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Purley Way and Valley Park

Early History

The Purley Way was planned as Croydon's by-pass, in the days before that term came into common use. It was originally suggested in about 1908, as the first section of a London to Brighton motor road. In this form, the idea came to nothing; but in June 1911 the Roads Committee put forward a firm proposal for a new road to divert through traffic from the town centre. It was described as 'a Relief Road from Thornton Heath to Purley, via Thornton Road, Waddon Marsh Lane, Waddon Court Road and Coldharbour Lane'.

The proposal was opposed by many ratepayers and the Chamber of Commerce on the grounds of cost, but their objections were overruled, and in December 1914 a Relief Road Sub-Committee was appointed. Work was delayed by the First World War, but finally began in December 1919. The existing roads had to be widened and straightened, a new section constructed through Waddon village, the southern part of Coldharbour Lane realigned, and two new bridges built over the railways at Waddon Marsh and Epsom Road. The road was in use by April 1925, and work finished in December of the same year.

There had been considerable debate over the name, with one body of Councillors wanting to use the name 'Relief Road'. After consultation with local ratepayers, it was decided in July 1924 that the northern section should keep the name 'Thornton Road', and that the rest should be named 'Purley Way'.

Plan showing the Purley Way and Thornton Road, 1925

The prestige of the road was considerably enhanced in 1928, when Croydon Airport was remodelled, and the new airport terminal was sited on the Purley Way. The opportunities that the road offered for fast driving also, however, gave it something of a reputation for accidents. In 1932, the southern section became the first highway in the country to be lit by the new invention of sodium lamps, mounted on stylish modern standards. Sodium lighting was extended along the whole length of Purley Way, with lights suspended centrally over the road, in 1936: their installation became the subject of a radio broadcast.

Aerial view of the southern end of Purley Way, with Croydon Airport in the distance, c1930 [143.9 PUR]

Industrial Development

Some industry had existed along the line of the Purley Way before the road itself was formed. Croydon Gas Works was sited next to Waddon Marsh Lane in 1867; the Standard Steel Co opened further north, and Waterman's Dyeing and Cleaning Works further south, in 1910; and National Aircraft Factory No 1 on Stafford Road, adjoining Coldharbour Lane, opened in 1918.

Purley Way running past Croydon Airport, 1934 [143.4 PUR]

With the opening of the new road, however, Purley Way became the principal industrial district of Croydon. The site of the National Aircraft Factory, which immediately after the First World War became the Aircraft Disposal Company, was later developed as a factory estate, occupied by firms such as Redwing Aircraft Ltd, Bourjois Ltd (perfumes) and British NSF Ltd (electrical components). Also on the site was the large Bowater factory (makers of corrugated boxes), which in the 1930s added a new facade along its Purley Way frontage in strikingly modernistic art deco style. At the northern end of Purley Way, the Standard Steel Co was joined by several other industrial concerns, including the Croydon Foundry Ltd, and Metal Propellers Ltd: some of these works had private sidings running from the railway line to their rear. South of Waddon was the large builder's yard of Grace and Marsh, and next to it Southern Foundries Ltd.

Opposite the gas works, another factory estate (made up of Commerce Way, Progress Way and Trojan Way) was laid out in the mid 1930s. Factories here included Trojan Ltd (car manufacturers), Bailey Meters and Controls Ltd, and Tizer Ltd (makers of the popular soft drink). Powers Accounting Machines (later better known as the 'Acc and Tab' Corporation), who were based in Aurelia Road, set up their card manufacturing department on the estate in about 1938.

Purley Way in front of Bowaters corrugated box factory, 1961 [143.4 PUR]

Other developments along the Purley Way included two large housing estates built by Croydon Council: the Waddon Estate (developed between the late 1920s and the late 1930s), and the Mitcham Road estate (built in the early 1930s). 150 acres of land opposite the airport was acquired by the Council in 1928, and laid out as sports fields. A popular open-air Bathing Pool opened here in 1935.

In the Second World War, the 32nd Surrey Battalion of the Home Guard was known as the Factory Battalion, and had the specific task of guarding the Purley Way factories: its units were mainly based on staff from the individual firms. The factories adjoining Croydon Airport took the worst of the air raid of 15 August 1940: the British NSF factory was almost entirely destroyed, and the Bourjois factory gutted, with a total of over sixty civilian deaths.

A new power station (Croydon 'B') had been planned for a site next to Waddon Marsh Bridge in 1939. Its construction was delayed by the war, but it was built in the late 1940s (to the designs of the architect Robert Atkinson), and came on stream in 1950-51. Its tall chimneys, along with the nearby cooling towers, came to dominate much of the Purley Way. Other industries also prospered after the war. Several of the existing factories expanded, including Trojan (which merged with Lambretta in 1959), and Bailey Meters. Other new factories appeared, notably the enormous Philips electronics factory, which opened in 1956 on a new site in Commerce Way. After Croydon Airport closed in 1959, the eastern side of its site was developed as the Imperial Way industrial estate.

By the 1970s, however, manufacturing industry was in decline, and factories began to close. This was a national trend, but an additional factor in Croydon was the development of other types of business and employment opportunities in the town centre, where office and retail activity were flourishing. In addition, the two great energy plants on the Purley Way reached the end of their natural lives: the Gas Works became redundant in 1976, as conversion to natural gas supply was completed; and Croydon 'B' was shut down in 1984 as part of the general phasing out of coal-fired power stations.

Retail Development

Thornton Road Industrial Estate had been developed in the mid 1970s on the former Aurelia Road/Thornton Road site of International Computers Ltd (the successor to Powers Accounting Machines). In the early 1980s, the estate became the initial focus in Croydon of a new phenomenon: the retail warehouse. This was a new type of retail shop which, for the retailer, had the advantage of a large site at low cost, and, for the customer, the advantage of easy access by car: it was especially suited to the sale of bulky goods such as furniture and DIY materials. The first retail warehouse on the estate was the Queensway furniture store (1980), closely followed by MFI furniture (1981), Payless DIY (1983) and Do It All (1986).

The trend was followed further down the Purley Way. Sainsbury's opened the first of a national chain of Homebase stores at the northern end of the road in 1981. Carpetland and Halfords (car accessories) opened stores further south. Large Habitat, Sainsbury's and Children's World stores were opened on the former Gas Works site in 1988-9: Habitat had moved from the Whitgift Centre, and Sainsbury's was a general food supermarket, so both demonstrated the growing popularity of out-of-town shopping locations over the town centre. By the early 1990s most of the early stores (Homebase, Payless, Do It All and MFI) had been able to expand or move to larger sites. Newcomers included Texas Homecare, World of Leather, and Comet (electrical goods). PC World, 'Europe's first computer superstore', opened in Trojan Way in 1991. Nearly all the new buildings were cheap-but-functional industrial structures, made of corrugated steel in eye-catching colours. One with a little more individuality was Wing Yip, a chinese food superstore opened in 1994 south of Stafford Road, which had a pagoda-style entrance archway and other embellishments.

Superstores on Purley Way (Toys 'R' Us and PC World), 1997 [143.4 PUR]

After some years of planning and debate, the large Valley Park site (on the sites of Croydon 'B' power station, Waddon Hospital, and part of Beddington Sewage Farm) was developed in the early 1990s, and became home to some of the largest superstores yet. New roads on the estate were given names inspired by power generation: Volta Way, Ampere Way, Galvani Way, and so on. The power station itself was demolished in 1991, and replaced by a 200,000 square foot IKEA furniture store (opened 1992): the old chimneys, with the addition of illuminated bands in the store's blue-and-yellow colours, were retained as a prominent advertisement. Over the next few years, the site filled with a wide range of stores, including B&Q (DIY goods), DFS (furniture), Carpet Depot, Home Workshop (furniture), Byte (computers), Outfit (fashion), Boots (chemist), and Sports Division (sporting goods). Cargo Club (an American-style warehouse shopping club, selling heavily-discounted goods to members) opened in 1994, but was not a success, and closed within a year.

IKEA, Valley Park, 1997 [143.4 VAL]

Alongside the burgeoning retail sector, Purley Way began to see the appearance of leisure and recreational facilities. The Water Palace (an ambitious indoor 'water park') opened next to the playing fields in 1990: it had continuing financial problems, however, and finally closed in 1996. Adjoining it, the Hilton National Hotel opened in 1994; and, in the same year, on the other side of the Purley Way, a TGI Friday's burger restaurant opened. On the Valley Park site, an 8-screen Warner Brothers multiplex cinema and a Ritz Bingo Club both opened in 1995. Several restaurants also opened here, including Frankie & Benny's (American Italian), Chiquito (Mexican), and McDonald's and Burger King drive-thru burger restaurants.

Although recent developments on the Purley Way have been a clear commercial success, they have not been universally welcomed. The transformation from industry to retailing and leisure came about through entrepreneurial initiative, not conscious planning: the concept of 'retail parks' on the Purley Way was not formally recognised by the Council until the adoption of the 1997 Unitary Development Plan, and in the meantime there had been a number of disputes over details of proposed developments. Many of the superstores openly flouted Sunday trading laws, until these were relaxed in 1994. The proliferation of stores (notably the development of Valley Park) has led to a growing problem of traffic congestion, especially at weekends, on what is still an important trunk road. Above all, there has been a debate - at both local and national level - over whether out-of-town shopping centres, like Purley Way and Valley Park, should be encouraged at all. The superstores, with their advantages of bulk purchasing and cheap sites, are criticised for competing unfairly with traditional small shops in town centres. By threatening the shops, which provide a specialist and more personal service, they are seen as threatening the character of the town, and disadvantaging non-car users, including the young, the elderly and the poor.

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Friday, 18 April, 2014


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