Popular appreciation of London Underground’s 1930s Modernist Tube station buildings has kept them well in the public eye. There was an equivalent programme, however, 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 Modernist and Streamline Moderne buildings that reflect their common patron – Frank Pick. This is the story of the best London Transport buildings you’ve never heard of – London’s Country Bus garages.
Outside the public transport industry, there is less regard for bus operations than for railways. The story of Charles Holden’s London Underground stations is well-enough known that it has traction outside the public transport community, but the other half of the story, that of London Transport’s many elegant bus garages and bus stations of the mid-twentieth century, has been largely forgotten.
The focus primarily on London Underground architecture under London Transport chief executive Frank Pick has overshadowed our understanding of the real extent of Pick’s enormous influence on how all of London Transport’s buildings looked. If you only consider London Underground, it seems as though Holden must have been mainly responsible for the distinctive look of the 1930s London Transport estate. Once you realise the same Modernist styles were repeated across London Transport’s bus buildings, undertaken by different architects, you begin to realise just how much Pick was influential in the choice of that particular style himself.
The architectural practice of Holden, Pearson and Adams (and Charles Holden in particular) has become synonymous with its work on London Underground stations, but there was another practice which similarly became inextricably linked with the appearance of London’s bus garages and bus stations – Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. The story has many surprising parallels with the development of the architecture for London Underground stations.
If people know Wallis, Gilbert and Partners today, it is either for its work on the so-called ‘fancy’ factories – buildings like the Hoover factory and several others on the Golden Mile in Brentford, or for Victoria Coach Station. Yet there was once so much more to its public transport work in and around London.
Form follows function
Wallis, Gilbert and Partners specialised in industrial architecture. The practice was founded in 1916 by Thomas Wallis. Curiously unlike Adams, Holden and Pearson, where the identities of the named partners are known, no-one has ever identified who Gilbert actually was. Indeed he may not even have existed at all, perhaps being an invented name that simply added gravitas. The firm eventually did gain some partners though, one of whom was Frank Button. Button’s later firm Adie, Button and Partners would go on to design Stockwell Bus Garage after the Second World War.
Initially concentrating on factory commissions during the First World War, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners quickly established a reputation for understanding the needs of new factories, which were beginning to move to recognisably modern volume production methods requiring large areas of uninterrupted floor space. Exactly the same requirements, in fact, as bus garages. Although not particularly noteworthy in architectural terms, the practice designed bus garages in Crawley and Godstone in the 1920s for the East Surrey Traction Company.
Art Deco manufactories
Later, as the role of image and marketing became more important to industrial concerns, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners developed an Egyptian-influenced Art Deco style of architecture for factory offices which faced public roads. The first of these was the 1928 Shannon Company Factory in New Malden, while later and more famous examples include the Hoover Factory and the Firestone Factory (controversially demolished), both in Brentford. Although this was more ostentatious than Holden’s preferred style of stripped-back Modernism, it still shared some of the architectural spirit.
Founder and senior partner Thomas Wallis was something of a contrast to Holden, someone who pursued a simpler life, both for himself and in his buildings. Wallis, on the other hand, apparently enjoyed the good life and was popular company at social gatherings, which often included many clients he had befriended.
Pick forms London General Country Services
Wallis, Gilbert and Partners would already have been known to Frank Pick before the creation of London Transport. As managing director of UERL, in 1932 Pick oversaw the incorporation of the National Omnibus and Traction Company and East Surrey Traction into London General Country Services. East Surrey Traction itself was controlled by UERL’s London General Omnibus Company, and had been since 1929.
Just as London General Country Services was formed, one of its first garages was built in Reigate. It was an impeccably polite building, finished in a rare-for-the-transport-industry Arts and Crafts style, calculatedly unlikely to cause offence to the residents of the Surrey town thanks to a planning requirement that it should blend in with the local area.
That wasn’t the image Pick wanted to present for his transport network though. Reigate Bus Garage occupied the same architectural space as London Underground architect Stanley Heaps’ stations for the Northern line’s Edgware extension – polite, well-mannered, but disappointing to the forward-looking Pick. Although partially demolished, much of Reigate Bus Garage survives as a residential development and a nursery school, though today there are few clues to its original use.
It was the Edgware extension stations that had led to Pick commissioning Holden for future station works, initially in the restrained Modernist style using Portland stone finishes that can still be seen on the Morden extension stations. Reigate Bus Garage marked a similar turning point for London bus architecture, but this time Wallis, Gilbert and Partners would be allowed another chance. They got two, in fact, before the creation of London Transport in 1933. The first was at Dorking, and the second at Windsor.
By this time, Pick had been on his famous 1930 tour of mainland Europe’s emerging Modernist architecture with Charles Holden and WPN Edwards, secretary to UERL chairman Lord Ashfield. Dorking and Windsor required new garages and attached bus stations which provided an opportunity for Pick to bring his preferred architectural style to bear on bus infrastructure. Where Holden transformed that preference into a recognisable building style on the London Underground, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners did the same for London’s country bus network.
Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ first commissions from Pick
Dorking Garage and Bus Station was completed in 1932, and established the Streamline Moderne template which Wallis, Gilbert and Partners would follow in many of its later commissions. There was a family feel with Holden’s similar architecture for London Underground stations. Examination of this building shows an obvious read across from some of Holden’s Streamline Moderne elements at Sudbury Town London Underground station (completed the previous year), in particular, the platform waiting rooms with their round ends, and its projecting concrete canopy elements. The offices and waiting rooms at Dorking Garage curved gracefully away from the exit of the garage proper, wrapping around two sides of the forecourt. The Crittall windows were superbly proportioned and spaced, and the brickwork was exceptionally well-detailed, as it had been at Reigate. It was that rare thing – an exquisite bus garage and bus station.
It must have had a dramatic impact on the quiet Surrey town, which suddenly found itself home to an extremely good piece of Streamline Moderne architecture, perhaps one of its only two, along with a Southern Railway ‘glasshouse’ signal box at the station. Here was somewhere that passengers could experience the future of transport first hand, the modern world arriving with a flourish in ultra-conservative Surrey. The garage would eventually close in 1990 and was demolished, to be replaced with housing.
Windsor Bus Station and Garage, meanwhile, took on a character more similar to Sudbury Town’s street-level building, though missing the latter’s concrete ‘lid’ which gives it such character. It opened in early 1933. Windsor’s offices, passenger waiting room and ticket office were contained in an angular Modernist building, which would eventually sport on its facade two fine totem-mounted London Transport roundels. The proportions and general ‘box’-like look of Windsor bus garage were similar, if on a smaller scale, to those of Sudbury Town, as were the tall windows above the main entrance doors. However, Windsor’s office/waiting room building included elements which were idiosyncratic of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners, such as the corner windows which appear on many of their factories, and highly detailed brickwork, with bricks placed vertically to break up the walls, highlight structural features, and provide visual interest.
As would be the case at all Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ bus garages, the actual garage building was competently designed though in a less obviously eye-catching way. That was deliberate. Wallis, Gilbert and Partners developed a trick with the glass and metal girder roofs of both Windsor and Dorking 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 and Partners 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. Windsor garage and bus station has, like Dorking, also been lost, closed in 1984 and demolished to make way for housing.
Victoria Coach Station
Meanwhile, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners won a commission to design a piece of London’s public transport infrastructure which would evade ownership by London Transport for decades to come: Victoria Coach Station. Along with Holden’s 55 Broadway, it is one of most substantial public transport buildings in London not built by a mainline railway company. Completed in 1932, just three years after 55 Broadway, it exchanges the vertical emphasis of 55 Broadway’s 10 storeys for a more flowing, horizontal appearance comprising six storeys. The two buildings are, though, remarkably similar in concept. 55 Broadway has an Underground station in its basement and housed London Underground’s offices. Victoria Coach Station was commissioned by London Coastal Coaches to house its offices, with a coach station on the ground floor.
Not beholden to Pick’s views on the appearance of buildings for this project, Victoria Coach Station is the transport building which bears the strongest resemblance to Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ ‘fancy’ factories. Like those factories, it features a tall central tower flanked by two wings, here angled back to fit on the coach station’s corner site. The tower has corner windows and fluted transoms, while the wings feature chevron-pattern glazing bars at ground floor level, and fluted bands between floors which verge on the Nautical Moderne. The curved terminations of the wings, where they meet the tower, are clearly influenced by contemporary ocean liner design. It is hard to imagine Pick agreeing to some of the building’s more fanciful design elements – including the Egyptian-influenced stepping back towards the top of the tower, and the repeating pattern formed from four small indented squares. Indeed Wallis, Gilbert and Partners considered the building to be enough of a demonstration of its skills that the partners moved their offices there.
With the creation of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) at the beginning of 1933 and with Pick as its chief executive, one of the LTPB’s early priorities was to sort out the collection of inadequate bus garages its London Country Bus and Coach Department had inherited, replacing them with modern and efficient premises. Much less building work was thought necessary for central area bus operations, although several new Underground stations were built with bus stations attached. Southgate, for instance, features a Charles Holden bus station almost always overlooked in favour of the famous circular entrance building for the Underground station. Only a few new central area bus garages were built in the inter-war years. They were generally severe-looking buildings, lacking the style seen at the new Underground stations and at the Country Bus garages and bus stations; a rare failure of Pick’s mission to make London Transport look good as well as operate efficiently.
In October 1933, 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 into which they were being inserted.” (Glazier (2006) p29). The issue of London Transport’s presence ‘over the border’ was as delicate then as it is now.
Having demonstrated at Windsor and Dorking that it appreciated Pick’s taste in Modernist buildings and understood the need to ensure bus garages were visually acceptable in provincial towns, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners was appointed as architects for Epping Garage. In the end, this garage (there was no attached bus station) was almost completely hidden from view by a row of cottages, so it was not an eye-catching start to Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ work for the LPTB. But it was just the first in a run of buildings that the practice would complete in remarkably short order. Epping Garage itself closed as early as 1963, and the site is now occupied by a supermarket.
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 the 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 architectural 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 end.
A concrete canopy ran all the way round the office block, in a style which would have been familiar to London Underground passengers from the platform shelters at many of Holden’s stations. The Streamline Moderne template for Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ subsequent Country Bus garages was now firmly in place. Hertford Garage closed in 1989 and, just like those at Dorking and Windsor, was replaced by housing.
Two Waters Garage in Hemel Hempstead opened in 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 along part of the block, rather than all the way as it did at Hertford), stood on a substantial plinth, itself above road level. Topped off with a London Transport roundel, this gave it a commanding appearance. 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 bus 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, a supermarket was subsequently built on the site.
Tring Garage opened in October 1935. Set back from the road, the garage had huge glass windows redolent of Wallis, Gilbert’s early factories. According to one commentator it had “a general air of delicacy and grace” (Glazier 2006 p41) which is a rare compliment for a bus 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.
That makes a total five new Modernist/Streamline Moderne transport buildings in a single year. It is testimony to Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ work rate, and even more so to the determination of the LPTB to push through a modernisation plan at a speed it is hard to imagine in today’s transport industry.
Staines Bus Garage opened in June 1936. It was an extremely sinuous-looking design when viewed from the garage’s approach road, with curved runs of offices either side of the garage forecourt, and canopies on the circular stub towers at the ends of the office blocks describing almost three-quarters of a circle. It closed in 1996 and the site is now occupied by serviced office space and meeting rooms, housed in a Postmodernist building called Centurion House. According to one office space-finding website, it is a “sensitive conversion of the old Staines Bus Depot”. This is not really true – it is actually a complete replacement.
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 its boundary were constructed with the care and attention Wallis, Gilbert and Partners 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 testament to the LPTB’s commissioning of high quality industrial architecture.
Tube style for Tunbridge Wells
Far out into the Home Counties, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ next commission was to design a small bus and coach station for Tunbridge Wells, which opened in 1936. The town’s bus garage was not part of London Transport’s portfolio. That meant that rather than a garage and associated offices, the firm’s commission was for a smaller bus station building containing only offices and a waiting room.
The small building was finished in the familiar materials of brick, concrete for the plinth and wrap-around projecting canopy, and metal Crittall windows. It had two projecting rounded bays at each end, and was a particularly 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 buildings around it. It was demolished in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and the site is now occupied by a block of flats.
Of all the LTPB Country Bus garages, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ St Albans was arguably the best looking. It opened in August 1936. Pick was especially keen not to upset the residents 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, of which Pick was a founder member, 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, the firm designed 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.
The garage proper was attached to the offices and with a clever window arrangement on the garage, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners ensured that it 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. Clearly drawing inspiration from the house style Holden had developed for the 1930s London Tube stations, a stepped concrete canopy was provided for passengers to shelter under. It was equipped with stylish high-back wooden benches, featuring cantilevered seats. Curved windows at the riser of each step of the canopy gave a supremely streamlined appearance. The same design solution of stepped roofs linked by upright glazing was also used on various London Underground stations, but rarely was the concept as effectively executed as at St Albans. However, while Sudbury Hill and Park Royal stations can still be enjoyed to this day, St Albans Bus Station and Garage were demolished in the late 1990s and replaced by housing, despite local attempts to save the building.
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 less eye-catching than some of Wallis, Gilbert’s earlier designs, no doubt partly explained by the fact that this was one of the bus garages that had no associated bus station. However, 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 the only one of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ Country Bus garages that remains intact, and is currently occupied by Arriva. Unfortunately, the architectural merits of the office building are now harder to discern, as it has become dirty and its Crittall windows have been replaced. It is also partly obscured by modern railings and palisade fencing, not to mention some less-than-sensitively installed signage. The courses of vertical bricks are evident though, adding style to what might otherwise be a rather severe building.
The enlargement of Leatherhead Garage, which was completed in 1938, was Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ final work for the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB)’s Country Bus and Coach Department. It featured only a new office block with the existing garage left standing and saw a return to the single storey layout (a second, rather awkward, storey was added in the 1950s) utilising the frequently seen 180-degree curve at the end of the block. As usual, it was subsequently closed (in 1999) and demolished, to be replaced with small commercial buildings.
LPTB’s other architects
Just as Adams, Holden and Pearson did not have sufficient capacity to design every Underground station in the 1930s, and other architectural practices delivered stations in a recognisably similar style (such as Welch and Lander’s Park Royal), neither did Wallis, Gilbert and Partners have capacity to work on all the new country bus garages that were required. Swanley and High Wycombe were examples of country bus garages by others. The former design was by London Transport’s own Architect’s Department, but still had a Streamline Moderne office block, which was a close visual match to the style established by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners.
At St Albans and Northfleet, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners 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 and tall rather than long and low. The trend was set to continue with a new garage on Straight Road in Romford. The drawings for the main office building at this garage show that Wallis, Gilbert and Partners planned to return to the more angular style used at Windsor, with no curves on the building. Had it been built, it would have been a very imposing building; a larger version of Windsor’s office building. Unfortunately, approval was only given to Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ drawings for the new garage by London Transport in July 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War.
In the same way that some of Holden’s most exciting designs for the London Underground, on the Northern Line extension to Elstree, were abandoned because of the war, such was the case of Romford Garage. It was London Buses’ own ‘Northern Heights’.
Following the war, Holden’s last London Underground stations, on the Central Line’s eastern extension, were pale shadows of his earlier work, pared down to meet the available budget. Even the wonders of Gants Hill’s ‘Moscow’ concourse did not carry through to the surface, where there was no station building, just pedestrian subway entrances. The same happened with Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ work for London Buses. Finally allowed to complete a central area bus garage, the practice’s 1951 Peckham Bull Yard bus garage clearly harked back to pre-war Streamline Moderne design elements, which was based on a pre-war plan. But by the time it was built, the budget for flair disappeared and it was a much more awkward building that lacked the effortless grace of their inter-war work. One of its three towers was rounded, the other two left square, which gave an oddly lop-sided look to the building, and the whole package spoke of a lesser interest in the appearance of London Transport’s buildings.
Wallis, Gilbert and Partners was no longer the same business by this time. Thomas Wallis retired from the firm on the first day of 1946, succeeded by his son Douglas. The practice demerged as two partners formed their own firm, while Frank Button never returned after leaving the company during the war. The practice never again enjoyed the high profile that its 1930s fancy factories in West London had brought it.
The new, smaller, Wallis, Gilbert and Partners practice went on to design further central area bus garages including Kingston and Elmers End, but like much of the rest of London Transport’s architectural output of that time, it fell short of the artistic heights of the inter-war bus garages and bus stations.
Of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ London bus and coach buildings, only Victoria Coach Station and Northfleet Garage survive. Ironically, it is Swanley Garage – not one of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ own designs at all, but almost indistinguishable from them – that is now the best-preserved reminder of the story of London Transport’s Streamline Moderne bus garages. Swanley Garage is still in use by Kent-based independent Go-Coach and is in far from pristine condition, but remains a startling piece of London Transport design located deep in the Home Counties.
Given the attrition rate, and dispersed footprint of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners’ 1930s Country Bus garages and bus stations, it is unsurprising that this element of London Transport’s architectural output is today less well-known than that of its Underground stations. But collectively their work is no less worthy than Holden’s, and is a fine testament to Frank Pick’s vision.
This article was based on author Daniel Wright’s original two-part Country Buses series on his The Beauty of Transport blog, but has been substantially reworked. Given that some of the garages have unfortunately been demolished, photos of models were used to provide a sense of the physicality of the buildings involved. We are grateful to Kingsway Models for letting us use copyrighted photos of its models to illustrate this article.