Growing up in Crawley between the two world wars

View from top of the Embassy cinema looking at what is now the route of the Boulevard
View from top of the Embassy cinema looking at what is now the route of the Boulevard

Dorothy Harris moved to Crawley in the 1930s and lived at the end of Tushmore Lane until 1952.

The Crawley she knew was a small, rural town and she moved away when the New Town began to take shape.

In 1994, she told the Observer: “I could understand it and applaud it, but when I saw trees being pulled down and fields where cows had grazed being built on, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted”.

Dorothy wrote the following account of life in Crawley between the wars. It paints a picture of a town unrecognisable to that we know today. Enjoy.

“To some of the newly arrived Londoners, Crawley seemed a quiet and somewhat lonely place in 1937. But it had a charm all its own and even newcomers appreciated its tranquillity after a while. There was a pace of life in Crawley, then, that was to be shattered forever in the turmoil of World War Two.

A stroll down Tushmore Lane in the 1930s revealed hedgerows entwined with honeysuckle and columbine; wrens and robins nested safely under the protection of violets and wild orchids.

Giant trees edged the fields, home to birds of all kinds. From these trees, on moonlit nights, nightingales and owls gave voice, mingling eerily with the cry of the fox.

Past County Oak and Jordans Farm, going towards Crawley Square, a collection of cottages edged the London Road. One of these was a small family owned parlour shop. Here they had a steady trade of lemonade, cakes, cups of tea and cigarettes. This low-ceilinged, raftered shop was very popular with passers-by and inhabitants alike.

Close by was a pond where moorhens nested and the cows came down from the fields to drink.

Who could have guessed that this would become the site of a luxurious international hotel (now the Crown Plaza)?

A cross-country footpath skirted the pond inviting a walk over stiles and fields, heavy with the scent of wild flowers. The lane meandered through bluebell woods, all the way to Ifield and Charlwood.

Approaching Crawley Square along London Road were many pretty cottages, houses and bungalows. These varied in age from 20 to several hundred years. Some were tiny, others quite impressive with long driveways.

On the corner of Woolborough Road, opposite the Sun Public House (now the Leisure Park), was a field where horses played. The local darts and football teams met in the Sun to drink a well-earned pint or two after their respective matches.

Nearby was the little general store owned by Mr and Mrs Dawkins. Mr Dawkins set out each day with his horse and cart, collecting and delivering orders as he had for many years past. Meanwhile, Mrs Dawkins served in the rather dark shop.

On offer were vegetables, candles, matches, bread - unwrapped of course - faggots, liquorice sticks and gobstoppers as well as dozens of items of household necessity. Overall hung the smell of paraffin, but nobody minded that because the elderly owners provided a great service.

Continuing on to Crawley itself, the road widened. On one side was the beginning of modernisation.

A small parade of shops, inlcuding a Woolworths, where everything was sixpence. The parade also included a great innovation for Crawley - the first modern 1930s-style cinema.

Across the road was the vicarage, with its long driveway, and the hall where the brownie pack and guides met. Then on to the Punch Bowl and the White Hart Inn. The latter reputed to be haunted and to have been the meeting place for smugglers in the distant past.

Opposite the George Hotel was a dairy, where a glass of milk cost one penny and a delivery service was offered.

Deliveries would be in quantities of half-pint up to one quart - cartons had yet to be invented. New arrivals in the area would find free samples of butter, cream and milk on their doorsteps - this was to encourage custom!

Crawley Square was the terminus for the double-decker country buses and also the rather more comfortable Green Lines. These would drop you at Croydon or London for a shilling. St John’s Church with its beautiful peal of bells and the George Hotel stood sentinel overlooking the Square, lending an air of timelessness as they had for centuries past. The ghosts of past travellers seemed to linger in the George’s cobbled yards.

Dividing the London Road at the Ancient Priors tea shop was a curious bank of shops forming a small island in the middle of the road.

Apparently, this whole block had once formed an annex to the George. Queen Victoria was said to have been the most distinguished traveller to have used the annex.

In 1937, though, the use was more mundane. Among the stores were a wool shop, a penny lending library and a high-class secondhand goods shop.

To the right of this block, on the corner of Ifield Road, was a drapers, then further along a fish shop and then the splendid china, glass and hardware shop, owned by Miss Daisy Warren and her sister.

On the opposite side of the road was the old-fashioned tea rooms and bakery, run by the two Miss Hills. Buttered scones with raspberry jam and a pot of tea was one penny.

Past Penfolds the corn and coal merchants, crossing the Three Bridges Road, you came to the Post Office. This was quite a splendid, modern building, having only been built a few years. Later it was devastated by bomb and machine gun fire during the war.

Eventually you reached the station and its level-crossing gates. And although fewer people owned cars in those days, the traffic hold-up when the gates were closed was quite spectacular.

In the 1930s the average wage was £2 per week, and a five pound note was so unusual that the shopkeeper required you to sign the back with your name and address before he would accept it.