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The Friends of the
National Railway Museum






South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA




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Talk Synopsis


25 May 2009






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 his talk.
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 Brill tramway.
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.



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