Robert Keable and Croydon

Robert Keable and Croydon

June 25, 2022

Robert Keable moved with his parents to Croydon at the turn of the century and he attended school there up until 1905, before winning a scholarship to Cambridge. He lived at 40 Friend’s Road in the centre of town. When I first went looking for the house, I found myself circling a large building with cameras tracking my every move. Only once I had peered at the building from all angles did I realise it was the main Croydon police station which had been built on the site of his old house.

He attended Whitgift Grammar School which he enjoyed so much he left a substantial sum in his will to set up a scholarship for Whitgift students to study at Magdalene College Cambridge. His novel Peradventure is his most autobiographical book, and the beginning is set in Croydon which he called Claxted. Below are some extracts. The first extract explains how Croydon was a commuter town for the city even in those days.

  1. The Borough of Claxted, now within the boundaries of Greater London, was a highly respectable town. Its citizens were mainly composed of those who go daily to the City round and about the decent hour of nine-thirty for frequently mysterious but none the less remunerative occupations, and of those who supply their households with the necessaries and pleasant superfluities of good living. A class apart, these latter nevertheless shone, in Claxted, with some of the lustre of their betters, and were, indeed, known, when Paul Kestern was young, as Superior Tradespeople. For both, at Claxted, there were miles of trim villas ascending to avenues of detached houses; churches there were, swept and garnished, or empty with an Evangelical Christian emptiness; Municipal buildings, dignified, sufficient, new and clean. There was, in short, an air about the place and its citizens, in those days, almost wholly neatly and simply Conservative. The Borough, moreover, obtained a suffragan bishop about this time, and may thus be said to have been sealed with a just measure of divine approval. (The first bishop of Croydon, Henry Horace Pereira, was consecrated in 1904)

The second extract discusses a slum area of Croydon where the hero of the book, Paul Kestern - then an eighteen-year-old evangelical - decides to preach.

  1. Yet the untroubled broad stream of Claxted's righteous prosperity had its occasional backwater into which there drifted the rubbish which would otherwise have defiled the comfortable colour of waters neither muddy nor translucent. Lambeth Court was one such. Possibly it was overlooked by the Borough Council; possibly it was allowed to remain for some such definite purpose as that it certainly fulfilled. In any case the Court afforded a "problem" for the church in whose parish it lay. … if the Sunshine Committee could not lighten the darkness of the Court, what else, asked Claxted, could? Nothing, it may well be conceded, except rebuilding and replanning to admit light and air. These, however, cost money, and besides the dwellers in Lambeth Court would only have moved themselves elsewhere. The poor, reflected the Claxted councillors, ye have with you always, and went home to dinner. …One Sunday morning, returning from a children's service in the Mission Hall at the end of Apple Orchard Road, (Paul) entered (Lambeth Court) it for first time. … Its inhabitants rarely aspired to the "Lambeth" part of their designation, but if the enquirer needed further enlightenment added "Behind the ' South Pole.'" Paul, thus informed, remembered the dim opening under the railway bridge behind the public-house of that name… It is not necessary to give a detailed description of Lambeth Court, but it may be pointed out how the place instantly struck Paul strategically. It was not too far from the Hall, he saw at once, to make the work of carrying the harmonium too heavy; every corner of its area could be reached with a powerful voice; in the very centre stood a lamp-post, and, what was more, that lamp-post stood alone in its glory in the Court. This condition offered two great advantages: first, that of supplying all the light required for the evangelists, and secondly, that of creating those dark shadows beyond beloved by Nicodemus and his like. The railway arch through which one entered and which shut off that end of the place, would, of course, occasionally vibrate with trains an item on the debit side of the account; but on the other hand the filthy tumbling hovels were enclosed on three sides by hoardings and tall blank warehouse walls which would catch the voice, and their strips of refuse-strewn gardens, separated from each other by broken palings, were just such as would invite the inhabitants to sit and gossip there on summer and early autumn evenings. (Robert Keable never worked hard trying to disguise place names. In 1900 there was a pub called the North Pole on Cross Road, which would have backed onto the railway track. Cross Road runs off Cherry Orchard Road.)

The third extract covers a bicycle ride Paul and Edith take out of Croydon down to Addington Palace

  1. As they spun along the dry road together, under the autumnal trees whose brown twisted leaves fluttered to the ground with every breath that crossed the pale blue sky flecked with little white clouds above, she seemed to him a fitting part of the beauty of the world. Near the woods, the sun caught the slim trunks of the silver birches in a spinney there, and their silver contrasted exquisitely with the stretch of dying bracken beyond. A lark cried the ecstasy of living in the untroubled spaces of light and air. The road climbed steeply to the woods, and they walked to the summit, he pushing her machine. They hesitated at the leafy glade that invited to the undulating heathery expanse of Hursley, but the artist in Paul decided against the temptation. "No," he said, "don't let's go in there. Everyone goes there. Let's coast down to Allington, and turn to the left. I know a lovely place up there where there will be no trace of Saturday afternoon's visitors. What do you say?"

           She shot a look at him, and made a grace of submission. "Just as you like," she said.

So they mounted on the crest and were away down the long hill together. Oaks leant over the road at first, but beyond them the tall hedges were lovely with scarlet October hips and haws, masses of trailing Old Man's Beard, and sprays of purple blackberries. To the right the fields stretched away to a far distant ridge scarred with chalk where one might dig for fossils. Ahead clustered the old roofs of Allington, and the little church that stood below estates linked for centuries with Lambeth and Canterbury.

          "After Lambeth Court, Allington Church," cried Paul gaily. " Let's go in."

They left their bicycles at the lych-gate and walked into the silent clean-swept place. She followed him in silence, and marvelled inwardly that he seemed to know so much. "That," he said, towards the end of the inspection, “is the coat of arms of Archbishop Whitgift. He was a poor man's son and had no armorial bearings, so he took a cross and inserted five little Maltese crosses for the Five Wounds of Christ, quartering it with the arms of Canterbury. It's very lovely here, isn't it?"

She glanced dubiously at the two candles and the cross on the altar. " It's rather 'high,' don't you think?"

(Again, not very well disguised names as they cycle out to Addington, just outside Croydon. The church is St. Mary’s Addington. The first half of Peradventure follows Paul’s move from the evangelical wing of the Church of England to Anglo Catholicism hence the comment about the candles on the altar being rather ‘high’.)

The final extract concerns Paul’s return to Croydon after his first term at Cambridge, when he suddenly sees his hometown in context. Edward Street is his name for George Street.

  1. Paul, walking home from Claxted Station down Edward Street and past Mr. Thornton's "Elite Photographic Studio," was puzzled. Some bewildering spell had fallen upon Claxted in a couple of months. The suburban station had a strange respectable air that sat ill on it, and whereas a station may smell of dirt or smoke, it should not smell of stale paint. Edward Street was horribly tidy, and gaped. The Town Hall and its Libraries, once majestic centres of learning and authority, had been cheapened. And the familiar road to his home appeared to have been newly washed and to have shrunk in the process.