The March of Bricks and Mortar

I hope before this dawning year passes away, to count at least one open space preserved among a waste of houses to be made fair and free for the people. I hope our own tiny plots, backyards and small forecourts, may be fuller of trees or grass or creepers.

Octavia Hill, 1875 ‘Letter to Fellow Workers’

Since Roman times, long before it had a name (this was first recorded in 704AD as Middelseaxan) , Middlesex has been being built up by Londoners rich enough to afford a rural bolt hole. It’s where the architect John Nash first created the distinct English suburban style, at Park Village East and West, which his successors would continue to developed at Bedford Park and Hampstead Garden Suburb. Regents Park itself was intended to contain a scattering of houses. But people who want to live out of town always have a certain guilty awareness that they are not escaping London but dragging it after them into the countryside.

In 1829 Dickens’ future illustrator George Cruickshank published his etching of ‘London Going Out of Town – or The March of Bricks and Mortar !’ showing an army of robot bricklayers and hod carriers advancing north towards Hampstead. In full retreat are cows, sheep and other representatives of the countryside.  ‘Confound these hot bricks,’ says a nimble two-legged haystack. ‘They’ll fire all my hay ricks’ and a tree gasps out a last pun: ‘Ah, I’m mortarly wounded.’

The Developers

New housing in Middlesex followed new transport linking the outskirts with the centre: tramways, railways including of course the Metropolitan Railway, gateway to ‘Metro-Land‘ and, in the early years of the 20th century, the new deep level tube lines — chiefly the Charing Cross Euston and Hampstead railway which opened in 1907.  The consultant engineer to this proposed tube told a parliamentary select committee in 1901 about his intention to develop a ‘district lying beyond Hampstead which has been almost unapproachable …  we have endeavoured to place our terminus … so as to open up an entirely fresh district for building and for development.’  This terminus was to be at Golders Green and the unplanned development that followed learned little or nothing from the ideals of Bedford Park.

One of the first Golders Green builders, from 1905, was Arthur J Reynolds, later a Middlesex County Councillor (1922-28) and from 1935-37  mayor of Hendon Urban District Council (1935-37). Reynolds built the West Heath Drive Estate (1910)  and went on to develop Hendon and Edgware further up what’s now the Northern Line in the 1920s and 30s. Golders Green was also where Haymills, one of Metroland’s best-regarded developers, made their first moves in property development, with the 300-house Decoy Estate. Haymills developed in Hendon and Wembley from 1920 onwards and built schools in Hendon and Ruislip as well as putting up the landmark Park Royal underground station to Charles Holden’s designs.

Other local builders who made good (this list from Alan Jackson’s excellent ‘Semi-Detached London‘ 1991) :

Henry Boot, first active at Elstree in Herts in 1924, then responsible for around a dozen estates in West and North West London in the 1930s.

Albert Cutler, active in Harrow from 1922 onwards.

James White Comben and William Henry Wakeling who sold their Fulham grocery business and started to build in Wembley in 1913, ‘working Wembley hard’ during the 1920s moving on to Eastcote, Hatch End, Finchley, Kingsbury , South Kenton and Greenford in the 1930s.

F & C Costin, who started in Harrow in 1923, restricting their ‘substantial output’ to Wembley and Harrow.

A F Davis, later Davis Estates, building in Kingsbury in 1929, later throughout Greater London.

T F Nash: active in Harrow in the 1920s, then the main developers of Rayners Lane, building its famous Grosvenor cinema, later active in Hayes and Northolt and, outside Middlesex, in Romford, St Albans and Sevenoaks.

Frank Taylor, an ambitious 25-year-old builder arrived in Hayes in 1930 where he built the Grange Park Estate, with 23 shops and the Corinth Cinema. In 1935 his business became Taylor Woodrow Ltd,  later to be a major construction company (that merged with rivals George Wimpey in 2007.) Wimpey themselves had been responsible for a 130 acre scheme in Ealing in 1928; Taylor Woodrow went on to develop a further six estates in West/NorthWest London before the war.

The Developers’ Nemesis

Most open spaces in and around London were preserved because people fought for them. This is true of the former hunting grounds that became the royal parks, of Hampstead Heath, and of the Green Belt itself, a phrase first coined by Octavia Hill (1838-1912), the co-founder of the National Trust.

Octavia Hill

Her first campaign, 1n 1875, was the unsuccessful attempt to raise funds to preserve the corner of Hampstead Heath then called Swiss Cottage common.  But the Open Spaces Society, founded ten years earlier, had more success, with the purchase of 220 acres of heath by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the precursor of the LCC, and the passing of the Hampstead Heath Act in 1871 (here’s a good short history of the heath by Hazelle Jackson). Octavia Hill was a friend of Dame Henrietta Barnett,  the presiding genius of Hampstead Garden Suburb, and the creation of HGS owed much to the earlier campaigns which saved the Heath. The classic Middlesex developments have been those that take on board the county’s special character; the others — Brent Cross, Heathrow, Wembley, Neasden etc — are places that at best we manage to put up with.


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