When is a town not a town?

Answer: when it’s part of, or joined up to, a major metropolis. At least in my book.

It annoys me intensely to see and hear, for instance, London boroughs and shopping centers in these boroughs referred to constantly as ‘towns’ or ‘town centers’. Thus the signs at Clapham Junction station, for instance, which used to indicate the main exit to Clapham Junction ‘shopping center’ now say ‘Town center’. Which town? I was not aware Clapham Junction, or Battersea, was a ‘town’. OK we once had a ‘town hall’ in Battersea, now it has moved to the center of Wandsworth, but neither are ‘towns’ anymore, they are inner London suburbs. In the case of Wandsworth, one of the 32 London boroughs.

I have always accepted place names like Camden Town, Canning Town, etc. but never regarded these as real towns either. I also accept the anomolies of the two cities within a city – the City of Westminster and the City of London, and the many ‘villages’ in the metropolis: Highgate village, Hampstead village, Battersea village. Even New York City has Greenwich Village.

Then why does the idea of many ‘towns’ within the metropolis irritate me so? I don’t know, but it does. It is as though we are all trying to deny we are Londoners, as though we are trying to deny such a city as London exists, and to wipe it off the global map.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council and delegated its services to the London boroughs, this process seems to have been going on. In fact long before that, in the reorganization which led to the establishment of the GLC in the mid-1960s, the rebellion against being included in the sprawling metropolis of London started.

So all places in northwest  and west London, such as (Harrow, Uxbridge, Wembley, Twickenham) outside the London postal area insisted they were in ‘Middlesex’, a county which hasn’t even existed (except in Post Office addresses) for over 40 years. Similarly Barnet, Romford, Bromley, Croydon, Sutton, Kingston-upon-Thames, etc. all insist they are ‘towns’ in their own right located in, respectively, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey in the case of the last three. They have not been in these counties (except in the fiction of Post Office addresses) for over 40 years either. They are all outer London boroughs in their own right, part of the administrative county of Greater London.

The Greater London Authority has now been established to replace the old GLC, but it doesn’t seem to have the same status or the same powers. So many form attachment to their little so-called ‘towns’ within the metropolis, they forget they are Londoners. So we get, for instance, ridiculous ‘unemployment’ statistics which indicate that certain areas of the metropolis, described as ‘towns’ of course, have high unemployment levels.

This is theoretically impossible. I have never ever worked in my local borough in London. I have always found employment in Central London. If there is high unemployment in any area of London, it must surely be because people are searching for jobs in their local area instead of being willing to travel into the center, at least if you are talking about office work.

If you work in a factory, then London has never had a big industrial center. Factories have been spread all over the metropolis, but it has never had heavy industry. Quite frankly, if you want this type of work then perhaps you shouldn’t be living in London in the first place. Get on your bike!

Fleet Street used to be the center of the newspaper industry, then it moved out to Wapping and places like that, but it became so mechanized that it required far fewer staff so this did cause unemployment, as did the closing of the docks.

We have to face the fact that if you seek employment in the capital the majority of the jobs will be office work, in retail outlets, politics/local or national government, construction or in the public services such as transport or the NHS. Sitting in your home in Wandsworth waiting for a job making cars to turn up, or even an office job, within walking distance of your home is unlikely to be successful. As Norman Tebbit once said, you need to get ‘on your bike’ and look for work. There’s plenty available in the metropolis, and if it is not your kind of work then you shouldn’t be living here.

Having lived in various areas of London during my lifetime, I can only identify myself as a ‘Londoner’. I was born just off Oxford Street in a hospital and we lived at the time in West Hampstead. Most of my school years were spent in Wood Green, and I commuted to college in Tottenham next door. Later I lived in Stoke Newington, then Camden Town, and for the past 35 years in various flats in Battersea. I’ve never got used to living south of the River Thames, and since the river is less than a mile away this is hardly surprising. Most of the places of interest, and of employment, are north of the river anyway, so why travel any further south? I rarely find occasion to do so, so much of south London is still unknown territory to me.

I found myself in Battersea by pure accident. My partner and I were living in my mother’s council flat in Camden at the time, and wanted a place of our own. A friend of a friend had an empty flat in Battersea, so we took it. Soon afterwards I went to the local authority to put our name on the council waiting list, and was stunned when they asked me which part of Wandsworth I would like to live in.

‘Wandsworth?’ I replied, ‘Why on Earth would I want to live in Wandsworth? I have no connexions here whatsoever.’ I explained that although my parents were divorced, they both had flats in Camden, and other relations also lived in North London. We had only taken temporary accommodation in Battersea because it belonged to a friend who had offered it to us.

I might as well have been talking to a brick wall. As far as they were concerned, even back in the mid 1970s, London simply did not exist – I was living in the borough of Wandsworth so that was the only place where I could apply to live as a council tenant.

I persisted: ‘But what about the GLC – they have flats all over London. Why can’t I apply for a GLC flat in Camden, where most of my roots and ties are?’ No can do, was the reply. You have to take a flat in Wandsworth, then you can apply for a transfer. And so I fell into the trap of being stuck in this godforsaken South London borough for the rest of my life.

We got a council flat in a tower block, when the last Labor council in Wandsworth had a policy of moving families with children out of such blocks, and moving single people in. We did apply for transfer north of the River, but discovered only run-down properties rejected by local people in those boroughs would ever be offered to us.  Moving from one part of the metropolis to another, as a council tenant, was not easy. The only way was by mutual exchange. Finding someone with similar accommodation in an area you wanted to live who wanted to move to your area. We gave up in the end, and settled here. Now I’m quite used to it, but still don’t see why as Londoners we can’t apply as council tenants to live in any part of the metropolis we like. It is because London is still not regarded as a ‘city’ like other cities, but as a collection of independent towns.

A similar process has happened in the West Midlands conurbation, for instance. Look at a map, and you’ll see that places like Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sutton Coldfield, Dudley, Solihull, West Bromwich, Smethwick, etc. are all joined up as one huge metropolis with the city of Birmingham. This makes all these places suburbs of the Birmingham or West Midlands conurbation. Instead of being proud to be citizens of such a big metropolis, and adding their populations together to announce to the world they are living in one of the world’s big cities, they prefer to pretend they are all independent little cities/towns.

In the USA they have a different attitude. One American tried to tell me that USA had the biggest city in the entire world – this was in the 1960s. He said, since there was relatively little open countryside between cities and towns, the entire Northeast area between Boston and Baltimore, including New York City, Philadelphia, Newark, and Washington DC was one huge metropolis. When I visited the States I found this was far from being the case – vast tracks of open countryside separated these places. Yet here in little old Britain we have towns/cities which are joined up, and we pretend they are still separate independent places nestling amid open countryside.

There are far too many urban areas in Britain which are now joined up to list them all here, but basically, once your city/town/village becomes connected by urban development with a bigger city or town, your one becomes a suburb of the larger one, and you should be proud to be a resident of the new, larger city.

Many Yorkshire towns/cities are joined up, so Leeds/Bradford, for example, is really one big metropolis with outlying suburbs like Wakefield, Dewsbury and Batley. Sheffield/Rotherham is a similar case.

Over in Lancashire the Manchester conurbation includes places like Rochdale, Oldham, Salford, and places like Stockport and Sale in Cheshire. One day Liverpool/Birkenhead and the Manchester conurbation may all become one huge metropolis, it only requires some expansion of places like Warrington, Widnes, Runcorn and St Helens. They’ll then have to think of a new name for the new metropolis, as Liverpool/Manchester conurbation sounds a bit of a mouthful.

Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland are safe for a while yet, but their relative proximity to each other also threatens their existence as separate cities.

Why we are so fiercely defensive about our towns/cities and reluctant to admit they are now part of an even greater metropolis I can’t imagine. It can only have something to do with British snobbery. To say you live in ‘Croydon, Surrey’ or ‘Harrow, Middlesex’ conjures up a false picture of a little town nestling among the rural woods and fields of England, whereas to admit you live in an outer London suburb lumps you in with dreadful inner citiy areas like Wandsworth where, horror of horrors, the working classes and immigrant communities live.

The ‘green belts’ established after the Second World War prevented a lot of urban sprawl and therefore preserved the separate identity of many towns near large cities, but they may well not last forever. Already the planned development along the Thames corridor means residents of Southend-on-Sea and all places between it and London must prepare to be swallowed up by the metropolis.

It is only the London green belt which has prevented the Medway Towns, Reading, Aylesbury, Luton, etc. from becoming new outer London suburbs. In fact the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground once went beyond Aylesbury. Already many places outside Greater London are already joined, or nearly joined up, to the metropolis. Watford for example which also has an Underground line (it used to have two, but the northern part of the old Bakerloo line to Watford Junction has been handed over to British Rail). Only a few fields separate Watford from Hemel Hempstead and St Albans, which had a red Central London bus route, the 84, at one time. Just a few fields separate St Albans from Hatfield, which is now one urban authority with neighboring Welwyn Garden City and only separated from it by a few fields. So these towns too could easily become new outer London suburbs.

One anomaly is the London postal district area. Covering wider territory than the old London County Council area, it meant places in counties like Middlesex and Essex had London postal districts. When I lived in Wood Green as a schoolboy, for instance, we came under the old and now non-existent Middlesex County Council, but our postal address was ‘London N22’. With the abolition of the LCC and its replacement by first the GLC and now the GLA, the London postal district area is now much smaller than Greater London. But one little area outside the Greater London boundary in Essex, Sewardstone, has the ‘London E4’ postal district, so it can’t claim to be the independent town of ‘Sewardstone, Essex’. Of course it is really part of London, since Waltham Abbey to the north, and also Cheshunt and even Hoddesden, Hertfordshire are now outer London suburbs in all but name. There are few green fields between them and the metropolis if you follow the urban route.

So I would say a town is no longer a town when it is linked by continuous urban sprawl to another town or a city. But it could, I suppose, continue to be called a separate town, like Hoddesden, until it is surrounded on two or three sides by urban sprawl. Below (in blue)  is a link to an interesting webpge which describes the urban area of the metropolis, and makes clear it now includes places like Woking, Hemel Hempstead, Hoddesden, Leatherhead, Dartford and Epsom. http://images.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://content.answers.com/main/content/wp/en/1/10/Greater_London_Urban_Area.PNG&imgrefurl=http://www.answers.com/topic/greater-london-urban-area&h=435&w=591&sz=591&hl=en&start=13&tbnid=yx_YyGSl1Q6jfM:&tbnh=99&tbnw=135&prev=/images%3Fq%3DGreater%2BLondon%2B%26gbv%3D2%26svnum%3D10%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG

Looking at the cover of my atlas, I see Southampton-Fareham-Gosport-Portsmouth-Waterlooville-Havant are also in danger of being one big conurbation.

One thought on “When is a town not a town?

  1. Tony, I’ll tell you something that irritates me – the phrase “Wandsworth Town”, which was originally just the name of the station (which itself was originally called Wandsworth, presumably was changed to distinguish from Wandsworth Common, but must check that) and now is being used to mean “Wandsworth”. For instance it appears on a road sign at the junction of Buckhold Road and Wandsworth High Street.

    The origin of Camden Town and some other “Towns” in London, as I expect you know, is that they were planned estates or “new towns”, usually called after the developer. So Camden Town is named after the Marquess (I think) of Camden, who owned the land. Camden was a place in Suffolk or somewhere. “Camden Town” was the name of the area in London before it was ever just “Camden”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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