It may be located halfway between London – 35 miles away to the north – and Brighton on the south coast, but Crawley is hardly the kind of town where the seeds of musical revolution are grown. According to one writer, Crawley was “the doormat you wipe your feet on before leaving the countryside for London”. When the Smith family relocated there from Blackpool in 1966, the clubs of London – such as The Marquee, where in the mid-Sixties The Who promised (and delivered) “Maximum R&B”, and The Bag O’Nails, where Jimi Hendrix began his supernova rise – might as well have been located on another planet. It was not very likely that you’d see Carnaby Street’s dedicated followers of fashion strolling like peacocks up and down the High Street. Mind you, in the late 20th century, Crawley would house some unusual residents, including Robin Goodridge, the drummer for Nirvana clones Bush, and Adam Carr, a man whose claim to fame was being voted Homo- sexual Author of the Year by The Gay Times (twice, no less).
But in the main, middle-class Crawley in Sussex was sensible, solid and unchanging. As Robert Smith once observed of his home, some 30-odd years and 30 million record sales since he and band co-founder Laurence “Lol” Tolhurst first exchanged glances on a school bus on the way to primary school in 1964: “Crawley is grey and uninspiring with an undercurrent of violence. It’s right on the edge of a green belt, next to Gatwick Airport. It’s a dreadful place. There’s nothing there. My dad work[ed] for Upjohns pharmaceutical company. He had to move down to Sus- sex for his job. They’re based in Croydon. All my schooling took place around Crawley. It’s like a pimple on the side of Croydon.” Driving Smith’s point home just that little bit further, a recent examination of all things Crawley noted: “There is loads to do in Crawley provided you only want to get drunk or fit, both at considerable expense.” Today, at least 14 pubs line the High Street, which keep well-known tippler Robert Smith pleasantly occupied on the occasions when he returns from his home in Bognor to check in on his parents, Alex and Rita, who still call Crawley home.
Mind you, Crawley was a town with a plan. It was officially designated a “New Town” on January 9, 1947, not long after the end of the Second World War, with a design capacity built into the planned infrastructure for 50,000 residents. (Today, around 85,000 live in Crawley.) During its post-war growth spurt, the small local villages of Ifield to the west, Worth to the east, Pease Pottage to the south and Lowfield Heath to the north were gradually engulfed by this “New Town”. It was expanding quickly.
As characterless as this town of offices and engineering firms appears, the recorded history of this “New Town” – though hardly the stuff of famous battles or daring discovery – does date back over 1,000 years. In fact, the first development in the area is thought to have occurred as far back in time as 500 BC. Some 400 years later, the first simple furnaces began to be used in the area. The roots of a long-held tradition in the Sussex area were thus sown, as documented by the name of one of Crawley’s neighbourhoods, the rhapsodically titled Furnace Green. By AD 100, those utilitarian Romans had settled in the area and begun to extend and im- prove the furnaces. By the ninth century, Worth Church was erected; it’s now situated in the west of the New Town area and is thought to be one of the oldest buildings of its kind in the UK. It’s believed that the fleeing armies of King Harold may have taken refuge there, after being defeated at Hastings in 1066. But in keeping with the area’s uninspiring history, they were just passing through on their way elsewhere.
And so the relatively mundane development of the town (and this travelogue) progressed through the ages. Twenty years after King Harold took that fateful arrow in his eye at Hastings, the Doomsday Records failed to mention the hamlet (although nearby Ifield and Worth rated an entry, being valued by King William’s recorders at a princely 20 shillings apiece). Then, in 1203, the Manor of Crawley was awarded a licence to hold a weekly market in the High Street; one Michael de Poyninges is recorded as having given King John a Norwegian goshawk there dur- ing the very same year. Less than 50 years later, the Church of St Margaret was established in Ifield; it still stands in the Ifield Village Conservation Area. It was on- ly in 1316 that records first showed Crawley under its Saxon-derived current name. It was formerly known as Crawleah and Crauleia. And the etymology? “Craw” meaning “crow” and “leah” meaning pasture. Not so glamorous.
By 1450, the George Hotel was established in the High Street, offering stables and room for carriages to allow horsemen and their passengers an overnight stay on the way to somewhere more exciting. (Several centuries later, the George would be used by infamous Crawley local, John George Haigh, the so-called “Acid Bath Murderer”, to pick up at least one of his victims.) Crawley was still very much a transit point, little more than a village in a forest clearing. The horse-drawn carriages, when not stopping overnight at the George Hotel, were charged a toll to travel along the road – the original Toll House once stood in the north of the town.
Some of the old timber-framed coaching houses from the period can still be found in the High Street (albeit in a renovated state, occupied by thoroughly modern businesses).
The importance of iron works in the area increased dramatically during the 17th century, but it wasn’t until the extension of the railway line from London to Brighton, in 1848, that some life was breathed into this town and the population duly increased. But for many, Crawley was still a name seen on a sign from the win- dow of a passing train, as you hurtled towards London or rattled down to the coast at Brighton. The town’s population did continue to increase, though, especially when nearby Gatwick Aerodrome was opened in 1938. During World War II, Craw- ley suffered some damage, much like any town of its size, when 24 homes were destroyed by aerial bombing. Once the rubble had been cleared and England started to regain its post-war bearings, MP Lewis Silkin announced that the area around Crawley, Three Bridges and Ifield had been chosen as one of the aforementioned New Towns.
Fifteen years later, Robert Smith and his family – his father James Alexander Smith, mother Rita Mary (née Emmott) and siblings Richard, Margaret and baby Janet – moved from Smith’s birthplace of Blackpool, Lancashire, to this green and uninspiring town. They settled first in Horley in December 1962, at a house in Vicarage Lane where their next-door neighbour was the grandmother of Robert’s future Cure partner Lol Tolhurst (who at the time lived two streets away, in South- lands Avenue). They then shifted to Crawley in March 1966, so that Alex Smith could be closer to the base of his employer, Upjohns. By then, the population of the area was around 50,000, a rapid increase from the 9,000 who had lived there at the turn of the century. In the same year that the Smiths had come south, 1962, the additional neighbourhood of Furnace Green had been added to this so-called “New Town”. It was a rich irony that Alex Smith worked for pharmaceutical firm Upjohns, given his son’s Olympian drug consumption in the Eighties. Earlier, he’d served in the RAF, completing his training in Canada.
Born on April 21, 1959, Robert James Smith was the third Smith offspring. preceded by his sister Margaret, who was born on February 27, 1950, and his brother Richard, who was born on July 12, 1946. Smith’s second sister, Janet, was born some 18 months after Robert, establishing a hefty gap in ages between the two elder and two younger Smith children. Smith insists that he was an unplanned child and that Janet was conceived primarily for his company. “My mum wasn’t supposed to have me,” he said in 1989. “That’s why there’s such a big age gap between us. And once they got me, they didn’t like the idea of having an only child, so they had my sister. Which is great, because I would have hated not having a younger sister.” Smith took full advantage of his new-found role as older brother, even discouraging Janet from speaking so he could act as interpreter. “I would say, ‘Oh, she wants ice cream,’ when in fact she was desperate to go to the toilet.”
Speaking in 2000, Smith admits that while he only lived in the north for three years, it took him some time to shake off his Blackpool brogue, which led to the usual winding-up in the playground – sometimes worse. “I was born in Blackpool,” he recalled, “and the first few years of my life were spent up there. When I came down south, I actually had a broad northern accent and the piss was taken out of me mercilessly at school. That probably didn’t help me integrate.”
In another, even earlier discussion of his childhood, Smith recalled that both his parents had held onto their northern intonation. “I used to have a northern accent because my mum and dad used to talk like that at home,” he said. “It always stuck out at school, which I never realised at the time. I thought everyone was saying ‘grass’ incorrectly. But I toned it down on purpose when I got into my teens. By then I think it might have been a bit pretentious to have affected a northern accent.”
Smith clung to some strong memories of his time in Blackpool, which he felt explained his lifelong attraction for the seaside. “I’m sure that spending the first few years of your life by the sea means that you harbour a great love for the sea,” he once said. “Every time I have a holiday I always go to the sea.”
Smith and his wife Mary, the first and only true love of his life, now reside in Bognor, which fulfils his long-held dream of living by the water. Smith figures his seaside life is simply an extension of his very early childhood in coastal Blackpool. “I wanted to wake up and hear the sea,” he admitted. “It’s bound to my childhood, to pure happiness, to innocence. I love the music and the perfume of the sea.”
Smith’s recollections of Blackpool are so powerfully connected to the innocence of his childhood that he’s since found it almost impossible to return. He just doesn’t want the illusion shattered. “I have such strong memories of it: the promenade, the beach, the smell, it’s a magical memory, that evocative time of innocence and wonder. My earliest memories are sitting on the beach at Blackpool and I know if I went back, it would be horrible. I know what Blackpool’s like – it’s nothing like I imagined it as a child.” Smith’s father Alex owned a Super-8 camera and even before the Smiths went south, he would film his family, especially baby Robert, fooling about on the beach. In a 2001 interview, Smith would reveal to Placebo singer (and major Cure fan) Brian Molko another of his earliest memories. “There are a lot of films where I can be seen running like a crazy man, with some donkeys in the background. I remember seeing my sister eat worms – and to be honest, I dug them up and she ate them. I was about three and she was two. And my mother punished me. It must be one of the few times I was hit. I also remember the smell of the donkeys.”
© Jeff Apter