Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Croydon Heritage Festival and the Role of Whitgift Foundation – Part 1

‘Thank you for mentioning our school, 
whose history is so hidden but so fascinating.’ 

So wrote 14 year old Zara Kesterton of Old Palace of John Whitgift School in a letter to the BBC History magazine last June, commenting on an article about Thomas Cromwell. This is a reminder how a local heritage building can link into national and indeed  international stories, and inspire young people to develop a historical interest and understanding.

Across its three schools (Old Palace, Whitgift and Trinity) the Whitgift Foundation is well placed to use these as bases for introducing Croydonians and pupils from other schools to some of the riches of Croydon’s local history, especially the complexity of religion and politics under the Tudors, the on-going role of the Archbishops and then the Foundation as landowner and major economic and political player. Can you imagine ‘the value added’ this would give to pupils across the Borough and its knock-on effect across developing the thirst to learn?

Scepticism about Whitgift

Given the scepticism about the actual role played by the Foundation many will regard me as naive. Perhaps I am but I believe that change is possible, and that change only happens when people argue and act for it.

Scepticism has been particularly aired through postings on Inside Croydon and in emails to me, but was usefully counterbalanced by Croydon Citizen writer Liz Shephard-Jones (see end of Part 2). At the heart of the argument is concern about whether its massive importance as  landowner and through that its effect on the local economy is beneficial to the majority of Croydonians, or just to private profit making through deals such as that with with Westfield and Hammerson? While it is a charity which is not legally accountable to the public, should it not have to justify its ‘public benefit’ as a charity to Croydonians? Some people consider that it should be contributing a lot more to the Borough’s arts, culture, education and heritage activity.

The Birth of the Festival

Let’s give the Foundation its due. The idea for the Festival was the inspiration of Catherine Shirley, its Marketing and Communications Manager, and was discussed with the Croydon Local Studies Forum. And so the first Croydon Heritage Festival last year was born. The organisation was undertaken on its behalf by PR consultants White Label, which appears to have a reputation of not talking to residents and small businesses, and working in closed meetings with Whitgift, Councillors and larger businesses. 

Seeing last year’s Festival as an opportunity to publicise the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network and enable the start of publicity about the newly formed Croydon Radical History Network, I ran a stall as part of the day event in North End. I was not impressed by White Label’s organisational competence, not improved by their running of the subsequent Wandle Park Open Day.

Festival Survey Findings

Whitgift undertook a survey on reactions to the Festival and found:

·         98% said Croydon Heritage Festival should be an annual event
·         98% thought it was important to celebrate the Borough's heritage
·         98% thought it would raise the Borough's profile

Such surveys are generally meaningless because they ask the wrong questions. Far better to ask people what they learnt from looking at the stalls, whether they joined a local group, or whether they would act to find out more.

The Foundation also believes that Croydon Heritage Day saw town centre footfall increase by 34%. Although footfall increased it was interesting from a stall holder’s perspective to see how few people actually stopped to look at stalls.

The survey at least has given backing to the Foundation to run the Festival again this year. It will start off on Saturday 21 June in North End and Exchange Square, Old Town including a performance stage, street performance and stalls, and run through to Friday 4 July. Whitgift is handling most of the organisation of the Festival in house by the staff member whose conceived the idea in the first place.

Core Elements

Core elements will be:

·     Heritage Exhibition running for the two week duration of the Festival in the Sun Lounge at Fairfield Halls, and featuring exhibits from local historical organisations and community groups with pre-show performances by local schools in the Foyer.
·     Open days and tours of Croydon’s landmark buildings, including Croydon Airport, Tramlink Depot, Whitgift Almshouses, Old Palace, Croydon Minster and Davidson Lodge. Many buildings are able to accommodate daytime tours for local school children.
·     Talks and workshops. A programme of talks in Croydon Libraries on Croydon’s past, present and future. Workshops on the River Wandle and Whitgift Centre artist-in-residence project.
·     Walking tours of Croydon Town Centre. Led by Croydon Tours and River Wandle Project Officer throughout the two week period.
·     Heritage Trail. In association with Croydon Old Town Business Association.

Yes this sounds very much like a repeat of activities from last year. But that is the nature of Heritage Festivals. Repeating activities year on year enables those who could not attend one year to do so in another, and newcomers to take part as well.

Participation Without Illusions

Boycotting the Festival will only help to keep Whitgift locked into its silo and its very close connection with the ruling political party and property developers. The more groups engage with them through things like the Heritage Festival the more they may be prepared to open up and assess what wider role they can play.

I believe that those who remain sceptical of Whitgift, and the lack of a budget to help groups participate, can take part without having any illusions about the Foundation’s current or potential future role. The Festival provides an opportunity for local history, amenity and community groups and others to showcase their history publications and projects, and to run activities that can involve the public, like walks. We know the value of local heritage activity to contributing to increasing awareness of neighbourhoods people live in and the need to be vigilant in the face of unwanted changes. We know the value that children can get from looking at local heritage.

Festival Contact Details

So let’s encourage as many groups of all types to get involved in this year’s Festival. The Festival will be supported by a dedicated website. There will be overlap with some of the locally based Festivals, such as the Upper Norwood Triangle (26-29 June) and Purley (28-29 June). The website should also promote them, and discuss with their organisers adding in heritage activities if not already included into their programmes. To take part please contact 

Catherine Shirley
Marketing and Communications Manager, 
The Whitgift Foundation 
 020 8256 1579

To be continued

Debate on Whitgift

David Callam reservations about Festival 14 March and 23 May 2013

Liz Shephard-Jones highly enthusiastic review 9 July 2013
The Meads and Whitgift 8 May2013

David Callam in defence of Whitgift 23 December 1913

Susan Oliver critical 23 December 2013
‘Let’s not forget the amazing amount of power this organisation holds in town. Let’s not be afraid to hold this group to account.’

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