Trains and railroads have a big presence in Harrow – both physically in the number of stops across the borough, and historically, in the borough’s history of crashes, which have featured in previous articles. It might be unsurprising, then, that once Harrow was in many ways defined by railroad travel, and that the borough owes much to this form of transportation.
Once, still not all that long ago, during a time when the London suburbs were growing at an ever-increasing rate, Harrow was the centre of one of the significant development projects in the country – the capital of what became known as Metro-land.
This was the name given to the suburbia northwest of London in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The term derives from the Metropolitan Railway, known as the Met (of which the Metropolitan Line is now named after), an organisation which served London from 1863 into the 1930s until it was amalgamated with other transport providers to form the London Passenger Transport Board.
Yet while the Metro-land name emerged officially in 1915 at the hands of the Met’s marketing department, it was more than just the creation of a company looking for profit. Metro-land was a utopian vision of what suburbia and suburban life could be – the central tenant being a dream of a modern home in the countryside, away from the bustle of the city but within the reach of a fast railway service which could take you straight to its centre. In a number of ways, this dream reflects of how many use Harrow to this day.
Of course, Metro-land did not grow out of Harrow – though Harrow did certainly grow out of it – indeed it would take years for the railway service to reach the borough from the city. The Met’s first line initially only connected its mainline terminals at Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross to the city, but soon after the railroad tracks were extended northwards past Baker Street, and in 1880 reached Harrow – though its line would take it as far as Buckinghamshire, more than fifty miles from London’s centre.
As Metro-land expanded, development and growth came with it, for the Met was in the fortuitous position of being able to retain surplus land – and in 1919 this saw the creation of the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited. The MRCE, as was its acronym, would oversee the development of areas along the Met’s tracks so as to encourage more people to settle and use their service. One such development took place within Harrow at Rayner’s Lane in the form of the Harrow Garden Village.
In the 1930s this was Metro-land’s flagship development, sporting a whole street of semi-detached houses that were fronted with bay windows and tiled roofs. The legacy of this project can still be seen in the Rayners Lane area. The road Imperial Drive that links Rayners Lane to North Harrow initially emerged out of the desire to develop the residential area; Longfield School, in North Harrow, served the children of the Garden Village; and the Rayners Lane Baptist Church, which remains active to this day, was built on one of the plots that had been designated for a church in the original estate plans.
Yet the effects of Metro-land extended beyond just Rayners Lane. With lower average interest rates for mortgages in the 1930s, private housing was more accessible for the middle and working classes, and this meant that Metro-land’s residential development had a booming effect on the Harrow area. The first three decades of the twentieth century saw the population of Harrow Weald rise from 1,500 to 11,000, and in Pinner from 3,000 to 23,000 – considerable growth for such a short space of time, of which Harrow owes much to today.
Today, however, the suburban dream is somewhat less potent than it was in the early twentieth century – and with the Met no longer around, there’s no vision like Metro-land to keep it quite as thriving as it had been. Nevertheless, it remains an important part in Harrow’s modern history – particularly since Harrow was considered by many, particularly Harrow-on-the-Hill station, to be the “capital” of Metro-land. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century Harrow’s connection to the Metro-land dream was immortalised by the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, whose poem “Harrow-on-the-Hill” invoked memories of the time when Metro-land had been thriving.
If nothing else, Sir Betjeman’s poem ought to be remembered as a call-back to this interesting, hugely important, and relatively recent period in Harrow’s history. While in previous weeks we have looked considerably at Harrow’s medieval and even its earlier history, with Metro-land we have a distinctly modern slice of the borough’s past, one which ties closely to its identity in the present and can, in many ways, still be felt to the day.
Then Harrow-on-the-Hill’s a rocky island
And Harrow churchyard full of sailor’s graves
And the constant click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing
Is the level of the Wealdstone turned to waves
And the rumble of the railway
Is the thunder of the rollers
As they gather for the plunging
– Sir John Betjeman, “Harrow-on-the-Hill”
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: Alamy.com