Metro-land (or Metroland) is a name given to the suburban areas that were built to the north-west of London, in Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, in the early part of the 20th century that were served by the Metropolitan Railway: much of this development was carried out by the railway company itself, or by private developers exploiting the new access to London which the railway provided.
The Metropolitan Railway was in a privileged position allowing it to retain surplus land and from 1919 this was developed for housing by the nominally independent Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited. The term "Metro-Land" was coined by the Met's marketing department in 1915 when the Guide to the Extension Line became the Metro-land guide. It promoted a dream of a modern home in beautiful countryside with a fast railway service to central London, until the Metropolitan line was absorbed into the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933.
- 1 Origin
- 2 Inter-war suburban development and ‘Metroland’
- 3 The style and spirit of Metro-land
- 4 Defining Metro-land
- 5 Slogans and references
- 6 Metro-Land in the popular imagination, and literature
- 7 Post-war attitudes
- 8 Outside links
- 9 References
The Metropolitan Railway (also known as the Met) was a passenger and goods railway that served London from 1863 to 1933, its mainline heading north from the capital's financial heart in City of London to what were to become the Middlesex suburbs. Its first line connected the mainline railway termini at Paddington, Euston and King's Cross to the City, and when, on 10 January 1863, this line opened with gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives, it was the world's first underground railway. When, in 1871 plans were presented for an underground railway in Paris, it was called the Métropolitain in imitation of the line in London. The railway was soon extended from both ends and northwards via a branch from Baker Street. It reached Hammersmith in 1864, Richmond in 1877 and completed the Inner Circle in 1884, but the most important route became the line north into the Middlesex countryside, where it stimulated the development of new suburbs.
Harrow-on-the-Hill was reached in 1880, and the line eventually extended as far as Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, more than 50 miles from Baker Street and the centre of London. From the end of the 19th century, the railway shared tracks with the Great Central Railway route out of Marylebone.
Electric traction was introduced in 1905 with electric multiple units operating services between Uxbridge, Harrow-on-the-Hill and Baker Street. To remove steam and smoke from the tunnels in central London, the Metropolitan Railway purchased electric locomotives, and these were exchanged for steam locomotives on trains at Harrow from 1908. To improve services, more powerful electric and steam locomotives were purchased in the 1920s. A short branch opened from Rickmansworth to Watford in 1925. The 4-mile long Stanmore branch from Wembley Park was completed in 1932.
The Metropolitan Railway Company was in a privileged position compared with other railway companies: other companies had obtained private Acts of Parliament which required them to dispose of surplus land, but those of the Metrolitan Railway allowed it to retain land that it believed was necessary for future railway use. Initially, the surplus land was managed by the Land Committee, a committee of the company’s directors. In the 1880s, at the same time as the railway was extending beyond Swiss Cottage and building the workers' estate at Neasden, roads and sewers were built at Willesden Park Estate, and the land was sold to builders. Similar developments followed at Cecil Park, near Pinner and, after the failure of the tower at Wembley, plots were sold at Wembley Park.
Robert Selbie, then General Manager, thought in 1912 that some professionalism was needed and suggested a company be formed to take over from the Surplus Lands Committee to develop estates near the railway. However, First World War delayed these plans and it was 1919, with expectation of a housing boom, before the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited was formed. Concerned that Parliament might reconsider the unique position the Met held, the railway company sought legal advice: the legal opinion was that although the Met had authority to hold land, it had none to develop it, so an independent company was created, of which all but one of its directors were also directors of the railway company. The MRCE went on to develop estates at Kingsbury Garden Village near Neasden, Wembley Park, Cecil Park and Grange Estate at Pinner and the Cedars Estate at Rickmansworth and create places such as Harrow Garden Village.
The term "Metro-Land" was coined by the Met's marketing department in 1915 when the Guide to the Extension Line became the Metro-land guide, priced at 1 d. This promoted the land served by the Met for the walker, the visitor and later the house-hunter. Published annually until 1932, the last full year of independence for the Met, the guide extolled the benefits of "The good air of the Chilterns," using language such as "Each lover of Metroland may well have his own favourite wood beech and coppice — all tremulous green loveliness in Spring and russet and gold in October." The dream promoted was of a modern home in beautiful countryside with a fast railway service to central London.
From about 1914 the company had promoted itself as "The Met", but after 1920 the commercial manager, John Wardle, ensured that timetables and other publicity material used "Metro" instead. Land development also occurred in central London when in 1929 a large, luxurious block of apartments, "Chiltern Court" opened at Baker Street, designed by the Met's architect Charles W. Clark, who was also responsible for the design of a number of station reconstructions in outer "Metro-land" at this time.
Inter-war suburban development and ‘Metroland’
A few large houses had been built on parts of Wembley Park, south-west of the Metropolitan station, as early as the 1890s. In 1906, when Watkin’s Tower closed, the Tower Company had become the Wembley Park Estate Company (later Wembley Ltd.), with the aim of developing Wembley as a residential suburb.
Unlike other railways, from an early date the Metropolitan Railway had bought land alongside its line and then developed housing on it. In the 1880s and 1890s it had developed the Willesden Park Estate near Willesden Green station, and in the early 1900s it developed land in Pinner, as well as planning the development of Wembley Park.
In 1915 by the Metropolitan Railway’s publicity department created the term ‘Metro-land’. It was used as the new name for the company’s annual guide to the places it served (known as Guide to the Extension Line prior to 1915). The Metro-land guide, although in part written to attract walkers and day trippers, was clearly primarily intended to encourage suburban development and create middle-class commuters who would use the Metropolitan Railway’s trains. It was published annually until 1932, but when the Metropolitan became part of London Transport in 1933 the term and guide were abandoned. By then North-West London was well on the road to suburbanisation.
The 1924 Metro-land guide describes Wembley Park as “rapidly developed of recent years as a residential district”, pointing out that there are several golf courses within a few minutes journey of it.
Over the years during which the guide was published, large numbers of Londoners moved out to new estates in North-West London. Some of these estates were developed by Metropolitan Railway Country Estates, a company that Robert H. Selbie, the Metropolitan Railway’s General Manager, created in 1919. It would eventually build houses along the line, from Neasden to as far out as Amersham.
One of the earliest of these Metropolitan Railway Country Estates developments was a 123-acre one at Chalkhill, within the curtilage of Repton’s Wembley Park. Metropolitan Railway Country Estates acquired the land shortly after it was created and began selling plots in 1921. The railway even put in a siding to bring building materials to the estate.
The British Empire Exhibition further encouraged suburban development. Wembley’s sewerage was improved, many roads in the area were straightened and widened and new bus services began operating. Visitors were introduced to Wembley and some later moved to the area when houses had been built to accommodate them.
Between 1921 and 1928 season ticket sales at Wembley Park tube station and neighbouring Metropolitan stations rose by over 700%. Like the rest of West London, most of Wembley Park and its environs was fully developed, largely with relatively low-density suburban housing, by 1939.
The absorption of the Met
On 1 July 1933 the Metropolitan Railway amalgamated with other Underground railways, tramway companies and bus operators to form the London Passenger Transport Board, and the railway became the Metropolitan Line of London Transport. The Board was not interested in running goods and freight services and the London and North Eastern Railway took over all freight traffic. At the same time the LNER became responsible for hauling passenger trains with steam locomotives north of Rickmansworth. The lines north of Aylesbury to Verney Junction and Brill were closed; last train to Brill ran on 30 November 1935 and to Quainton Road and Verney Junction on 2 April 1936. Quainton Road continued to be served by the LNER. For a time, the LPTB used the "Metro-land" tag: "Cheap fares to Metro-land and the sea" were advertised in 1934 but the "Metro-land" brand was rapidly dropped. London Transport introduced new slogans such as "Away by Metropolitan" and "Good spot, the Chilterns".
Steam traction continued to be used on the outer sections of what had become the "Metropolitan Line" until 1961. From that date Metropolitan trains ran only as far as Amersham, with main line services from Marylebone covering stations between Great Missenden and Aylesbury.
The style and spirit of Metro-land
The development of Metro-Land aimed at recreating in miniature the aspirations of the growing Middele Class. It was to be a dramatic break from the urban development of London: the rural ideal of the freeborn man in his country cottage became here rows of semi-detached houses of a size undreamed of in the packed streets of London, each with its own back garden and front garden. It was a pattern followed in the private estates built in imitation of those built by the railway company.
Another aspect less noticeable on the landscape is in stret names: nowhere was any street named “street”, as the word bore the connotations of the packed streets of London: instead we find a wealth of roads labelled “Avenue”, “Close”, “Gardens”, “Grove”, “Hill”, “Lane”, ”Way” and others, suggesting country living even as the new suburbs mercilessly swallowed the countryside where they were built.
The sentimental and somewhat archaic prose of the Metro-land guide ("the Roman road aslant the eastern border ... the innumerable field-paths which mark the labourer's daily route from hamlet to farm") conjured up a rustic Eden – a Middle England, perhaps – similar to that invoked by Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister in the 1920 and 1930s) who, though of manufacturing stock, famously donned the mantle of countryman ("the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone"). As one historian of the London Underground put it wryly, "the world of Metroland is not cluttered with people: its suburban streets are empty ... There are, it seems, more farm animals than people."
The purple prose of yesteryear has fallen away. Metro-Land today has an apparently monotonous, clichéd appearance – long ribbons of identical houses, their front gardens long since paved for parking. However this is a tribute to the success of the pattern imitated nationwide and abroad.
A cynical view soon arose during the development of the new suburbs, which sought to contrast illusion with changing times, was offered in 1934 by the composer and conductor Constant Lambert who "conjure[d] up the hideous faux bonhomie of the hiker, noisily wading his way through the petrol pumps of Metroland, singing obsolete sea chanties [sic] with the aid of the Week-End Book, imbibing chemically flavoured synthetic beer under the impression that he is tossing off a tankard of 'jolly good ale and old' ... and astonishing the local garage proprietor by slapping him on the back and offering him a pint of 'four 'alf'".
Some have abhorred Metro-land for its predictability and sameness. A N Wilson, an arch-cynic though a discerning one, observed that, although semi-detached dwellings of the kind built in the inner Metro-land suburbs in the 1930s "aped larger houses, the stockbroker Tudorbethan of Edwardian Surrey and Middlesex", they were in fact "pokey". He reflected that
as [the husband] went off to the nearest station every morning ... the wife, half liberated and half slave, stayed behind wondering how many of the newly invented domestic appliances they could afford to purchase, and how long the man would hold on to his job in the Slump. No wonder, when war came, that so many of these suburban prisoners felt a sense of release.
Town v. country
With similar ambiguity, Metro-land combined idyllic photographs of rural tranquillity with advertising spreads for new, though leafy, housing developments. Herein lay the contradictions well captured by Leslie Thomas in his novel, The Tropic of Ruislip (1974): "in the country but not of it. The fields seemed touchable and yet remote". Writer and historian A. N. Wilson reflected how suburban developments of the early 20th century that had been brought within easy reach of London by the railways, "merely ended up creating an endless ribbon ... not perhaps either town or country". In the process, despite Metro-land's promotion of rusticity, a number of outlying towns and villages were "swallowed up and lost their identity".
The influence of Country Life
Wilson noted that the magazine Country Life, which had been founded by Edward Hudson as Country Life Illustrated in 1897, had influenced this pattern with its advertisements for country houses: "If you were a stockbroker or a lawyer's wife ... you could perhaps afford a new Tudorbethan mansion, with an oak staircase and mullioned windows and half-timbered gables, in Godalming or Esher, or Amersham or Penn". Of the surrounding landscape, Country Life itself has observed that, in its early days, it offered:
a rose-tinted view of the English countryside ... idyllic villages, vernacular buildings and already dying rural crafts. All were illustrated with hauntingly beautiful photographs. They portrayed a utopian never-never world of peace and plenty in a pre-industrial Britain.
Precisely the same could have been written of the Metro-Land Guide.
The Metro-land guide insisted that Metro-land was "a country with elastic borders that each visitor can draw for himself". Indeed, to the extent that the principal features of Metro-land were not unique to the Metropolitan, it has been invoked more generically: for example, by Kathryn Bradley-Hole writing about Gunnersbury Park, and by the London Evening Standard, which, in 2009, under the heading, "Down the line into Metroland", identified High Barnet (Northern Line), Loughton, Essex (Central Line) and two Metropolitan suburbs, Amersham and Rickmansworth, as "top locations with an easy commute". Even so, Metro-land was quite firm that, so far as the Buckinghamshire Chilterns were concerned, its "Grand Duchy" was confined to the Burnham Hundred: "the Chilterns round Marlow and the Wycombes are not in Metro-land".
The architect Hugh Casson regarded Harrow as the "capital city" of Metro-land, while Arthur Mee's King's England described Wembley as its "epitome". In 2012 a writer for Country Life, referring to plans to build a new high-speed rail link ("HS2") through the Chilterns, dismissed the style of development around Aylesbury as not "so much suburban as just sub, there being no urbs. However, "the spirits lift when, down the road, you reach Waddesdon. You hardly need to be told you're in Rothschildland", the latter tag an allusion to Waddesdon Manor, the estate built the Rothschild family and now owned by the National Trust.
Slogans and references
The Metropolitan’s terminus at Baker Street was "the gateway to Metro-land" and Chiltern Court, which opened over the station in 1929 and was headquarters during the Second World War of the Special Operations Executive, was "at the gateway to Metro-land". In similar vein, Chorley Wood and Chenies, later described by John Betjeman as "the essential Metro-land", were "at the gateway" of the Chiltern Hills (of which Wendover was the "pearl").
Metro-Land in the popular imagination, and literature
The terms 'Metro-land' or ‘Metroland’ son become shorthand for the suburban areas that were built in North-West Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire following the Metropolitan branches. The name had become immortalised well before the guide stopped being published.
Before the end of the Great War, the name of Metro-Lane appeared in an eminently forgettable song by George R Sims and later the song My Little Metro-land Home by Boyle Lawrence and Henry Thraile was published in 1920 and sung in the musical halls. Another ditty extolled the virtues of the Poplars estate at Ruislip with the assertion that "It's a very short distance by rail on the Met/And at the gate you'll find waiting, sweet Violet". This was the time when Metro-land was the aspirational idea for the Middle Classes.
By the late 1920s, the word was so ingrained in the consciousness that Evelyn Waugh seized upon it: in his novel, Decline and Fall (1928), the Hon Margot Beste-Chetwynd took Viscount Metroland as her second husband. Lady Metroland re-appeared in Vile Bodies in 1930 and A Handful of Dust in 1934.
Sir John Betjeman turned his gaze on Metro-Land in the mid twentieth century, eulogising it and simultaneously weeping for lost rural Middlesex, in a series of poem, and eventually a television film, Metro-land, first broadcast in 1973.
In 1980, Julian Barnes wrote a novel entitled Metroland and set in these suburbs: in 1997 it became a film of the same name (starring Christian Bale), about the development of the relationship between a husband and wife living in the area.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark recorded a song Metroland, released as a single, with the video showing the singer dreamily gazing out from a train at an idealised sub-urban landscape.
"Live in Metro-land"
In 1903 the Metropolitan developed a housing estate at Cecil Park, Pinner, the first of many such enterprises over the next thirty years. Overseen by the Metropolitan's general manager from 1908 to 1930, Robert H Selbie, the railway formed its own Country Estates Company in 1919. The slogan, "Live in Metro-land", was even etched on the door handles of Metropolitan carriages.
Some stations, such as Hillingdon (1923), were built specifically to serve the company's suburban developments. A number, including Wembley Park, Croxley Green (1925) and Stanmore (1932), were designed by Charles W. Clark (who was responsible also for Chiltern Court) in an Arts and crafts "villa" style. These were intended to blend with their surroundings, though, in retrospect, they arguably lacked the panache and vision of Charles Holden's striking, modern designs for the Underground group in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The growth of Metro-land
By the 1930s the availability of mortgages with an average rate of interest of 4¼% meant that private housing was well within the range of most middle class and many working class pockets. This was a potent factor in the growth of Metro-land: for example, in the first three decades of the 20th century the population of Harrow Weald rose from 1,500 to 11,000 and that of Pinner from 3,000 to 23,000. In 1932 Northwick Park was said to have grown over the previous five years at the rate of 1,000 houses annually and Rayners Lane to "repay a visit at short intervals to see it grow".
Sir John Betjeman
In the mid-20th century the spirit of Metro-land was evoked in three "late chrysanthemums" by Sir John Betjeman (1906–1984), Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death: "Harrow-on-the-Hill" ("When melancholy autumn comes to Wembley / And electric trains are lighted after tea"), "Middlesex" ("Gaily into Ruislip Gardens / Runs the red electric train") and "The Metropolitan Railway" ("Early Electric! With what radiant hope / Men formed this many-branched electrolier"). In his autobiographical Summoned by Bells (1960) Betjeman recalled that "Metroland / Beckoned us out to lanes in beechy Bucks".
However Betjeman's vision of Metro-Land was not all rosy: in Middlesex, leaving the scene at Ruislip Gardens, the poet bemoans the loss of the Middlesex countryside:
Gentle Brent, I used to know you
Wandering Wembley-wards at will,
Now what change your waters show you
In the meadowlands you fill!
Described much later by The Times as the "hymnologist of Metroland", Betjeman reached a wider audience with his celebrated documentary for BBC Television, Metro-land (TV)|Metro-land, directed by Edward Mirzoeff, which was first broadcast on 26 February 1973 and was released as a DVD 33 years later. The critic Clive James, who judged the programme "an instant classic", observed that "it saw how the district had been destroyed by its own success".
To mark the centenary of Betjeman's birth, his daughter Candida Lycett Green spearheaded a series of celebratory railway events, including an excursion on 2 September 2006 from Marylebone to Quainton Road, now home of the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. Lycett Green noted of the planning of this trip that among the fine details considered were which filling to have in the baguettes on the train through Metro-Land and how long it would stop on the track so that the poem "Middlesex" could be read over the tannoy. The event was in the tradition of earlier commemorations of "Metro-land", such as a centenary parade of rolling stock at Neasden in 1963 and celebrations in 2004 to mark the centenary of the Uxbridge branch.
By the end of the Second World War architects in general were turning their backs on suburbia. In fact, the very word tended to be used pejoratively, even contemptuously. In 1951 Michael Young, one of the architects of the Labour Party's electoral victory in 1945, observed that "one suburb is much like another in an atomised society. Rarely does community flourish", while the American Lewis Mumford, wrote in the New Yorker in 1953 that "monotony and suburbanism" were the result of the "unimaginative" design of Britain's post-war New Towns. When the editor of the Architectural Review, J. M. Richards, wrote in The Castles on the Ground (1946) that "for all the alleged deficiencies of suburban taste ...it holds for ninety out of a hundred Englishmen an appeal which cannot be explained away as some strange instance of mass aberration", he was, in his own words, "scorned by my contemporaries as either an irrelevant eccentricity or a betrayal of the forward looking views of the Modern Movement".
John Betjeman admired John Piper's illustrations for Castles on the Ground, describing the "fake half-timber, the leaded lights and bow windows of the Englishman's castle" as "the beauty of the despised, patronised suburb". However, as the historian David Kynaston observed sixty years later, "the time was far from ripe for Metroland nostalgia".
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