How private transport changed interwar London

The Experience of Suburban Modernity explores how the adoption of new forms of private transport transformed inter-war suburban London. It shows how London’s suburban middle classes used their newly found disposable income to enjoy driving, motorcycling and flying. The Experience of Suburban Modernity demonstrates that these new practices were welcomed by many, but met resistance to change from those who were dismayed by the accidents that resulted from increased mobility and the aesthetic and cultural changes that were the consequence of Americanization and suburban development. The book is divided into three sections. The first considers each of the private transport technologies in turn: the car, the bicycle and motorcycle, and the aeroplane and shows how they contributed to a sense of suburban modernity. The second section examines the infrastructure that supported these technologies and shows how they were interpreted in contested visions of the meaning of Englishness. The final section describes a set of journeys that demonstrate a condition of suburban modernity. These include the roadhouse, a site of Americanisation and transgression, new mobile practices of consumption, the embodied experiences of driving in a modern way, and the disastrous consequences of air and car accidents.

This chapter introduces the themes of the book and discusses how suburbia has generally been pictured as repetitive and dull in some academic writing and in intellectual discourse through most of the twentieth century. The chapter proposes that by considering the new independent mobilities of private transport for the emergent middle classes of London’s suburbia a more exciting world is revealed where modernity is both embraced and contested

in The experience of suburban modernity

In many memories of the inter-war period, a repeated idea is that the ‘streets were empty of cars’. Much academic work on inter-war London also ignores the car, presenting suburbia as dependent on public transport. The reality was somewhat different. By 1938 there were 2 million cars in Britain, concentrated in the wealthy south-eastern Home Counties. Some of the most intense areas of car acquisition could be found in London’s western suburbs both in established wealthy areas and in new housing estates. In some suburbs every other home had a car. Car ownership in these areas penetrated into the lower reaches of the middle classes and into more affluent working class households. This can be seen in the design of semi-detached houses, which at the beginning of the period ignored the car, but with fifteen years had changed to accommodate the car with integrated garages.

in The experience of suburban modernity

The bicycle was the dominant form of independent vehicular mobility in the inter-war period. Almost every home had access to one. The bicycle was particularly important to women, who were often unable to drive cars, and for children. Cycling was a popular group activity; cycling clubs were prominent in lower-middle class areas of London and they provided both exercise and association. Cycling when combined with London’s new arterial roads provided an opportunity for an encounter with modernity. This is demonstrated through an analysis of lone cyclist John Sowerby’s diaries. Motorcycling had many characteristics that were shared with the cycle, but because of its association with dirt and transgressive speed attracted suburban disdain. It was the most common form of powered private transport for working class men, but was in decline by the late 1920s due to the rise of the car

in The experience of suburban modernity

Airmindedness was an inter-war governmental campaign to raise awareness of how important flight would be to Britain’s economic and military future. This campaign had much resonance in London’s suburbia as this was the home to a large concentration of commercial and military airfields. Visiting these airfields and airports, suburban Londoners grew familiar with all aspects of flight. They flew themselves in ‘five-bob flips’ over the airfield, they came to Croydon airport to observe the modernity of European passenger flights and to welcome famous fliers such as Amy Johnson and Charles Lindbergh. At Hendon they enjoyed RAF display days, where mass audiences observed the latest in flying. The modernity of flight was resisted by some because of its associated noise, accidents and militarism.

in The experience of suburban modernity

The basis for much suburban modernity in the inter-war period was the construction of a network of arterial roads. Planned in the Edwardian period, this road-building programme was used by government to reduce unemployment and to modernise Britain’s infrastructure. The new arterial roads promoted fast driving on modern well-engineered surfaces and provided fast access through suburbia to the countryside. Because of the absence of any robust planning controls, speculative builders ribboned these roads with houses, factories and shops that reduced their efficiency and speed and became a key problem for those who wished to preserve the countryside. Some ribbon development, such as at the Great West Road, produced a spectacular Americanised roadscape. Cycle paths were designed to separate cycles from cars to reduce accidents, but their introduction was resented by many in the cycling community who saw them as interfering with their inalienable right to cycle on the highway.

in The experience of suburban modernity

In the inter-war period in Greater London, the new arterial road system produced a contestation over appearance between the forces of beautification and vandalism. The Roads of Remembrance Association was determined to beautify the arterial road as a memorial to the fallen of World War I; it jostled for influence with the Roads Beautifying Association and others for the leading role in influencing county councils in their planting schemes. This debate throws further light on the meanings of Englishness between the wars, when a traditional, picturesque interpretation of the rural was set against the modernity of the new roads. Both beauty and modernity were challenged by outside forces. Vandalism by the bored teenagers of London’s new suburbs destroyed memorials placed on the road by still-grieving parents. Most of the attempted beautification was eventually destroyed by uncontrolled ribbon development, leaving a dystopic suburban landscape that is still with us today. Intellectual criticism of ribbon development was withering, but failed to take into account the attraction of modern, electrified houses on the new roads to London’s new lower middle classes.

in The experience of suburban modernity

In the inter-war Home Counties, the roadhouse, a sizeable country club style location of entertainment and dancing was an iconic destination of consumption and leisure aimed at the wealthier middle classes. These establishments were marketed in newsreels as exclusive and sophisticated but in reality were open to wider groups in a setting that offered anonymity by virtue of their suburban locations. Reflecting this, roadhouses were also used in literature and in cinema as a locus of transgression and danger. Readings of suburbia have concentrated on static analyses of house/home and discussions of suburban mobilities have been confined to commuting, thus reinforcing the centrality of the house. A consideration of mobilities facilitated by the motorcar can produce a more subtle view of the suburban world of the period. In this chapter the roadhouse is shown to form part of a new suburban landscape responding to the development of the wider availability of the automobile and to London’s new arterial roads. The leisure products consumed at the roadhouse were heavily influenced by American cultural exports but were hybridized for local audiences.

in The experience of suburban modernity

One of the key changes in inter-war motoring was the introduction of the closed car. This development was very popular with suburban customers who preferred to be protected from the rain and the cold. One consequence of this change was that the closed car isolated the driver and passenger from the landscape they passed through. In an open car, the kinaesthetic and embodied experience of driving was very direct. The driver was very aware of the noises and smells of the surrounding area. In a closed car these feelings were highly attenuated, producing a replica of a suburban inter-war domestic interior; dark, warm, and quiet. The outside world was now seen through a narrow windscreen in a filmic way, it appeared that the driver was stationary and the road moved towards him or her. Thus driving became akin to watching a movie. In combination with the ‘Golden Mile’ of the Great West Road this way of seeing the road, particularly at night when the buildings were illuminated, produced, for some, a technological sublimity. Others found the suburban road tawdry and drab.

in The experience of suburban modernity

The chapter considers the impact of new arterial roads on the mobilities of the wealthier inter-war Londoner, and argues that they occasioned an emergent form of driving that was modern, sensational and exciting for the metropolitan driver, but was also highly dangerous, particularly for pedestrians and cyclists living in suburban homes near these roads. Two case studies exemplify the collision of wealthy motorists on arterial roads with deadly consequences for their less wealthy victims. The chapter also considers the accidents associated with flying from suburban airports. The airport and suburban homes contested for space in outer London, an argument mostly won by housing, but in the meantime homes near airports were vulnerable to plane crashes, foreshadowing what was to come in World War Two

in The experience of suburban modernity