Rails to Metro-land
Dr Clive Foxell
8 September 2008
Dr Clive Foxell entertained 18 members with a
fascinating historical review of the Metropolitan Railway, drawing on
his extensive collection of vintage photographs. Clive was invited to
give the talk following the review of his book "Rails to Metroland" by
our chairman, Ian Harrison. It was this title which gave the theme for
Clive's first involvement with the Met was when he became a casual
cleaner at Neasden shed during the war - the other "staff" were mainly
Italian prisoners! A memorable event occurred in winter 1943 when the
coal ran out. The shed foreman employed an innovative way to clean out
the bunker - he threw a hand grenade in it!
Clive started his review by pointing out that the Met's origins were
after a period of chaotic development — unrealistic schemes,
uncooperative land-owners, and no strategic input from government.
Buckinghamshire was left with just the lines of the GWR and London &
Birmingham (subsequently LNWR), both with branches to Aylesbury. Harry
Verney, owner of most of the surrounding land and the Duke of Buckingham
promoted the Aylesbury to Buckingham, and the Brill to Verney junction
lines. Neither were very profitable; the latter just limped along as the
Meanwhile London was expanding rapidly causing major congestion
problems (nothing changed there, then!) Part of the solution was a
buried railway, in a cut & cover tunnel. Commenced in 1861 and
opened in 1863 this was the foundation of the Met. Steam and smoke
pollution was a problem. Various ideas were tried including ”Fowler's
Folly•. This used hot brick to raise steam — it only made two runs!
Finally Beyer Peacock were asked to supply some purpose-designed
condensing engines. Despite these problems the line was a success, with
one million passenger in its first year. It still lost money, paying
dividends out of capital, leading to the dismissal of the chairman and
his replacement by Edward Watkin. He had a background in various
railways, from the trans-Canadian to the Manchester, Sheffield and
Lincolnshire— at one point he was a director of 23 railway companies.
His "secret plan" was to develop a railway all the way from Manchester
to France, using his directorships of the MS&L, the S.E. and the
Ch.de.F. du Nord, as well as owning the channel tunnel company
(original) shares. However he started small, using a line to St John's
Wood as his launching pad to build a series of local lines northwards,
reaching Neasden in 1879, Harrow in 1887, then Rickmansworth. All this
activity had a big effect on the local economies bringing in rare
commodities - like fish! Then on to Aylesbury, taking over the Aylesbury
and Buckingham railway and the Brill branch, the latter with plans to
extend to Oxford. Meanwhile he extended the MS&L (soon to be GCR)
southwards, and planned the terminus at Marylebone. Unfortunately,
Watkin then had a severe stroke. He attended the opening in a
wheel-chair, and soon lost control of the company.
With Watkin's departure, the Met and GCR were now competitors. The
GCR and GWR planned new lines to take business from the Met, and fought
over routing priority for trains at the various junctions. A serious
head-on accident at Aylesbury in 1904 put the spotlight on these
conflicts and led to the creation of a joint company.
Meanwhile, the Met obtained powers allowing it to acquire land for
non-railway purposes. Thus came "Metroland", which blossomed just after
the First World War. People wanted to move out of London mortgages were
available, and the houses offered by the Met's estate company were very
attractive — so much so that it had more annual income than the railway!
It's not clear who invented "Metroland" but it was used extensively on
posters, pamphlets and film. Some 20,000 houses were sold bringing
investment to the railway — new locomotives, Pullman cars,
electrification, and new offices at Baker Street.
Clive quickly summarised the following decline. Acquisition by
London Transport saw many steam locos sold to the LNER, and operations
streamlined. The line then suffered heavy bombing during the war. By
1962 there was an eclectic mix of electric multiple units, electric and
steam haulage, and diesel multiple units. The depths were plumbed in the
Serpel plan, under which the line was to become a bus way. But it
survived and was transformed into today's successful Chiltern Railway.
However, just as in Victorian days, there are still problems over
sharing fare income, priorities for train paths etc.
As to the future, who knows what Cross-rail will bring? The latest
plans have been cut back and will have little impact but that could
change. Investment in the Met electric stock is still under question.
More positively, Chiltern Line development continues with investment in a
new station at Aylesbury Vale Parkway — to serve a new conurbation just
as at the height of the Metroland developments.