Sunday, 27 January 2019

The Metroland Dream – Your Comben & Wakeling home in Wembley

Guest post by Philip Grant

I don’t often recommend TV programmes, especially ones that I have yet to see, but if you are interested in social history and housing you might want to know about this one. “Phil Spencer’s History of Britain in 100 Homes” is an eight-part series on the More4 channel, beginning on Wednesday 30th January at 9pm. You can see a little more about it here LINK
What has this got to do with Wembley? Last September, a researcher from the TV production company wrote to “Wembley Matters”, to ask whether there were still any original “Metroland” homes locally. Martin passed the enquiry on to the blog site’s “local history correspondent”, and I was able to assist with information, and some illustrations. As a result, a Wembley house will be one of the ‘100 Homes’ featured in the series (probably in part 6).
“Metroland” was a name coined by the Metropolitan Railway Company around the time of the First World War, to promote housing development on the surplus land it had acquired to build its railway over in the late 19th century. It published a yearly booklet, setting out the attractions of healthy living in pleasant countryside, on an estate of modern homes, but close to a station where its fast electric trains could carry the man of the house to work “in Town”.

A 1922 advert for the Metropolitan’s Chalk Hill estate (Yes, our Chalkhill!)

I have not been let into the secret of which Wembley house will be featured, but Park Chase in Wembley Park has been mentioned. The Manor Estate was one of many developments by the firm of Comben & Wakeling, which set the standard for local homes in the 1920’s and 30’s. They had acquired the site of the former Wembley Park mansion from the Metropolitan Railway, and built mainly family-sized semi-detached homes there in the early 1920’s.

Manor Estate advert from the 1922 edition of “Metro-Land”

James Comben and William Wakeling had come to Wembley in 1907, when it was still a new “Urban District” with a population of less than 10,000. The first homes they built were in St. John’s Road. Before the First World War they were developing plots of land on the Stanley Park Estate, near Wembley Triangle. One of the firm’s three-bedroom terraced houses in Jesmond Avenue (with gas lighting – no electricity!) then would cost £350. Inflation during and after the war pushed up the cost of homes, but Comben & Wakeling’s houses were still affordable to ordinary people in regular employment. 
Pairs of mid-1920’s Comben & Wakeling show houses, at the corner of Park Lane and Clarendon Gdns.

In the mid-1920’s, Horace Comben and Eric Wakeling joined their fathers in the business, which was now a limited company. They were building on the former Elm Tree Farm land, north of King Edward VII Park. By 1929, their developments stretched across East Lane, between St. Augustine’s Avenue and Preston Road. An advertisement that year proudly announced: ‘Nearly 2,000 houses sold’. Their homes offered ‘… all labour-saving fitments. Electric light and gas. Tiled hall, scullery and bathroom.’ Most were in the “mock-Tudor” style, which was so fashionable at the time.
The end of that decade saw them start work on their biggest development yet, the Sudbury Court Estate. Much of this “Garden Suburb” estate, with around 1,500 homes built between 1928 and 1935, is now a Conservation Area. It contained a mix of house sizes, to meet the needs of a range buyers, from the skilled manual worker earning £4-£5 a week, to the experienced school teacher on an annual salary of around £300, or the businessman making a bit more than that!

Comben & Wakeling’s advert from the 1932 Wembley Official Guide.

By the late 1930’s, Comben & Wakeling had moved on to develop the Lindsay Park Estate in Kenton. The company built new offices nearby, at Kingsbury Circle (now the Kingsland Hotel). They had expanded into other building work as well, but could still say in 1953 that they had built 6,000 homes in Wembley. Most of those houses are still providing well-built homes for families in the borough.

An advert appearing in the 1953 book
“Wembley through the Ages”.

Wembley’s story could have been very different. When the District Council (with James Comben as a councillor) was considering what to do with the disused Wembley Park pleasure grounds, their 1920 Town Planning Scheme earmarked the land for “Garden City” housing development. Then, the government chose it as the site for the British Empire Exhibition, so instead of another Comben & Wakeling “garden suburb”, it became home to the Stadium and all of the Exhibition buildings. 80 years later, Quintain began to redevelop much of land.
The suburban housing estates built in Wembley in the inter-war years, by Comben & Wakeling and other firms, generally had 8-10 houses per acre. Nowadays, a growing population and shortage of building land in the area means that a much higher density of homes is needed. But are the new developments we are seeing, at Wembley Park and elsewhere in the borough, at too high a density?
One of the great advantages of “Metroland” was that it gave thousands of families the chance to move out of the over-crowded and polluted areas of inner London. Their children could grow up in homes with gardens, in streets lined with trees and with parks and open spaces nearby. Although Quintain’s Wembley Park has some trees, and open space areas like Elvin Gardens and the 7-acre park currently being created, is this as healthy an environment?
Junction of Carlton Avenue West and The Fairway, Sudbury Court Estate.

Brent’s core planning policies (CP17) give a commitment that: ‘The distinctive suburban character of Brent will be protected from inappropriate development.’ They also say that: ‘Development of garden space and infilling of plots with out-of-scale buildings that do not respect the settings of the existing dwellings will not be acceptable.’ However, proposals in the new Local Plan, which will cover the 2020’s and 2030’s, include changes which would allow higher density developments along main roads in some of Brent’s “Metroland” suburban areas.
It is not just the historian in me that hopes ‘The Metroland Dream’ can continue, and that families can enjoy living in Comben & Wakeling “garden suburb” homes in Wembley for many decades to come.

Philip Grant.


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