Crawley in the 1950s – one large adventure playground

By David Stoker

My family and I arrived in Crawley when I was three and a half years old. Our previous home had been a cramped second floor garret at 208 East Lane, Walworth, just off the Old Kent Road. It was the period leading up to the great London smogs and my elder brother was suffering badly from asthma. My parents had been advised by the doctors at the Evelina Children’s Hospital to move him away from the city as quickly as possible. Their first plan was to emigrate to Canada, but then my father, who was a carpenter, discovered that if he worked for the New Towns Commission for a year, his family would be allocated a brand new three-bedroomed house. Thus, we moved to 19 Blackdog Walk, Northgate, on 1 November 1951 which was then in the centre of one huge unenclosed building site. Within a few weeks there were two or three other children living in the street of roughly the same age as me.

When we arrived, the houses and flats in Oak Way, Five Acres and Willow Close were all still under construction, and our weekends and summer evenings were spent exploring the local building sites, climbing ladders, running along scaffoldings in a way that would horrify modern parents. My brother was then five and had to go to school, but I and a young friend were free to roam around and even ‘offer to help’ the builders. No-one seemed to object to our presence. At one time there was a large stack of bricks on some waste land between Oak Way and Willow Close which was later used to build a run of garages. Myself and several older friends burrowed into this stack and then covered it with wooden planks to create a den for ourselves. Inevitably there were the occasional accidents and I still have the scar on my left knee gained from falling over whilst playing on the site of the bungalow at the Oak Way end of Blackdog Walk.

In March 1953 I went to school. The Northgate Infants and Junior School were then under construction but not ready to accept children and so for the first term I attended the Prefab school situated on the corner of Oak Way and Barnfield Road. We still used slates and chalk to learn our letters and numbers, and I clearly remember the outdoor party we had to celebrate the Queen’s Coronation when we were all presented with a mug. My mother had a job as a secretary at ‘The Beehive’ at Gatwick Airport, and we were looked after by our granny. On one occasion during the school holidays, when there was nobody else available to keep an eye on me my mother took me with her to her work.  and I spent an afternoon amusing myself on the derelict stands of the Gatwick Racecourse, shortly before its demolition to make way for the new airport terminal, or else watching trains at the old Gatwick Airport station.

Gradually the building work in Northgate came to an end and the builders moved on to Langley Green, so we had to find other forms and places of entertainment. There were lots of green spaces in Northgate and trees, bicycle sheds and other unoccupied buildings to climb on. Also, we built dams on the stream that separated Northgate from Three Bridges. Once, when I was about nine, I knocked myself unconscious and slid into the water as a result of a poorly secured rope swing over this stream, but fortunately my friends were able to drag me out. There was the wide strip of unused land between Northgate and Manor Royal which is now the route of Crawley Avenue and where we used to collect frogspawn and look out for newts. We would build soap box carts to race down the hill from the roundabout (now called the Tushmore Gyratory) down past the flats. The traffic was so light that it did not matter if we carried on into Five Acres.

One of my friends at Primary School told me where one could find a pile of rusty hand grenades at Gatwick Airport and so I accompanied him there to explore. The majority of these grenades had been drilled out and made safe, but every so often we would come across one that had been missed and contained a pin, now very corroded. These we causally tossed to one side whilst I selected one of the safe ones to take home with me as a souvenir. My father went berserk when he got home from work as he had recently been working on the Gatwick Airport site and knew that unexploded ordnance was found there from time to time. In fact, he had once witnessed the results when a reckless building worker threw an unused bomb that he had found onto a bonfire. My father insisted on burying my souvenir in our back garden. I never told him about the unsafe ones that we had found.

My brother had been to the school in West Green and he told me about the famous workshop at No. 2 Leopold Road where John Haigh, ‘the acid bath murderer’ had committed his nefarious crimes, so inevitably we had to go and explore. Another long-distance adventure during my childhood was a trip to ‘the Hawth’ which was then a large and rather mysterious wood pitted with what appeared to be bomb craters. In April each year it would be a sea of bluebells and we would return home with arms full of them.

The year seemed to be divided up into various seasons that were unconsciously recognised by children. Thus, hopscotch and marbles, were always played in the spring, whereas conkers could only be played in September when the fruit was freely available. (Nobody would dream about using protective glasses!) However, the highlight of our communal street activities for the year was Bonfire Night, on 5th of November. At the beginning of October each year the local shops began to stock fireworks. Strictly speaking they were not supposed to be sold to children under the age of fourteen but this law was largely ignored by local shopkeepers, and even where it was enforced, there was never any difficulty in persuading an adult or older child to act as our proxy. (In the same way, my granny always sent me to the local parade of shops in Northgate to buy her cigarettes: ten ‘Weights’ at one shilling and four pence (approx. £0.07 today) with me being allowed to keep the two pence change from one shilling and six pence (£0.075) ‘for going’.) In the lead up to Bonfire Night I would use this change to buy two penny bangers. A group of us would also dress up a guy in old clothes and drag it around town on one of our soap box carts begging for ‘a penny for the guy’ from passers-by which we would subsequently use to buy fireworks.

Setting off fireworks in the street, in advance of the formal Bonfire Night, was not at all unusual. We quickly learned the advantages of placing bangers in confined spaces to enhance their impact, for example by putting them into milk bottles or metal pipes, which could be quite impressive, although we had enough sense to stand well back. Likewise, I once put a lighted banger in a little round access hole in the ground which was covered by a cast iron lid chained to the rim. The subsequent ‘dull thud’ could be felt in the ground several feet away and the lid was sent flying 10-12 feet into the air despite the metal chain. I am not aware of any serious injuries to humans or animals caused by my friends and I at this time but there were certainly several ‘near misses’. It wasn’t only the children’s activities with fireworks that could go wrong. The planned back garden display supervised by my uncle Fred, who lived in Furzefield, West Green, was once over in less than five minutes, when a ‘Jumping Jack’, one of the first to be ignited, landed in his open box of fireworks.

All the local children in Northgate would collect wood and rubbish during the lead up to the 5th November for a large communal bonfire on the then unused land between Willow Close and Green Lane. There were always plenty of adults around for these occasions so this was a time for letting off the ‘pretty fireworks’: the Catherine wheels, roman candles, rockets, sparklers etc rather than the penny bangers and Jumping Jacks that were normally a part of our street games.

In the mid-1950s the Crawley Urban District Council provided an ‘adventure playground’ for local children on some land next to Ifield Avenue between the Town Meadow football ground and the public playing fields. This area was equipped with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, carpentry tools and loads of scrap wood for the kids to do what they liked, largely unsupervised. It was a great place for the children but today would represent a Health and Safety Officer’s nightmare. The attached photograph, taken in the summer of 1957 shows a group of us next to an oak tree that we had unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the previous week. (I think this was one occasion when the adults did step in.)

Group of nine boys. 5 standing in front of a large tree, three climbing up it and one on a rope swing.

The boys in the picture are mostly from Northgate Primary School, I am second from the top, my friend Keith Holt is above me, and his brother, David, is standing on the rope swing. The boy in the check shirt holding him is Robert Thompson, but I cannot name the others. By this time my brother had moved on to Hazlewick School and begun to take an interest in girls.

During the summer of 1959 I transferred from Northgate Primary School to The Thomas Bennett School, in Tilgate and a new chapter in my childhood began, involving other more civilised interests and pre-occupations. Crawley was a wonderful place for young children to grow up in the 1950s, even if at times it could be a little bit risky for them. I feel sorry for modern children who now have so much less freedom than we were allowed.

(David Stoker, 2019)

Leave a comment

Howard Sanders

4 years ago

Almost identical story of my childhood in Pound Hill from mid ’50s after moving from Hounslow. We moved into the early phase of St Mary’s Drive only the top part of the drive Park Way including Belloc Close where we moved, just one adventure play ground of new buildings, “tracker’ biking aound Mount Close and in the wood at Worth park Avenue. David’s brother (Ian) and I were friend’s at Hazelwick School.

David Stoker

4 years ago

Hi Howard, I remember you driving around Pound Hill on your Lambretta with chrome crash bars! I will tell Ian!

David Michael Gibson

4 years ago

I was your neighbour,lived at 15 Blackdog Walk and I remember you well.
We all loved Granny Stoker as she gave us sweets and watched over us when we played out in the street.
Thanks for taking me back down memory road.

David Stoker

4 years ago

Hi David, Yes I remember you, your brother Paul and your sister Jenny. My regards to all! David

Jacqueline fish

4 years ago

Indeed it was , my story is similar to yours my dad was in the navy and had trained as an engineering draughtsman in Hampshire and was offered a house newly built in tilgate worked atvwoodhall duckhans then apv , we arrived in 1957 , I went to Desmond Anderson school , until we moved to a new house in furnace green , where I went to Robert may until going on to tb , my teenage years were very dodgy after losing my mum at 13 , I was a bit of a hippy I suppose, by the time I was twenty I moved up to London and have been there ever since, since being on crawlites I have become very sentimental for lovley old Crawley, we really did have the best childhoods with the freedom , like you playing on building sites , the woods the lakes and so many other wonderful places we could just be free . Thank you for posting your memories , by the way we could buy five park drive , and no6 from the icecream van outside tb !

David Stoker

4 years ago

Hi Jenny, Thanks for your message. I remember the ice cream van but didn’t know he sold cigarettes!
Best wishes, David


4 years ago

Loved reading this. I visited Crawley in 1984 as a young girl. Some of my happiest memories are from that visit. I remember being shocked by how neat and clean everything was and how pretty all the houses with their flower-filled front gardens were. This trip made such an impression on 12 year old me that it became my goal to move to England, which I did 10 years later.

David Stoker

4 years ago

Hi Clare, Yes everything in Crawley (other than the town centre) seemed clean and new, even more so in the 1050s, As a small boy I remember feeling sorry for those people who lived in ‘private’ houses as they all seemed to be so old! Regards, David

Alison Sweeney

4 years ago

What a wonderful read; I too grew up in Crawley but in the 1960’s, your brother Iain is my Uncle & Godfather; such happy memories

David Stoker

4 years ago

Hi Alison, Thanks for your comments I’ll mention you to my brother when I next see him. David

Mike Bayly

3 years ago

Great memories David. I spent my first eight years in a flat in Rayners Lane, London, but we moved to Crawley in Nov 1951 as well. It was to a house in West Green. I remember well the Adventure playgound as it was literaly about 300 yds from where we lived. My Dad didn’t find out about it for quite a while, but when he did I was totally banned from going. Good job he never found out about all the other things we got up to. Yes, Crawley New Town was a great place for a young lad to grow up and experience life pretty well unhindered. First school I went to was in Old Town, Robinson Rd., then West Green Junior, followed by a year at Colyers in Horsham before Ifield Grammar was ready for us. I left Crawley in Jan 1960 and moved a lot around the country after an apprenticeship with PYE in Cambridge. I now live in the middle of America running my own business, but it was those 8 years in Crawley that were probably the greatest influence on my life.
(Mike Bayly, Dec 2020)

Brian Nicholson

3 years ago

My parents along with my brother and myself moved into the prefabs number 4 The Twitten in the 18th October 1946. My brother was 3 years old and I was about 15 month old. We were the first family to move in. My grandfather was night Watchman for Cambales Tilgate. In 1952 we moved across the road to number 7 Ginjams road .

Cliff Dalley

2 months ago

Hi David. Funny reading about your adventures at “Gatwick bomb dump” (as we called it). We used to cycle there and collect old dud grenades, bullets and bits of mortars with the fins, and show them to classmates at Hazelwick school . A similar story as yourself: a friend of mine got a rusty grenade complete with handle & pin, took it home, his Dad freaked out and drove to Barnwood in Pound Hill (when it existed) and threw it in the moat. Probably still there.

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