The Metropolitan Railway is best remembered as the pioneering company that built the world’s first underground railway. It opened in 1863, arrived overland in Amersham in 1892 and as London Transport’s Met Line, is still going strong today. Yet the company’s other invention, Metroland, was arguably even more influential.

The Metropolitan Railway had expanded considerably by the start of the twentieth century but most of the towns and villages served were small with agricultural economies. Chesham with less than 10,000 residents was the largest industrial town on the line. The railway was also being modernised to use electricity on the underground, which was a costly undertaking, so revenue improvement was crucial. Robert Selbie, who joined as general manager in 1908, had a plan to boost income; if the traffic wasn’t there, he would create it!

Over a hundred years ago, marketing as we know it now was in its infancy. The Metropolitan Railway was an early adopter, its goal was to generate passengers. In 1915 its marketing department is credited with renaming its booklet; The Guide to the Extension Line became The Metro-Land Guide (then spelt with a hyphen). The annual Metroland guides, with their colourful covers of rural scenes, promoted the countryside the line served as a place to visit for recreation but most importantly as a place to live. This band of countryside to the north-west of London was marketed as a land of picturesque cottages with meadows of wild flowers, offering an escape from the noise and pollution of London.

Unlike other railway companies, the Metropolitan had an advantage; whereas they had to sell surplus land, the Met was allowed to retain theirs. So, through a nominally independent company, Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Limited (the MRCE - founded in 1919) acres of land along their tracks were available to develop into house for future customers.

Marketing went into full gear with annual Metroland magazines, promoting an idyllic country lifestyle with beautiful homes, built in a traditional English vernacular style, within easy reach of London. From the end of WWI through to the 1930s, Metroland boomed, as London’s new middle class, taking advantage of affordable mortgages, fell for the company’s sales pitch, and the dream of a better life away from the city. The “Live in Metro-land” slogan was even engraved on the carriage door plates! As commuter estates rolled out from Neasden into Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire the fields of wild flowers, used to promote Metroland, were gradually filled with ‘mock-Tudor’ semi-detached dwellings with bay windows and half-timbered gables. Much ridiculed but enduringly popular, the Metropolitan Railway’s marketing department had accidentally invented English Suburbia.

The 1929 development of Woodside Avenue in Chesham Bois was one of the first local developments to feature in the Metroland magazine. In the 1932 edition Amersham featured prominently. The launch of the Weller Estate was announced offering semi-detached and detached houses with built-in garages at £875 to £1225 freehold, and a total deposit of £25.

The MRCE was now developing the 78 acre site, purchased from George Weller’s estate for £18,000, to build 535 houses and 51 shops around the station. There were also plans to develop the King George V Field for housing and the site of the current council offices for shops, but these was never completed. Initially there wasn’t the anticipated demand, and then the development was interrupted by WWII. Individual plots were also sold to those who wanted a home of their own design and the company arranged finance and mortgages, with free travel to the housing developments for prospective purchasers.

The houses started with a two-bedroom semi-detached at £850 freehold ‘ideal for a small family’ constructed in brick with brown shingle elevation and oak half timbering and a red tile roof. They had two reception rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor, two bedrooms, a dressing room, tiled bathroom, and separate toilet on the first floor. The houses had leaded glass windows in Crittall frames, several power points, and an integral garage.

The three-bedroom semi was very similar, with the same leaded windows, half-timbering and a third bedroom instead of a dressing room. For the four-bedroom houses in Woodside Close, the Rise and Highfield Close the positioning of the garage allowed for a more spacious first floor and room for a fourth bedroom; at £985, these were considered exceptional value although this was still a high price for the area at the time. R Brazil & Co houses on Stanley Hill and First Avenue were marketed in October 1933 for £555.

Woodside Close contains many of the different types of houses built by MRCE and is an excellent example of a major selling point – low density design, generous gardens, a layout around open spaces, in curved avenues or small cul-de-sacs. This layout was based on architect MP Sir John Tudor Walter’s 1919 report on “homes fit for heroes”, which set the standard for much of the housing built in the 20th century.

By the 1950s Amersham was a typical dormitory town with a large proportion of the population commuting to work. Amersham on the Hill displayed a truly Metroland identity in contrast to the Old Town in the valley below. Protected by Green Belt legislation, Amersham has generally managed to preserve the fine balance of town and country and avoid the vast swathes of urban sprawl which swallowed up much of Middlesex. The dream of Metroland portrayed in the marketing magazines can still be found here, for now, but unfortunately at a greatly inflated price!