Arthur Mee, writing in his “Sussex” in 1937, said of Crawley, “It gathers itself about one of the most charming old streets in Sussex, with greenways and trees and delightful houses”, and I remember it thus.
Indeed, having worked there for over 50 years, I have something of an affection for “Creepy Crawley” but, although the old High Street remains, the town has expanded hugely, into several surrounding parishes, because, as a result of the post-war Minoprio Plan, it was designated one of the first of the ring of New Towns designed to relieve pressure on London, and later absorbed into the Commission for the New Towns.
The original Medieval parish, of which the Old High Street forms part, was very narrow and thin: although Crawley did not appear in the Domesday Book, the west side of the High Street was bounded by Ifield whilst just to the east it was bounded by Worth, both of which did appear in the Domesday Book. In passing, it should be mentioned that Crawley was blessed with the longest High Street in the world because it stretched from The Sun to The Half Moon (the same conjunction of hostelries could be said of Charlwood, just over the Surrey border).
Medieval Crawley derived some of its prosperity from the working of iron, evidence of which in and around the High Street has been confirmed by recent archaeological investigations. The iron would have been mined nearby at Colgate, there were workings, some even possibly Roman, of the smaller ironworks called Bloomeries in areas now covered by New Town housing and the larger, late-Medieval, water-powered iron smelting operations were carried on at Ifield, Tinsley Green and Worth. One of the New Town neighbourhoods is called Furnace Green, from workings there.
The naming of a town
I recall a pleasant time spent in the library with the late John Goepel, an academic employed as publicity officer by the Development Corporation. We selected names from famous Wealden ironworks as names for the newly laid out roads. It was later said that if an alien parachutist dropped in darkness into one of the new neighbourhoods, he could tell where he was by the street names.
Tilgate and part of Pound Hill were named after poets, more of Tilgate were cathedrals and Southgate were ancient trades such as fletchers or lorimers. Perhaps truest to the spirit of things for which I think Mr Goepel was responsible was in Three Bridges where the roads took their names from ancient recorded field names. This had some unusual outcomes: I recall we had an office cleaner who came from Broomdashers Road, and a callow youth up before the Beaks for assaulting a police officer who obviously felt it was his duty because he came from Punchcopse Road.
Each of the neighbourhoods were developed with their own mixed shopping parade, a church and a pub. This did not detract from the value of the old High Street with famous inns, The Ancient Priors and The Old Punchbowl among them. The latter fine Medieval hall house started as Michells Farmhouse, became a tearoom, then a bank and is now a pub. I used to go there in the days when it was a bank in the days when there was not only a Bank Manager but one got a glass of sherry over which to contemplate the overdraft.
Crawley High Street was, until by passed in 1938, on the main London to Brighton road and the main coaching inn was The George with a sign across the street, and until recently it was the halfway point on the annual Emancipation Run for pre-1905 cars. The George was visited in 1953 by HM Queen Elizabeth when she inaugurated the new town centre of Queens Square which has the bandstand from the old Gatwick racecourse (which was where the airport now is).
One of the other hostelries is now Goffs Manor which was previously home of my dear friend and client, Peter Vaughan, the actor famous as Grouty in Porridge with whom I spent many jolly early evenings there. There are still some pictures of his career in the bar. Another notable resident of Crawley High Street was Mark Lemon, the first editor of Punch, who is buried at Ifield, now a neighbourhood of the New Town with a preserved watermill and museum, a fine church and two good pubs.
Many of the original inhabitants of the New Town came down from London (indeed, they used to speak of going home at the weekend for eel pie and mash) and many of the original companies on the industrial estate came down too (Redifon), and prospered: within my memory, there were fifty-odd manufacturing industries, whereas when I last counted there were seven and most of the others were service industries related to Gatwick.
There are over 100 listed buildings in Crawley and still bits of history to be found in Crawley if you look hard enough.
Contributed by Peter Benner