, the strike failed due to tenants’ fear of losing their homes rather than the claims of the CDC that rent increases were seen as reasonable by the majority of people.

The debate about the place of publicly-owned housing in socially equitable communities continues, while thousands across the country still live in high-cost, low quality private accommodation.

Sources:

Fried, J. (1972) ‘People and Events that Shaped Crawley’. Crawley Council for Social Services.

Fried, J. (n.d.) ‘Crawley New Town – Leadership and Community Formation in a Planned Community.’ Hopi Press.

Gray, F. ed. (1983) ‘Crawley, Old Town, New Town’. Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sussex. Occasional Paper No. 18.

Green, J & Allen, P. (1993) ‘Crawley New Town in Old Photographs’. Alan Sutton Pub. Ltd. (see chapter 4 for photographs of the strike demonstrations)

Osborn, F & Whittick, A. (1963) ‘The New Towns. The Answer to Megalopolis’. Leonard Hill Ltd.

Debate on Housing Subsidies Bill. Hansard HC Debate 17 November 1955. (Vol 546 cc 791-899).

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