Croydon’s Communist Roots

Like many pubs in the UK, The Waddon in south London closed during lockdown and never reopened. Its future is uncertain, which is a great shame considering its fascinating but unlikely role in social-political history.

Waddon is a western district of the London borough of Croydon heading out towards the neighbouring borough of Sutton. Waddon railway station, on a branch line between London and Epsom, opened in 1863. Shortly afterwards, the pub opened opposite the station as the Waddon Hotel. Towards the end of the century, Waddon became the main location for Croydon’s growing industries which soon included a large complex of water, gas and electricity works.

Incredibly, about this time, the Waddon Hotel became the headquarters of the first organised commune in the UK based on Russian socialist principles, thus staking its claim for a place in the story of modern Communism.

The Vine Branch Church on Tamworth Road – at one time, the church of the Croydon Brotherhood.

In 1894, a band of devotees of the Leo Tolstoy, legendary Russian writer of the seminal epic ‘War and Peace’, decided to form the Croydon Brotherhood, a group governed by the principles laid out by the novelist. They opened the Croydon Brotherhood Church at the former Christian Mission on Tamworth Road in West Croydon. The building was previously the first permanent mission station established outside central London by the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth. As the Vine Branch Church, it still operates as a Christian chapel today.

The Croydon Brotherhood held their meetings on Sunday evenings. Peter Kropotkin, the Russian social-revolutionary activist and philosopher who advocated anarcho-communism, gave a lecture here. Co-author of the Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels, who was then living in London, is also said to have attended meetings.

The leader of the group, John Kenworthy travelled to Russia to meet Tolstoy and thereafter, the novelist agreed to fund the Croydon Brotherhood. Soon, a co-operative store opened nearby on Pitlake Bridge selling food, books and tobacco.

Within a year, the group was renting the Waddon Hotel, which they turned into a temporary hostel named ‘Brotherhood House’, officially described as ‘The Centre for the Brotherhood Church & the Fellowship of New Life’.

The Waddon -historic pub under threat of redevelopment.

It was run by Mary & Walter Order “on very free lines for young men interested in the movement.” The store moved here, and soon the pub became the main HQ of the group’s administrative and ‘commercial’ arms. The group expanded into food distribution, tailoring, dressmaking, boot-making and laundry. A local socialist printing press published the group’s newspaper entitled ‘The New Order’.

In 1896, they purchased a plot of ten acres in Purleigh, Essex where an agrarian colony was established, living by communist principles that renounced ‘rent, interest and profit’. This was the forerunner of several similar colonies in the UK.

Tolstoy’s editor and private secretary Vladimir Chertkov, who had been exiled from Russia with his family, took residency in a large house on Duppas Hill around the corner from the hotel. From here he wrote the book ‘Christian Martyrdom in Russia’, which contained a chapter written by Tolstoy. Aylmer Maude, Tolstoy’s biographer, also lived here for a while. It is also claimed Russian royal princess Helena Petrovna and her court officials were temporary guests at Chertkov’s house and visited the hotel. Chertkov later returned to Russia where he advised the new government on religion after the 1917 Revolution.

In 1897, an annexe to the Waddon Hotel was used to house the Doukhobour refugees. The Doukhobours were a non-Orthodox Russian Christian minority from settlements in Georgia and the Transcaucasian region. Similar to the British non-conformist, they rejected clergy and rituals and sought a direct connection to God. Many were vegetarian, teetotal and pacifist and worked as a commune for the greater good rejecting personal materialism. They found Tolstoy’s philosophy similar to their traditional teachings.

In the late 19th century, the Doukhobors faced persecution at home from their opposition to regulations, taxes and conscription. In 1897, the Russian government agreed to let them leave the country. About one-third of the total Doukhobor population emigrated to Canada, but some came to western European states including Britain. The Quakers and Tolstoyan movement helped cover most of the costs of passage, as did Peter Kropotkin’s supporters.

At the same time, a section of the Croydon Brotherhood commune splintered off to become the officially known as the Croydon Anarchist Group, following Peter Kropotkin’s lead on anarcho-communism, and signalling the end of the original Croydon movement.

In 1898, Brotherhood House was taken over by Edgar Bottle who opened it as a socialist home and renamed it ‘Morris House’, after the British writer and artist William Morris who had major connections to the neighbouring borough of Merton. According to an advertisement in ‘Seed Time’ magazine: “Morris House has been opened as a home for advanced thinkers and socialists of all kinds and both sexes. The house is opposite the railway station and is within easy reach of the country. The rooms are large and the household arrangements are described as ‘middle-class, but democratic’ – members of the family taking a share of the domestic work. Board and residence costs from 14s to 18s a week.

The Croydon Brotherhood, in whatever guise, seems to have been dissolved by 1900.

A couple of decades later, the Waddon Hotel would embrace an entirely different lease of life. In 1920, the world’s first purpose-built international airport opened in Waddon fields. For the next few years, it was the busiest airport in Europe, and before the Aerodrome Hotel opened on Purley Way in 1928, the Waddon Hotel often welcomed the world’s first frequent flyers.

When the Waddon housing estate was built in the 1930s, the hotel, renamed ‘The Waddon’, became a traditional local pub, and it remained that way until the lockdown of 2020.

The building still stands, but it is currently boarded up and its future is uncertain, being under the constant threat of redevelopment. Given its connections to Russian history, Communist history and even pub history, surely someone would be interested in preserving its heritage?

Relics of Croydon’s unlikely Communist roots still just about survive.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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