Skip navigation
Credit: E Eriksson

The lost Palace fans: Remembering Croydon’s Lanfranc disaster 60 years on

Features

Crystal Palace fans watching the start of the 21/22 season may be unaware that 60 years ago this August, Croydon suffered one of the most shocking tragedies in its long history.

On August 9th, 1961, on their way to a summer trip in Norway, 34 boys from Lanfranc school in Thornton Heath died when their plane crashed into a mountain near the town of Stavanger. Two of their teachers and three air crew also lost their lives.

Over the anniversary weekend, there were commemoration services at Croydon Minster church and in Norway, and a new plaque with the victims’ names was unveiled halfway up the path leading to the top of the Holtaheia mountain where the plane came down.

Most of the boys were Palace supporters, good sportsmen themselves and, in their early teens, had their whole lives before them. Those lives were cut short when the plane crashed in bad weather, for reasons the British and Norwegian investigators never discovered.

It was the first time the Lanfranc boys had flown on a school trip and, with money tight, families spent much of 1961 saving hard to pay for them to go. The boys did Saturday and holiday jobs to help with the cost. Despite their efforts, some had to drop out at the last minute and opted for a cheaper holiday to Austria by rail instead. They were the lucky ones, as it turned out.

With flying such a novelty at the time, parents were nervous and some had disturbing premonitions about the journey. There were bitter twists of fate.

Thirteen-year-old Quentin Green correctly called heads on the toss of a coin to get the last place on the Vickers Viking aircraft which was to fly them to Norway. His father, Ronald, died four months later of a heart attack, never able to forgive himself for letting his son go on the trip.

The Green family, living in Norbury at the time, had four boys and one girl, Rosalind, who made it a lifelong cause to ensure the Lanfranc disaster was never forgotten.

In two books, The Lanfranc Boys, published in 2011 on the 50th anniversary, and The Papa Mike Air Crash Mystery six years later, Rosalind Jones, as she became, told the story of the crash and its aftermath.

She explained why she wrote the books: “Three years before the 50th anniversary I awoke one morning and felt as though a message had been 'posted' into my head telling me to write a commemorative booklet about all the boys and masters from Lanfranc who had died. I was sure my late mother was instructing me!

“Envisaging something quite short, I was amazed by the response from Lanfranc relatives and friends, and I found myself writing a book which told their story, with personal memories from family and friends.”

Rosalind wrote the second book hoping to solve the mystery of why the plane came down but, despite the efforts of two British pilots and a former air traffic controller in Norway, there has been no answer for 60 years. The last documents held in the Norwegian archives, to be released this month, may shed more light.

Images of some of the victims.
Images of some of the victims.

Crystal Palace Football Club is a thread running through many Croydon lives, and those who died in the Lanfranc disaster are no different. One of Rosalind’s other brothers, Nigel, was a lifelong fan and, when he passed away in 2016, his coffin was draped in a Palace flag and the flowers of his funeral wreath were in the club’s colours.

Barry Lee, who was at Lanfranc school at the same time as the boys who died, now watches every Palace game from his home in Australia. His mother Ruby had to tell him about the missing plane and closed the front room curtains “to try to keep out the bad news,” as Barry puts it.

He discusses the club’s fortunes with her regularly at her home in Worcestershire and wonders whether at 96-years-old Ruby may be one of the oldest living Palace fans.

Images of some of the victims.
Images of some of the victims.

Lanfranc pupil David Randall was 14 in 1961 and chose to buy a bicycle over joining his school friends on the trip to Norway. Now aged 73 and living in Wallington, he has experienced what is these days called survivors’ guilt.

He has dealt with this in a remarkable way by tracking down as many Dinky Toy replicas of the original Vickers Viking aircraft as he could find on eBay, then repairing and re-painting them in their 1961 livery.

They have been placed at the Lanfranc Memorial in Croydon cemetery, at the new Archbishop Lanfranc Academy, re-built but still in Mitcham Road, and on the monument at the top of the Holtaheia mountain.

But amid the grief of Stavanger, there has always been a shaft of light. The strong bond of compassion between the Lanfranc families and the Norwegians who helped the search all those years ago still runs today: they have kept in touch ever since.

The start of any new season is always full of hope but 2021 is tinged with sadness when so many young Palace fans never got the chance to share the excitement of a new season at Selhurst Park. They shall always be remembered by those at the club and far beyond.

With thanks to Croydon-born journalist, Neil Bennett, for contributing the above article.