History of London

Metro-Land and London's Suburbs

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens, Runs the red electric train, With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's, Daintily alights Elaine.
John Betjeman, Middlesex

Loved and derided in equal measures, London’s suburbs grew out of the need for more housing for the capital’s booming population. They also spawned the daily ritual – and often misery - of commuting long distances into central London for work.

One route, in particular, became synonymous with this evolution: the Metropolitan Railway that ran up through north-west London into what became known as Metro-Land. The Metropolitan Railway was the first Underground line in 1863. By 1889 it had reached Chesham and by 1892 it had extended out to Aylesbury (although this line now only runs as far as Amersham). Then, in 1904 an electrified line branched off to Uxbridge while the spur line to Watford was opened between the wars. But to boost its profits, the Metropolitan Railway needed more passengers. So in the early 1900s, it developed its first housing estates in Wembley Park and at Cecil Park in Pinner, on land it had acquired next to its railway lines.

In 1915, advertisers coined the phrase ‘Metro-land’, painting a picture of rural charm within easy reach of the city to entice people to settle there. It worked. Londoners came in their droves to live the suburban dream in new estates in Neasden, Wembley Park, Northwick Park, Eastcote, Rayners Lane, Ruislip, Hillingdon, Pinner, Rickmansworth and Amersham, built by Country Estates, a separate company set up by the Metropolitan Railway in 1919. Of course, suburbs weren’t just created along one Underground line. Edgware, Finchley, Epsom and Purley were just a few of the many other ‘villages’ that became subsumed into London.

Minimum standards for building in the new suburbs were set in the Tudor Walters Report of 1918. This adopted ideas from the garden city movement and planned-suburbs like Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb. They included the maximum density of houses and their arrangement. The report even recommended a minimum number of bedrooms and living rooms, as well as a fixed bath. The style of buildings in the new suburbs varied, but there was a strong leaning towards ‘mock Tudor’, perhaps as some form of nostalgia or to emphasise the countrified location of the new dwellings.

The effect on each area varied but all of them grew massively. Amersham increased in size several times, the population of Harrow Weald grew from 1,500 to 11,000 and Pinner grew from 3,000 to 23,000 in just a few decades. And not all of them were completely urbanised. Chorleywood, for example, later benefitted from the establishment of the Green Belt.

The extensive advertising for Metro-land is some of the most distinctive of the early 20th century – if not always the most truthful... For example, Neasden was promoted as a place where “peace and quiet prevail” – after the opening of the North Circular Road in 1922. In general, there was a lot of emphasis on non-urban aspects of what were really housing estates. Metro-land may have started as an escape from city life, with its noise and pollution. But over time, most of it has become just part of London’s urban sprawl.

Did you Know

Poet John Betjeman was fascinated by London's so-called Metro-land. He wrote three poems about it (Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex and The Metropolitan Railway) and made ‘classic’ BBC documentary Metro-land in 1973.