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Metro-Land

British Empire Exhibition 1924 Edition

with a new introduction by Oliver Green
Metro-Land 1924 - The Introduction by Oliver Green
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Metro-land is the creation of the Metropolitan Railway's Publicity Department. The title was devised as a catchy marketing brand name for the area north west of London in Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire served by the line. It first appeared in print in 1915 with the publication of Metro-land, a guidebook designed to promote the area for leisure excursion travel from London. More significantly, Metro-land was intended to stimulate new residential development, populating these districts with middle class commuters who would travel to and from London daily on the Metropolitan's services. Launching a promotion like this during the First World War, when househunting was hardly a priority for many people, does not look like the best of timing. But the essence of the scheme was to blossom into a huge success in the post-war twenties, when new suburban house sales round London took off as never before. The 1924 edition of Metro-land reproduced here was published just as the boom was under way.

A  new edition of Metro-land was published annually from 1915 until 1932, the last full year of the Metropolitan's existence as an independent railway company. On 1 July 1933 the Met unwillingly became part of London Transport, the new authority which took over all bus, tram and underground railway services in the London area. The Metropolitan was downgraded from main line railway status to become just one of London Transport's seven underground lines. Metro-land was dropped immediately from the advertising vocabulary of the new Board, never to be used again in official publicity, although London's suburban growth continued until it was ended abruptly by the outbreak of war in September 1939.

Metro-land may have lost its official standing only eighteen years after its invention, but the name had already entered the language as an almost generic expression of suburban life. A popular song called My Little Metro-land Home had been published in 1920. The word had even, through Evelyn Waugh's fictional character Margot Metro-land, appeared for the first time in the pages of a novel (Decline and Fall, published in 1928). Metro-land's characteristics were later to be affectionately evoked in the poems of John Betjeman such as The Metropolitan Railway (1954) and in his nostalgic BBC television programme Metro-land, made in 1973. Yet another perspective appears in Julian Barnes' first novel, Metroland (1980) where the writer draws on memories of his own suburban upbringing in the area in the 1960s. For Barnes 'Metro-land is a country with elastic borders which every visitor can draw for himself, as Stevenson drew his map of Treasure Island'. In little more than half a century, Metro-land grew from being an ad man's creative invention into a more prosaic reality in the 1920s and 30s, a wistful post-war recollection from the 1950s onwards and finally a new land of personal imagination by 1980.

The area that was christened Metro-land in 1915 had been opened up by the railway between 1880 and 1905. In the process the Metropolitan was itself transformed from a short urban underground feeder line linking three London termini with the City, into a fully fledged long distance railway with main line aspirations. The original section of the Metropolitan, opened in January 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon, was the world's first underground railway. It was gradually extended over the next twenty years until, by linking up at both ends with London's second main underground line, the District Railway, the Inner Circle (now the Circle line) was completed in 1884. By this time the Metropolitan was concentrating its resources on promoting a potentially more lucrative expansion out into the country through London's north west suburbs. This began as a modest branch line from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage originally called the Metropolitan & St. John's Wood Railway, which opened in 1868. The railway was then pushed overground through green fields on the edge of London beyond Finchley Road to Willesden Green (1879), Harrow (1880), Pinner (1885), Rickmansworth (1887) and Chesham (1889). Chesham became a branch terminus when the main line was built onwards from Chalfont Road (now Chalfont & Latimer) through Amersham to Aylesbury (1892). A link with the existing Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway took Metropolitan trains on to Verney Junction, a remote country station in north Buckinghamshire, where there were connecting services on other lines to Banbury, Bletchley and Oxford.

poster promoting the 1926 edition of Metro-land

Through Metropolitan services from Verney Junction to Baker Street were introduced in 1897. A short branch from Quainton Road to Brill, built by the Duke of Buckingham to serve his private estate, was also acquired by the Metropolitan in 1899. Thus by the turn of the century the Metropolitan's domain stretched over more than fifty miles from central London through the Chilterns into deepest Bucks. At the time this was less about preparing the ground for suburban development than the initial building blocks of a far grander plan by the company chairman, Sir Edward Watkin. His ambition was to make the Metropolitan the key link in a main line network running from Manchester via London to Dover, then through a proposed Channel tunnel to Paris and the rest of Continental Europe. This was no idle dream. Watkin was already chairman of two other existing railway companies along the route as well as the nascent Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, which was planning a new trunk line from the north west to London. He was one of the most powerful and influential of the late Victorian railway barons, but a debilitating stroke forced him to resign as Metropolitan chairman in 1894. The company's more grandiose and visionary plans effectively collapsed with him. Although the successful completion of a Channel rail tunnel was still a century away, other more modest development possibilities were already emerging for the Metropolitan.

As was often the case when a new railway opened, the Metropolitan's Extension Line brought new residential development in its wake, although not always as quickly as the company would have liked. Unlike any other railway, however, the Metropolitan became directly involved in housing development itself, using surplus land alongside the line bought before the railway was built. Property not required for railway purposes was usually resold when construction was complete, but the Metropolitan cannily hung on to its purchases. The company's first property development venture was the Willesden Park Estate, laid out on railway land near Willesden Green station in the 1880s and 90s. The houses were modest, semi-detached villas intended for rental by middle class families.

Another two housing estates, including some rather more upmarket residences, were begun in the early 1900s farther down the line at Pinner (Cecil Park) and at Wembley Park, where a large area of land south of the railway had been acquired in 1890 to develop as sports and pleasure grounds. This was another Watkin scheme which included as its centrepiece plans for a massive viewing tower inspired by the success of the Eiffel Tower, built for the Paris Exhibition of 1889. The Wembley Park pleasure grounds were opened to the public in 1894, served by a new station, but the great tower had already run into financial and construction difficulties. It never rose above the first 155 ft. high stage, a mere fifth of its intended stature. Without the main attraction, the hoped for crowds of trippers arriving on Metropolitan trains never materialised. Watkin's Folly, as the part built tower became known, was eventually closed to visitors and finally demolished in 1907. Wembley had yet to become a household name.

During the Edwardian years the ground was laid for the full scale development of Metro-land that took place in the 1920s. The railway service was further extended and modernised with a new branch line from Harrow to Uxbridge opened in 1904 and the start of electric services the following year over the inner sections of the Metropolitan and as far out as Uxbridge. Banishing steam locomotives from passenger trains on the Met's sub-surface lines was not before time, as the unpleasant atmosphere of its stations and tunnels compared badly with the clean new rival electric Tube railways that were criss-crossing the capital. A sign of the new standards to which the company aspired was the introduction of two Pullman cars in 1910. These were used on some of the fast long distance services to and from Buckinghamshire, providing drinks and light refreshments to first class passengers paying a supplementary fare. Tea or coffee with buttered toast, cake and jam was available for 1s 6d (71/2p), while a light breakfast, lunch or supper cost 3s 0d (15p). A full range of alcoholic drinks was also available from the bar.

Such luxuries were only taken up by a small proportion of the Metropolitan's clientele. The Pullman service was more of an image builder than a profit maker, but other more significant improvements that could be appreciated and experienced by all the railway's customers were being developed in this period. This was particularly true after the appointment of Robert Hope Selbie as General Manager in 1908. It was the autocratic but far-sighted Selbie who now drove a series of new initiatives for the Met and who would oversee the successful creation of Metro-land. Selbie recognised that promotion of new traffic for the railway had to go hand in hand with visibly improved services. A major investment in additional express tracks over the busy bottleneck section between Finchley Road and Wembley Park in 1913-15 was a prime example of this. Selbie's additional proposals to extend the electrification of the main line beyond Harrow to Rickmansworth and to build a new electric branch to Watford had to be postponed with the outbreak of war in 1914. Further estate development was also brought to a temporary halt, although the optimistic launch of the first Metro-land guide only a year later showed that the railway had not shelved all its plans for the duration of the war.

the 1920 edition of Metro-land

In January 1919, only two months after the Armistice, a scheme was announced to create a new property company which would manage and develop the railway's land holdings. Until this point the commercial administration of the Met's estates had been in the hands of the Surplus Lands Committee. The Committee's responsibilities were now taken over by Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Ltd. Legally it was a separate company independent of the railway, but in practice the MRCE was under the control of the Metropolitan's directors. Selbie, who was an MRCE director from the start, became a director of the Metropolitan Railway in 1922 whilst continuing to serve as its General Manager. It was a cosy arrangement which gave the Metropolitan the unique opportunity among railway companies to become a profitable property developer. Between 1919 and 1933 the MRCE developed a series of private housing estates all down the line at Neasden, Wembley Park, Northwick Park, Eastcote, Rayners Lane, Ruislip, Hillingdon, Pinner, Rickmansworth, Chorley Wood and Amersham. In the early days the estates company built some houses itself, but the usual pattern was to lay out an estate and then sell plots to individual purchasers wishing to have a house built to their own specifications. Later on the design and construction was usually undertaken by other companies who would offer the prospective purchaser a choice of house sizes and styles at a range of prices. The procedure is described on pages 80-95.

The annual Metro-land guide was always the main advertising medium for these developments. The seductive dream of a new home on the edge of beautiful countryside but with every modern convenience including a fast rail service to central London was an appealing vision eighty years ago, and remains so today. In true advertising tradition the Met's copywriters went way over the top in their purple prose, trying rather unconvincingly to blend notions of age-old rural tradition with civilised progress: 'This is a good parcel of English soil in which to build home and strike root, inhabited from of old… the new settlement of Metro-land proceeds apace; the new colonists thrive amain'. The language must have sounded contrived even then, although a quick glance today at the ads and features in the weekly Home and Property supplement of the London Evening Standard will show that marketing methods have only changed superficially. Lifestyle advertising and promotion using fashionable jargon still seems to work. Metro-land was just one of the first and most successful examples of an approach to property marketing that is now familiar to us all.

Until after the First World War hardly anyone in Britain owned their own home. Before 1914 even the wealthier middle classes usually rented, but in the 1920s actually buying a new house with a mortgage became a practical possibility for thousands of people. Building societies, which provided most of the new mortgages for house purchases, did not require large cash deposits and loan rates were low. One of the fastest growing societies in the London area which helped finance the Metro-land boom was the Abbey Road, later to become the Abbey National, which registered a 700 per cent increase in borrowers between 1926 and 1936. A prominent advertisement for the Abbey appears in this and most subsequent editions of Metro-land.

Every Metro-land booklet features evocative descriptions and photographs of historic villages and rural vistas in what its authors claimed to be 'London's nearest countryside…where charm and peace await you'. Production and printing were of an exceptionally high quality, with the special luxury, for this period, of coloured covers and plates which could be ordered in sets for framing. No doubt the brochure conjured up a tempting prospect for the hiker or day tripper, but Metro-land's real target market was always the prospective resident rather than the casual visitor. Selbie and his colleagues always had new season ticket holders in their sights. In the persuasive words of the 1920 edition of Metro-land 'the strain which the London business or professional man has to undergo amidst the turmoil and bustle of Town can only be counteracted by the quiet restfulness and comfort of a residence amidst pure air and surroundings, and whilst jaded vitality and taxed nerves are the natural penalties of modern conditions, Nature has, in the delightful districts abounding in Metro-land, placed a potential remedy at hand'.

As well as offering a guide to visitors and potential residents of Metro-land itself (the outer suburban and country area starting at Wembley) this Metro-land booklet purports to offer guidance to anyone travelling up to Town with a 'How to get about London section' on pages 25 to 34. Closer inspection reveals the bizarre recommendation that visitors start by memorising the position of the most convenient railway station for their destination (p28) linked to the misleading suggestion that as the Metropolitan 'goes north, south, east and west' there is always likely to be a Met station or interchange with the Tube close at hand. The Key Plans on pages 32 and 33 actually give a rather poor indication of the precise street locations of many central London Tube stations, which almost suggests a deliberate attempt to sabotage any use of rival Underground services. It is also curious that the photographs of the City on pages 30 and 31 are more than a decade out of date. They were clearly taken around 1910 when there were still horse buses on the streets. Is this a sly dig at another rival transport company, the London General Omnibus Company, which had in fact replaced its entire horse drawn fleet with new motor buses in 1911? If this is simply an oversight, it gives the photographs a strangely archaic feel, particularly alongside a text which is obsessively fixated on the modern features and up to the minute statistics of the Met's new services to the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Perhaps the simple explanation is that this 1924 edition of Metro-land has been rather uncomfortably adapted to squeeze in as much as possible about the new show at Wembley as this was clearly about to be the dominant attraction of the area in the year ahead.

poster advertising the Met's Country Walks booklets

The British Empire Exhibition of 1924/25 not only put Wembley permanently on the map but acted as a timely boost for Metro-land as a whole. It was not a project originally promoted by the Metropolitan Railway, but the fortuitous choice of Wembley Park as the site led to considerable benefits for the railway and the area. The exhibition was the largest to be held in this country since the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Its purpose was to promote both the image and economy of the Empire, or in the words of the official guidebook 'to display the natural resources of the Empire, and the activities, industrial and social, of their peoples'. The Metropolitan was the first to profit from the venture through the sale of 216 acres of Wembley Park to the exhibition company in January 1922, at last recouping some of Watkin's ill fated investment of the 1890s.

The first physical manifestation of the new scheme was, appropriately enough, erected on the site of Watkin's Tower. This was a huge national sports arena, the largest of its kind in the world, built almost entirely with the newly refined construction technique of reinforced concrete. The Empire Stadium could accommodate 125,000 spectators and, as the promoters were keen to emphasise, was one and a half times the size of that earlier classical arena of empire, the Coliseum in Rome. Wembley Stadium was first used to stage the FA Cup Final on 28 April 1923 when Bolton Wanderers beat West Ham 2-0. The match nearly had to be abandoned before kick-off when the over-capacity crowd spilled past the barriers and on to the pitch. A potentially dangerous situation was skilfully averted in the famous 'white horse incident', a successfully improvised crowd control manouvre led by a single mounted policeman who slowly circled the touch line, easing the fans back until the pitch was clear. Without making any direct reference to this incident, Metro-land's copywriter boasts on page 31 that the Met carried 152,000 passengers to Wembley Park on Cup Final day, depositing them 'at the amazing rate of a thousand a minute'. If this is correct the Met alone brought in thousands more fans than the stadium could accommodate and contributed directly to the chaotic situation, which hardly seems an achievement to celebrate!

The giant twin towers of the stadium, one of which features on the cover of this edition of Metro-land, came to symbolise Wembley as the national home of English football. They stood for eighty years until the controversial but long overdue redevelopment of the site by the Football Association finally began in 2003, and the demolition crews moved in. The various great ferro-concrete Palaces and Pavilions of the Empire Exhibition described here, and the adjacent Amusements Park, were ready for a grand royal inauguration by King George V on 23 April 1924 (St. George's Day). The King's speech was relayed by the BBC, then just eighteen months old and still a tiny company not a national corporation, to nearly seven million listeners who for the first time heard a monarch's actual voice over the wireless. The exhibition organisers confidently predicted at least 25 million visitors to 'Wonderful Wembley'. In fact 17.4 million people had passed through the turnstiles by the end of the exhibition on 1 November. It was decided to re- open Wembley for a second season in 1925 with various new exhibits. Inevitably it was less popular, attracting 9.7 million customers, though even this total looks impressive when compared with the ill fated Millenium Dome exhibition at Greenwich in 2000, which was visited by only 6.5 million people in twelve months, just over half the projected target figure.

A  comparison of the census returns for 1921 and 1931 shows a population increase of nearly 11% for Greater London as a whole, with a much higher rate of growth in the north west suburbs between five and ten miles from the centre. The Metro-land districts of Harrow, Ruislip-Northwood, Uxbridge and Wembley all experienced increases of more than 50%. In 1929 the Metropolitan Railway's Commercial Manager estimated that between 1919 and 1928 some 12,000 houses had been built within half a mile of the stations between Willesden Green, Uxbridge and Watford and that a further 17,000 were planned.

Just as the railway company hoped, the rapid development of Metro-land in the 1920s created a significant rise in ticket sales, and particularly of seasons, although the growth rate varied considerably. Comparing figures for monthly season tickets issued at individual stations in 1921 with 1928, for example, Aylesbury and Chorley Wood remained almost constant, but at Rickmansworth, Ruislip and Ruislip Manor sales nearly doubled, and at Preston Road, Northwick Park and Wembley Park the rise was more than 700%.The most spectacular growth of all was at Ickenham, where only 59 monthly tickets were sold in 1921 compared to 1497 in 1928.

Some of the shelved pre-war modernisation plans were implemented in this period to help meet and further stimulate growing traffic demand. Apart from the temporary boost of the Wembley exhibition in 1924/5 and the other special events like the cup final from 1923 this was nearly all commuter based. The extension of electric working to Rickmansworth and construction of a new branch to Watford were both completed in 1925. Baker Street station, the hub and headquarters of the Metropolitan often described in the company's publicity as 'the gateway to Metro-land', had been partly rebuilt just before the war. Plans for a grand hotel over the station changed into a scheme for a giant block of flats, Chiltern Court, completed in 1929. HG Wells and Arnold Bennett were among the first tenants of what was claimed by Metro-land to be the largest and most luxurious apartment block in London, opening 'a new chapter in residential flat technique'.

Metropolitan Railway poster for the first cup final at Wembley, 1923

The Metropolitan's last major infrastructure project was another new branch line from Wembley Park to Stanmore which was opened in December 1932 (later to become part of the Bakerloo line in 1939 and finally the Jubilee line in 1979). Yet more suburban development followed in the mid-1930s around the new stations on this branch, notably at Kingsbury and Queensbury. The last and farthest flung of the MRCE's own housing developments, the Weller Estate at Amersham, was started in 1930 and eventually comprised 535 semi-detached houses and 51 shops. A year earlier an even larger development christened Harrow Garden Village had got under way at Rayners Lane, and in just a few years what had been a remote country halt on the Uxbridge line with only a few farm buildings nearby was a busy rebuilt station surrounded by shopping parades, a spectacular art deco cinema and new suburban streets lined with semis.

In some respects the heyday of Metro-land was over by the early 1930s. Season ticket sales on the Metropolitan reached a peak in 1930, then started to decline as the effects of the economic slump began to bite even in the prosperous south east. Unrestricted development in the boom years of the1920s had already transformed many of these districts very rapidly from open countryside to drab and monotonous suburban sprawl. The notion of Metro-land as a 'rural Arcadia' no longer matched the suburban reality of Wembley Park or Rayners Lane, although the outer areas beyond Rickmansworth still retained their country character and have done so to this day. Many of the country walks suggested in Metro-land and other Met publications from eighty years ago are largely unchanged. A weekend stroll over Coombe Hill and past the Prime Minister's country residence at Chequers or along the River Chess from Latimer village is still through beautiful unspoilt countryside and can be highly recommended. The High Street in old Amersham pictured on page 68 is always full of cars today, but otherwise the buildings and streetscape have been carefully preserved; similarly the description of old Wendover on page 75 could have been written last week.

Metro-land has always been infused with contradiction and paradox. In opening up 'London's nearest countryside' to thousands of new residents it was inevitable that much of that land would not remain rural for long. This was a process of both creation and destruction which offered real benefits and a new life to many people even if it was ridiculously oversold. But allowing the process to continue virtually unregulated way was not sustainable. In the end the apparently remorseless outward spread of suburban London was only brought to a halt by the war in 1939. After the war new development was effectively curtailed by the imposition of the Green Belt and other planning restrictions. As a result much of Metro-land has remained virtually as it was at the outbreak of war, forever marooned in the 1930s, and some of what had been created in the previous twenty years has since been listed or declared conservation areas. Many people still find this difficult to understand and see little merit in Metro-land, but even those who can't stand the suburbs would surely agree that this curious early twentieth century phenomenon deserves our attention.

This edition of Metro-land is full of the brash, confident optimism of the 1920s. It may be misleading and inaccurate as a historical document but that is also part of its fascination and charm. Enjoy it for its quirky character. Those readers wanting to explore the history of Metro-land and the Metropolitan Railway further are recommended to turn first to Alan A Jackson's exhaustively researched and near definitive books London's Metropolitan Railway (David & Charles 1986), Semi-Detached London (Wild Swan 1991) and his forthcoming Metro-land (Capital Transport 2005). Photographs, original Met publications including copies of Metro-land and even a very early silent film made for the Metropolitan Railway in 1911, showing a trip down the line, can be consulted at London's Transport Museum in Covent Garden (Tel 0207 3796344 and www.ltmuseum.co.uk for details).

Oliver Green
Head Curator
London's Transport Museum