Crap Middlesex ?

Many people today don’t like the suburbs because they aren’t real London. William Cobbett the journalist and radical campaigner disliked Middlesex because it wasn’t real country. He wrote in Rural Rides (1830) that it was all ‘ugly notwithstanding the millions upon millions that it is constantly sucking up from the rest of the kingdom; and though the Thames and its meadows are now-and-then seen from the road the country is not less ugly from Richmond to Chertsey-bridge, through Twickenham, Hampton, Sunbury and Sheperton (sic), than it is elsewhere….. the buildings consist generally of tax-eaters’ showy tea-garden-like boxes and of shabby buildings of labouring people, who in this part of the country look to be about half Saint-Giles’s: dirty and have every appearance of drinking gin.’

‘Tax-eaters’ was what Cobbett called those like city speculators or Church of England vicars that he regarded as social parasites as opposed to real wealth creators;  apparently the bad guys lived in new classically proportioned dwellings rather than rambling farm houses.  The Middlesex villas of the rich were widely felt to detract from the more morally improving tone of the remote countryside. John Middleton,  who wrote on the Agriculture of Middlesex (1798) deplored the impact of the flunkeys of the rich: ‘Gentlemen’s servants are mostly a bad set, and the great number of them kept in this county, is the means of the rural labourers  acquiring a degree of idleness and insolence, unknown in places more remote from the metropolis.’

Cobbett’s reference to ‘tea gardens’ reminds us that Middlesex was Londoners’ regular destination for gossip and the clink of tea cups. In ‘The London Hanged’ (2003) Peter Linebaugh describes these as ‘the locale for the intermixture of social classes eating, drinking, gaming and flirting. By mid 18th century 25 tea-gardens had been established. Such places were entirely for show, pretence and appearance (fireworks, air balloons, ‘illuminations’) We’ve been left some vivid images of tea gardens by Dickens in Pickwick Papers and also by the caricaturist George Moutard Woodward (1760-1809) who warned in his ‘Eccentric Excursions’, published in 1796, of the danger of a ‘severe scalding from the contents of a tea-kettle! The carelessness of waiters, running to and fro on full swing, render such accidents very frequent‘ (though his waiters seem to be more distracting by eyeing eachother up).  Woodward elsewhere comments on the ugliness of Acton and says that ‘Brentford is in no way remarkable, but for a long dirty street with a wretched pavement, and large signs glaring with red lions, and other monsters.’

Caricature by Woodward, who described Londoners swarming out in ‘myriads, in order to imbibe what is termed country air’

Cobbett didn’t only dislike the impact of Londoners; his down on Middlesex extended to its very soil: ‘a nasty strong dirt upon a bed of gravel‘a  sample of all that is bad and villainous in look‘. James Norris Brewer, the author of the (1816) Middlesex volume of the series The Beauties of England and Wales agreed about the Harmondworth-Hounslow gravel plain Cobbett objected to, objecting to ‘an undesirable flatness of surface … intersected by small rivers or streams which creep in dull obscurity without imparting to any spot an attractive portion of the picturesque.

Since Cobbett and Woodward’s day until the Town and Country Planning act of 1947 the county saw more intense development and a faster population growth than any other in Britain. The first Victorian suburb Bedford Park attracted comment and criticism, from G. K. Chesterton in ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’, and Ford Madox Ford in his ‘Parades End’ series of novels. At a low point in her family’s fortunes, Ford’s heroine has to work as a servant  and the fact that her employer is a Middlesex county councillor is enough to condemn him . Other critics of the new suburbs would include George Orwell and Nikolaus Pevsner. Development added new kinds of features to the existing village greens and parish churches of Middlesex; at the time as these seemed ugly but could later, like Brunel’s Wharncliffe Viaduct in Hanwell, become part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site proposal (ultimately unsuccessful however).

Owen Hatherly is an architectural writer who is reclaiming undervalued buildings: in his case those of postwar ‘brutalist’ architects who were motivated by a lost ideal of public service. The thriller-writer John Buchan mocks the arty, pacifist residents of Middlesex’s Bedford Park in his World War I novel Mr Standfast:  ‘It was their fashion never to admire anything that was obviously beautiful…  They admired greatly the sombre effect of a train going into Marylebone Station on a rainy day.’ Today they would  be taking the aesthetic pulse of business parks and recycling centres.


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