Kerr Eyecare at 37 London Road is perhaps Croydon’s last surviving independent family-run optician. Father-and-son Christopher and Matthew Kerr (pronounced “car”) represent the second and third generations of the Kerr family business, which was founded in the late 1930s and first arrived on London Road around 1956.
1850s: Construction of the building, and use as a private home
While the Kerrs’ presence on London Road goes back to the 1950s, the building their practice is currently housed in goes back to the 1850s. Situated on the corner of London Road and Mead Place, it was built between 1853 and 1855 as part of a small terrace with numbers 31, 33, and 35. Three buildings on the other side of Mead Place, now numbered 51–53, 55, and 57, were also built around the same time. All seven were originally private residences.
The first occupant of number 37 was Sarah Wyatt, a Croydon-born widow in her 60s who owned not only the house she lived in, but also the other six in these two blocks. She moved in some time between 1855 and 1858. Two of her daughters may also have lived with her — the 1861 census lists Mary Ann and Elizabeth Wyatt along with their mother, both unmarried, both in their 40s. Sarah was obviously a woman of some means; not only did she own a substantial amount of property, but she’s listed in the census as a “fund holder”, almost certainly indicating she had investment income as well as rents from her houses.
Early 1870s: Emma and Elizabeth, dressmakers
Sarah Wyatt gave way to a Mrs Jervis in the mid-to-late 1860s, and Mrs Jervis in turn gave way around 1870 to a pair of sisters, Emma and Elizabeth. The only documentary evidence I’ve found for these sisters is in the 1871 census, and I can’t make out from this handwritten record what their surname was, though the transcript at Ancestry.co.uk suggests it was Swanston. They worked as dressmakers, quite likely from home.
1870s–1900s: George James Shirley, wine and spirit merchant
Around the same time that Emma and Elizabeth moved into number 37, a young newly-wed wine merchant named George James Shirley moved into number 33 with his wife Maria. By 1873, however, Emma and Elizabeth had departed London Road, and George and Maria Shirley — as well as at least one child — had moved a couple of doors along to replace them.
It isn’t clear whether George Shirley ever carried on his trade at number 33 (as opposed to merely living there), nor can I confirm that he traded from number 37 from the start of his tenure. Before moving to Croydon, he’d lived in Norwood, which isn’t too far from Croydon, and his father was also a wine merchant — so it’s certainly possible that George had worked for his father at Norwood and continued to do so for a couple of years after his move, before finally setting up his own business at 37 London Road.
In any case, George Shirley was definitely trading as a wine merchant at this address by 1874 — and this marked the start of nearly a century of alcohol retailing at the premises. George himself continued the trade for three decades, until around 1904, before giving way to a company called J Mercer & Co.
1900s: J Mercer & Co
J Mercer & Co arrived at 37 London Road around 1905, taking out a full-page advertisement in Ward’s directory for that year (pictured here).
One point of interest in this advertisement is the statement that Whitbread’s ales and stout are available not only in bottles but also on draught, which would be considered unusual in an off licence today. Another is the exhortation at the bottom to “Support your own district, don’t support mixed trading”.
I have had limited success in working out what “mixed trading” would have been, though beer historian Ray Bailey suggests that it might have been a reference to the practice of pubs selling non-alcohol-related goods such as groceries and hardware. Ray further hypothesises that it could have been “an early incarnation of ‘shop at the local specialist shop, not at Tesco’”!
Despite the rather grand-sounding “& Co” in the company name, I’ve found no evidence that J Mercer & Co traded at any addresses other than 37 London Road, and given that the previous and next wine merchants both lived on the premises, I suspect that J Mercer did too.
1910s: Aires & Co
J Mercer spent a relatively short time on London Road — only about five years, until early 1909. The next occupant of the premises was Aires & Co, wine & spirit merchants, from around 1910 to around 1922. This again was likely to have been a small company; I’ve found no evidence of other branches, and according to the 1911 census the proprietor, Ernest George Aires, lived on the premises with his wife and two daughters.
1920s–1960s: Castle & Co; Victoria Wine
Following this succession of single-premises traders came Castle & Co, yet another wine merchant, but one which already had at least one other branch at the time of its arrival on London Road — at 15 Foley Street, Fitzrovia. By the mid-1930s, it had two other branches in the Croydon area, at 1120 London Road and 249 Lower Addiscombe Road, as well as a dozen London branches and more outside London in places such as Hitchin and Oxford.
In September 1967, the business of Castle & Co Ltd was transferred to Victoria Wine-Tylers Ltd, a company formed the previous year from the merger of two other wine retailers: the Victoria Wine Co Ltd and Tyler & Co Ltd. The branding of the branch at 37 London Road was briefly changed to match, but just a year or so later it closed for good.
1960s–1970s: China Rose/Red Rose
As the 1960s drew to a close, so too did 37 London Road’s long service as an alcohol retailer. By August 1969, the premises had been transformed into a Chinese takeaway, initially called China Rose but a couple of years later undergoing a rename to Red Rose. It offered “delicious Chinese hot meals to take away”, and had a second branch at 47 Stafford Road in Wallington.
I haven’t been able to locate a menu for China Rose/Red Rose. However, if it was a typical Chinese takeaway of its time, the menu would have been rather more limited than in a similar establishment today — though still recognisable to the modern diner. Dishes would have been built around a number of base “meats” — chicken, king prawns, beef, and pork — offered in styles such as chop suey, chow mein, curry, with beansprouts, and with bamboo shoots and water chestnuts.
Red Rose remained in place until around the end of 1975. Its replacement was to have a rather longer tenure.
1970s–present: Kerr opticians
The Kerr family optician business dates back to the late 1930s, when Richard Kerr opened his practice on Croydon High Street. Being called up for army service during the Second World War necessitated a hiatus — but after the war he set up again a little further along the High Street from his previous location, in a room above Millets. This room was full of rubbish when he was offered the use of it, so he hired a lorry and cleared it all out himself.
By the mid-1950s, Richard Kerr had expanded from the High Street to 35 London Road and 5a Brigstock Parade, Thornton Heath. By the mid-1970s, he’d given up the High Street premises, and the Thornton Heath branch had moved to 754 London Road; in addition, his son Christopher had joined the family business. Having initially only had half of the divided premises at number 35, the Kerrs later managed to acquire the other half but were refused permission to reunite both halves into a single premises. Hence when number 37 came onto the market, they left number 35 and moved next door.
1976: The Kerrs move to 37 London Road
Richard and Christopher Kerr moved their practice to 37 London Road in 1976. At this point the upper floors of the building were zoned as residential, though vacant and with no direct access to the garden at the back of the property. However, the Kerrs soon took steps to expand their use of the building and consolidate their practice at 37 London Road. In October 1976 they were granted permission to convert the garden to a small car park, providing parking for patients travelling from a distance.
1980: The Kerrs expand to the upper floors
Next came an application to use the first floor of the building as consulting and reception rooms. The intention behind this was to close the Thornton Heath practice and amalgamate all their patients at the London Road premises.
This application, deposited in February 1980, was initially refused on the grounds that it would reduce the amount of residential accommodation available in the area, but the Kerrs were not to give up easily. As a letter from their agents to the council pointed out in August 1980, the rooms on the first and second floors of the property “would not be self-contained nor have they, at any time, contained either kitchen or bathroom facilities and therefore are incapable of separate residential use.” This communication was accompanied by letters of support from other ophthalmic professionals in the area, including Dermot Pierse, founder of the Croydon Eye Unit at Mayday Hospital.
The council relented, and agreed to consider a fresh application, which was made in September 1980 and approved in November of the same year. However, this came with the proviso that this permission for non-residential use was granted only to the Kerrs, and that when they left the building the upper floors would revert to residential.
2011: Riot damage
2011 marked the Kerrs’ 35th year at the premises, but the anniversary was not a happy one. London Road was one of the focal points of the public disorder, arson, and looting that ripped through Croydon on the night of 8–9 August 2011. Christopher Kerr spoke to me about it two and a half years later:
What happened was somebody took metal cutters to our shutters and then broke the glass, and basically trashed the place. There was a lot of damage to instruments. Farcically, all the expensive stock was left behind and they stole all the cheap stock.
But the other dreadful blow was that I had the builders in for about six months after that, and the builders set the back of the building on fire. [...The fire brigade] had to smash down the back wall to get in because post-riot, we had [...] double shutters on the back. [...] So we just about got finished, and we had to start all over again, so it’s been a very difficult time.
2014: Looking to the future
Today, Christopher Kerr still practices at 37 London Road, alongside his son Matthew. On my first visit for an eye test in March 2014, I wasn’t sure what to expect behind the modest frontage in what’s now seen as quite a run-down part of Croydon. It turns out that the Kerrs have quite the most sophisticated equipment I’ve ever had my eyes tested with. Moreover, all their lenses are manufactured in their own workshop in the basement — nothing is sent out, giving them complete control. They even happily reglazed my old frames, saving me having to pay for new ones.
Thanks to: Christopher Kerr; Ray Bailey; Stephanie Jenkins; Walter Fung; Andrew Smith; everyone with whom I discussed the question of the Kerr sign; the Planning Technical Support Team at Croydon Council; all at the Croydon Local Studies Library; my interview-transcriber Bec; and my beta-reader Flash. Census data and some phone books consulted via Ancestry.co.uk.
Footnotes and references
- Gray’s 1853 street directory lists “Building ground, with New Road into Parson’s Mead” between the Fox & Hounds (number 1) and the modern number 59. Gray & Warren’s 1855 street directory lists “Four new houses not yet occupied” at numbers 16, 17, 18, and 19 (which were renumbered to 31, 33, 35, and 37 in 1890), “unoccupied” at number 20 (later renumbered to 39 and then to 51–53), Mrs Lake, “private resident” at number 21 (later renumbered to 41 and then to 55), and Mrs Louisa Grant, “private resident” at number 22 (later renumbered to 43 and then to 57). The October 1858 Poor Rate Book lists a Willm [William] F Ellaby between Mrs Wyatt and Mrs Lake, and Gray and Warren’s 1859 directory gives Mr Ellaby’s profession as solicitor, which I feel is unlikely to have been conducted from his home.
- As mentioned in the previous footnote, Gray’s 1855 directory lists the property as one of “Four new houses not yet occupied”. The October 1858 Poor Rate Book lists Mrs Wyatt (without a house number, but clearly in the right place for her to have been at this property) as occupier and “Wyatt” as owner. “Wyatt” is also listed as owner of the houses occupied by James Janes, Monsr [Monsieur] E Benoit, Arthur Simpson, Willm [William] F Ellaby, Saml [Samuel] R Toms, and Mrs L Grant, which street directories show to have been the properties now numbered as 31–57. According to the 1861 census, Sarah Wyatt was a widow and the head of her household, so I consider it most likely that she was the “Wyatt” listed as owning these properties, rather than some relative of her deceased husband.
- Information taken from the 1861 census, viewed online at Ancestry.co.uk. Note that Mary Ann and Elizabeth’s presence on the census doesn’t necessarily mean that they lived there — they may simply have been visiting overnight.
- The “Instructions for filling up the Column headed ‘RANK, PROFESSION or OCCUPATION.’” in the Householder’s Schedule of the 1861 census (downloaded in high-res from histpop.org) state: “Persons following no Profession, Trade, or calling, and holding no public office, but deriving their incomes chiefly from land, houses, mines, dividends, interest of money, annuities, &c., may designate themselves: ‘Landed Proprietor,’ ‘Proprietor of Iron Mines,’ ‘Proprietor of Houses,’ ‘Fund-holder,’ &c., as the case may be.” It’s not explicitly stated here which of these conditions matches up to which designation, but it seems unlikely that a person whose only income was from rents would describe themselves after having read these instructions as a “Fund-holder” rather than a “Proprietor of Houses”.
- Warren’s 1865–66 directory lists Mrs Wyatt, while the 1869 edition lists Mrs Jervis. The 1871 census lists Emma and Elizabeth.
- Warren’s 1869 directory lists Benjamin Trapp Ellis’s “school for young gentlemen” at number 33, while the 1871 census (conducted on the night of 2–3 April) lists George J Shirley, wine merchant, along with his wife Maria and their one-month-old son George. George senior’s age is obscured in this census and in the 1881 one, but given as 41 in 1891 and 50 in 1901, so he must have been around 20 when he moved to London Road. George and Maria’s marriage certificate (viewed online at Ancestry.co.uk) states that at the time of marriage (31 January 1971), George was living in Norwood, so he was married to Maria before he moved to London Road, though only by a couple of months at most.
- Wilkins’ 1872–3 directory lists J [sic] Shirley at the property now numbered as 37, the December 1873 Poor Rate Book lists George J-something Shirley, and Ward’s directories from 1874 onwards list George J Shirley (variously abbreviated), wine & spirit merchant. As noted in the previous footnote, George and Maria’s son George was born before the move to number 37. He also appears in the 1881 census, aged 10, so was clearly still alive when the move happened. This census also lists a daughter, Lizzie, aged 9. Lizzie must have been born in early 1872; an age of 9 in the 1881 census, which was conducted on the night of 3–4 April, means she was born between 4 April 1871 and 3 April 1872, but since George and Maria had a one-month-old son at the time of the 1871 census, which was conducted on 2–3 April, it’s highly unlikely they would have had time to produce another child before the end of 1871.
- The 1871 census places George Shirley at 33 London Road and gives his profession as wine merchant, but contains no information on whether he carried on his trade from home. Wilkins’ 1872–3 directory places him (as “J Shirley”) at 37 London Road, but doesn’t list his profession, implying he was a private resident. George and Maria’s marriage certificate (viewed online at Ancestry.co.uk) states that at the time of marriage (31 January 1971) George was a wine merchant living in Norwood, and his father (also named George Shirley) was also a wine merchant.
- George Shirley is listed in Ward’s street directories up to and including 1904. J Mercer & Co is listed from 1905 onwards.
- Via email, 7 April 2014. Ray also pointed me at the CAMRA National Inventory entry on the House of McDonnell in Ballycastle, which includes a description of this mixed trading, and to a record of a 1909 Parliamentary debate referencing the practice.
- J Mercer & Co is listed at 37 London Road in Ward’s street directories from 1905 to 1909 inclusive, and in London phone books from July 1905 to January 1909 inclusive. The July 1909 London phone book lists E G Aires, Wines & Spirits, and Ward’s 1910 lists Aires & Co.
- Aires & Co is listed in Ward’s street directories from 1910 to 1922 inclusive. The 1923 edition lists Castle & Co.
- Castle & Co is listed in Ward’s street directories as “wine & spirit merchants” from 1923 onwards. It also appears in the April 1924 London phone book as “wine merchants”, along with branches at 15 Foley Street, W1; 6 College Parade, Harrow; 9 The Broadway, SW16; and 71 Ledbury Road, W11. The April 1923 London phone book lists Castle & Co at 15 Foley Street, W1, though omits the type of business.
- The February 1935 London phone book lists the three Croydon-area branches plus 14 others. According to Kevan’s Pubs History website, Kelly’s 1937 directory lists a branch at 42 Walsworth Road, Hitch. Stephanie Jenkins’ Oxford History website states that there was a branch at 125 The High, Oxford, from 1932 to 1967, and she tells me (via email, 21 April 2014) that this information comes from Kelly’s directories. See also photo of a Castle & Co Oxford branch van from the NA3T Archive of Transport, Travel & Trade.
- Information taken from brief summaries of company information (PDF) from the London Metropolitan Archives website.
- There’s conflicting evidence over this rebranding. The April 1968 Outer London (North-East Surrey) phone book lists “Victoria Wine-Tylers Ltd, wine, spir, beer mcnts” at 37 London Road, and Christopher Kerr remembers the premises as “Victoria Wine Company” (audio-recorded conversation with the author, 21 March 2014), but a planning application from September 1968 for a new illuminated fascia sign related to conversion of the premises into a Chinese takeaway (viewed on microfiche at Croydon Council offices, ref A5109) includes a drawing of the existing frontage with a “Castle & Co Ltd” sign. I suspect the most likely scenario is that the Chinese takeaway plans were already in motion when the rebranding occurred, and the new proprietor didn’t have time (or didn’t bother) to have the drawing remade.
- As noted in the previous footnote, by September 1968 there was a planning application under consideration at Croydon Council for conversion to a Chinese takeaway. According to the September 1969 Outer London (North-East Surrey) phone book, this takeaway had opened (as China Rose) by the date of publication.
- China Rose is listed in the August 1969 and August 1970 Croydon phone books. Red Rose is listed in the August 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, and January 1976 editions as well as the August 1974 Goad plan. Other information in this paragraph is taken from the 1973 Croydon Official Guide advertisement included in the article. A report included in a planning application granted on 20 January 1976 (viewed on microfiche at Croydon Council offices, ref 75-20-2021) states that “The premises have been in use as a Chinese Take-away Food Shop since 1968, see BR 68/1648”, but I don’t think this is evidence that the takeaway was actually open in 1968, simply that plans had begun to be put in place for it and perhaps some building work had begun.
Walter Fung of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding tells me: “[...] menus in Chinese takeaways — or even Chinese restaurants were much simpler then. They could seem quite extensive but really simple when you examined and analysed them. Using chicken, king prawns, beef and pork as the base meat: five Chop Suey dishes could be offered (chop suey is basically mixed vegetables); five chow meins (the base meat plus noodles) and you could have five curries and five beansprout dishes; also five bamboo shoots and water chestnut dishes.
“You don’t see many takeaways specifically offering beansprouts, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts these days. At the time they were very different from the rather basic limited traditional ‘English’ dishes. (roast beef, pork or lamb, shepherds pie). Today, menus are much more sophisticated and involved.
“At that time in the 1970s you did not see [...] kung po sauce, Peking sauce, Szechuan sauce etc. In fact the terms, Cantonese, Szechuan and Peking cuisine terms were not know [sic]. If [sic] fact it was just ‘Chinese’. It was in fact Cantonese (Hong Kong) style and was probably not generally of the same standard as today.” (via email, 23 April 2014).
For an example of a British Chinese takeaway menu of this period, see the Ming-Ai Institute’s Flickr stream for the inside and cover of a 1975 menu from Yip’s Fish & Chip takeaway in Weston-Super-Mare.
- Red Rose appears in the January 1976 Croydon phone book, so must have existed in late 1975. A planning application to change the use of the building to an opticians was granted on 20 January 1976 (ref 75-20-2021). Another application, deposited on 11 August 1976 (ref 76-20-1365) confirms that the opticians had opened by then.
- Millets is something of a Croydon icon in itself, due to the painted sign that is still maintained on the wall of the building; see the Painted Signs and Mosaics website for a photo.
- All information in this paragraph provided by Christopher Kerr (audio-recorded conversation, 21 March 2014). Confirmation of the practice originally being opened in the late 1930s is provided by Ward’s street directories: “Kerr, Optician” is listed at 74a High Street in the 1939 edition but not in earlier editions (1937, 1934).
- Christopher Kerr told me that he changed the name of the business from Kerr Optometrists to Kerr Eyecare because any business using the term “optometrist” in its name must be registered with the General Optical Council, which costs around £1000 per year (audio-recorded conversation, March 2014).
- When I interviewed Christopher Kerr in March 2014, he told me he thought the sign went up in the 1970s, with the phone number being repainted when dialling codes changed. However, on reflection this seemed incongruous to me given (i) the style of the sign (the font, the blue swoosh), (ii) the continuity in the background white between the phone number and the rest of the sign, suggesting the repainting took place not long after the original painting (and it was 2000 when dialling codes changed), (iii) the fact that London dialling codes changed twice between the 1970s and the present day, whereas Mr Kerr only mentioned one repainting, and (iv) evidence from a planning application granted in December 1996 (ref 96-2249-P) which shows it as a “proposed mural” on the side wall of the building. I checked again with Mr Kerr whether the 1990s was a likely time, and he said he couldn’t rule it out (question mediated via reception staff, May 2014).
- As noted in my article on 35 London Road, Richard Kerr is listed at 35a London Road in Croydon phone books from January 1956 onwards. The 1958 Croydon phone book carries an advert on page 285 (pictured in the abovementioned article) listing four addresses: 52–54 High Street, 35a London Road, 5a Brigstock Parade, and Trent House, High Street, Purley. Christopher Kerr told me that the Purley branch “was just an occasional evening clinic in my aunt’s house. She was a chiropodist and she practiced on Purley High Street.” (audio-recorded conversation, 21 March 2014).
- The January 1976 Croydon phone book lists Richard Kerr Ltd, opticians, at 35 and 754 London Road, and Red Rose take-away-food at 37 London Road. The next edition (July 1977) lists Richard & Christopher Kerr, ophthalmic opticians, at 37 London Road.
- Information on Richard Kerr’s acquisition of 35B, the refusal of permission to join the two shops again, and the reason for the move to number 37 all provided by Christopher Kerr (audio-recorded conversation, 21 March 2014).
- Information on the bricked-up archway and step comes from an audio-recorded interview with Christopher Kerr, 21 March 2014.
- As shown in footnote 24, the Kerrs moved to number 37 some time between the data-gathering points for the January 1976 and July 1977 phone books. Their planning application to use the premises as an opticians was granted on 20 January 1976 (ref 75-20-2021). A further application to use the garden as a car park was granted on 5 October 1976 (ref 76-20-1365), and a report included in the records of this application confirms that the ground floor and basement were “in use as opticians” on the date of the site visit (which must have been before the date of granting).
- Lack of direct access from upper floors to garden confirmed by report in planning application 76-20-1365: “1st and second floors vacant, has a separate entrance to upper floors on Parsons Mead frontage. [...] There is no direct access from upper floor flat to rear garden except by means of Parsons Mead footpath.”
- Christopher Kerr told me that “the shop that was 754 London Road [...] we closed that, I would guess in the ’80s, because I was able to get planning permission to have a consulting room upstairs.” (audio-recorded conversation, 21 March 2014). I’m not sure when the Thornton Heath practice actually closed, but it’s listed in Croydon phone books until at least 1984.
- The BMJ obituary for Dermot Pierse (PDF) states that he “was appointed a consultant surgeon to the Croydon area shortly before the establishment of the NHS [and] gradually forged a new department, the Croydon eye unit, which was to achieve international renown.” (Note that Mayday Hospital has been known as Croydon University Hospital since 2010.) All other information in this paragraph taken from records of the relevant planning application (ref 80-20-369). Another supporter, Dr Morris Fishman, noted in his letter that “The premises at West Croydon are now quite cramped [...] Richard Kerr provides certain Eye Care facilities for patients [sic] benefit not supplied by any other opticians within the local area [including] i) low visual aids. ii) extended wear lenses. [iii)] research into intra occular [sic] implantation”.
- A handwritten note in the records of the first application (ref 80-20-369) states that “P.S.C. [possibly ‘Planning Sub Committee’?] resolved on 12/9/80 to give consideration to a fresh application.” Other information in this paragraph taken from the records of the second application (ref 80-20-2032), which includes the statement that “When the premises cease to be occupied by Mr. Christopher Kerr and Mr. Richard Kerr or on the cessation of the related ground floor use as an opticians shop, the use hereby permitted shall cease and the premises shall revert to residential use.”
- Audio-recorded conversation, 21 March 2014. I have slightly reordered this for ease of comprehension — the sentence beginning “So we just about got finished...” originally came immediately after the sentence beginning “But the other dreadful blow...” — and also removed a question from me reminding Mr Kerr to talk about the fire brigade issue.