The marvels of Metro-land

The marvels of Metro-land

Caroline Roope discovers the London commuter suburbs promoted by the expanding Metropolitan Railway in the early 20th century

Caroline Roope, Freelance social history writer and researcher

Caroline Roope

Freelance social history writer and researcher

Map of Extension Lines into Metro-Land
Map of Extension Lines into Metro-Land (1924), published by the Metropolitan Railway. Maps such as this were targeted at potential suburbanites, hence the inclusion of housing estates and golf courses for that all-important middle-class leisure time

‘METRO-LAND… The Metropolitan Railway is issuing an attractive handbook bearing the above title, by which the company has named the districts served by its system,’ announced the Railway Gazette in July 1915. ‘Half an hour from Baker Street by fast train takes you into the heart of “Metro-land”, into charming country yet unspoiled, wherein is some of the most exquisite rural scenery to be found in England.’

It is hard to envisage the north-west suburbs of London as they once were; a ‘verdant realm’, according to the Metro-land publicity literature, where ‘scenes of sylvan beauty’ and ‘haunts of ancient peace… gorse-clad commons… and out-of-the-way nooks’ awaited house-buyers and intrepid day-trippers. It was an appealing prospect – particularly after the horrors of the Great War, and Metro-land’s promise of country inns, thatched roofs, green fields and endless summer days were exactly what everyone needed to offset the grim reality of post-war society.

Sir Edward Watkin
Sir Edward Watkin, 1890. Metro-land was the vision of the original chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, although he would die before he saw his ambitions permanently change the landscape of north-west London

Since its inception as the world’s first ‘underground’ railway in 1863, the Metropolitan line had gradually snaked its way outside of London into Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Thanks to some canny business manoeuvring by then chairman Sir Edward Watkin in the late 19th century, the Metropolitan Railway had been allowed to keep the surplus rural lands it had acquired during the construction of its routes – land that would ordinarily have been sold – meaning that the Metropolitan could become directly involved in housing development and reap the cash rewards that it would generate. It also allowed the Metropolitan to market itself as a proper mainline railway, rather than just an underground railway – a personal ambition long held by Sir Edward Watkin, whose designs had always lain further afield than just the City.

By 1899 the Metropolitan Railway’s empire had grown to cover a more than 50-mile stretch of land from London to the Chilterns. The first estates of modest semi-detached villas in Willesden Green, Pinner and Wembley were completed by the early 20th century, but the foundations for Metro-land proper were established and developed during the Edwardian period – usefully coinciding with the end of the First World War. With ‘homes for heroes’ high on the agenda, the Metropolitan Railway’s General Manager Robert Hope Selbie approached the board on 21 November 1918 – a mere ten days after the Armistice – to draw their attention to the opportunities the end of the war presented, stating: ‘…in view of the large demand there will be for houses once Peace is declared and the Forces are demobilised, and also in view of the advertisement the districts served have received during the War, I am of the opinion that the [Metro-land] scheme should be taken in hand forthwith.’ Rather prophetically, his scheme embodied Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s pledge given just two days later that the government would make Britain ‘a fit country for heroes to live in’.

 Metro-land booklet
Metro-land booklets were published annually from 1915-32 by the Metropolitan Railway. The cover of the 1921 edition, which includes the ‘Tudorbethan’ design of the house, was typical of the nostalgic approach the Metropolitan took to its marketing

With a catchy name for the scheme already in hand, the Metropolitan publicity machine began to whirr into action. The original marketing campaign for Metro-land began in 1915 to appeal to transient visitors such as ramblers and cyclists, looking for a bucolic escape to the countryside, where ‘romantic villages, and half a dozen little country towns’ awaited. But the rural landscape on which the Metro-land dream was sold – the ‘glorious, unspoiled countryside’ that the brochures waxed lyrical about – wasn’t set to last long. Over the next 20 years, the Metropolitan populated these ‘gentle hills clothed with verdure’ with its own take on ye-olde-England, ensuring that the landscape was one of conurbations and cul-de-sacs rather than thatched cottages and cows.

Hoping to catch those looking for a permanent move out of the city, the Metropolitan Railway marketing campaign targeted the city and suburban newspapers, ensuring all were kept abreast of new extensions and planned developments along its routes. ‘The outward journey on the Metropolitan is the pleasantest of all the lines connected with London,’ wrote the Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette in 1925. ‘Both the scenery and the general developments being of a character that is agreeable to the eye, undisturbed by squalor or smoke-begrimed buildings.’

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They also produced their own booklet, a ‘useful little publication’, aimed at potential purchasers and containing a ‘guide to the beauties of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire’ – for which the Metropolitan deployed its best copywriters to eulogise the ‘quaint old-world’. Those who got as far as purchasing the brochure for 1/- and reading it were in for even more of a literary treat:

The song of the nightingales, for which the neighbourhood is renowned; its mingled pastures, woods and streams; its gentle hills clothed with verdure; the network of translucent rivers traversing the peaceful valley render it a Mecca to the City man pining for country and pure air.

Ace Cinema
Ace Cinema, Rayners Lane – now a Zoroastrian Centre. This Art Deco building was built in 1936 and originally named the Grosvenor Cinema. Like Elm Park Court in Pinner it embodied the spirit of modernity and progress, which was at odds with the nostalgic mock-Tudor designs used for the Metro-land houses. The building is now listed Bernard Burns

Thanks to improved printing techniques, the publication – which was a tourist guide and sales brochure – included colour photographs of cows, ploughs and everything that was green and lovely. Targeted at ‘those who desire a quiet, healthful and social life on the threshold of the Metropolis’, the guides must have seemed otherworldly to inner London residents, which was exactly the point. If the passengers weren’t there in the countryside to catch the trains, the Metropolitan needed to draw them out of the capital with the promise of something better. So, they rather cleverly created the need via housing. Quite simply, Metro-land was the original commuter belt, and as such it needed to reflect the changing tastes and needs of an increasingly aspirational capital city – those that recognised the importance of ‘carefully timed theatre trains’ and appreciated the need for ‘frequent and fast “through” trains to and from the City’.

Elm Park Court
Elm Park Court, Pinner (1936) by H.F. Webb. Towards the end of the Metro-land housing boom, Art Deco and Modernist architecture was beginning to make itself known in the smooth curves and whitewashed walls of many of the civic buildings constructed in the 1930s Steve Cadman

So, the use of nostalgia in their literature was a curious approach, since the Metropolitan was also attempting to sell the idea of modernity – the proposed houses would provide ‘fine elevations – good square rooms, fitted with modern labour-saving devices planned for your convenience’, as well as ‘central heating and fitted wardrobes’. Yet all this innovation was housed inside a Tudorbethan shell, replete with gabled windows and mock Tudor beams. They weren’t just selling houses – they were selling the idea of continuity and a hopeful return to normality following the war – the opportunity to purchase ‘a good parcel of English soil in which to build home and strike route’, according to the Metro-land brochure. In many respects, it was a stroke of design and marketing genius.

ayners Lane Station
Exterior of the ticket hall at Rayners Lane Station, which was built to a design by Charles Holden in 1938 and typifies the geometrical form used on many stations of the period. It is now Grade II listed. Photo taken c.1946

In the inter-war years, a string of estates sprung up to the north-west of London, in Wembley, Rickmansworth, Northwick Park, Eastcote, Rayners Lane, Ruislip, Hillingdon, Chorleywood and Amersham. Most had new homes available, but if a purchaser was feeling plucky there was the option to buy a plot of land and plan their dream house to their own specifications. Most importantly for the potential buyer, the Metropolitan would have everyone believe that Metro-land homes sat alone behind picket fences, in empty streets, surrounded by vast fields. This, of course would prove to be tosh, once the reality of suburban sprawl had kicked in and the ‘fields which still laugh with golden corn’ were replaced by row upon row of semi-detached dwellings.

The new estates were well served by stations for the purposes of work, as well as golf courses for leisure – a clear indication of exactly the type of passengers they wished to target, first-class season ticket holders looking for their own slice of the suburban pie. The lifestyle that the Metropolitan was selling – that of a fast rail-link, close to both the city and the rolling hills of the countryside – was as appealing to the suburbanites of one hundred years ago as it is today. And it could be all yours in the 1930s for £685 for a typical house on the Eastcote Estate in Harrow, all the way up to the princely sum of £1599 for something with more kerb appeal.

Inevitably, the idea of Metroland wormed its way into popular culture. Balladeers even wrote whimsical ditties about it. The cover for ‘My Little Metro-land Home’ by Boyle Lawrence featured a Tudor-revival homestead in Pinner, with one of the verses reading:

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To the hum of bees
And whisper of trees
At twilight together we roam
Its happiness crowned
It is paradise found
In my little Metro-Land home

Metro-land’s literary heritage is even more impressive. Not content with lending its name to two characters in the works of Evelyn Waugh – Viscount Metroland and Lady Metroland appear in Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930) and A Handful of Dust (1934) – Metroland’s absurdity and self-defeating beauty was championed by the ‘hymnologist of Metroland’ himself, Sir John Betjeman, whose ode to the ‘sepia views of leafy lanes in Pinner’ became literary legend in the mid-20th century.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the perfectly trimmed hedges and ubiquitous semis were joined by a host of flat-roofed, futuristic buildings – because amongst the Tudorbethan homesteads, Modernism and Art Deco were also starting to flourish. These architectural styles were used most convincingly on the commercial and civic buildings of Metro-land, such as the Ovaltine Factory at Kings Langley and Denham Film Studios in Buckinghamshire, as well as cinemas and schools. The exception to this was the collection of Sun Houses designed by Amyas Connell, which were built on a hill overlooking Amersham in 1934. Built in – gasp – reinforced concrete and with a full-height glazed wall at the front, they were all angles and geometry – and completely incongruous in their surroundings.

Metro-land sales brochure
The front cover of the 1925 Metro-land sales brochure which shows rustic suburbia at its best, including garden gate, neatly trimmed hedge and half-timbered gable ends

But even the bold architectural statements weren’t enough to satisfy the naysayers. The pre-WW2 architectural critic Osbert Lancaster labelled London’s new suburban homes as ‘Stockbroker-Tudor’ and their surroundings as dreary and sterile. As early as 1938, he was predicting they would ‘become the slums of the future’. Sir Edward Watkin wouldn’t live to see the fruits of his labours, or indeed what Metro-land would become – the recalcitrant chairman died in 1901, 30 or so years before its development reached its peak.

Irrespective of the cynics, Metro-land more than fulfilled its brief. It remains a popular area for those looking to take advantage of city life on their doorstep but set up home in a less frenetic environment. Once called the ‘country with elastic borders’, the ‘rural arcadia’ touted by the Metropolitan Railway may be reduced to little pockets of countryside amongst the many mock-Tudor villas, but the spirit of Metro-land lives on in every gabled roof and half-timbered frontage. Its borders may no longer be elastic – fortunately, they are now constrained by a green belt – but Metro-land stands as a tribute to the suburban dreams of our city-dwelling ancestors. It’s just been obscured by crazy paving and double-glazed windows…

Metro-land sales brochures
Developer adverts inside one of the Metro-land sales brochures c.1932. The houses were built with all the ‘mod-cons’ of the day, including a ‘white tiled bathroom’ and ‘easy-work cabinet’

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