Country Strong, part 1 (the London Country Bus garages of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, UK)

This is the story of the best London Transport Modernist buildings you’ve never heard of – London’s Country Bus garages. Well, it’s possible you might have heard of them, and if you live in north Kent you might even have seen one. To be strictly accurate, they’re the best London Transport Modernist buildings I’d never heard of until I came across a mention of them quite by accident when I was writing about Victoria Coach Station in London. I’m hoping they’ll be as much of a surprise to you as they were to me.

Popular appreciation of London Underground’s 1930s Modernist tube station buildings has kept them well in the public eye. However, there was an equivalent programme during the same decade at remote outposts of London Transport’s empire in the counties surrounding London. Thanks to an estate of run-down bus garages, London Transport’s Country Bus department enjoyed a renewal and replacement programme which left it with some of the swishest Modernist and Streamline Moderne bus garages around; now-forgotten buildings like this:

The super-stylish 1936-built bus station at St Albans bus garage (which is the brick building in the background) © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

There are a number of reasons why these buildings are so little known compared to London’s 1930s tube stations, not least of which is that so very few of them survive. Also, unlike tube stations which required a building at every station, for bus stops a pole, flag and sometimes a basic shelter would suffice. It was mostly at bus garages that there was opportunity for significant new building works, and there were fewer garages than there were new tube station locations. Because the bus garages were spread around the Country Bus operating area, they were spaced much more widely apart than tube stations, meaning that it was harder to appreciate the programme as a whole. And because the garages were deep in the countryside, often in market towns, there were simply fewer people to appreciate their architecture than there were passing through the tube stations in London itself.

Nevertheless, London Transport chief executive Frank Pick extended his vision that the design of London Transport should both look good and work well from tube stations to London Country Bus garages. It’s an aspiration that seems to have been largely lost when it comes to modern bus garages, I’m sorry to say.

This story starts in the late 1920s. Buses running into the countryside surrounding London, serving markets which included commuters and tourist traffic, were in the hands of two companies. East Surrey Traction operated south of London and the National Omnibus and Transport Company operated to the north. Each had an agreement with the London General Omnibus Company to enter central London. The LGOC was part of the “Combine”, a sort of early London Transport comprising several Underground lines, tramways and the LGOC itself, and which was eventually overseen by Pick as joint managing director.

The arrangement lasted until 1932 when the Combine incorporated East Surrey Traction and the National Omnibus and Transport Company to create London General Country Services. This was essentially an interim arrangement because it was clear by this point what the future of public transport in London was, and that was nationalisation. In 1933, the creation of the publicly owned London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB, but more often known simply as London Transport) saw the bus services running between London proper and the countryside and towns around it (as well as express coach services), transfer to its Country Bus and Coach Department. Pick became chief executive of the new organisation.

It’s hard to envisage today, but the LPTB had a reach much wider than Transport for London does today. London Transport’s Central Bus buses were (and still are) red. Its Country Bus buses and Green Line express coaches were green, and this network stretched out as far as Guildford, Tunbridge Wells, High Wycombe and Hitchin (see a map of the garages here).

This is the point in the story where architecture practice Wallis, Gilbert & Partners enters the story. Set up in 1916 by Thomas Wallis (there never was a Gilbert, as far as anyone seems able to tell, and it wasn’t until several years later that any Partners appeared), it was the company which would go on to design the recently listed Victoria Coach Station, where the practice would eventually have its offices. Wallis, Gilbert holds a special place in the heart of many architecture fans for its flamboyant (or “fancy”) industrial designs like the Hoover and Firestone factories in west London:

The Hoover Building (it's now a Tesco) by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. Photo by Steve Cadman [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The Hoover Building (it’s now a Tesco) by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners 1931-38. Photo by Steve Cadman [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

It specialised in industrial buildings rather than residential, and was particularly good at giving customers what they wanted, in the style they wanted, rather than imposing its own ideas on customers. This undoubtedly worked in the company’s favour in its 1930s Country Bus garage works.

East Surrey Traction had employed Wallis, Gilbert to design buildings at several of its garages during the 1920s. These garages at Swanley (1925), Crawley (1929) and Godstone (1930) were fairly conventional designs that looked essentially like you’d expect bus garages to look (see a picture of Crawley garage here). There was little to indicate that Wallis, Gilbert was about to abruptly change tack.

But before Wallis, Gilbert could really hit its stride with Streamline Moderne bus garages, there was one extraordinary exception to come. Opened the year before the creation of the LPTB, Reigate’s new bus garage of 1932 was one of the best pieces of Arts and Crafts transport architecture ever seen anywhere. There was never anything else quite like it before and there never has been since. There is actually some degree of uncertainty over the attribution of the building to Wallis, Gilbert. Skinner (1997) doesn’t list the 1932 bus garage as one of Wallis, Gilbert’s works but does list a 1922 garage in the same town (maybe there was a typo in the practice’s archives?), while Glazier (2006) doesn’t attribute an architect either. However, local planning authority Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, definitively attributes the garage to Wallis, Gilbert (see this document) and the council’s planning department really ought to know.

With its large leaded windows, pitched roof and beautifully detailed brickwork, this is a bus garage one can imagine Edwin Lutyens building. The office block in the background, added in 1936 (Glazier (2006)) has delightful little dormer windows which could have come straight from one of Lutyens’ country houses like Goddards (in Surrey) or Great Dixter (in East Sussex). It was the perfect building for well-heeled and conservative Reigate, the sort of thing which took an unfortunate reality (noisy, smelly motor coaches – as they would have been viewed by the locals – needing a large premises for their stabling and maintenance) and transformed it into something wonderful.

Reigate bus garage in 1936. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Incredibly, most of Reigate bus garage survives to this day. The offices are still there and looking as good as ever. They are undergoing conversion to apartments (see here and here), which as far as I know will be the only Wallis, Gilbert building in which it will be possible to live, so if the estate agents don’t market the apartments to bus/architecture enthusiasts they’ll be missing a trick. I digress. The garage to the extreme right of the picture above has been demolished and replaced by an anonymous modern office building (called The Omnibus Building, would you believe…) but the garage in the middle of the picture is still there and is used as, of all things, a nursery school. What this distinguished old building must make of it when the children sing The Wheels on the Bus, I have no idea, but I imagine it must be rather happy.

© Copyright Ian Capper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Reigate bus garage today. © Copyright Ian Capper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

There had been a remarkably similar outbreak of pitched-roof Arts and Crafts-type stations on London Underground’s Northern Line extension to Edgware only a few years earlier. Architect Stanley Heaps produced a series of polite suburban stations buildings like those at Brent Cross and Edgware, which opened in 1923-24. They have been described as having something of the suburban cricket pavilion about them:

xxxx By Panhard (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Edgware station on London Underground’s Norther Line. Photo by Panhard (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever their qualities, both the Edgware extension station buildings and Reigate bus garage were architectural dead ends as far as Frank Pick was concerned (although Glazier (2006: p10) suggests that the staircase block on the offices at Reigate bus garage pointed the way to the subsequent architecture of Country Bus garages). The future, however, in the shape of Modernism and Streamline Moderne, was about to arrive for real.

What Pick had wanted for the Combine, and what he wanted for the soon-to-be-created London Transport, was a corporate image which suggested modernity, efficiency and attractiveness. For that, he felt he had to look to the new architecture of mainland northern Europe, rather than the conservative architecture of England. So, in 1930 he took his favourite architect Charles Holden on tour there. Together they visited and were inspired by Modernist buildings such as the Stockholm Public Library (Sweden), Krumme Lanke U-Bahn station in Berlin (Germany) and Hilversum City Hall in the Netherlands (Ovenden (2013)).

What they saw was to revolutionise the look of London, with this new Modernist architecture effectively becoming London Transport’s house style from its creation in 1933. It is to this period that Holden’s Piccadilly Line stations belong, as well as the Country Bus garages. You will often see references to “Holden’s tube stations”, but Pick was as much a driver of the overall look as Holden, though as the architect Holden was the one who translated Holden’s vision into architectural reality.

The scale of building programme throughout London Transport in the 1930s was such that Holden couldn’t design all the buildings himself anyway. So the 1938 Rayners Lane tube station (see a picture here) on the Piccadilly/Metropolitan lines branch to Uxbridge, which looks like a typical Holden building (brick box ticket hall with a concrete lid, and round-ended single story retail units at the front) was in fact designed by Reginald Harold Uren. Uren was demonstrating good client management by producing a design in what had become the house style developed by Holden at the behest of Pick.

But let’s track back to the year before the creation of London Transport. Dorking and Windsor bus garages, again designed by Wallis, Gilbert on behalf of East Surrey Traction/London General Country Services, opened in 1932. With East Surrey Traction/London General Country Services effectively a part of the Combine, and then subsumed into it, it was inevitable that Pick’s European views on his preferred building style would be reflected in these two garages, and indeed they were. Both were garages with bus stations attached (i.e. they were places that passengers could catch buses as well as being places where buses were stored and maintained) which gave additional scope for architectural statement.

Windsor garage was an angular Modernist building, which would eventually sport on its facade two particularly fine London Transport roundels on totems. As would be the case at all Wallis, Gilbert’s bus garages, the actual garage components of the building were very competently done though not in an obviously eye-catching way. That was deliberate. Wallis, Gilbert developed a trick with the glass and metal girder roofs of these two garages which would be repeated later on at locations where the garage was close to the road and in clear view of passers-by. By surrounding the metal roof structures with pitched tile roofs on the outer edges, Wallis, Gilbert was able to disguise the functional roofs in a way that was visually acceptable in the provincial towns where the Country Bus garages were located. The garages looked as though they had flat roofs with polite pitched tile sides; it was an illusion.

While the actual garage was all (false) modesty, for the offices and waiting rooms at Windsor Wallis, Gilbert came up with a building which was rather more dramatic. Unfortunately it no longer exists; having closed in 1984 and been demolished to make way for housing. There are few good photographs of it, and an even smaller number available for reproduction here (you can see some additional images in this forum thread). The London Transport Museum does have a couple, but hasn’t digitised them yet. The only good way to get a sense of what Windsor garage/bus station, and indeed most of Wallis, Gilbert’s bus garages looked like, is through recreations such as this excellent scale model:

Windsor bus garage, a model by Kingsway Models. Photo © John Howe via this flickr album
Windsor bus garage, a model by Kingsway Models. Photo © John Howe (used with permission) via this flickr page

The brickwork, as at Reigate, was beautifully detailed, with a mix of horizontal and vertical brick courses. The building stepped forward most pleasingly from the garage behind to the central canopy at the front. The corner windows were particularly stylish, and of course very Modernist.

If Windsor was something new, Dorking garage, which opened a few weeks earlier was something truly spectacular.

Arguably one of the best of Wallis, Gilbert’s Country Bus garages, Dorking really established the Streamline Moderne template which Wallis, Gilbert would follow at its other commissions for London Country Buses. It also complemented the Streamline Moderne elements of Holden’s architecture on London Underground, such as the round-ended platform waiting rooms first seen at his Sudbury Town tube station (which also opened in 1932). The offices and waiting rooms at Dorking garage curved gracefully away from the garage exit, wrapping around two sides of the forecourt. The crittall windows were superbly proportioned and spaced, and the brickwork was once again exceptionally detailed. It was that rare thing, simply an exquisitely beautiful bus garage. Again, the best way to see what it looked like is in the form of this excellent model (this image, meanwhile, will give you a better sense of the general layout of the buildings):

Dorking bus garage, a model by Kingsway Models. Photo © John Howe (used with permission) via this flickr page
Dorking bus garage, a model by Kingsway Models. Photo © John Howe (used with permission) via this flickr page

It must have had a rather dramatic impact in the quiet Surrey town of Dorking, which suddenly found itself with an extremely good piece of Streamline Moderne architecture, perhaps one of its only two, along with a Southern Railway signal box at the station. Here was somewhere where you could experience the future of transport first hand, the modern world arriving with a flourish in ultra-conservative Surrey. Unfortunately the garage closed in 1990 and was demolished, to be replaced with housing. You might by this point be beginning to detect the start of a trend. I’m afraid it will continue.

Windsor and Dorking garages had been built for East Surrey Traction/London General Country Services, even though it was well understood that they would open just in time to become the property of the London Passenger Transport Board’s Country Bus and Coach Department. At the same time as Windsor and Dorking garages, Wallis, Gilbert was also working on Victoria Coach Station.

Victoria Coach Station, December 2013. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-BD 2.0] at this flickr page
Victoria Coach Station, December 2013. By Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-BD 2.0] via this flickr page

Like Dorking, it too would be a curvilinear Streamline Moderne building, albeit much larger and more imposing than any of the country bus garages. Despite that, look between the three structures and you can see the curves of Dorking bus garage on the wings of Victoria Coach Station, and the stepped-back construction and corner windows of Windsor bus garage on the central tower of the coach station.

With London Transport incorporated in 1933, one of its early priorities was to sort out the collection of inadequate Country Bus garages it had inherited, replacing them with modern and efficient premises. With Windsor and Dorking bus garages, not to mention Victoria Coach Station, as its audition pieces, Wallis, Gilbert was about to get the lion’s share of that work, as we’ll see next week.

a note on the models

The models which illustrate Dorking and Windsor garages are just two in a long and honourable line. We’ve looked at other transport buildings represented by models (for instance the Mackintosh station, King’s Cross International). Given that some transport buildings annoyingly have no physical trace today, it’s the only way to get a sense of the physicality of the buildings involved. Just for the sake of clarity, I should point out that as a non-commercial blog, I haven’t received any payment to endorse Kingsway Models, which has very kindly agreed to let me use copyrighted photos of its lovely models to illustrate this blog, which would otherwise be a text-heavy slog.

references and further reading

Glazier, Ken (2006): London Transport Garages. Capital Transport Publishing: Harrow

Green, Oliver (2013): Frank Pick’s London: Art, Design and the Modern City. V&A Publishing: London

Ovenden, Mark (2013): London Underground by Design. Penguin Books: London

Skinner, Joan S. (1997): Form and Fancy: Factory Buildings by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, 1916-1939. Liverpool University Press: Liverpool

London Country Bus Services, a website by Jonathan Wilkins (here). Very useful on the later 20th Century history of the Country Bus department.

…and, as usual, anything else linked to in the text


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.