ANCIENT CROYDON

The traditions of ancient Croydon were 'pagan', which really means 'pertaining to the countryside'. After the official conversion of the people to Christianity, such practices largely went underground as Christian authority took a stronger hold on urban society. While many remain today as quaint customs, often in Christianized form, the actual evidence for ancient beliefs largely consists of relics from burials.

STONE AGE

The Museum of London dig at the former Philips Electronics site unearthed evidence of human activity from around 10,000 years ago. Flint flakes indicate the presence of tool-making hunters, but nothing is known of their beliefs.

BRONZE AGE

The people of the Bronze Age are known to have been religious, as they built such monuments as Stonehenge (although its precise use is still disputed). They often buried their dead in mounds, as seen at Croham Hurst. A plaque on the hilltop marks the site of this Scheduled Ancient Monument, which can be difficult to make out. It is a small bowl barrow, around 40' in diameter and just 18" high. There is no visible trace of an outer bank or ditch. However, evidence for its being a barrow rather than just a residual mass of the local ferruginous conglomerate includes the discovery of a round scraper and a chopping tool during excavations in 1968.

THE CELTS

Writers have speculated that the Britons had holy places in the woods of Haling. However, the lack of indigenous written records makes this period largely 'prehistoric'. The district was heavily forested, and as the oak, sacred tree of the druids, is common here, it is reasonable to assume that local oak groves would have been used by the Celtic priesthood.

Evidence for the presence of Celts around Croydon is provided by place names. The element 'coombe' occurs frequently. This derives from the Celtic 'cwm' meaning 'valley', later modified by the Anglo-Saxons to 'cumb'.

Circumstantial evidence includes the presence of many streams and springs. The original settlement of Croydon was at the foot of the hill around the parish church and Waddon. Duppas Hill has been seen as a place where druidic rites would have been carried out, while the vale and base of the hill were well-watered until relatively recently. Running streams were the water of life to the Celts and gave access to the underworld. Sacred wells had magical properties and contained healing waters.

ROMAN

Moving a little closer to our times, a Roman villa was discovered on the site of Beddington Sewage Farm as recently as 1871. Finds included coins, pottery, hypocaust tiles, oyster shells and the bones of various small animals and birds. A lead coffin from this site is now in Beddington church, while a stone coffin is on view in the dovecote in Beddington Park. A dig in 1995 revealed Roman occupation of a site near the Croydon Flyover, with evidence to suggest that Croydon was a staging post for the Imperial Messenger Service. Until then, central Croydon had been thought to be largely Anglo-Saxon. Romano-British settlements have been discovered on Coulsdon Downs and Croham Hurst.

SAXON

Saxon mercenaries helped the Romans defend British shores from attack, but a mutiny after the departure of the Romans led to an influx of invaders.

Many Saxon remains have been found in Croydon, including burial mounds, boundary ditches and sites of farms. Several of the borough's churches had Saxon origins, including the parish church of St John the Baptist and St Mary's in Addington village. Little evidence of housing has survived, as the Saxons largely built in wood. Thunderfield Common was the place where the people of Addington would meet to elect their representatives on the Witanagemot, the 'meeting of wise men' who advised the king.

Interest in Croydon's Saxon past was revived in 1992 with the discovery under 82-90 Park Lane of a 4th century burial ground containing both cremation pots and graves. By decision of the Department of the Environment, the site is to be preserved under an office block car park without further excavation. Another cemetery in Croydon had been unearthed during road building in the 1890s. Discoveries include cremation pots, graves and spearheads.

A cemetery was discovered in the same field as Beddington Roman villa. As it contained armour, daggers, shield bosses, and sepulchral urns marked with elegant patterns, it is held to date from the time before the Saxons were forcibly converted to Christianity and no longer permitted to bury such objects. Cremations were carried out by the Germanic tribes in order to release the soul from the body. As they were worried about hauntings, some cremation urns had little windows to allow the soul to come and go. Some inhumations were also found, which is common in areas where Saxons lived alongside Roman sites. The graves are believed to have been dug by the Germanic tribes initially invited to Britain to bolster its defences when the Romans pulled out.

Most sites that have been excavated are in the countryside, where access is easier. One grave on Farthing Down contained a woman's body, contorted as if she had been buried alive. This was probably the case as women, generally slaves, were often killed (after drinking vast quantities of alcohol) to accompany a man in the afterlife. A great many tumuli believed to date from the 6th or 7th century have been found at Farthing Down. The graves were cut into solid chalk and are less than 3 ft deep. Some daggers and drinking cups were found, along with silver pins to hold clothing together. The fact that the skeletons face west and there is no trace of funeral or cremation pottery does not mean they were Christian. This position is just one of many found in Saxon cemeteries.

Headless burials are among the many forms of Saxon inhumation found around Croydon, including the Cane Hill site excavated around 1912-15. The suggestion is that heads were taken as war trophies, and some warrior burials at Riddlesdown even include extra skulls. However, some bodies were deliberately decapitated, the skull being placed elsewhere in the grave. This may have been an attempt to prevent the spirit of the dead from disturbing the living. A skull from the Cane Hill site is now held by the Horniman Museum.

Many English customs have their origins in Saxon practices, but the invaders never really developed an Anglo-Saxon mythology. When they arrived from what is now Denmark and northern Germany, the Saxons were pagans. They worshipped gods such as Thor and Woden, from whom their leaders claimed direct and remarkably recent descent.

By the time the Northumbrian monk Bede wrote his 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People' in the early 8th century, Christianity was widespread. However, since the people had often been forced to convert, many rural areas, where the Church found it difficult to impose its authority, stayed loyal to their pagan traditions for a considerable time.

The large number of Saxon settlements in this area is shown in today's place names. Croydon itself was once written 'Crogdaen', the most likely meanings being 'sheep valley', 'crooked valley' or 'saffron valley'. Virtually all place names in and around Croydon are of Saxon or Old English origin, with some reflecting Scandinavian influence. The Effra, a stream that rises on the north-west side of Norwood Hill, is named after a Saxon elf of the woods.

The etymology of some place names

(Anglo-Saxon and Old English)

Addington Aeddi's farm
Bandon bean hill
Beddington Beadda's farm
Carshalton cress farm by the spring head
Croham Hurst the crows' home in the wood
Haling the people of Healla
Norbury north enclosure/ burial mound/ manor/ hill
Riddlesdown cleared woodland
Scarbrook clear brook
Selhurst dwelling + wood or hillside wood
Shirley boundary meadow
Waddington wheat hill
Waddon wet or wheat valley; woad hill
Wallington settlement of strangers (eg. Celts among the Saxons)
Wandle water dale

Alternative interpretations dismissed as over-imaginative nevertheless deserve a mention. These include 'holy meadow' for Haling, based on the belief that the land was used by the druids and later named by the Anglo-Saxons to show their respect for Romano-British hallowed sites. Waddon has also been interpreted as derived from 'Woden', reflecting the belief that the site was sacred to the worship of the powerful Nordic god. The lack of any final element to the word, as in Wedensbury/Wansdyke, has been used as evidence against this. However, some old maps give the area as 'Waddons', which can be interpreted as a possessive. So maybe the area was dedicated to Woden after all!

Perhaps it is fanciful to imagine a more exotic past for Croydon. However, if people ever believed that the gods had an influence over their area, these beliefs cannot fail to have had an effect on people's minds.

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