Ribbon development

Mid 19th century Ordnance survey maps showing development largely unaffected by the new railways, instead following ancient roadways into London. One exception, too far out for this map, was the new suburb of Ealing on the Great Western.

In England, all roads lead to London. This meant that in Middlesex there have been two kinds of building development: that centred on the  old villages and market towns — Enfield, Uxbridge, Harrow, Hounslow etc —  and also rows of houses lining the arterial routes to the capital. Ribbon development is an ancient tradition,  made possible by the fact that that London, like other British towns, abandoned its city walls far earlier than its counterparts in continental Europe. So too is commuting; in the 18th century coaches ran up and down the old Roman Road called Ermine Street bringing people to work from Tottenham and Edmonton.

Islington in 1796 and life by a trunk road — from George Moutard Woodward’s ‘Eccentric Excursions’

The French visitor Louis Simond wrote in 1812 that a traveller going north to Hertford on Ermine St (what’s now the A12) seemed to be passing half the time through a continuous built-up area – although there were fields behind the strips of terraced houses.  To get to London from the north or west you have to pass through Middlesex, and this gives Middlesex businesses a commercial advantage. Today the shops in Heathrow live off passing trade; their earlier counterparters were the publicans whose inns lined the approach roads to London.  Until recently the pubs along the Holloway Road (the once New North Road) had the same names as inns that had catered to travellers in earlier centures.

The Highgate horns ritual as viewed by George Moutard Woodward in 1796 ….

… and a later 19th century depiction of the same demeaning spectacle

One way Middlesex celebrated the union of town and country was Highgate’s notorious ceremony of the horns.  The landlords of the pubs there would perform a ritual in which first-timers on their way to London were made to swear a succession of absurd oaths: not to kiss the maid if they could kiss the mistress, unless they preferred the maid, not to drink weak ale if they could get strong ale, unless they preferred weak .. They were then accorded such ‘rights’ as that of lying in the roadway with a sow. The point, clearly, was for the regulars in Highgate pubs to enjoy a laugh at the expense of any hicks who they could talk into being  ‘initiated’.

Until quite recently a house on a main road was sought after — although on the old Bath Road in Kensington and on the old northern road (Bishopsgate/Norton Folgate/Kingsland/Stoke Newington/Tottenham/Edmonton) the best terraces are sometime set back a little. Later, businesses sought out the opportunity for free advertising to motorists, producing Brentford’s Golden Mile, the former home of Gillette and Firestone. Railways by contrast were shunned, with back gardens facing the sooty engines, until the electrification of the line from Euston made it possible in the 1970s to produce a new take on the London roadside terrace at Alexandra Gardens at the southern end of the London Borough of Camden.




Of course Alexandra Road isn’t a development planned for commuters, but the railways did spur the creation of new suburbs.

(At the same time they harmed the prosperity of some Middlesex communities. Hounslow lived off its coaching inns, with stabling for 2000 post horses. By as early as April 1842 it was in steep decline because of the competition of the railway. And in 1843 prices at the cattle market in Southall had slumped because it was now easy to bring in livestock from further away — the Middlesex villages had lost the advantage of closeness to London.)

Rail Ribbons

Development along this new kind of arterial route happened in an oddly patchy way and often back to front. Whereas London spread outwards along its roads, blobs of new housing developed around mainline stations which in some cases were a long way out of town. Even the Metropolitan line, the core of the Metro-Land settlements, was built as a long distance transport link, not a suburban commuter line like those springing up south of the Thames in Surrey.

Here is a list of the railway suburbs in approximate date order:

Ealing opened in 1838 and Southall, 1839, both on the Great Western Railway.

Harrow Station, opened in July 1837, renamed Harrow and Wealdstone in 1897, was the London and Birmingham Railway’s first stop.  Sudbury (renamed Wembley for Sudbury in 1917 and Wembley Central in 1948) was opened five years later in 1842  together with Pinner Station (renamed Hatch End in 1911 when it acquired its neo-Wren style station buildings by Gerald Horsley) .  Further in to London, Willesden Junction,  on the London to Birmingham’s successor the London and North Western, wasn’t opened till 1866.

The Great Northern Railway like the Great Western and London and Birmingham was concerned with long distance not local journeys; the first station out of London was Potters Bar opened in 1850, the same year as although the main line to York; but it was another decade before stations began to be built nearer the capital:  Wood Green now Alexandra Palace in 1859 and still further in, Seven Sisters Road (Holloway) now Finsbury Park in 1862.

The Eastern Counties Railway, operating from 1839 onwards, opened a station at Enfield in 1848 and its successor, the Great Eastern opened the line from Bethnal Green to Enfield Town in 1872 , with stations at Cambridge Heath, London Fields, Hackney Downs, Rectory Road, Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill, Seven Sisters, Bruce Grove, White Hart Lane, Silver Street and Edmonton Green.  This was built under an act of Parliament giving the Great Eastern powers to create its own ‘Metropolitan Railway’, and the suburbs that were created have a unique feel, more the new working class and lower middle class developments in South London than anywhere else in rural Middlesex. There were two special factors. One was that this railway built on a very old northern outcrop of London, the ribbon development along Ermine Street/The Great North Road. The second was its role in rehousing the huge numbers of poor families from East London that the Great Eastern was uprooting by building its new terminus at Liverpool Street, the only major London terminus to be bang in the historic centre of London. There was though one attempt to build a middle class suburb after Bush Hill Park opened in 1880, a last stop before the terminus at Enfield Town on the spur from Edmonton. As described in Enfield Council’s conservation appraisal, this initiative by the North London Estates Company largely flopped: the company went bankrupt in 1886 selling the land to a successor which, from 1897 to 1908, concentrated on cheaper properties.

North London railways in 1914. Unlike the future Metroland these often spread along existing settlements

Sir Edward Watkin, 1819-1901. chairman of both the MS&LR and the Metropolitan Railways.

Meanwhile the original Metropolitan Railway had begun to creep out of London from Baker Street on its north western ‘extension line’ that its creater, Sir Edward Watkin, ultimately intended to link the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway with the South Coast Ports. The new stations were Willesden Green (1879), Harrow (1880), Northwood (1884), Pinner (1885) and Rickmansworth (1887).  In a later development the Metropolitan Railway built a line from Harrow to Uxbridge in 1904, first with a single stop at Ruislip, but with later stations in step with the development of north Middlesex.

Relations broke down between the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway and the Metropolitan Railway, and the MS and LR, now renamed the Great Central, began a new line in partnership with the Great Western. This was intended as an intercity route to Birmingham, but it resulted in the creation of new suburban lines and stations. One by-product of the new Great Western and Great Central Joint Railway was a branch to Uxbridge in1904 (the GWR station closed to passengers in 1939). Another was the Great Western’s New North Main Line which opened in 1903 and created the route now followed by the London Underground’s Central Line on its northern spur between North Acton and West Ruislip. The New North Main left the main Great Western Railway at Old Oak Junction, which is site of the planned HS2 station, and a new station at Northolt Junction (now South Ruislip on the Central Line). The new stations created by the Joint Railway included Perivale, Greenford (both 1904), Ruislip and Ickenham (now West Ruislip, in 1906)  Northolt Junction (1908), and Park Royal station, built in 1903 for access to the unsuccessful Royal Agricultural Society showground and closed in 1937.

The skeleton of future Metro-Land: railway approaches to North West London in 1914


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *