Metro-Land to HS2 – Oliver Green
Railways have had a key role in shaping the development of the country areas northwest of London in the twentieth century. This began when the Metropolitan, the world’s first underground railway, was extended beyond its original urban network of the 1860s to run through Middlesex, Herts and Bucks to reach the Chilterns in the 1880s. In 1915 the railway came up with the catchy brand name Metro-land to promote excursion travel from London. An annual Metro-land guidebook was published to encourage the middle classes not only to visit but to buy a new house in Metro-land and commute to London daily by train. In the 1920s mortgages were cheap and new suburban house sales took off as never before. Uniquely, the Metropolitan Railway became directly involved in many of the housing developments in its catchment area, which were all close to railway stations. This cosy arrangement ended in 1933 when London Transport was created and took over all the Met’s operations.
The name Metro-land was never used again in London Transport’s publicity, but it had entered the language as an almost generic expression of suburban life. It had already featured in a popular song, My Little Metro-land Home, and appeared in Evelyn Waugh’s fictional character Margot Metro-land in his 1928 novel Decline and Fall. Suburbia was much derided by intellectuals and writers like George Orwell at the time, but it was incredibly successful, and a complete lifestyle change for those who were able to move out of crowded inner London. Between 1921 and 1931 the Metro-land districts of Harrow, Ruislip-Northwood, Uxbridge, and Wembley all experienced population increases of more than 50%. Season ticket sales on the Met rose dramatically at every station.
In the 1930s a backlash against London’s apparently continuous growth took place and plans to introduce a ‘green belt’ round the capital were first put forward. This was implemented after the war and effectively froze housing development in the Metro-land area, where it stopped completely with the outbreak of war in 1939. By the 1970s pre-war suburbia, which had engulfed many much older rural villages in the Home Counties like Pinner and Ruislip, had its own champions like Sir John Betjeman, the celebrated poet laureate. Betjeman was particularly fond of trains and his nostalgic BBC TV documentary on Metro-land is now approaching its 50th anniversary in 2023.
The Chilterns’ next encounter with the railways will be over the construction of the controversial HS2 line from London to Birmingham. This has just begun but will not be completed until at least 2030.
Oliver Green is former Head Curator of the London Transport Museum. He has an MA in History from the University of Cambridge and over 30 years’ experience in the museum and heritage sector. His career began at the Museum of London in the 1970s and he has since worked at the London Transport Museum, Colchester Museums, Poole Museum and Bucks County Museum. He has lectured widely on social, transport and design history including courses at the V&A, City Lit and Gerrards Cross Summer School. He is the author of 15 books on transport history, most recently London Underground, the Story of the Tube ( 2019) and London’s Great Railway Stations (2021).