West Sussex Unwrapped II Month 1: Crawley New Town

Today Crawley is a thriving town of over 110,000 people and is the largest inland town in West Sussex. However, what is now a bustling metropolis started life as the quiet rural villages of Crawley, Ifield, and Three Bridges. Read on to find out how and why this changed.

Crawley on Film

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip arrive in Crawley, 9th June 1958.

Snippet from the film Ancient and Modern, Three Bridges Free Church by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.

Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.

Crawley in the Archives

Crawley before the New Town

Showing a road from Brighton, Crawley in 1839 was quite small. The buildings along the main road is coloured in red, others in grey.
WSRO TD/W155 – Crawley North Tithe Map, 1839

The 1839 tithe map for the northern division of the parish of Crawley shows a small town with buildings clustered along one main street with the most notable landmarks being Crawley Church and the George Inn, a local coaching inn. It is surrounded by fields and indeed the map for the southern division shows nothing but fields! The tithe maps for Ifield, Worth and Pound Hill tell a very similar story.

The arrival of the London to Brighton railway line saw a new phase in the area’s development, with train stations being constructed at Three Bridges in 1841 and Crawley itself in 1848, bringing with it a larger population. Despite these changes, photographs of this period reflect the fundamentally rural nature of life in the small towns of Ifield, Three Bridges, and Pound Hill at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. These images capture sleepy rural villages with thatched cottages, unpaved roads, and traditional farm houses.

The mid sussex rail line runs through the centre of the town, which is substantially larger with more buildings than the 1839
3rd Edition 25 inch OS Map of Crawley, 1934

However, this was to change as the 20th century progressed and Crawley, Ifield and Three Bridges expanded. The 1934 25-inch OS map shows a much larger Crawley than that depicted on the tithe map, having effectively swallowed up the village of West Green, and a string of houses (known as ‘ribbon development’) nearly joining Crawley and Three Bridges. It was this haphazard development which was to be one of the factors which made Crawley a candidate for a New Town.

A New Town is born

Typed text including the headings: Present; Minutes of the tenth meeting of the Crawley Committee; Matters arising out of the minutes; Report on Headquarters at Crawley; Report on Model; Appointment of Departmental Chiefs, General Managers, and Nuclear Staff
WSRO Accession 5626 – The First Crawley Development Corporation Minutes, 27 February 1947

The New Towns programme was a radical government initiative intended to facilitate post-war reconstruction and provide better accommodation away from the growing sprawl of London with its bombed-out buildings and often dated and inadequate housing. With the passing of the New Towns Act of 1946, steps were taken to identify suitable sites for the creation of new towns. The first of those to be designated was Stevenage in Hertfordshire in November 1946, followed soon after by the designation of Crawley in January 1947. All in all, over 20 new towns would be constructed in the most ambitious rebuilding scheme in Europe. 

The construction of Crawley New Town was overseen by the Crawley Development Corporation whose members included Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and County Planning, who had identified Crawley as a suitable site for this New Town. The minutes of the inaugural meeting of the Corporation record the names of the other members and the choice to establish their headquarters at Tilgate House, along with crucial decisions about staffing. And so the first steps were taken to build what would come to be one of the largest towns in West Sussex.

Par 60/26/4 – Crawley Development Corporation’s Master Plan for New Town, 5 August 1949. The plan was plotted on 1947 6 inch OS maps

In planning a whole new town, the Crawley Development Corporation had important decisions to make and were given wide ranging powers to implement them. Key among these decisions was the eventual size of the town, with an anticipated population of 30,000 to 40,000, and where exactly all of these people would go. The consultant planner, Anthony Minoprio, was tasked with drawing up a plan which would do this and he proposed an ambitious scheme to fill in the gaps between Crawley, Three Bridges, and Ifield. This master plan was approved in December 1947 and construction work eventually began in 1949. You can read about this item more in depth on one our previous blogs by clicking this hyperlink!

The novel possibilities of concrete (apologies to Bill Bryson)

Entry reads: Ifield CE School finally closed down today - to reopen jointly with Crawley CE School in the new school building to be known as St Margaret's CE School.
WSRO E/60C/12/4 – Final entry in Ifield’s CoE School log book, 1955

Crawley New Town provided planners with an exciting opportunity – a (nearly) blank slate which would enable them to create an ideal town for residents. No cramped, damp, and run-down houses here. Instead Crawley’s population would benefit from the housing of the future and with all of the necessary amenities – community centres, central and local shops, business parks, new schools, and churches.

Houses were spacious and built in nine self-contained neighbourhoods with their own shops, community centres and recreation grounds. Efforts were made to provide a range of housing stock to suit different needs and variation in design was encouraged (although not always successfully implemented) to avoid too much of an homogenous effect. Where possible, existing features, such as old trees, were kept to give a more natural and organic feel.

The front cover features a black and white photograph of the shopping centre of Crawley with a cartoon lady superimposed in front. She is holding baskets and boxes of shopping. The caption reads: Comfort, Safety, Value, Service. Enjoy shopping in the Broad Walk, Crawley's Unique Shopping Centre

By way of contrast, some of the developments in the centre of the town embraced the 1950s and 1960s trend for brutalist architecture. Key examples were the plate glass and concrete edifice of the Queensway Store, the Broad Walk Shopping Centre and Queens Square (more concrete).

The Royal Visit

Route shown takes the Queen and Prince Phillip from Manor Royal Dais, Crawley Technical College, Queens Square, The George Hotel, Visit the House in Ifield, Community Hall in Langley, TA Centre, St Mary's Church in Southgate, and Three Bridges Junior School
WSRO Add Mss 52247 – Programme of Proceedings for Royal Visit to Crawley, June 1958
WSRO WOC/CC14/1/7 – Royal visit of HM Queen Elizabeth and HRH Duke of Edinburgh, 1958

It is the Queen’s Square Shopping Centre that Elizabeth II visits in the accompanying film. However, a map recording the route of the royal visit shows that this was not the only stop on her itinerary. In a tour designed to showcase Crawley’s fantastic new amenities, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh also visited the Manor Royal industrial estate, Langley Hall Community Centre, and Three Bridges County Junior School amongst other sites. Along the way they were greeted by enthusiastic new Crawley residents – the age of the crowds reflecting the number of young families who had moved to Crawley and the resulting youthful demographic of the New Town.

By 1963 Crawley had changed beyond recognition from its origins as the rural villages of Crawley, Ifield, and Three Bridges and it continued to expand with further waves of development through the 1970s and 1980s. Construction of a new neighbourhood at Tinsley Green (to be called Forge Wood) started as recently as 2014.

Whilst new towns can divide opinion, they were the most exciting town planning project to take place in Europe and were designed to provide their residents with a better life. Crawley continues to grow and develop so who knows what the future will hold!


Next month, we’ll be looking at the History of Women’s Suffrage in Sussex.

Screen Archive South East will showcase a film of the funeral of Emily Davison, the renowned British suffragette who died at Epsom Derby.

Look out for Episode 2 on International Women’s Day, Monday the 8th of March!


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