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London History: A Guide to Metroland – The Suburban Expansion of London Brought On By The Tube

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Also known as Metro-land, this suburban area north-west of London was a major project by the railway to transform unused land into a series of residential communities.  Metroland wasn’t the first time a rail company was instrumental in growing London.  In truth, the continued influx of people from the countryside to London in the 19th Century had caused the city’s metropolitan area to expand exponentially.  However, this growth was more haphazard and unplanned, sprawling up around the railways that were able to carry people from Greater London into the heart of the City.

With Metroland, it was different.  Utilizing extra land granted to the Metropolitan Railway, the railway developed its own planning commission and promoted new homes that would make it easy for families to live in the country and work in the city.  Unfortunately, the grand scheme was not to last as the Metropolitan Railways was eventually absorbed into the London Passenger Transport Board, the predecessor of the modern Transport for London.  In this article, we’ll look at the beginnings of Metroland, what made up the villages, how the areas around them grew with London, its advertisements and appearances in media, and how Metroland is today.

The Building of Metro-land

The Metropolitan Railway had been around since 1863 when its first trains were pulled by steam-driven locomotives, and its passenger cars were still lit by gas lamps.  It ran from the heart of the City of London at Farringdon Station, through Middlesex, and eventually reached all the way out to Buckinghamshire. The Met, as it was known, as created by a series of acts in 1854, 1855, 1856, and 1860.  This conglomeration of laws had in its clauses the ability for the railway to keep the surplus land it didn’t use instead of being forced to sell it.

At the turn of the century, the Met needed to find new ways to raise revenue.  Rather than dispose of the surplus land for profit, it seized upon the idea to create a customer base by building villages on that land.  Robert Selbie, the General Manager, came up with the idea in 1912 to form a company that would decide how best to develop the properties instead of the railway’s Surplus Lands Committee, but his plans were put on hold when World War I began in 1914.

After the war was over, the Met sought a legal opinion on what it could do with the land only to be told that it had the legal ability to hold the land, but not develop it.  In response to this opinion, the Met formed Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Ltd. (MCRE) in 1919.  Using this company, it took the lands that it owned and crafted several estates and villages including Kingsby Garden Village, Harrow Garden Village, and the Cecil Park, Grange, and Wembley Park Estates in the Town of Pinner.

In the post-war housing boom, the states proved quite a success both in terms of successfully housing new residents as well as increasing the Met’s ticket sales.  Between 1921 and 1924, the Met’s ticket sales rose 700% as residents of these new estates journeyed from Greater London into the city.  Each area where MRCE built estates resulted in a population boom for surrounding communities.  Harrow Weald’s population went from 5,000 to 11,000 while Pinner went from 3,000 to 23,000 overtime.  By the time the Metropolitan Railway became part of the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933, it had left a major impact on Northwest London.  LPTB had little interest in continuing the scheme, and future development was left up to other private firms and local councils.

The Villages and Estates

Harrow Garden Village

Harrow Garden Village has unofficially been referred to as the “Capital of Metro-land”.  Established in 1925 and built around the Rayners Lane Underground Station in the Borough of Harrow, the village was the MCRE’s flagship development.  The majority of the development was represented by the semi-detached Tudor-style homes that would be the face of Metro-land with sixteen different styles of homes all designed by builder E.S. Reid.  The development even included Longfield School, and Rayners Lane Baptist Church were also part of Harrow Garden Village from the beginning.  Station Parade, a shopping center, soon followed along with residents that boosted the borough’s population up to 11,000.  The area around Harrow Garden Village continued to develop in subsequent years, transforming Harrow from a country borough into a true suburb.

Wembley – Chalkhill and Wembley Park Estates

Wembley Park in the Borough of Brent was once part of a large landscaped estate in 18th Century.  In 1880, the Metropolitan Railways expanded out into Middlesex and cut through the former estate, buying up forty-seven acres and later the estate itself.  While the Met would sit on the unused land for years, by 1915, it would become part of the MCRE’s proposed Metro-land developments.  The pre-existing pleasure gardens and nearby golf courses made a large part of the advertising for the Wembley Park development in 1924.  Chalkhill was one of the first estates MCRE built in Wembley Park.  TV studios, a cinema, and a pool soon followed.  The area was actually quite prosperous until the 1960s and 1970s when new Council Estates ended up becoming havens for crime.  The decline continued until Chalkhill was redeveloped in the 1990s and the rest of Wembley Park followed in the early 21st Century.

Pinner – Cecil Park and Grange Estates

Also part of the Borough of Harrow, the Town of Pinner began as a hamlet that was in existence no later than 900 AD with the first recorded mention in 1291.  The town’s name comes from the River Pinner that runs right through its center.  The oldest part of Pinner was centered around St. John the Baptist Parrish Church which dates back to the 14th Century, and there were a few homes in the area before the Metropolitan Railway came to the town.  Beginning in 1923, it developed the Cecil Park and Grange Lane estates while encouraging several others such as Pinnerwood and Elm Park Court, amongst others.  These developments helped Pinner grow by roughly 20,000 people over a few decades.  Today, Pinner is considered a wealthy part of Harrow and has held the city’s longest annual street fair since 1336.

Rickmansworth – Cedars Estate

Rickmansworth was founded along with five other manors as part of the Abbey of St. Albans in 793 AD.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, not much of note occurred in Ricksmanworth until the Metropolitan Railway came through the area in the 19th Century.  By the 1920s, Ricksmanworth (or “Ricky” as the locals call it) was quickly becoming a suburban commuter town thanks to Metro-land.  While many other Metroland developments were almost exclusively Tudor-style homes, Ricksmanworth’s prior history and development during the Victorian period means there’s a greater diversity of the homes in this community.  Other than that, there isn’t much to report on Rickmansworth although it was one of the communities featured in Sir John Betjeman’s 1973 documentary Metro-land on the MCRE’s housing estates.

Neasden – Kingsbury Garden Village

Falling so close to Wembley, Neasden was a simple countryside hamlet for centuries, only having a number of small cottages, farms, a pub, a smitty, and other simple signs of civilization.  Even by the early Victorian period, a little over one-hundred people lived in Neasden, though that certainly changed when the Metropolitan Railway opened its Dudding Hill Station in 1875.  By 1891, the population was in the 500s but would begin to grow even more when MCRE started laying out the streets for Kingsbury Garden Village, one of its first developments that would be part of Metroland.  Unfortunately, the prosperity that Metroland brought to Neasden was not to last, and the area declined after World War II.  However, it has survived and maintained a diverse culture that includes the Neasden Temple, the largest Hindu Temple outside of India.  As Neasden continues into the future, its history as one of the earliest parts of Metroland is almost as forgotten as the village itself, though its reawakening is always on the horizon.

Metroland in Media

London History: A Guide to Metroland – The Suburban Expansion of London Brought On By The Tube

Some of the earliest media associated with Metro-land were the adverts used to convince Londoners to move to the developments.  Like cheery propaganda posters, they displaced lovely Tudor homes, landmarks such as the British Exhibition Centre, and idyllic suburban life.  The image of a young woman picking flowers surrounded by greenery certainly would have appealed to Londoners as a contrast to the drab gray of the city.  Other posters focused on the local train stations that could easily take them from their country homes to work and back.  The Metropolitan Railway even advertised its terminus at Baker Street as “The Gateway to Metro-land”.

As Metroland began to take root in the public consciousness, the developments worked their way into media as early as the end of World War I.  It was about that time that George Sims penned the line “I know a land where the wildflowers grow/Near, near at hand if by train you go,/Metroland, Metroland!” into one of his songs.  By the 1930s, Evelyn Waugh was using the term in his novels Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and A Handful of Dust.  More songs soon followed such as “My Little Metro-land Home” all the way up to “Queensbury Station” by The Magoo Brothers in 1988, which makes many references to the area.

Metroland has had its share of appearances across film and television as well.  During the 1960s, the popular sci-fi spy series The Avengers often had its stories taking place in Metro-land communities. Such was the number of episodes that took place here that, during the show’s run, Metroland was nicknamed Avengerland.  In 1973, Poet Laureate John Betjeman made his famous documentary Metro-Land, taking a tour of the various developments and communities that sprang up along the Metropolitan Railway.  The documentary was critically very successful, and to this day, any attempts at revitalization often invoke Metro-Land as a means to conjure up images of the region’s heyday.

Shortly afterwards, another television series, The Good Life, aired in the UK that took place in a Metro-land community and focused on a couple who decided to “go back to nature” in their own modern neighborhood.  1997 saw Metroland immortalized on screen in a film of the same name.  Starring Christian Bale and Emily Watson, it was based on the 1980s novel by Julian Barnes.  The pair play a husband and wife living in Metroland when the sudden reappearance of Bale’s childhood friend causes him to remember his carefree past and question his life choices.  Ultimately, Bale chooses his family and happiness in the British suburbs, perhaps reinforcing the ideal of suburban contentment that Metroland evoked.

In each representation from the original ads to more modern film, Metroland continued to be portrayed as the perfect suburban life.  Work in the city, home in the country, and everything that most Londoners in the 20th Century could have wanted.  Even while communities faced development problems, economic decline, and even crime, the image crafted by the media for Metroland remained upbeat and pastoral.

After Metroland

Even though Metro-land as a marketing gimmick went away with the Metropolitan Railway’s absorption into the London Passenger Transport Board, the effects of the Met’s development remained.  The Metropolitan became yet another of the Underground’s many lines.  LPTB stopped running cargo freight up the Metropolitan all freight was transferred to the London and North Eastern Railway.  The Board also closed lines that split off and ran to Brill and Verney Junction, effectively ending the Met at Amersham and Chesham and the rest of the line being run by steam locomotives.  Despite this, the Underground stations along with the estates actually saw enhancements including new trains and an expansion of the lines at Harrow, making for an even better commute for Metro-land residents.

The change in the use of the railways wasn’t the only thing that was different after the Board took over, abandoning the estates and any new residential development plans were scrapped.  Architects and developers started to frown on suburbia following World War II.  The concept had become dated and uniform.  No one was interested in mock-Tudor style or homes that all looked the same.  Yet suburbia still held a draw to the English heart, as noted by J.M. Richards in his book The Castles on the Ground when he said “for all the alleged deficiencies of suburban taste…it holds for ninety out of a hundred Englishman an appeal which cannot be explained away as some strange instance of mass aberration.”  Even as the word “suburbia” fell into disfavor, “Metroland” continued to be used as a way to describe these outlying communities.

Over time, though, the idyllic countryside that the Met had promised began to fall by the wayside as London’s urbanity spread further into the surrounding counties.  Where Harrow had once been regarded as the capital of Metro-land, a pastoral idea of suburban life, it found itself surrounded by greater London.  Wembley Park, meanwhile, ceased to be identifiable from the rest of the city.  This was no more evident than when the Olympics and later the World Cup came to Wembley, signifying that this area was no mere development anymore.  Wembley became a major center of London events as Wembley Stadium also played host to a papal visit, Live Aid, the Euro Cup, and more.

As mentioned before, some of the estates and their villages didn’t fair as well.  Neasden, in particular, experienced a steady decline, especially as city traffic grew with the populace.  Congestion got so bad that the North Circular Road was constructed, and after the war, continued to grow such that an underpass was built which had the effect of bisecting Neasden and cutting off pedestrian access to one of its largest shopping centers.  Chalkhill had new estate housing built that was designed with many skyways that connected the buildings and was initially praised for its innovation.  However, the housing utopia slipped into dystopia as those same walkways in the Chalkhill Estate became convenient escape routes for criminals, aiding in the area’s urban decay.  The continued deterioration of the estate conditions ultimately led to its demolition and redevelopment.  In fact, redevelopment was a scheme in store for most of the Metroland estates as the 21st Century dawned.  While wealthier areas continued to flourish, gentrification would soon ensure that the other Met communities would soon join their success.

Metroland Today

In the present, the dream of Metroland has long since faded.  Few, if any, are around who remember life before London’s underground railways came under government control and fewer who knew the opening of Metroland’s estates.  Forty-five years have passed since Betjeman made his classic documentary and areas like Neasden, Harrow, and Wembley have continued to change in his absence.  In the decades since some of Metroland’s communities have since been swallowed up by an ever-expanding London.  Others that fell onto hard times have since seen revitalization thanks to redevelopment.  Yes, gentrification has come to Metroland, and the suburbia will never be the same—again.

Harrow and Wembley have always been more on the affluent side, even going as far back as the start of Metroland.  Harrow School is one of Britain’s boarding schools that exemplifies wealth and privilege ever since it was founded under a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1572.  Homes not built as part of suburban Metroland can go in the millions of pounds.  However, this is mostly confined to the northern part of the borough, and southern Harrow has more working-class people.  In fact, many communities in the area have problems with overcrowding and “beds in sheds”, or outbuildings hastily built to house lower-income persons.  The borough today is also a very diverse one, with approximately 64% of residents belonging to Black or Minority Ethnic communities.  This was no better represented than in the council’s annual festival, Under One Sky, which started in 2005 as a means of celebrating this diversity, but was cancelled beginning in 2014 due to funding concerns.

Nearby Neasden is one of the prime examples of the gentrification that’s taken over parts of Metroland.  The 1990s saw both the demolition of the historic Grange Tavern for new flats as well as the construction of the Neasden Temple.  The shopping center that was harmed by the expansion of the North Circular Road was redeveloped in 2004.  In both Harrow and Neasden, newer, blocky apartment buildings have been going up to accommodate those persons who can no longer afford to live close to Central London, while those in the more affluent neighborhoods have moved into the expensive condos being built closer to the business and financial districts of London.  Chalkhill still has its issues, especially with drugs and gangs, but since the 1990s the estate has been redeveloped to alleviate the worst of the community’s crime problems and just outside the estate are single-family homes and duplexes alongside newer apartment buildings—all within view of the rebuilt Wembley Stadium.

This is the new Metroland, one that is a mixture of cultures, incomes, and age groups.  These renovated homes and new apartments are providing homes to immigrant communities seeking a better life, young professionals who can no longer afford the city, and new families who want the homes and yards to grow.  While a lot of developers are more interested in tearing down and building something new, plenty of Londoners are looking at something old and making it new again.  As much as new apartments might appeal to younger generations, cramped lofts with high rents are what everyone is looking for in life.  For the rest of us, the semis of Metroland offer an appeal that escapes modern development firms.  These homes offer space to unfurl your wings and live in a community rather than a mixed-use maze, to be closer to schools than to clubs.

And thus, Metroland has come full-circle.  The homes that once called to new families and working people are doing so again.  Neasden, Wembley Park, Chalkhill, Rickmansworth, and more are bridging the gap between urbanized London and suburban Greater London.  As northwest London continues its march towards redevelopment, there is still a place for the homes that the Metropolitan Railway constructed.  Today, as when they were new, these houses serve the purpose for which they were intended—providing homes and communities to all manner of Londoners.

John Rabon
Author: John Rabon

John is a regular writer for Anglotopia and its sister websites. He is currently engaged in finding a way to move books slightly to the left without the embarrassment of being walked in on by Eddie Izzard. For any comments, questions, or complaints, please contact the Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson's haircut.

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