Tom Croft


Sugar Loaf, Dallington, built by "Mad Jack" Fuller, Squire of Brightling

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Hollingrove Hill, Brightling. Croft sold collotype cards of Brightling, Dallington, Woodmans Green (Whatlington), Vine Hall (Robertsbridge) and the Gypsum Works at Mountfield, all of which have his name and address on the back. The majority were black and whites, but sepia examples are also known. Some cards have facsimile, handwritten captions, but in other cases the captions were evidently created using a printing machine. While some cards are labelled on the back "Published by T. Croft, Hollingrove Hill, Brightling". or "Pub. by T. Croft, Hollingrove, Brightling, Sussex", others are labelled more briskly "Pub. by T. Croft, Brightling".

Several different manufacturers seem to have supplied the cards, judging from their varied appearance, but only Mezzotint of Brighton has been positively identified. 1909 is the earliest postmark that has been reported, but the wording of the headings for the address and correspondence spaces suggests that the cards first went on sale around 1903-5.

That Croft was not just a retailer but also a postcard publisher commissioning cards from collotype printers is suggested by the very varied design of the cards and also by their pictorial content. Some cards depict rather unexpected subjects, which strongly suggests that a local photographer took the pictures, possibly Croft himself.

The Croft family has a long history in the Brightling area, and a confusing number of Crofts in late Victorian and Edwardian times were called Tom or Thomas. The most clearly documented is the Thomas Croft who is listed in the 1871 and 1881 censuses as a bricklayer and in the 1891 and 1901 censuses as a grocer and builder. He was born at Brightling in 1846, the son of James Croft, a bricklayer, and at the age of 21 married Sophy (Sophia) Jacobs, from the Isle of Wight. The couple had 6 children: Minnie Maria Croft (born in 1868), Harry John Croft (born in 1870), Christiana Harriet Croft (otherwise known as Chrissy; born in 1874), Thomas Albert Croft (born in 1876), Oliver Frederic Croft (born in 1880) and Margaret Hannah Croft (born in 1881). In the 1870s and 80s the family lived at 1 Millers Row in Battle Lane, Brightling (the road to Cackle Street). The 1891 and 1901 censuses record their address as the grocery shop, Battle Lane. According to Kelly's 1899 and 1905 Sussex Directories Tom Croft not only kept a shop but also operated a watermill, presumably the now ruined saw mill on a tributary of the Rother to the south of the village and just north-west of Cackle Street. When the 1911 census was held, Tom Croft and his family had moved to Cackle Street.

Tom's son, Thomas Albert Croft, helped him to run the shop in the 1890s. He married Esther Caroline Burchett in 1897. She had been born at Dallington in 1876. When the 1901 census was held, the couple were living at River Houses, Brightling, and already had three children: Leslie Croft aged 3, Robert Croft, aged 1, and Ernest C. Croft, who was a mere 11 days old. Thomas Albert's occupation is difficult to decipher on the census return, but apparently he was a horseman on a farm. He is listed under the name "Tom Croft".

The 1901 census records that another Thomas Croft was a carter at Great Worge Farm just west of Brightling village. He was supposedly aged 29. In 1881 a Charles Croft ran the hundred-acre farm. Among his many children was a Thomas Croft, aged 11, presumably the future carter.

Kelly's 1915 and 1924 Sussex Directories list a Tom Croft as a Brightling farmer as well as shopkeeper. Whether this was Thomas Albert Croft or some other individual is unclear. The 1938 Kelly's Directory has an entry for T. Croft & Son, farmers, at Darwell Mill Farm, Brightling.

So who was the T. Croft of Hollingrove Hill who published the cards? He could well have been the Tom Croft who ran the shop and sawmill, but another possibility is his son, Thomas Albert Croft, who, as already mentioned, at one stage helped to run the shop, and may have taken it over when his father retired (after 1911). Neither father nor son is known to have lived at Hollingrove Hill (just east of Brightling village), which raises the question of whether some other Tom Croft was actually the publisher of the cards. Without further evidence it is not possible to be more specific.

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