Common section

After the Great War

One of many posters from the London Underground—this one dates from 1929-extolling the virtues of suburbia or “Metroland.” The retreat into suburbia in fact marked the greatest change in London’s topography since the estates of the eighteenth century.


Suburban Dreams

The suburbs are as old as the city itself; they were once the spillings and scourings of the city, unhappy and insalubrious. The “subarbes” contained precisely that which had been banished from the town— the “stink” industries, brothels, leper hospitals, theatres—so that the area beyond the walls was in some way deemed threatening or lawless. It was neither city nor country; it represented London’s abandoned trail across the earth.

Nevertheless by the sixteenth century such diverse extramural areas as Wapping and Holborn, Mile End and Bermondsey, began to manifest all the signs of burgeoning population, trade and housing. The author of Londinopolis wrote, in 1657, that “’tis true that the suburbs of London are much broader than the body of the city, which make some compare her to a Jesuit’s hat whose brims are far larger than the block.” In the same period the Spanish ambassador remarked, “I believe there will be no City left shortly, for it will all have run out of the gates to the suburbs.” Yet the process was as inevitable as it was inexorable. London could no more cease growing than a lava flow can stop its irruption.

But the process was complex and unpredictable. London did not extend itself ever outwards in all directions, like some blocked-in mass perpetually extending its perimeter; it spiralled out in various directions, making use of existing roads or trade routes and testing the capacity of various villages or parishes to sustain its weight. The south of Stepney, for example, seemed like a “city by the river,” one of the earliest industrial suburbs, but to its north still “this Parish has the face of the country.” London moved organically, in other words, always finding the right ecology in which it might exist and flourish. Spitalfields expanded fivefold in less than sixty years, and the derivation of these fields of spittle might have been taken from the fluffy white excreta of the spider continually expanding its web.

Yet of course this natural glut of buildings and of people provoked sensations of disgust or dismay. It seemed to threaten the identity of the city itself. On a technical level the authorities could no longer supervise trade, or working practices, or prices; in a less palpable sense the guardians of law and of authority were gradually losing control. That loss of power induced anxiety. So, for example, Charles I blamed mob riots in Whitehall upon “the meane and unrulie people of the suburbs,” and the suburbs themselves have been described in Stephen Inwood’s A History of London as “a nether world of dung heaps, stinking trades, bloodsports, gallows, low taverns, prostitutes, foreigners, thieves, the poor and the mob.”

Yet for a while it still seemed possible to escape from the blight of the city. By the end of the eighteenth century there were in Peckham “many handsome houses … most of which are the country seats of wealthy citizens of London.” In Kentish Town “the air being exceedingly wholesome, many of the citizens have built houses; and such whose circumstances will not admit of that expense, take ready furnished lodgings for the summer.” In Fulham, also, were “many good buildings belonging to the gentry and citizens of London.” The process here was not one of confused inchoate growth, but one of deliberate colonisation of the surrounding countryside. Villages such as Clapton and Hampstead and Dulwich became, in the nomenclature of a later period, “suburban villages.”

As early as 1658, beside Newington Green, terraced houses appeared on the model of London terraces. Thirty years later Kensington Square was similarly laid out, while according to Chris Miele in Suburban London, “making no apparent concession to the rural character of the place.” By some strange alchemy the city had reassembled itself in a distant spot, as a silent token of that which was to come. By a similar process suburban estates emerged in previously rural areas, closely modelled upon the estates which had already been constructed in the western quarters of London; Kensington New Town, Hans Town and Camden Town were cities in miniature, laid down at convenient and profitable sites beside the main roads. The suburbs, like the rest of London, were established upon the principles of commercial gain.

Just as areas such as Hammersmith and Camberwell could no longer be described as either town or country, but were now something partaking of both, so their inhabitants were mixed and ambivalent. Defoe had already noticed the emergence of “the Middle sort of Mankind, grown Wealthy by Trade, and who still taste of London; some live both in the City, and the Country at the same time.” Hybrid forms of architecture, too, began to emerge in these mingled landscapes. In the 1750s and 1760s, for example, villas emerged as standard suburban dwellings. They were soon visible in Islington and Muswell Hill, Ealing and Clapham, Walthamstow and South Kensington. It has been said that their example directly affected the appearance of a later and more extensive suburbia, with what John Summerson described as “the flood of Victorian house-building, that torrent of ‘villadom.’” This description may itself be said to partake of the somewhat dismissive attitude still adopted towards the suburbs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, yet the villas of the mid-eighteenth century anticipated the atmosphere and texture of later suburban life in more than an architectural sense. They embodied, for example, that privacy which was instinctive to the London character but which the city could no longer provide. One of the motives behind the movement towards the suburbs, both in its early and late forms, was to escape the sheer proximity of other people and other voices; the quietness of a modern suburban street may not equal the silence of villa grounds in Roehampton or Richmond, but the principle of exclusion remains the same. The villas were originally designed as dwellings for one family, of course, surrounded and protected from the depredations of the city. The notion of one unit as one family is indeed central to the later development of suburban life, where the yearning for safety and the relative anonymity of isolation have been equally powerful. The villas were “detached.” Cheaper versions for the more populous areas were in turn established upon semi-detachment.

There are social, and aesthetic, consequences attendant upon what some might see as retreat or regression. The original villas were a highly visible token of respectability—“of cheerfulness, elegance and refinement,” to quote a brochure of the period—and this vision of respectability sustained the suburbs for the next two centuries. The phrase “keeping up appearances” might have been coined for suburban living. But the original villas themselves introduced a form of artifice; they were not “villas” in any classical sense (certainly nothing like the Roman variant which would once have been seen all over southern England), and the illusion of country living was sustained only with a great amount of determination and ingenuity. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century suburbs were also involved in an elaborate game of make-believe, with the implicit assumption that they were not part of the city at all. In reality they were as much an aspect of London as Newgate or the Tottenham Court Road, but their principal attraction was still based on the assumption that they were free of the city’s noxious and contaminating influences.

This happy fiction could not be sustained for long, however, with the emergence of mass transport expediting the greatest exodus in London’s history. Soon the pattern became clear, with the more prosperous citizens moving further out to more extensive grounds and eminences even as they were being displaced by new arrivals. The phenomenon is as old, and as new, as the city itself. Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London, observed the progress over the 1820s to 1850s of one fictional street, which he named Strawberry Street, in suburban Islington. It was two or three years in building, with “a double row of two-storied dwellings,” and at first “clung with considerable tenacity to rural associations and characteristics” in order to avoid “being swallowed up in Babylon’s bosom.” It was genteel, the abode of professional gentlemen and their families, “clerks, managers, and responsible persons employed in the city.” But then it began to change. “The professional ladies and gentlemen moved by degrees further north, and their places were supplied by a new class—by tradesmen’s clerks, by foremen, and overseers of workshops” who worked all hours and who “let lodgings to help pay the rent.” Soon enough “long ranks of cottages, not twenty feet apart, sprang up like mushrooms in the waste ground on the eastern side. They were inhabited as soon as built.” A saw-mill was erected in the vicinity, and in the street itself there appeared a variety of shops; a carpenter, a joiner, a greengrocer joined the older residents so that “in a couple of years … the whole street on both sides of the way, with the exception of a very few houses, was transformed into a third-rate business street.” The saw-mill itself prospered and “gathered round it a host of industrial processors.” Beer-shops and public houses and coffee shops emerged, alongside workshops and work-yards. So within thirty years the street had been transformed “from the abode of quiet and ease-loving competence to that of the toiling and struggling mass.”

There was another characteristic urban process, too, with development along the lines of the main roads followed by a consolidation of the areas between the thoroughfares so that, as The Builder of 1885 put it, “the growth of the solid nucleus, with but few interstices left open, has been nothing less than prodigious.” By the 1850s the city began to lose its population to areas such as Canonbury to the north, and Walworth to the south. The advent of cheap “workmen’s fares” meant that areas close to a railway station could be quickly inhabited; thus there emerged “working-class” suburbs such as Tottenham and East Ham. The drift was gathering pace and by the 1860s the clerk and the shopkeeper desired nothing but a little villa “out of town.” An observer perched on top of Primrose Hill, in 1862, noted that “the metropolis has thrown out its arms and embraced us, not yet with a stifling clutch, but with ominous closeness.” The metaphors here suggest some alien threat or invasion, and of course they represent a familiar if unimaginative attitude towards London. The city’s expansion over the countryside was noisy, noxious and destructive. Yet it could equally be argued that the city brought energy and activity to those areas which it covered, and that in the creation of suburbia it fashioned a new kind of life. It brought prosperity and, for those who settled on the new estates, a kind of contentment.

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, therefore, there was endless building activity in all the environs of London. “Let as fast as built” was one slogan, yet it would be a mistake to characterise all suburbs as examples of shoddy architecture or improvised planning. The informal St. John’s Wood Estate and those of Wimbledon Common or Hampstead Garden Suburb, for example, were quite distinct from the working-class terraces of Walthamstow or Barking. The rows of small houses that comprised Agar Town differed from the more genteel avenues of Brixton. The Eton College Estate, covering the district known as Chalk Farm, was very different from the Seven Sisters Estate. Dreary Islington was not the same as leafy Crouch End. H.G. Wells reacted with dismay to the suburbia of Bromley, where he had grown up, and denounced its “jerry built unalterable houses” as well as the “planlessness of which all of us who had to live in London were the victims.” Yet only a decade after the young Wells was unhappily ensconced in Bromley, the young W.B. Yeats was enjoying the relatively sylvan delights of Bedford Park. Both were London suburbs.

The broadest view, however, might identify three separate types of suburb. There were those still on the very outer limits of the city; areas like Surbiton, Sidcup and Chislehurst were characterised by the grander villas with large gardens built on high ground. There was a sprinkling of “cottages” and shops by the nearest railway station, but the rural illusion could still be maintained. In the second degree of suburbs, in areas such as Palmers Green and Crouch End, dwelled the “middle managers, supervisors and better paid clerks” who benefited from the low fares of the surface railways to find a safe and relatively quiet retreat from the roar of “Babylon.” The third level catered for the working class and, in estates like Leyton and East Ham, undistinguished and indistinguishable terraces of low-cost housing covered every available open space. These latter were generally located in the east of the city. The ancient territorial imperatives were, after all, also a determining factor in the character and quality of the suburbs, those to the east and north-east being obviously inferior to those of the west. The suburbs to the south were more expansive, and more sedate, than those to the north.

By the 1880s it was agreed that London was “as to its greater part, a new city.” It had become, in the words of Building News in 1900, a “huge overgrown Metropolis” largely comprised of a “tide of small houses.” This was the paradox—that a vast capital could be constructed out of small individual units. It was almost as if London had, by some strange act of intuition, taken on the visible shape of burgeoning social democracy. New forms of mass transportation, such as the deep-level Underground system, had helped to create a new city; in turn that city was now creating the context for evolutionary social change. “Where will London end?” asked The Builder in 1870, to which the only reply was, “Goodness knows.” The question might have been asked at any time over the last six centuries, and received a similar answer. In 1909 C.F.G. Masterman also described the growth of the suburbs—as a London topic, it was on everyone’s mind—as “miles and miles of little red houses in little silent streets, in numbers defying the imagination.” For him it represented “a life of Security, a life of Sedentary Occupation; a life of Respectability.” At a later date, in Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell in similar vein remarked upon “the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London … sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England.”

Yet the denigration and the tone of limited contempt, implicit in these descriptions, were not shared by those who lived in the suburbs. Sleep and respectability may have been precisely the conditions required by succeeding generations of new Londoners; the population of the city had for many centuries been characterised by its violence and impetuosity, its drunkenness and ill health. The suburbs represented a new urban civilisation which would flourish without any of the familiar urban attributes. When Ilford was developed in the 1900s as a middle-range suburb for clerks and skilled workers, the speculators refused to permit the construction of any pubs in the vicinity. Their concern was to render the new suburb as little like London as possible. In the same period the London County Council shifted its emphasis from the refurbishment or redevelopment of “inner-city” areas to the erection of “cottage estates” on the fringes of London. The idea of the cottage was itself much abused in the process, but the introduction of two-storey terraced houses with small rear gardens changed the reputation of council housing and in fact changed the image of the Londoner. The Cockney need not necessarily be a product of the slums.

In the mid-1930s it was estimated that, each day, two and a half million people were on the move in London. That is why there was a large increase in private, as well as public, suburbia. It was the age of “Metroland,” which began life with the Cedars Estate in Rickmansworth and spread outwards to include Wembley Park and Ruislip, Edgware and Finchley, Epsom and Purley. The importance of transport in effecting this mass dispersal is emphasised by the fact that the very notion of Metroland was created by the Metropolitan Railway Company, and heavily endorsed by the London Underground. Their booklets and advertisements emphasised the resolutely non-urban aspects of what were effectively great housing estates.

“Metroland beckoned us out to lanes in beechy Bucks,” according to John Betjeman who had a tenacious if ambiguous affection for the suburban terrain—for “gabled gothic” and “new-planted pine,” for the “Pear and apple in Croydon gardens” and “the light suburban evening” where a vast and welcoming security is so much to be hoped for. In a poem entitled “Middlesex” Betjeman invoked another form of permanence—“Keep alive our lost Elysium—rural Middlesex again”—and the advertisers of the Metropolitan Railway and the Underground exploited this ache, or longing, for continuity and predictability. According to the brochures—displaying, once more according to Betjeman, “sepia views of leafy lanes in Pinner”—the new inhabitant of the suburbs will dwell beside “brambly wildernesses where nightingales sing.” One advertisement prepared by the London Underground showed three rows of grey and mournful terraces, with the words “Leave This and Move to Edgware.” A sylvan scene presents itself accompanied by a quotation from the seventeenth-century poet Abraham Cowley, who himself retired to Chertsey after the Restoration in 1660. In a single sentence he expresses the wish that “I might be Master of a small House and a Large Garden, with moderate conveniences joined to them.” Once more the new suburban vision, in accordance with the implicit antiquarianism of London itself, took refuge in an appeal to an ill-defined and ill-explained past.

The same form of cultural nostalgia was evident in the architectural style of the new suburbs, the dominant model being “mock Tudor” or what became known as “Stockbroker Tudor” or “Tudorbethan.” The desire was to combine the sense of continuity with the satisfaction of traditional workmanship and design. It was a way of conveying substantiality, and a measure of dignity, to these new Londoners who had exiled themselves from the central core of the city. The city can transform and regenerate itself in unanticipated ways. Thus the suburban Gardens, Drives, Parks, Ways and Rises are now as much a part of London as the old Rents and Lanes and Alleys.

London had created, and harboured, a new kind of life. Once more it happened unpredictably, with no concerted or centralised planning, and was directed by short-term commercial demands. So the suburbs became the home of shopping parades and imposing cinemas, of aesthetically pleasing Underground stations and ornate railway stations. It was the age of the Morris and the Ford. The factories which lined the new dual carriageways were now manufacturing the domestic items of this new civilisation—the washing machines and the refrigerators, the electric cookers and the wirelesses, the processed food and the vacuum cleaners, the electric fires and the leatherette furniture, the “reproduction” tables and the bathroom fittings.

In a novel entitled Invisible Cities (1975), the Italian writer Italo Calvino reflects upon the nature of the suburbs under the assumed names of the cities of Trude and Penthesilea. We may substitute Acton and Wembley Park. The narrator is told that he may travel wherever he chooses “but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end.” But this was always the definition of London, that it had no beginning and no ending. In that sense its suburbs simply partake of its endless nature. The gin palaces of the old city gave way to the glittering cinemas of the 1930s, the hostelries were replaced by “roadside inns” or mock-Tudor pubs located on significant crossroads, and the street-markets by shopping parades and department stores. The suburbs of the inter-war years significantly extended the life and reach of London, but essentially they elaborated upon it. In Calvino’s novel the narrator asks for the location of Penthesilea, and the inhabitants “make a broad gesture which may mean ‘Here’ or else ‘Farther on’ or ‘All around you’ or even ‘In the opposite direction.’” So for Calvino the visitor begins to ask “whether Penthesilea is only the outskirts of itself. The question that now begins to gnaw at your mind is more anguished: outside Penthesilea does an outside exist? Or, no matter how far you go from the city, will you only pass from one limbo to another, never managing to leave it?”

London is so ubiquitous that it can be located nowhere in particular. The extraordinary growth of its suburbs emphasised the fact that, since it has no defined or definite centre, its circumference is everywhere.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!