Metro-Land: British Empire Exhibition Number 
by Oliver Green.
Southbank, 144 pp., £16.99, July 2004, 1 904915 00 0
Show More
Show More

In Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall the society woman who ships girls to Rio is called Lady Metroland. Her husband, Viscount Metroland, takes his ‘funny name’ (as Paul Pennyfeather sees it) from a fantasy fiefdom of the London Metropolitan Railway, an advertising man’s conceit which tickled the imagination of the public in the 1920s. Metroland was the commuter catchment area for the line running north-west from Baker Street station through a string of ‘unspoiled’ arcadias and ancient pocket boroughs into the Chiltern Hundreds and the Vale of Aylesbury. The originators of successful brand names deserve to be remembered. According to Alan Jackson’s London’s Metropolitan Railway (1986), the name Metroland was the inspiration of James Garland, a copywriter in the company’s publicity department, who was laid up with flu but leapt out of bed in high Archimedean excitement when the name entered his head. The public first heard of Metroland in 1915, when the railway used it in a penny booklet listing country walks. The ultimate intention was not merely to attract rail passengers but to encourage residential building in areas cannily retained by the company’s Surplus Lands Committee. However, 1915 was hardly the time to embark on grand building projects. As a schoolboy at that time I played in half-built houses abandoned, with ladders and unemptied privies, by their builders, in whose homes window cards proclaimed: ‘This House has sent a Man to fight for King and Country.’ Those who came back from the wars were promised ‘homes for heroes’, but all too few heroes could afford to live in the sylvan recesses of Metroland, where ‘jaded vitality and taxed nerves’ were soothed away by pure air, and (as a song said) hearts were lighter and eyes were brighter.

For a decade and a half the image of Metroland was vigorously promoted, but in 1933 the Metropolitan Railway – which in 1863 had been the world’s first underground railway, linking Paddington and Farringdon – was merged with London Transport. Officially Metroland ceased to exist, but an obstinate nostalgia industry thought otherwise. In Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland (1980), which opens in the 1960s, the clever-clever sixth-former who says things like ‘J’habite Metroland’ in his orals is riding lawlessly in first class when he becomes the captive audience of an ‘old sod . . . dead bourgeois’ who gives him a rundown of the distinguished history of the line. One of its finest achievements, the boy learns, was to lay on two Pullman coaches (Mayflower and Galatea) for its more affluent commuters. The lecture includes a tribute to the Metropolitan’s great Victorian, Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of the company’s tracks forming part of a single line under a single management running from Manchester through London to Dover and then under the Channel to the Continent. It was Watkin’s men who began excavating a tunnel near Folkestone in 1881, only to be warned off by the Court of Chancery for infringing the Crown’s foreshore rights. This discouraged him from pursuing a proposal to link Scotland and Ireland by tunnel. Instead, he conceived the idea of a gigantic viewing tower, higher than the Eiffel, at Wembley, already a proud stop on his line. Begun in the 1890s, Watkin’s Folly had reached only a fifth of its proposed height when the money ran out and it was pulled down in 1907. The site was fated to support triumphalist structures. The twin-towered Wembley Stadium was erected there and is now being rebuilt with a lofty Foster Arch, which with luck will not become Foster’s Folly. Watkin died before Metroland was conceived, but he would have made an ideal viscount.

In the early 1920s few people owned their houses, but they now came under heavy pressure to do so. Metroland’s chief thruster was the railway company’s general manager, Robert Hope Selbie. His task, in Jackson’s words, was to see those unspoiled arcadias ‘comfortably populated, preferably with a high percentage of first-class season ticket-holders and their families. And if in making that possible the scenery should become somewhat less arcadian, as much of it did, then he would lose no sleep.’ Other developers were recklessly ribbon-building out of the capital in all directions, and Metroland tried to keep its distance from those jumped-up estates whose critics would soon be sounding off about brick boxes, bungaloid growths, shanty towns, dreary dormitories, the joke-lands of Mon Repos and Erzanmine and sunburst garden gates, the endless lines of ‘Tudor bypass’, as Osbert Lancaster called it, broken only by pinched shops spatchcocked into parades and esplanades.

In contrast, the publicity photographs of Metroland showed tree-sheltered homesteads of ineffable distinction, sometimes with thatched roofs, and ponds and haystacks in the offing. In these privileged areas houses could be built to the customer’s own design, subject to such restrictions as, in Pinner, ‘No house to be erected of less value than £1000.’ If they did not have garages, Metroland homes had room for them. It was the lack of such space in lesser developments that would eventually fuel friction and fury in a car-saturated land. In Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train (1926), cited in the OED’s entry on Metroland, a flighty sounding couple who have chosen to settle among ‘nice people’ in Great Missenden protest that ‘they must have a car, though,’ as ‘relying entirely on the Met is too awkward.’ They are aware that some Metrolanders like to keep a pied-à-terre in London. At that time, as the timetable shows, Great Missenden had 28 trains running each way daily. The travelling time to London was 47 minutes, subject presumably to slippery rail delays caused by all that prodigious leafiness. To help alleviate any tedium, the first newspaper crossword arrived in 1924.

The Metro-Land British Empire Exhibition Number, reissued in association with London’s Transport Museum, gives a good picture of Metroland at full throttle in 1924 (the guide came out annually between 1915 and 1932). As reissues go, this slim volume originally costing threepence does not begin to match the bulging treasure-houses of Harrods and Army and Navy Store catalogues, but as Oliver Green, the head curator of the museum, says in a succinct introduction, it is full of the cheerful brashness of the period. Thanks to the Empire Exhibition, Wembley had become a prestige station on the line. Not content with this, the company yearned for a permanent expression of grandeur, in the shape of an imposing terminus to rival Euston and St Pancras. Since Baker Street was accepted as the gateway to Metroland, why not build a grand hotel on top of it? This, as Green explains, would have posed serious problems of ground access, so Selbie settled for crowning the station with a vast block of ultra-modern flats. Chiltern Court, completed at the decade’s end, was quick to attract those luxury-lovers, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. When Bennett lay dying there in 1931, according to Reginald Pound’s biography, straw was laid on the roadway to deaden the traffic noise – the last time, possibly, such a courtesy was extended to an expiring citizen in the heart of the metropolis. Was the straw put down by the Metropolitan Railway as a gesture to one of its more important dependents? Or was it simply ordered up by the novelist’s friends in a van from Harrods? As it happened, the straw proved to be a bad idea, since its slipperiness in the wet caused a noisy collision. Many years later, in the ‘worn memorial’ of the Baker Street buffet under Chiltern Court, John Betjeman sought inspiration for his poem ‘The Metropolitan Railway’, with its opening invocation: ‘Early Electric! With what radiant hope/Men formed this many-branched electrolier’. A stained glass windmill and ‘sepia views of leafy lanes in Pinner’ are noted with approval. Neasden, that unhappy region destined to be laid waste in Private Eye, earns an innocuous passing mention. Much to be cherished is this tribute to an old-time commuter: ‘The thought of Ruislip kept him warm inside.’

The 1924 booklet touches on many of Metroland’s historic links. Fleeing the Great Plague, John Milton took a cottage at Chalfont St Giles, where he completed Paradise Regained. When an American proposed to dismantle the cottage and ship it across the Atlantic, there was rebellion and it was saved for Metroland and the nation. World War One inevitably left its mark. Our ‘flying men’, it seems, did nothing to enhance property values on the Chiltern slopes. The Rothschild estate of Halton was ‘transformed into a vast camp of hutments, which played sad havoc with the beauty of the hillside towards Tring, and this has developed into one of the principal depots of the Royal Air Force.’ Not far away, Hillingdon House became the headquarters of the RAF, Inland Area. Perhaps we should have been told that the first Zeppelin shot down over Britain fell in Metroland, at Potters Bar, a distinction of a sort. The guide complains that rival developers have swung the woodman’s axe too freely among the great elms of Pinner, and that elsewhere too many small identical houses had been built to the acre. The Metropolitan Estates Company, which had taken over from the Surplus Lands Committee, did not wholly neglect lower-cost housing, but its ideal customer was the Pullman-riding, plus-foured golfer, for whom a string of inviolate playgrounds were expensively preserved. If Britain now has enough golf courses to make a bare green county the size of Warwickshire, Metroland must accept some of the responsibility. On a colourful Metroland map golf courses are signalled by red flags, jaunty oriflammes heralding the advance of civilisation. At Sandy Lodge and Moor Park was a nexus of golf courses, with the Moor Park club housed in a pillared mansion built from profits in the South Sea Bubble. Its most recent owner was Lord Leverhulme, the soap baron. John Betjeman did not fail to ham it up on the Moor Park course for television.

On this map Metroland is not so much a thin fillet of land following the main line and its extensions as a wide-flung area ballooning over substantial portions of Middlesex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Also reproduced in the guide are Underground maps showing long-abandoned stations, notably that for the British Museum (the stopped-up entrance used to be pointed out on a nearby derelict site). On the Piccadilly Line, Down Street station became railway offices, and also served during the Blitz as a night refuge for Winston Churchill.

Adverts in the guide include two for the Abbey Road Building Society, now a much troubled bank calling itself the Abbey. Its appeal then was to the discerning, the thrifty and the shrewd, and not – as in a recent Daily Telegraph two-page ad – to ‘the confused, the frightened, the ignored, the sceptical, the freaked-out and the fed-up’, personified by a sour-looking old woman (or was it a man?) glooming over a hugely blown-up page of The Joy of Sex. Metroland would not have wished to find its bushy lanes haunted by dubious croakers of that sort. Waring and Gillow adverts offer a choice of three comprehensive furnishing schemes, at £300, £550 and £850 respectively, ‘carriage paid to any railway station in the United Kingdom’. Surprisingly, there is no ad from the otherwise omnipresent Mr Drage, whose uplifting and scrupulously courteous conversations with Mr and Mrs Everyman did much to persuade a doubtful nation that hire-purchase was both useful and character-forming.

The advertising pages show that tea gardens, sometimes of surprising capacity, throve in Metroland, offering excursionists the lure of piano and occasionally wireless. ‘Ideal situation, piano, outdoor sanitation’ one announcement runs, a reminder that indoor sanitation, on hygienic grounds, was not universally approved. Many advertisers stress that beanfeasts are welcome, beanfeasts (with added bacon) being annual dinners given by employers to their workers. Even charabanc parties are encouraged; by no means all those shining juggernauts were packed with bottle-throwing, penny-tossing rowdies.

The few pages about the Wembley Exhibition are a little on the summary side, suggesting that Metroland had no wish to see its merits obscured by this last great celebration of empire. It was a stroke of luck that the exhibition was staged at Wembley; indeed, it appears that the company sold off a sizable chunk of land to the organisers, which helped to offset the cost of Watkin’s Folly. When the Cup Final was held in the new stadium in 1923 a company publicist claimed that the system was delivering passengers to Wembley station at the rate of a thousand a minute, doubtless contributing to the alarming mass pitch invasion of that year. Exhibition photographs reveal that even in those days Wembley had its domes and minarets, attached to the India Pavilion. In the South Africa Pavilion visitors were shown how ostrich feathers were cut from the living bird, which may have reminded oldsters of the days when British geese were stripped, none too humanely, to provide quills. Palestine was not really part of the Empire, but it shared a double-domed pavilion with Cyprus. An item judged worthy of interest to Metrolanders was the boast that ‘from Newfoundland . . . comes the best cod liver oil in the world.’

When Betjeman toured Metroland for the BBC in 1973 he followed the Neasden Nature Trail, dropped in on ladies in hats lunching in ‘one of the most beautiful houses in Harrow’, and heard a famous Wurlitzer being played in a cinema at Chorley Wood. He sought to persuade viewers that the kept ladies of St John’s Wood operated behind stained glass featuring mauve lilies and ‘a false Messiah’ (a bit mysterious this: I quote from the report of the TV critic of the Times). At Grimsdyke he gazed on a pool where the senescent Sir William Gilbert was drowned while trying to rescue an incautious girl called Ruby. There was enough in Metroland to keep a dozen Betjemans happy. Think of that branch line ending in a river-haunted spot where, surely, someone would have come up with the tale of how the eccentric geologist William Buckland, lost in a fog, dismounted from his horse, sniffed a handful of earth, and pronounced ‘Uxbridge!’ Think of Stowe, where the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos rallied his people in a posse comitatus to obstruct the railway surveyors, spades against theodolites, and where a later duke allowed his private line and station to be absorbed into the Metroland network.

Metroland was an essential part of the 1920s, which were not entirely devoted to the doings of Bright Young Things. To put the period further into context, it was a time not only of charabancs and cod liver oil but of boys spinning tops on the highway, paper chases, bird’s-nesting, cyclists hanging on to the backs of lorries, slavering bulls led along busy high streets (and past china shops), women bristling with dangerous hat-pins, biplanes looping the loop, railway bridges everywhere proclaiming ‘Daily Mail Million Sale’ and an army which formed fours, not threes. As I recall, any legible graffiti was confined to lavatories. The public buildings of Metroland were unlikely to have been coated with the witless cuneiform of tags.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 26 No. 24 · 16 December 2004

E.S. Turner is puzzled by a 1973 reference to the ‘kept ladies of St John’s Wood … behind stained glass featuring mauve lilies and a “false Messiah"’ (LRB, 2 December). The false Messiah was an Anglican clergyman, the Reverend John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, whose congregation believed him to be Christ (he saw no reason to disabuse them). He moved on to lead a colony in Somerset called Agapemone and was pleased to take several Brides of Christ. It was his London house that had mauve lilies in the stained glass; the neighbouring ‘kept ladies’ seemed to live in brighter accommodation.

Martin Ward

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences