I always reckon you can learn almost as much about British history walking through the centre of Crawley as you can wading through a whole stack of books.
It’s true you won’t find much in the way of kings, queens or battles but the town and its history are a mine of information about how ordinary people lived and the changes which were to affect their lives.
Up to a point, I suppose this can be said about any town but Crawley is special since it was singled out, along with seven others within a few miles of London, to become one of the nation’s first experimental ‘new towns’.
For well over 100 years until the last war, Crawley’s identity had grown around the High Street with its small shops and family businesses - the ‘butcher, baker and candlestick maker’ - and which could be found on both sides.
The changes which breezed through the town centre like a whirlwind in the 10 years from about 1954 when The Broadwalk was opened, were perhaps among the most dramatic in those early years of the new town, since Crawley’s appearance, character and tradition were directly threatened.
Ancient cottages, sedate villas and quiet meadows which had been left undisturbed for centuries, were now swept aside to make way for the new, brash shops of first The Broadwalk, soon to be followed by The Broadway, Martletts and Queens Square.
There was to be no stronger and brighter sign that some sort of bewildering ‘brave new world’ had arrived, since with the new shops, stores and American style supermarkets, there came not just new buildings but a whole new way of life.
Those High Street shopkeepers and tradesmen who had continued the traditions and crafts of generations past, and who had played a leading part in local life, were soon to be replaced by the friendly and efficient, yet largely anonymous store managers, whose loyalty, naturally enough, belonged more to their company than to the town, and who were liable to be moved on from branch to branch.
At first, ‘old towners’ looked on with barely concealed disapproval as the bulldozers ploughed their way through hedgerows, uprooted trees and turned much loved and familiar fields into muddy building sites.
However as, one by one, the spanking new shops and chainstores opened, disapproval gave way to relunctant curiosity and once Queens Square, named after the Queen to commemorate the royal visit in June 1958, flung wide its plate glass doors for business, keen shoppers walked into an Aladdin’s cave!
For the first time, shopping was to become a leisure activity rather than a chore.
There is little doubt that the jewel in Crawley New Town’s crown during the late 1950s and early 1960s was Queensway Store, a huge department store of plate glass, which featured in Crawley’s guidebooks as much as the George and the Parish Church had done in previous editions, such as in this one, which dates from about 1959.
You can almost hear the twanging guitars of The Shadows in the background as you read it!
“Completely dominating the shopping centre of Crawley New Town is the magnificent glass-walled four-storey Queensway Store...Queensway is a department store of beautiful design, smooth efficiency and comprehensive planning, and has departments for every need, set out in the most modern and effective way.
“Prominently sited on the ground floor is the magnificent self-service food hall, its shelves and counters temptingly displayed for self-selection and where all perishable foods are kept safely in refrigerators and giant cold rooms.
“In the fashion accessory departments, also on the ground floor, the matching of gloves, handbag and umbrella are made a pleasure rather than an endless search.
“The Man’s Shop shows the newest styles for the up-to-the-moment young man, while for his more conventional brother, there is a large selection of traditional menswear.
“As well as wide staircases, there is an escalator inviting customers to the fashion departments on the first floor, where the most famous names in fashion are fully represented.
“The household departments of the store are a home-lover’s haven - lovely furnishing fabrics, occasional furniture in contemporary design, kitchenware, all the latest gadgets and labour-saving devices, radio and television departments and, of course, the record bar, where you can sit and listen to the very latest discs.
“Queensway Store is a really new store in a really new town!”
This article was first published in the Crawley Observer in 1998.