The rise of suburbia

How railways drove people to the outskirts.


Passenger train on the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway, 1903.
Credit: National Railway Museum

The railway played a vital role in the development of Victorian cities, but the pollution and heavy industry that it brought also made them extremely unpleasant places to live.

To escape the grime people began to move to the outskirts, in search of greener vistas. The wealthy could travel to work in their private carriages, but the poor had to walk because railway companies were reluctant to provide cheap travel, concentrating instead on long distance journeys or lucrative business traffic.

Eventually, the railway companies came to realise that short-haul trains could be profitable and in the mid-nineteenth century began to offer special season tickets and reduced or ‘commuted’ fares.In the United States regular travellers became known as ‘commuters’, although the term wasn’t widely used in the UK until the 1950s. New suburbs began to follow the railway lines running into major urban centres. They included towns like ‘Kingston-on-Railway’, which was named for its transport links. This soon became known as Surbiton and was probably the world’s first true railway suburb.

In central London citizens could travel beneath the city’s increasingly congested streets on the world’s first underground railway. The Metropolitan Railway, which opened in 1863, was at first steam operated. Its passengers had to brave soot and fumes from the locomotives, but by the end of the nineteenth century further deep level ‘tubes’ connected the outer city to the centre with fast electric trains.

But the suburbs also earned a reputation as monotonous, soulless dormitory towns.

Commuter suburbs also grew up along the railways around other cities, such as Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and what one commentator called Birmingh am’s ‘beautiful borderlands’. They ranged from working class areas, like Walthamstow, near London, to Surrey’s ‘Stockbroker Belt’, where affluent City traders could live in rural comfort. In northern England prosperous commuters began travelling from as far afield as the Lake District and North Wales to their offices in Liverpool and Manchester, in exclusive first class trains with club saloons for members only.

Railway companies joined with speculators to develop suburban housing with connecting train services, promoted in special brochures with names like The Homestead or Metroland. They created a whole new way of life, with modern, comfortable housing that many city dwellers could barely have dreamed of. But the suburbs also earned a reputation as monotonous, soulless dormitory towns that lacked the vibrant social life and varied class composition of the city, a charge which still stands to this day.

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