A History of Harrow-on-the-hill

  • This short history was written to accompany our map of Harrow-on-the-hill in 1935.
  • The map is available through our On-line Mapshop.

  • 'Perhaps the eighteen months which I passed in this condition, walking to and fro on those miserably dirty lanes, was the worst period of my life'. What right had a wretched farmer's boy, reeking from a dunghill, to sit next to the sons of peers, - or, much worse still, next to the sons of big tradesmen who had made their ten thousand a-year? The indignities I endured are not to be described'.

    Anthony Trollope famously hated his time at Harrow School, where he was a day-boy, walking the three miles home to Harrow Weald not just at nightfall, but even for his lunch. It was easy enough for a day-boy to be regarded as an outsider, but to this was added a general knowledge of the Trollope family's poverty, with Anthony's father, have failed as a lawyer, now proving himself no more competent as a farmer. This conflict between rich and poor - at least among those trying to maintain that great 19th century status of respectability, the right to be called a 'gentleman' - is echoed in the contrast between school and town when we come to discuss Harrow's history. We see it on this map, with the pincer movement of railway lines, north and south, belatedly bringing suburbia to the area around of the hill.

    Harrow, or at least that portion of it on the hill, has always been a natural landmark for many miles around. Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070-89 and lord of the manor of Harrow, arranged for a new church to be built here, and this was consecrated by his successor, Anselm. This led to an episcopal feud, with the Bishop of London complaining that Harrow was in his diocese, the Archbishop claiming that it was a 'peculiar' of Canterbury. It was finally agreed that the latter was indeed the case, and had been in pre-Conquest days; Harrow therefore remained a 'peculiar' of the Archbishop of Canterbury, within the Deanery of Croydon, until 1845 when all such eccentricities within Middlesex were abolished. Of that early church little survives, for it was quickly rebuilt. The roughcast tower, however, partly dates from the 12th century, though the chancel and probably nave were rebuilt in the 13th, largely during the incumbency of John Byrhede, d.1468, who brought the Perpendicular style to the church. In the 1840s additions and alterations were made by George Gilbert Scott. The church is notable for its landmark spire, added in 1450 - and partly rebuilt in the late 18th century after a lightning strike - and its setting, as much as its architectural virtues.

    Until 1839 the church served as chapel for the school, the boys using the gallery above the north aisle. Harrow School was founded in 1572 by John Lyon, a Preston landowner and 'yeoman farmer' - his house, Lyon Farm, survived until 1960 - as a Free Grammar School. Provision was made for some impoverished scholars to go to Oxford and Cambridge, and for the maintenance of roads to London; the latter was helped by lands in Kilburn and Marylebone, and the trust was transferred first to the relevant turnpike authorities and latterly Harrow Council. Shortly before his death, John Lyon decreed that the school should be divided into five forms, with English spoken only in the first, but the full endowment of the school had to wait for his widow's death in 1608. A new school building, by Thomas Page, was then erected 1608-15 on the west side of Church Hill; this was extended and radically embellished - oriel windows and battlements were among the additions - by C R Cockerell in 1819-20, but an original class room, known as the Fourth Form Room, survives.

    The school went through a troubled time in the early 19th century, and at one stage in the 1830s numbers fell to around 70 - though this figure may have been distorted by a disastrous fire in 1838 when the Headmaster's House was destroyed, help having to be sought from the London Fire Engine Establishment at Baker Street, and therefore much accommodation being temporarily lost. Earlier there had been complaints locally that the free scholars of Harrow - and the Trollopes, like others in the impoverished higher classes, may have moved to Harrow to get this free education - were losing out to the influence of 'foreigners'. Certainly, fee-paying boys had argued that their views should be listened to, and Byron led one of several rebellions, this one against the appointment of the reforming headmaster, George Butler, in 1805. In 1868, following the Public Schools Act, Harrow finally abolished the free places, while the university scholarships would no longer be reserved for local boys. Before this an appeal from local residents had led to an English Form being established in an old coach house in Roxborough Road, with free Latin lessons, although the pupils were neither eligible for the exhibitions to Oxford and Cambridge, nor entitled to mix with the boys at the main school.

    The major building programme that took place through the 19th century can only be glanced at here. A chapel, designed by C R Cockerell in a somewhat Jacobean style, was built in 1839, much to the anguish of the local vicar who saw a captive part of his congregation disappear overnight. However, school numbers were soon on the rise again - the 1840s were a great period for the growth in public schools, and the roll here quickly reached 466 - and George Gilbert Scott was brought in to design a much larger chapel; this was built in 1854-7, though its Gothic architecture is visually at odds with its surroundings. More successful was Scott's Vaughan Library (named after Dr Vaughan, headmaster 1845-59 and, coming from Rugby, a man imbued with the principles of the influential Dr Arnold) built 1863 and in a much warmer Gothic, with patterned tiles on the roof. A replacement Headmaster's House, designed by Decimus Burton, was built in the 1840s. Of the school buildings named on the map, the Speech Room, by William Burges, dates from 1874-7, and is notable for its semi-circular back, perhaps reflecting Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre; while the War Memorial Building, by Sir Herbert Baker, calmer than some of its neighbouring buildings, dates from the 1920s.

    Finally, we cannot leave Harrow School without reflecting on some of its famous 'old boys'. Apart from Trollope, writers who studied here include Sheridan and Byron, but the school is perhaps best known for its seven Prime Ministers: Spencer Perceval (1809-12 and famous only in the manner of his death), Viscount Goderich, (1827-8 and perhaps less than a household name), Robert Peel (1834 and 1841), the 4th Earl of Aberdeen (1852-5), Palmerston (1855-65) and, in the 20th century, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill.

    To the south of Harrow itself, Roxeth was a manor in its own right, originating in land owned by the Roxeth family in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was later reclaimed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, after William Roxeth had been outlawed for felony, but in 1371 granted to Sir William Brembre and his heirs; its descent thereafter is complicated and often obscure, but in 1514 it was still being called a manor. By the 1850s much of the estate was owned by Richard Chapman, who lived at The Grange, in the grounds of which a moated site, described in 1852 as 'homestall and ponds', was probably the site of the medieval manor house. Historically, however, Roxeth lay within the massive Harrow parish, until in 1863 it became an ecclesiastical parish in its own right, and Christ Church was built. Designed by G G Scott - and extended in 1870 - this small and attractive flint-faced building, with a little bell turret, was the first new church to be built in the old Harrow parish. A Church Room was also built, next to the Vicarage, and other buildings on Roxeth Hill included schools built for the National Society in the 1850s, designed in a Gothic style by E H Habershon and funded by Lord Shaftesbury in memory of his son, who had died at Harrow School. Nearby was Harrow & Wealdstone Hospital, designed by Arnold Mitchell in a mildly Baroque style, 1907 and subsequently enlarged. At the foot of the hill, at the junction with Northolt Road, a subsidiary town centre might have developed had not the arrival of the railway drawn activity further south to what became known as South Harrow. As it was, the area along Northolt Road was altogether different from that of Harrow-on-the-Hill, and would later be quite rebuilt. That apart, it is difficult on this map to tell just where Roxeth begins; the population of its ecclesiastical parish in 1921 was 5,319, compared with 3,977 for St Mary's Harrow.

    Well into the 20th century development on this map was confined to Harrow-on-the-Hill and Roxeth, and a previous edition of this map, in 1912, shows not a single house west of a line from Sherwood Road (to the south) and Wilson Road (to the north). Within this rural area the only buildings of note were those of the Isolation Hospital. A rifle range existed where Oxleay Road and Rayners Lane would later be developed. The area was so empty that when the railways first arrived on the scene, north and south, the Metropolitan ran non-stop from Harrow-on-the-Hill to Ruislip, while the District stopped at what it called South Harrow, immediately south of this map.

    The Metropolitan Railway, of course, famously brought development in its wake. The Kingsbury & Harrow Railway was authorised in 1874, the line to be worked by a joint committee of the Metropolitan and Metropolitan & St John's Wood Railways, the two forerunners of what would to many be known as the 'Met'. By 1872 Sir Edward Watkin had become chairman, a role he also fulfilled at the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, a company that would later become the Great Central Railway. The line opened to a station at Greenhill, at the foot of Harrow's hill, in August 1880, and the isolated nature of the country is shown by there being no stop between here and Kingsbury & Neasden (today Neasden) station. Almost immediately there were plans to extend the line further; authorisation for an extension was received in 1881, and the line reached Rickmansworth in 1887, Chesham in 1889 and Aylesbury in 1892. There it met with the penurious Aylesbury & Buckingham Railway, another Watkin fiefdom, and by 1897 trains were running through from Baker Street to the wilds of Verney Junction.

    Meanwhile Sir Edward's other major company, the M&SLR, was expanding south, latterly as the Great Central, and this used the Met's lines for much of its route to Marylebone, which it reached in 1899. The complicated arrangements led to an agreement in 1906 whereby the lines between Harrow South Junction and Verney Junction, and including the Chesham branch and Brill tramway, would be leased to the Metropolitan & Great Central Joint Committee. The Ordnance Survey, as ever, is meticulous in naming the railway here.

    Meanwhile, another company was arriving on the scene. The Metropolitan District Railway, described by Mike Horne as "an errant and now highly independent child of the Met", was aware that both Uxbridge, an important market own, and Harrow were poorly served, and sought to project a line to these - and hopefully onward, to Wycombe and even South Wales. The Ealing & South Harrow Railway was formed, with which the District constructed a line from Hanger Lane to Roxeth, just south of this map on the Northolt Road. The station here would be called South Harrow, thus consigning the name Roxeth, at least to the outside world, into oblivion. The line was built by 1899, but the District was too impoverished to open it, let along proceed onward to Uxbridge with its Harrow & Uxbridge Railway.

    The Metropolitan, which also had eyes on Uxbridge, now came to the rescue and by 1904 it had built and opened its line from Harrow-on-the-Hill to Uxbridge, with one intermediate station at Ruislip. Note that this was a purely Met line, and the GCR never had running rights. The service on this line was electrified by 1905. From Rayners Lane - where a basic, wooden station was opened in 1906, albeit at first almost alone in the fields - the Metropolitan also built the connecting line to South Harrow, and over this the District had the right to run three trains an hour to Uxbridge; so poor were the commercial prospects that the District, which had been operating to South Harrow since 1903, did not start a service between there and Uxbridge until 1910, and even then this was only an hourly service off-peak. In 1932 the Piccadilly Line also started to run tube trains to South Harrow but did not have running rights beyond.

    From July 1933 all three railways - the Metropolitan, District and Piccadilly - were taken over by the London Passenger Transport Board - London Transport - and they quickly moved to extend Piccadilly trains to Rayners Lane and Uxbridge, supplanting what was effectively a shuttle service by the District. By this time there was rapid housing growth near Rayners Lane, a station once described as "the loneliest station on the Metropolitan Railway, apparently unfriended, unvisited and untrod", although one suspects the writer had never visited Verney Junction. In 1928 E S Reid, a Deputy Engineer for Harrow Council, resigned to set up his own house-building firm, and his earliest ventures were at North Harrow and on the north side of the railway at Rayners Lane, a development referred to as 'Harrow Garden Village'. Oakington Avenue (where Reid himself lived) and Elm Grove were among the first streets to be built. Around a thousand homes were planned, with prices ranging from £895 to £1,600, the developer boasting that "with a Reid house there is no such thing as monotony". Shops, churches and a cinema were also promised, together with a grand main road, Imperial Way. Progress was swift; use of the station rose from 22,000 passengers in 1930 to 4 million in 1937, and rebuilding was further encouraged by the wholesale demolition of the signal-box, in the V of the tracks, by a runaway ballast train in 1934. A few steam-hauled coal trains from Harrow also ran onto the South Harrow branch to fuel the Northolt Road gasworks of the Gas, Light & Coke Co, until that closed in 1954. Until 1955 there were also steam hauled trains to Rayners Lane bringing ash and other rubbish from Neasden depot; the tip was in the V between the tracks, and eventually the land here was raised by 15 ft.

    Earlier growth had taken place at West Harrow, where the Metropolitan opened a station in 1913, the same year that St Peter's church was built, designed by G H Fellowes Prynne, replacing a temporary mission church sponsored by the London Diocesan Home Missionaries. St Peter's was given its own ecclesiastical parish, with a population in 1921 of 4,098. However, the 'MetroLand' concept peaked with Reid's 'Harrow Garden Village' and subsequent development south of the railway tended to be more modest, notably with the 250-acre Tithe Farm Estate developed by T F Nash from 1932, with prices of under £600 for a terrace house and between £650-£785 for a semi. But the semi was no longer the norm, and the map shows a preponderance of terraces here. Density was tighter, and the estate eventually sprawled almost all the way to South Harrow.

    Looking on with alarm at the headlong growth down below, Harrow School moved to create a cordon sanitaire of playing fields, notably the cricket ground on plot 1119 created out of the old Roxeth Farm, which by 1935 was a farm in name only (and by 1950 was under threat of demolition as being unfit for human habitation). Harrow-on-the-Hill, once the centre of the town, with is banks and modest municipal buildings, was becoming an educational enclave, with many of the houses on its slopes taken for teachers or staff. As the 20th century progressed, so a new town centre was being developed north of the station, at Greenhill and largely beyond our map. Work on the Greenhill Estate had begun in 1899 - some of it on land owned by the shoe tycoons, Thomas Lilley and William Skinner - and eventually this area became Harrow's town centre. But building work, it seemed, continued everywhere and this map will have been out of date by the time its surveyors returned to base; note especially the bridge across the railway at West Harrow, still not connected to the road network, and the many half-made streets.

    For those not commuting into London by the Met or Piccadilly Lines, the main sources of employment on this map were at Harrow School or at the gasworks, the latter an especial landmark from the air. First built in 1855 to provide domestic gas and street lighting, with the encouragement of the then headmaster, Dr Vaughan, it was later acquired by the Harrow District Gas Co, before being taken over by the Brentford Gas Company in 1924. As we have seen, it was being run as the Gas Light & Coke Co in the 1930s. In 1931 an additional and larger gasometer was erected, high enough to warrant a trig point on its roof, as marked here. This was similar to a gasometer at Southall, so similar that it confused a pilot into thinking he was approaching Heathrow when, much to his embarrassment, he came into Northolt by mistake. His plane, alas, was rather large for Northolt, and before it could take off again all the seats had to be removed. As a result a large white arrow was painted onto the gasometer, and the lettering 'NO'. Perhaps this really reflected the opinion of the village, not just on the gasworks which marred the view from the hill, but on the wholesale development brought on by the railways, and by their marketing sidekicks who embraced the countryside with one arm, while devouring it with the other.

    These changes were reflected in Harrow's administration. Following two cholera outbreaks in the 1840s the Harrow School surgeon, Dr Thomas Hewlett, had demanded an enquiry into the insanitary conditions of the parish, and in 1850 Harrow Local Board of Health was formed. Various committees were eventually set up to deal with such matters as sewerage, street-naming, gas and the fire service. In 1894, following the Local Government Act, the Board was replaced by Harrow-on-the-Hill Urban District, and the following year this was extended to include Roxeth and most of Greenhill. In 1934 it was itself replaced by the much larger Harrow Urban District (note the absence now of the 'on-the-Hill' from the name) which also included the former Wealdstone UDC, together with the parishes of Pinner, Harrow Weald and the Stanmores. This would later form the basis for the Borough, and eventually London Borough, of Harrow. Municipal buildings were scattered diplomatically around until a new Civic Centre was built at Wealdstone in the 1970s. Harrow-on-the-Hill, dominated more than ever by the school, was able to sink into a relaxed retirement, with much of the charm and character of a country town.

    ©Alan Godfrey, July 2007

    Principal sources: Eileen M Bowlt, Harrow Past (Historical Publications 2000); Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 3: North West (Penguin 1991); Mike Horne, The Metropolitan Line (Capital Transport 2003) and The District Line (Capital Transport 2006); Alan A Jackson, London\rquote s Metro-land (Capital History 2006); Victoria History of Middlesex, Vol 4 (OUP 1971).


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