Country Strong, part 2 (the London Country Bus garages of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, UK)

With the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) incorporated at the beginning of 1933, one of its early priorities was to sort out the collection of inadequate garages its London Country Bus and Coach Department had inherited, replacing them with modern and efficient premises. In October 1933, managerial approval was given for a new bus garage at Epping. It opened in September 1934, just 11 months later. One of the LTPB’s key design requirements for the new Country Bus garages was that “they should harmonise as far as possible with the landscapes of the country towns in to which they were being inserted.” (Glazier (2006) p29). Wallis, Gilbert & Partners appreciated Pick’s desire for Modernist buildings of the sort Charles Holden was busy designing for the London Underground, and could also demonstrate appreciation of the simultaneous need to ensure the new garages were visually acceptable in provincial towns such as Dorking and Windsor. In other words, Wallis, Gilbert was very skilled at giving its clients what they wanted – and this approach was now to pay dividends.
Wallis, Gilbert was appointed as architects for Epping Garage.

In the end, the garage was almost completely hidden from view by a row of cottages, so it wasn’t perhaps the most eye-catching start to Wallis, Gilbert’s work for the LPTB. But it was just the first in a run of buildings that Wallis, Gilbert would complete in short order. Epping garage itself closed as early as 1963 (it was always awkwardly located for the network it served) and the site is now occupied by a supermarket. Well, unlike at Windsor and Dorking, it’s not housing, I suppose.

Hertford garage was the next to open, in January 1935. This time, there was no need for a tiled pitch roof to screen the garage’s lattice girder roof, because the garage was well away from main road. The notable design feature of Hertford garage was a long office block on the opposite side of the approach road to the garage building. This was the highlight, with brick lower parts and a huge expanse of crittall glazing in an almost continuous run along the length of the building and around the curved front end.

A concrete canopy ran all the way round the office block, in a style familiar to London Underground passengers from platform shelters at many of Holden’s stations. The Streamline Moderne template for Wallis, Gilbert’s subsequent Country Bus garages was now firmly in place. Hertford garage closed in 1989 and just like at Dorking and Windsor was replaced by…housing. Again. Yes, I know.

Two Waters garage, in Hemel Hempstead, opened April 1935. Thanks to its topography, with an approach road that rose towards the garage, it was a dramatic-looking location. The office block, with its rounded end and canopy (which only ran round part of the block, rather than all the way along as it did at Hertford), stood on a substantial plinth. Topped off with a London Transport roundel, this gave it a commanding appearance, as you can see:

Two Waters garage, Hemel Hempstead, in 1935. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

It closed in 1995, the garage was demolished, and the site is now occupied by light industry and a road junction.

Amersham garage opened later in 1935, in August. It was sited directly on the street so the garage featured slightly more detailing – including decorative lamps and horizontal bricks over the garage entrances, rather than the plain concrete beams at some of the other Country Bus garages, along with some smart shelters. Again, there was a Streamline Moderne block of offices with a canopy and rounded end, across the access road from the garage. Closed in 1989, the site is now occupied by a supermarket.

Amersham garage.
Amersham garage in 1936. Note the careful treatment of the front elevation around the garage doors, and on the extreme right, what had become by this point the typical Streamline Moderne office block. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Tring garage opened in October 1935. Set back from the road, the garage had huge glass windows redolent of Wallis, Gilbert’s early factories. It had “a general air of delicacy and grace” (Glazier 2006 p41) which isn’t something you see written about bus garages very often. There is a picture of it here, though it doesn’t quite do justice to the quality of the garage. The office block stepped downwards along its length as the garage was lower than road level, a layout almost the opposite of Hemel Hempstead. Closed in 1977, the site is now occupied by Royal Mail premises.

If you’ve not been keeping count, that’s a total of five new Modernist/Streamline Moderne transport buildings in a single year. It’s testimony to Wallis, Gilbert’s work rate and even more so to the determination of the LPTB to push through a modernisation plan that makes transport projects today look as though they take place at a snail’s pace (which, very often, they do).

Staines opened in June 1936. It was an extremely sinuous-looking design from the exit road, with curved runs of offices either side of the road, and canopies on the rounded corners of the office blocks describing almost three-quarters of a circle. It also had some interesting sculptural pillars on either side of the entrance, similar to those which you can see in the photo of Two Waters.

Staines bus garage, a model by Kingsway Models. Photo © John Howe (used with permission) via this flickr page
Staines bus garage, a model by Kingsway Models. Note the lovely curved ends on the offices at the left of the picture. You can also see how Wallis, Gilbert’s disguise of the metal and glass garage roof here and at other locations actually worked. Photo © John Howe (used with permission) via this flickr page

It closed in 1996 and was replaced by serviced office space and meeting rooms housed in a Postmodernist building called Centurion House. The latter describes itself as a “sensitive conversion of the old Staines Bus Depot”. You can draw your own conclusions, but I’ll tell you now that if the garage had actually been sensitively converted, rather than being demolished and replaced by a Postmodernist blodge of a building, I’d be first in line to have a meeting there. But I’m not.

Addlestone garage also opened in June 1936. It was similar in layout to Two Waters except that the positions of garage and office block were reversed. Square pillars on the fence along the main road were constructed with the care and attention Wallis, Gilbert lavished on the brickwork at all its Country Bus garages, with bricks placed vertically at the bottom of the pillars.

One of those pillars is the only part of Addlestone garage that now survives, after the garage closed in 1997. The site is now Gleeson Mews housing development, but the single pillar from the boundary line stands at the back of the pavement in mute testament to a bygone age of high quality industrial architecture (launch a Street View here if for any reason it’s not visible below). Wallis, Gilbert’s eye for detail was better than anything the new-build homes now occupying the site can offer. If it was up to me, I’d ensure that pillar was preserved forever and have a plaque put on it.

At Tunbridge Wells, Wallis Gilbert found itself designing a small bus and coach station, which opened in 1936. Thanks to local circumstances I won’t even pretend to understand, the bus garage at Tunbridge Wells didn’t pass to LPTB at its formation. That meant that rather than a garage and offices, Wallis, Gilbert’s commission was for a smaller building containing offices and a waiting room.
Tunbridge Wells Green Line Coach Station in 1975 (remember that the Green Line express coach network and the Country Bus network were both run by London Transport’s Country Bus and Coach Department). Photo is ©, taken by John Hambley and now in the collection of Kevin Lane (used with permission), via this flickr page

The small building was finished in the familiar materials of brick, concrete for the plinth and canopy, and metal crittall windows. It had two projecting rounded bays at each end, and was a very neat and attractive design. Even when past its best, not kept particularly clean, and part-occupied by a taxi firm, this tiny slice of stylish modernity stood in complete contrast to the much more traditional houses behind. As such, of course, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was demolished some time in the 1970s or 1980s, and the site is now occupied by a restaurant with flats above.

Of all the LTPB Country Bus garages, St Albans was arguably the best looking. It opened in August 1936. Pick was especially keen not to upset the natives of St Albans with the arrival of a large bus garage and attached bus station. St Albans had been a case study in a booklet published by the Design and Industries Association, showing how insensitive modern developments could ruin the character of historic towns. As such, Pick paid special attention to the garage’s architecture and ensured the retention of mature trees on site for screening purposes (Green (2013): p114).

The office block at St Albans garage was a two storey building, the first time that a multi-storey arrangement had been used since Windsor garage. At the corner of the building, Wallis, Gilbert used a 90-degree curved turn with a tall window, which contained a staircase, rather than a projecting 180-degree rounded end such as at Addlestone.

This model of St Albans bus garage by Kingsway Models shows the layout of the garage, and the way that the office block disguised the presence of the garage from the main road. Photo © John Howe via this flickr album
This model of St Albans bus garage by Kingsway Models shows the layout of the garage, and the way that the office block disguised the presence of the garage from the main road. Photo © John Howe (used with permission) via this flickr album

The garage proper was attached to the offices and with a clever window arrangement on the garage, Wallis, Gilbert ensured that the garage looked like part of an office, rather than a vehicle maintenance facility. With the retention of the trees also helping screen the new building, it did indeed “harmonise as far as possible” with the town.

Further enhancing the garage was its attached bus station:

The bus station at St Albans bus garage in 1936. The garage building is behind (with the pitched roof) to the right, with the office block (flat roof) to the left © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Clearly drawing inspiration from the house style Holden had developed for the 1930s London tube stations, a stepped concrete canopy provided for passengers to shelter under. This was equipped with incredibly stylish high-back wooden benches, featuring gull-wing cantilevered seats. Curved windows at each step of the roof gave a supremely streamlined appearance. The same design solution of stepped roofs linked by upright glazing was also used on London Underground stations such as Sudbury Hill and Park Royal, but never was the concept as effectively executed as at St Albans. However, while Sudbury Hill and Park Royal tube stations can still be enjoyed to this day, St Albans bus station and garage was demolished in the late 1990s and replaced by housing, despite local attempts to save the building for new uses.

Northfleet garage, opened in 1937, featured another two storey building for the on-site offices, though the canopy was less dramatic and the whole building somewhat less eye-catching than some of Wallis, Gilbert’s earlier designs, though there were many careful details in the brickwork as usual. Like St Albans, the 90-degree curved end to the office block housed a staircase, though its double-height window was moved to the side of the building at Northfleet. Surprisingly, the garage survives to this day. It is in fact the only one of Wallis, Gilbert’s Country Bus garages that remains intact.

© Copyright Chris Whippet and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Northfleet bus garage in  2013. © Copyright Chris Whippet and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Unfortunately the architectural merits of the office building are somewhat difficult to discern from this photo, as it has had its crittall windows replaced and has become rather dirty, It is also hidden behind modern railings and palisade fencing, not to mention some not very sensitive signs and banners. The courses of vertical bricks are evident though, adding great style to what might otherwise be a rather severe building. The photo above makes an interesting comparison with this photo of Northfleet garage in its prime, soon after opening.

The enlargement of Leatherhead garage, which was completed in 1938, was Wallis, Gilbert’s final work for the LPTB’s Country Bus and Coach Department. It featured a new office block, with a return to a single storey building (a second, rather awkward, storey was added in the 1950s) utilising the ever-stylish 180-degree at the end of the block. As usual, it was subsequently closed (in 1999) and demolished, to be replaced with small commercial buildings. You can see some pictures of it here.

At St Albans and Northfleet, Wallis, Gilbert had dispensed with the 180-degree curved ends to the office blocks that had featured at their earlier garages, and the buildings were more tightly massed, compact rather than long and low. The trend was set to continue with a new garage on Straight Road in Romford. The drawings for this garage show that Wallis, Gilbert planned to return to the more angular style of Windsor garage, with no curves on the building. Had it been built, it would have been a very imposing building. Unfortunately, approval was given to Wallis, Gilbert’s drawings for the new garage by London Transport in July 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War.

That put a stop to new building works. By the time the war ended, Streamline Moderne had fallen out of fashion. Pick left London Transport in 1940 and London Transport lost his obsession with high quality design. Post-war Modern was more sculptural and less streamlined, apt to use concrete as the main material rather than brickwork. Oliver Hill’s 1946 Newbury Park Bus Station, and Adie, Button and Partners’ 1952 Stockwell Bus Garage were real highlights of the early post-war years, but London Transport’s architecture output entered a long, slow decline which lasted until the end of the twentieth century. Thomas Wallis retired from Wallis, Gilbert & Partners on the first day of 1946, succeeded by his son Douglas. The practice never again enjoyed the high profile that its 1930s fancy factories in West London had brought it. Nevertheless, there was more to come from Wallis, Gilbert in the field of post-war London bus garages, as it adapted its designs to the post-war Modern idiom. That’s a story for another time, I think.

Of all Wallis, Gilbert’s 1930s Country Bus garages, only the single example at Northfleet survives (it is not listed). There were other architects at work on garages for the Country Bus and Coach department, at locations such as Grays, High Wycombe (which ended up looking very austere), and Swanley, which gained a Streamline Moderne office block of a similar design to those at many of Wallis, Gilbert’s garages. Swanley garage was certainly still there earlier this year, but having been closed in 1996 must be considered a likely candidate for demolition anytime soon.

So why have London Transport’s 1930s Country Bus garages fared far worse than its estate of 1930s tube stations, most of which remain to this day and are treated as architectural highlights of London’s transport system? It has a lot to do with the organisation of public transport around London. The LPTB’s Country Bus services were transferred to the National Bus Company (NBC) in 1970. Unlike today’s confident Transport for London, London Transport of the 1970s was starved of investment, suffering from industrial relations difficulties, and was virtually in stagnation. As a result, it didn’t put up much of a fight against this move. In fact given the difficulties it was having with its core London operations, the removal of responsibility for services to London’s hinterlands was probably seen by top management as a blessing; the removal of an unwanted distraction.

When the British bus network was deregulated in 1986, London’s buses were not. London Transport remained in charge of specifying the bus network and its fares, just as its successor a Transport for London is today. Private sector companies operate the services, under tender to TfL.

However, the former Country Bus services were no longer part of London Transport’s empire, so they were deregulated (in the form of four separate companies) in 1986, along with the rest of the NBC, which was also broken up. The various parts of the NBC eventually passed to management buy-outs and private bus operating companies. Some of the London Country Bus garages had already closed under the NBC as it tried to cut costs in the 1970s. For the surviving garages, the commercial land value of their sites, around which towns had grown up, was nearly always too much to resist for their new owners over the years following deregulation. The new private bus operators were driven by commercial imperative and wanted to realise the value of the assets they had. Nearly all were the garages were sold and demolished. It was especially regrettable at sites like Dorking and St Albans which had attached bus stations, because the on-street bus shelters which replaced them were inevitably inferior facilities. It was a story that was repeated all over the country, in fact, with many bus stations closing during the 1990s and 2000s and replaced with on-street bus stops. That’s why so many of the closure dates listed above are in the era of privatised bus transport in London’s hinterlands. It’s also why, sadly, the only way to see London Transport’s Country Bus and Coach Department’s wonderful collection of Streamline Moderne bus garages and bus stations is in old photos, and scale models.

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

how to find Northfleet bus garage

Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ only surviving Country Bus garage is at Northfleet. Click here to see it on the beauty of transport‘s map

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 building 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.

7 thoughts on “Country Strong, part 2 (the London Country Bus garages of Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, UK)

  1. Just to clarify the final paragraph in this excellent article, the demise of London’s Country Bus Garages was accelerated by the strange decision of the Thatcher Government to sell the garages separately to the bus operations. To ‘protect’ the newly privatised bus companies the sale of the Garages came with a set of determined rental costs, which started cheaply but ramped up over a number of years to a full commercial rental cost. It was a strange decision because it only seemed to be applied to the former London Country area, which was never destined to be the most profitable bus operating area. Unsurprisingly, once the rental charges reached commercial levels, they were largely unaffordable and the bus operators sought alternative solutions to stable their vehicles. The property companies who owned the Garages were then able to reap the rewards of their ‘investment’ by developing them, no doubt at a handsome profit.

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