The Past and Present of Croydon's London Road

25 London Road: West Croydon Post Office/Posh Afro Cosmetics

25 October 2013

25 London Road is the home of the West Croydon Post Office, as well as a beauty products shop known as Posh Afro Cosmetics. It’s been a post office since the mid-1970s, though the beauty products are a rather later addition.

West Croydon Post Office/Posh Afro Cosmetics, 25 London Road, December 2011. Photo: author's own.

1860s–1880s: Construction of the building; and books, stationery, and Berlin wool

Numbers 23–29 London Road were constructed together around 1869–1872, filling a gap between two pre-existing blocks of buildings. Their neighbours to the south at numbers 13–21 had been in place since 1863, while those to the north at number 31 upwards were slightly older, having been there since at least 1855.[1]

The first business to open at number 25 was Miss Penson’s book and stationery shop. Wilkins’ 1872–3 street directory lists Miss Penson simply as a stationer, but Ward’s 1874, 1876, and 1878 directories give the premises a rather more extensive listing as a “Berlin wool, book, and stationery warehouse”.

Berlin wool was a woollen yarn used for the type of embroidery which today would be referred to as needlepoint, counted-thread embroidery, tapestry work, canvas work, or cross-stitch.[2] The name came from the fact that the yarn was dyed and packaged in Berlin, and the pattern charts were also printed there.[3]

The yarn was inexpensive, brightly coloured, and relatively thick in diameter; and the designs were worked on a coarse canvas following a pattern designed on a grid and printed onto paper or even directly onto the canvas.[4] In contrast to other more elaborate forms of embroidery, production of Berlin work was thus both quick and easy. It was popular with the women of the Victorian middle and upper classes not only for the end result but also for the process, which provided entertainment, an outlet for artistic expression, and an opportunity for socialising.[5]

Miss Penson departed London Road around 1878, and the premises were taken over by W Cubit (or perhaps Cubitt), who continued to sell books, stationery, and Berlin wool until around 1882, when George William Bennett took over for a brief time. George Bennett is listed in Ward’s 1884 directory as running a “Berlin wool, toy, and stationery warehouse”, apparently having given up on books.[6]

Woman’s purse decorated with Berlin wool work, c.1840, held in the Costume and Textiles collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This is a crop of an image placed in the public domain by LACMA, found via Wikimedia Commons. The purse has no Croydon connection as far as I’m aware; I use the image merely to indicate the type of item that would have been produced with Miss Penson’s goods.

1880s–1900s: Tea and coffee

By 1885, use of the building had switched from leisure pursuits to grocery shopping, with a succession of tea and coffee dealers appearing in Ward’s directories from that year onwards: first Frederick Rayment (1885–1886), then Henry Dawkins (1887–1890), and finally John Staff & Son (1891–1909).[7]

John Staff & Son was founded at Pitfield Street in Hoxton, in 1814. It specialised in teas from Ceylon, and indeed gave 25 London Road the name of Ceylon House (a rather grand name for this small terraced building, and one of which no trace remains today). As well as teas and coffees, the London Road shop also stocked sugars, biscuits, and tinned and bottled goods including “home-made” jams.[8]

1910s: E Coles, confectioner, and Madame Julia, milliner

Next to move in to 25 London Road was a confectioner called E Coles, though this was only a brief stay; by the time data was gathered for Ward’s 1912 directory, the premises were vacant. A milliner named Madame Julia made a similarly brief appearance around 1913, but by 1915 the use had swung back to groceries, with the arrival of the Maypole Dairy Company.[9]

1910s–1920s: The Maypole Dairy Company

The Maypole Dairy Company was founded in 1887 by three brothers: Arthur, Charles, and George Watson.[10] Its shops specialised in butter and margarine, as well as eggs, tea, and condensed milk.[11]

When it opened its London Road shop, around 1915, Maypole had over 900 branches and was the largest British manufacturer of margarine.[12] Its main competitors in the margarine business were two Dutch firms, Jurgens’ and Van den Bergh’s.[13] Margarine was a very important commodity at this time. Not only did butter became scarce during the First World War — the amount of margarine consumed in Britain nearly doubled between 1914 and 1916[14] — but margarine had seen a rise in popularity even before the war, with a similar doubling of consumption taking place between 1906 and 1913.[15] Charles Wilson’s History of Unilever explains this pre-war increase in popularity not just by the increasing gap between butter and margarine prices, but also by improvements in quality and a large-scale advertising campaign.[16]

However, by the middle of the 1920s, Maypole’s business was in decline. The company had always focused on a small number of commodities, with the main one being a relatively cheap margarine which accounted for around three-quarters of their profits.[17] Now, though, British incomes were rising and butter prices were decreasing, and even the better-quality margarine produced by Maypole’s Dutch rivals was proving hard to sell.[18] In July 1924, Maypole’s co-founder and principal shareholder, George Watson, sold his stake in the company to the Home and Colonial Stores Company, which was owned by Anton Jurgens.[19] Jurgens’ merged with Van den Bergh’s in 1927,[20] and the newly-joined companies underwent another merger with Lever Brothers in 1930 to form Unilever,[21] which still exists today.

A black-and-white photo of terraced shops in varying architectural styles. The three shops on the left — Finlays, Clarks Bakery, and Leach Bros — are boxy and plain, while their neighbours to the right are more ornate.
Leach Bros head office (third from left) at 25 Church Street, early 1980s. Cropped by permission from a photo © Brian Gittings. The leftmost shop is a branch of Finlays Tobacconists, which also had a kiosk on London Road between the 1930s and 1960s.

Shopping habits were also changing. Shops specialising in a small subset of groceries were becoming less popular, with housewives preferring to shop at general grocers where they could buy all their goods in one place.[22] In addition to the acquisition of Maypole by Jurgens and then Unilever, this may have been another reason behind the closure of the London Road shop a few years later. In any case, the Maypole Dairy shop had departed London Road by the end of 1931.[23]

1930s–1970s: Leach Bros, fishmongers

The next occupant was to prove more long-lived than any of its predecessors. Leach Bros was a small chain of fishmongers with branches in and around Croydon.[24] Around 1914, it opened a branch at 27 London Road, and around the end of 1931, this moved next door to 25 London Road. Leach Bros remained here until the mid-1970s.[25]

Shirley Locke, who lived in Broad Green between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, remembers shopping at Leach’s on London Road for all kinds of fish and seafood. Plaice fillets would be steamed with milk and butter, between two plates over the potato pan, and fed to her children when they were small. Herrings would be soused (cooked in vinegar), while cod cutlets would be floured and fried. Winkles came pre-cooked and were served for Sunday tea, with pins to get the flesh out of the shells.[26]

1970s–present: West Croydon Post Office; news, tobacco, sweets; Posh Afro Cosmetics

Leach Bros moved out of London Road in early 1976, though other branches remained on Church Street and South End.[27] It was replaced by a sub post office run by N B Patel, which had previously been further up London Road at number 72.[28]

Alongside the post office business, the premises were used as a newsagents and tobacconists, which by 1986 was using the name “Candy Box”[29] — presumably, therefore, it also sold sweets! However, by 2008 this second business had given way to Posh Afro Cosmetics, which remains there today, happily coexisting with the post office[30].

Hairbands from Posh Afro Cosmetics and stamps from West Croydon Post Office, September 2013. Photo: author's own.

Thanks to: Kunal at West Croydon Post Office; Josette Reeves at the Unilever Archives; the Planning Technical Support Team at Croydon Council; all at the Croydon Local Studies Library; and my beta-readers Henry and Shuri. Phone books consulted via

Footnotes and references

  1. See my article on 21 London Road for construction dates of 13–21 London Road and my article on 23 London Road for construction dates of 23–29 London Road. Regarding numbers 31 upwards, Gray’s 1853 directory lists “Building ground, with New Road into Parson’s Mead” between numbers 1 and 59 (in today's numbering); numbers 31 upwards appear for the first time in Gray and Warren's 1855.
  2. Cross-stitch is actually only a subtype of needlepoint, but in my experience this is the term that non-embroiderers are most likely to recognise. Beeton’s Book of Needlework, published in 1870, defines “Berlin work” as including “every kind of stitch which is made upon canvas with wool, silk, or beads”, and lists 15 different stitches used in this type of work. This book can be viewed and downloaded online at Project Gutenberg. Its author is Isabella Beeton, most famous for writing Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (which is also on Project Gutenberg). The section on Berlin work is near the end of the book, and includes diagrams of all 15 stitches.
  3. Information from Pat Berman’s article on Berlin wool work.
  4. Talia Schaffer, “Berlin Wool”, Victorian Review vol. 34 no. 1, consulted via JSTOR (subscription required). This article is well worth reading for the author’s insights into the reasons behind the Victorians’ love of Berlin wool work, which she describes as “essentially a stitch-by-numbers kit”. See also a note from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which states that Berlin work “was considered a superficial needlework skill”, and attributes its popularity to “the widespread deterioration of needlework skills” in the 19th century.
  5. See Pat Berman’s article, mentioned in footnote [3] above, for more discussion of the social history around this.
  6. Information from Atwood’s, Purnell’s, Ward’s, Wilkins’, and Worth’s street directories. Worth’s 1878 and Atwood’s 1878 list the occupant of 25 London Road as “W T Cubit”, while Ward’s 1880, Ward’s 1882, and Purnell’s 1882 prefer the name “W C Cubitt”.
  7. Ward’s 1885 and 1886 directories actually list “Fredk. Rayment”, but this is obviously an abbreviation of “Frederick”. The years given in this paragraph are those in which the corresponding name was listed in street directories; the actual occupancies could have differed slightly from these due to publication dates.
  8. All information in this paragraph comes from an advertorial for John Staff & Son on p28 of a publication entitled Where to Buy at Croydon, published by Robinson, Son, and Pike around the early 1890s. (No date is given in this publication, but the copy at Croydon Local Studies Library has “c.1890–3” written on it in pencil, and its record in the British Library catalogue states that it was published in 1891.)
  9. Ward’s street directories list Staff & Son up to and including 1909, E Coles in 1910 and 1911, “unoccupied” in 1912, Madame Julia in 1913, “unoccupied” in 1914, and the Maypole Dairy Company from 1915 onwards.
  10. An article on p19 of the 1 April 1931 Glasgow Herald (consulted online via the Google News Archive) identifies George Watson as the co-founder of the Maypole Dairy Company with his brothers, Charles and Alfred, and states that the company was founded “some 44 years ago”. In addition, David Clare’s article on Maypole Dairies states that the first Maypole Dairy Company shop was opened by George Watson in Wolverhampton in 1887.
  11. Information from David Clare’s article as in footnote [10]; but see also footnote [17].
  12. The History of Unilever by Charles Wilson, Book II, Chapter X, p156. In discussing the situation at the start of the First World War, the author states that Maypole were “the largest British manufacturers of margarine” at that time.
  13. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter VII.
  14. The History of Unilever states on p171 (Chapter XI) of Book II that “total consumption of margarine in Great Britain—155,000 tons in 1914—rose to 245,000 tons by the end of 1915 and by the end of 1916 it was over 270,000 tons”. In addition, p229 (Chapter XVI) of Book I notes that in 1916 consumption of margarine overtook consumption of butter “for the first time in history”.
  15. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter VII, p122.
  16. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter VII, p122–123.
  17. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter XV, p253, states that Maypole “had always confined themselves to the sale of four commodities of which a fairly cheap margarine was the chief”. The identities of the other three commodities are not revealed in the text, and this is somewhat in contradiction to the list of five items given in David Clare’s article, cited in footnote [10] above. Page 255 of the same volume notes that “Some seventy to eighty per cent of their profits had ordinarily come from margarine sales”.
  18. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter XV, p253. Note that David Clare’s article, cited in footnote [10] states that Maypole had an “insistence on high quality despite all their products being mass trade”. However, The History of Unilever maintains that “it was doubtful whether the Maypole qualities could compete with the best the Dutch makers could produce”, and since all three manufacturers eventually became part of Unilever, it seems unlikely that the author was strongly biased in favour of any of them.
  19. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter XV, p257.
  20. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter XVI, p279–281.
  21. The History of Unilever, Book III, Chapter I. (Note: in the edition of this that I consulted, Book II and Book III are in the same physical volume. Chapter I of Book III begins on p301 of this.)
  22. The History of Unilever, Book II, Chapter XV, p261–262. On p262 it states that “the day of the multiple store specializing in cheap margarine was past by 1927.”
  23. Ward’s street directories list the Maypole Dairy Company at 25 London Road up to and including 1930. The next edition is the 1932 one, which lists Leach Bros., fishmongers (as does the November 1931 London phone book). The London Road branch of Maypole doesn’t appear in phone books, possibly because all Croydon queries were handled through their branch at 39 Church Street (which is listed in all phone books I checked: October 1927 to September 1930 inclusive).
  24. Leach Bros branches listed in the November 1932 London phone book include Brixton, Sydenham, and even Edgware; the latter is the only branch outside South London. Shirley Locke (see footnote [26]) also remembers it as a local chain. The June 1976 London phone book, July 1977 Croydon phone book, and October 1977 North East Surrey phone book list only six branches between them: 25 Church Street and 97 South End in Croydon, plus others in Denmark Hill, Streatham, Banstead, and Leatherhead.
  25. Leach Bros, fishmongers, is listed at 27 London Road in Ward's directories from 1914 to 1930 inclusive. (In Ward's 1932 it's listed as a fruiterer at number 27 and a fishmonger at number 25. More on this in my next article.) It's listed at 25 London Road in the November 1931 London phone book; Ward’s 1932, 1934, 1937, and 1939 directories; Kent’s 1955 and 1956 directories; the 1971 Croydon Classified Directory; the August 1974 Goad plan; and the January 1976 Croydon phone book.
  26. Audio-recorded conversation at the Ship of Fools pub, 20 March 2013.
  27. The July 1977 Croydon phone book lists Leach Bros at 25 Church Street (as their head office and as a retail shop), 97 South End, and 105 Banstead High Street, but not on London Road; in this edition, 25 London Road is N B Patel.
  28. Brian Gittings’ 1980 survey of central Croydon retail has “Sub Post Office ... N Patel” at 25 London Road. Local phone books list an N B Patel at 25 London Road back to July 1977; they don’t confirm that this was a post office, but as far as I can see these phone books seem reluctant to list sub post offices at all. The January 1976 Croydon phone book has no N B Patel at 25 London Road (25 London Road is “Leach Bros, Fish, Poultr, Game”) but does have one at 72 London Road, and the August 1974 Goad plan lists “West Croydon PO” at 72 London Road. A planning application deposited on 20 February 1976 and granted on 6 April of the same year (viewed on microfiche at Croydon Council offices, ref 76-20-266) states that at the time of the application 25 London Road was a “retail shop”, and requests permission to install a “new aluminium shopfront” with the fascia featuring the words “POST OFFICE” above “TOBACCONIST NEWSAGENT 25”. It thus seems likely that West Croydon Post Office moved from 72 London Road to 25 London Road at some point between April 1976 and July 1977.
  29. The March 1983 and March 1984 Goad plans list 25 London Road as “Post office — n/a tob & PO”. The April 1986 and March 1990 Goad plans list it as “Candy Box — n/a tob & PO”. The June 1992, April 1994, June 1995, and September 1999 Goad plans list it as “Candy Box — CTN & PO” (CTN is a common abbreviation for “confectioners, tobacconists, and newsagents”). The May 2002 Goad plan lists it as “West Croydon Post Office CTN & PO”.
  30. A Google Street View image from July 2008 shows a sign for Posh Afro Cosmetics. The current owner of the shop/post office is Kunal, who tells me that he’s only been there for three years and that it was already Posh Afro Cosmetics when he took over; he’s not made any significant changes to the business in that time (phone call, 16 September 2013).
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