Visions of suburbia – revisiting Metroland and London’s inter-war growth

September 11, 2015

Following Adam Forrest’s piece for Guardian Cities yesterday that revisited Metroland a hundred years since it was invented by the Metropolitan Railway company, it’s interesting to reflect on the particularly spatial aspects of this domain and to set some facts against the myths.

StMargaret'sRoad_Edgware3

Originally referring to the land around the London Underground’s Metropolitan Line extension into the Middlesex and Buckinghamshire countryside, ‘Metroland’ has become synonymous with a particular suburban sensibility – and for the cultural elite a shorthand for the sort of snobbery that would like to view the suburbs as the place that culture forgot, or as Professor Vesna Goldsworthy would have it, the place for which love dares not speak its name.[1]

One key criticism of suburban growth in the era of Metroland is its sprawling nature. It is true in a way. London’s suburbs post WW1 covered much more ground than previous periods, but mainly in contrast with the more compact Victorian and Edwardian city. Their character as a more open, less dense layout was in the spirit of the garden city. Suburbs were connected, but less so in the past.

LakeView_Edgware

Other reasons for this perception of sprawl (in many cases misconception) was the dominance of the semi-detached house[2], but in fact mansion flats were a new and widespread phenomenon as were terraces (though some of these were constructed in blocks of four to mimic a pair of semi-detached houses[3]). Some areas of London had as many terraces as semis. There was also much more variety in the density of development as well as the style of design, due to development tending to be quite piecemeal, carried out in many cases by small-scale speculators, with the exception of some larger volume builders, such as Frank Taylor (Taylor Woodrow), who built the Grange Park Estate in Hayes.

StMargaret'sRoad_Edgware1

Whilst some country houses were preserved by suburban local authorities as museums or public buildings, and many pleasure grounds became parks and many commons and woodlands were preserved for the public good, this isn’t to say that the criticism was unfounded. Builders worked to tight margins in a highly competitive market and it is only at the high end of the market that they took care to retain existing trees and hedges, let alone terrain, preferring clear-site development and hard surfacing (in some cases required by local councils wanting to minimise maintenance costs). There’s an evocative description of this is Molly Hughes’ memoir, where she speaks about the countryside meeting the raw edges of the suburbs along with her own way of life changing both for better and for worse because of improved transport connections.[4] ‘Metro-land’ was slightly atypical in that a company was formed – Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited – to develop housing on land retained by the Metropolitan Railway, although other builders developed housing on their land as well.

Another often-repeated misconception is the lack of sociability in the suburbs. In fact, in the early days of inter-war suburbia, associations were an essential part of suburban life, both formal associations such as the Rotary Club for men and Women’s Guild, tennis clubs, amateur dramatics, but also the ubiquitous parade, with its hairdressers, tea rooms and grocers, which formed the social heart of the suburbs. Daily visits became a routine.[5] We should also bear in mind the civic complexes, with town halls in places such as Wembley and Hendon being an outstanding architectural feature of inter-war suburbia (notwithstanding the great Victorian civic architectural boom). Social housing estates fared less well, with many built without any such centres, shops, schools and so on for several years after their construction (if at all – see note 5).

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that this wasn’t just residential expansion. During WW1 many factories producing armaments were clustered in Middlesex to the north-west, which were subsequently transformed into ‘trading estates’, providing “the starting point for a huge industrial sector stretching westwards on either side of the Bath Road from Acton towards Slough”.[6]

CanonsDrive_Edgware

Lastly, it is important to dispel the notion that London’s suburbs were built on an empty landscape. There were pre-existing villages with their own centres (with inns, shops and churches), ensuring the continuity of urban grain from previous periods. Buildings were constructed alongside road networks that had a spatial logic in their connecting the local area with the wider urban and inter-urban connections. Pre-existing patterns of land ownership, which determined how land was parcelled and sold off for development and of course pre-existing, in some cases, ancient roads shaped the landscape in which London’s interwar suburbs grew. “The pre-urban castre, particularly existing routeways and more recently constructed railways, had a marked influence on the shapes of the sites within which developers worked, often conditioning road patterns and, especially in the case of established routeways, giving rise to distinct ‘grains’ to the street patterns in many areas.” (Whitehand and Carr 1999:491)

Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street is out with UCL Press in November 2015

Images of semi-detached houses in Edgware, Middlesex are by the author, from 2006

[1] Goldsworthy, V. 2004. The love that dares not speak its name: Englishness and suburbia. In Revisions of Englishness, edited by D. Rogers and J. MacLeod. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[2] See George Orwell in Coming up for Air: “Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses”,

[3] Barratt, N. 2013. Greater London: The story of the suburbs. London: Random House.

[4] Hughes, M. 1979. A London Family Between the Wars (originally published 1940). Oxford, Oxford University Press. Her earlier memoir, A Victorian Family, of growing up in Islington is also highly recommended for its depiction of spatial/temporal shifts in the life of that earlier suburb.

[5] Gunn, S. & R. Bell. 2003. Middle classes: their rise and sprawl. London, Phoenix. A contrasting depiction of working-class suburban communal life can be found in the 1939 study by Ruth Durant (latterly Ruth Glass of ‘gentrification’ fame) of Watling.

[6] Hebbert, M. 1998. London: more by fortune than design. Chichester, John Wiley & Sons, p. 144.

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