Our History

Welcome to The Fairfield Halls archive. We hope you're enjoying exploring it.

In this section we'll tell you about how The Fairfield Halls got here, and what the future holds.

Pre-1962

Fairfield stands on the site of a field that was used for a fair for five and a half centuries. The picture shown is a contemporary painting of the fair that is now in the Croydon Art Collection. It is displayed now and again in the Croydon Museum. As it was painted at the time of the fair it is probably a reasonable impression of what the fair actually looked like.

Regular fairgoers were greatly surprised when the sober Victorian burghers of Croydon banned the fair in 1866. This was because the Council thought that the fair had become far too badly behaved and was attracting the ‘wrong sort' into the area.

In 1866 the land was sold to the Brighton Railway Company and as late as 1933 the site was used for sidings and workshops. In the early thirties there was a rumour that the site may revert back to a place of dubious entertainments, this time as a greyhound stadium. So Croydon Corporation acted swiftly and bought up the land for use as the site for a new civic centre for Croydon.

A competition was held to design the new civic centre, a winner was announced and a prize of £500 handed over. This was a fairly cheap way of getting a lot of prominent architects to do work for free! The picture shows the winning design.

Unfortunately the public of Croydon, who may have favoured the dog track idea, did not share its Council's enthusiasm for the centre and in 1938 the plans were shelved with the excuse of ‘having regard for the international situation' i.e. the possibility of another war looming.

When war was declared in 1939 there were extreme plans to excavate the area and build a bomb shelter for 30,000 people and, surprisingly, 800 cars. This was scrapped because the council thought it might become an underground ‘city' of permanent refuge rather than a temporary shelter. They did however build a form of shelter on the site made out of concrete sewer-main tubes strengthened with bricks. These could hold up to 300 people, and probably no cars!

In 1940 a damaged Messerschmidt ME109 was displayed on the Fairfield as a fundraiser for the local spitfire fund. The German fighter plane had been shot down over Surrey and it was lent by the Air Ministry to help raise £5000 for a spitfire that would bear the Croydon coat of arms. It was here for ten days and 26,000 people paid to see it.

As a result of the war work didn't start on the Fairfield site until the late 1950s.

The architects chosen were Robert Atkinson and Partners. Robert Atkinson (1883 to 1952) had been an architect that worked mostly in an art deco style. His more famous buildings include the Daily Express lobby, the Barber Institute in Birmingham Wallington Town Hall and Croydon B Power Station. The power station is now demolished but the twin chimneys remain as tall adverts for IKEA. However Robert himself had been dead by the time his firm started drawing up the plans for Fairfield, which is most definitely not Art Deco and is in fact modelled on the Royal Festival Hall from ten years earlier. Some similarities are quite startling including the lettering fonts, tiling and marbling. The drawing is the original architects drawing.

The Opening

Fairfield was opened in 1962. There are effectively three ‘halls'. These are The Concert Hall, the Ashcroft Theatre and The Arnhem Gallery. It's always been a source of conjecture as to whether it should be described as The Fairfield Hall (i.e. just describing the Concert Hall) or Fairfield Halls (as in all three spaces). The public have always described it as ‘halls' and these days we tend to describe at as ‘The Fairfield Halls' too. This is because it tends to be more descriptive of a ‘complex of venues', which is what it is.

The Queen Mother opened Fairfield on Friday 2nd November 1962. This was covered extensively in the press and praise lavished up Fairfield Halls ‘imaginative and bold design'. What wasn't known was that Queen Mother had a fractured foot and the opening was nearly called off. After the ceremony she then attended the inaugural concert which was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcom Sergeant, with the soloist being the famous Yehudi Menhuin.

The Concert Hall

The Concert Hall can seat 1794 people and its acoustic quality is internationally recognised. Hence it has seen many recordings of live concerts. The concert platform (it isn't a ‘stage'!) has fifteen hydraulic lifts that raise or lower different sections, which means it is very flexible. There is a rumour that the lifts came out of another older venue and are very old. The picture shows the platform being built.

There is no proscenium arch, but we sometimes build a temporary one. There are choir stalls and there is an organ of some repute.

It is a raked auditorium with fixed seating and only the first two rows ‘on the flat' can be removed easily. This does put it at a disadvantage, especially in terms of capacity for contemporary music. By modern measures it is a small venue, and it does not have the flexibility to increase capacity by removing all the seats for standing audiences. The access at the rear of the Concert Hall is also inconvenient as it is one floor up from the loading bay and thus it is difficult to take shows with large set-ups.

However, it is the acoustics that are astounding, especially for classical music. Even the holes in the seat bottoms are designed to give the same acoustic reflection whether occupied or not.

They say all the acoustic mistakes were made in the Festival Hall, and then they got it right here. Hence they have recently spent a lot of money on putting it right at the Festival Hall.

Everyone has played on our concert platform including The Beatles in 1963, they did two dates and there were 2 performances on April 25th 1963 and another date in September of that year. Although Fairfield wasn't the first place they'd played in Croydon as they'd played an earlier gig at the ABC Cinema opposite West Croydon station.

The Ashcroft Theatre

The Ashcroft Theatre seats 763 and was opened on November 5th 1962 by Croydon-born actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft, after whom it is named. The opening ceremony included the reading of a monologue specially penned by Sir John Betjemen called ‘Local Girl Makes Good'. The first play was ‘Royal Gambit' starring Dulcie Grey.

The auditorium is on two tiers with the stalls heavily raked. The front of the circle is unadorned and the straight walls have natural finishes. The stage, with false proscenium, is well equipped with 30 single purchase counterweight sets for flying, and an orchestra pit on a hydraulic lift which can accommodate up to 16 players. Alterations to the forestage were undertaken to lessen the barrier provided by the original Juliet balcony and side door structures.

Again there's a long list of names that have trodden the boards at The Ashcroft Theatre and these include Richard Todd, Rex Harrison and Dame Peggy herself.

Safety Curtains go way back to the days of gas lighting and were meant to stop a fire onstage or backstage spreading to the auditorium. Our Curtain was painted in 1982 by an artist called Henry Bird. A Northampton based artist famous for his murals and curtains. He died in 2000 aged 90.

There are a lot of detail, symbols and meanings in the curtain and they include references to the days of the Croydon Fair, the travelling players, famous artistic Croydonians and old English customs.

The theatre fell into decline as a proper theatre from about 1990 onwards. However the good news is that we have re-launched the Ashcroft Theatre over the last two years with regular weekly touring shows and our own productions.

The Arnhem Gallery

The Arnhem Gallery was originally conceived as an art gallery but proved in adequate mostly due to the original glass roof which made it more of a greenhouse. It was named after Croydon's twin-town of Arnhem in Holland. In the foyer of the Arnhem is a tribute to the WWII battle fought there and subsequently immortalised in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far'. Indeed the first art exhibition (seen by over 5000 in the first week) was an exhibition of artists from Arnhem and Croydon.

As the Arnhem Gallery proved impractical as an art gallery it was soon converted into a banqueting area. It gets used for a lot of things including exhibitions, boxing matches, cabarets and parties. Most recently we've been able to equip it for live contemporary music for stand-up audiences for up to 400 people. This has been the result of the relaxation of licensing issues and solving some technical problems like sound leakage.

It still gets used for big banquets and weddings and we do all our own catering for everything at Fairfield.

Queen Elizabeth II herself sat down to lunch in the Arnhem Gallery on June 21st 1983 and sent us a nice letter saying how she much she enjoyed it.

Dressing Rooms and Ancillary Rooms

We have 14 dressing rooms ranging from larger communal ones to smaller private ones for the big names. We also have a number of smaller rooms that are used for meetings and rehearsals. There is also our new foyer and our Sun Lounge where we've recently built our champagne bar. This was used as the set for the 1963 Detroit office of the Head of General Motors in the film Made in Dagenham.

Management and Funding

Fairfield was totally funded and managed by Croydon Council for most of its history but in 1993 we became an independent charity. Therefore we are not run or managed by the Council, although they own the land and we lease the building from them. They allow us to be here rent-free.

When we became a charity we also began to receive an annual ‘discretionary operating grant' of up to £1m a year. In 2001 the grant was reduced to zero due to funding cuts at the Council. Since then we have mostly had to survive off our own mettle by cutting costs and developing more revenue generating streams like conferences, catering, bars and religious meetings. Hence Fairfield now hosts some fairly high profile conferences as well as pure entertainment and arts.

Indeed we've become a bit of a textbook case of ‘how to do it' in light of the fact that most other publicly-subsidised venues are now losing their public funding as spending gets cut all around.

However the good news is that Fairfield has recently seen some annual funding return to us via Croydon Council which will see us through to a £30m redevelopment.

We are still a charity however and times are hard for entertainment audiences, touring shows and conference organisers. Margins have never been tighter and we still have to generate most of our own funding so we continue to rely on the goodwill of our sponsors and our corporate and individual donors. It is their continued generosity that continues to allow us to act as a stage (or platform!) for both professional and local arts here in Croydon.

The Future

Our new main bar and foyer has seen us fire the opening shots in the changes we need to make to Fairfield to make it good for another 50 years. Some of the changes we've had to make already are to enable us to generate more of our own funding. For instance our new Foyer has been instrumental in recently attracting some large conferences to Croydon, which is good news for us and local hotels, shops and restaurants.

There are a lot more changes we need to make and, although plans are still being considered, this is where the £30m phased redevelopment comes in. There are issues around access at the back, electrics, more flexible spaces, catering, air management and accessibility for all. These are changes that will increase the enjoyment of patrons, bring events to Fairfield and help us generate our own revenue funding in the future. We still need the help and patience of the people and businesses of Croydon to help us achieve this and we hope that we can continue to count on your support now and in the future.

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If you have any issues or questions regarding this archive, please contact John Spring, Head of Marketing at the Fairfield, on 020 8603 3874 or email johnspring@fairfield.co.uk