As you drive north west along the A240 Kingston Road in Ewell, you will find that when crossing the Hogsmill river, and the Greater London boundary, the suburban sprawl of London is briefly left behind and a patch of (admittedly underwhelming) countryside opens up.  What is unusual about this landscape is that the dense housing is in Surrey and the countryside is in Greater London.  Zoom out and it is clear to see that the boundary is a little quirky and moth-eaten round here, with the appendage of Kingston sticking out like a, well, sore thumb.  Something doesn’t quite make sense and in this two-part post I want to tell the story of how the Greater London boundary was agreed.

By way of a cut-and-paste reminder from an earlier article, the path to the 1963 London Government Act and the consequent local government reorganisation in 1965 was a tortuous one [1]. There had long been calls for a reform of government in Greater London as the metropolis had grown well beyond the boundaries of the London County Council area. Below County Council level, local government was spread across 28 Metropolitan Boroughs (plus the Corporation of London) within the LCC area, together with 3 County Boroughs and countless Municipal Boroughs and Urban District Councils beyond the LCC boundary.

In July 1957, the Macmillan government announced a Royal Commission to examine the question of local government in Greater London. It was to be chaired by Sir Edwin Herbert and would deliver its final report in 1960. The Commission proposed 51 boroughs covering a geographical area that went well beyond the eventual Greater London administrative boundary. While the Commission’s findings heavily informed the thinking behind the final agreed position, the Government’s 1961 White Paper proposed fewer, larger boroughs and the subsequent review of the Greater London boundary saw many peripheral authorities excluded.  It is this process of initial definition and exclusion that is the focus of this first part, and in the second part I will pay particular attention to the cause célèbre – the tenacious people, politicians and local government administrators of Epsom & Ewell.

The Royal Commission’s view

The Royal Commission had its Review Area set for it under its terms of reference – broadly the Metropolitan Police District (including the City of London) plus a few other Local Authorities on the fringe.  As the Commission asserted: “it is evidently intended to include the main built up area of London” [2].  Yet part of its scope was to determine the outer edge of Greater London and not just take the Review Area as a final outcome.

Only two natural features were considered significant in determining the bounds of London: the North Downs to the south and the River Colne to the west, which together gave an indicative answer to only half of the question of where the administrative boundary should be drawn.

A study was commissioned to provide further guidance on this tricky issue.  It was overseen by Mr W Carruthers (I can think of no better name for a 1950s Civil Servant), a Research Officer with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.  Having determined seven key criteria [3] for assessing the “London-ness” (my term, obviously, not his) of the peripheral authorities he then proceeded to score each against the criteria using a scale of 0-3 (to give a score out of 21):


Carruthers’ scoring proved influential, if not necessarily conclusive.  I don’t intend to go into detail on all of these, so it is worth focusing on some of the more difficult issues faced by the Commission.

Although both scoring under 10, the Borough of Watford and the Cheshunt Urban District merited further discussion.  While comparable as a shopping centre to places such as Croydon, Kingston and Ilford (all firmly within the proposed area), the Commission observed that only a small proportion of Watford’s residents commuted into London and that the town had a traffic flow pattern distinct from that observed within London as a whole.  As such, they concluded it had more in common with satellite towns like Reading, Chelmsford and Guildford.  Its gravitational pull on Bushey, Watford Rural District and Aldenham Parish led to exclusion for all.

As a result of urban expansion northwards along the Lea Valley, many parts of Cheshunt had been subsumed into the continuous London area.  A lot of residents worked in the factories of Enfield and both the Boroughs of Tottenham and Edmonton had built housing developments within the Authority’s area.  Despite scoring only 9, the Commission would ultimately include Cheshunt within its proposed Greater London administrative area.

Dartford presented similar issues to Watford as a sizable service centre but was considered to be notably independent in terms of employment and to have strong ties to the towns of north west Kent.  The break in development between London’s built up area and Potters Bar was felt to be sufficient to justify the exclusion of the latter and a similar argument was used for leaving out Leatherhead.

I think it fair to say that the many Local Authorities which would be affected by the proposals had little to say on where the boundary might lie, other than to promote their own particular inclusion or, more commonly for the peripheral areas, exclusion from the plans.

As an aside, one notable exception was the London County Council whose majority Labour group remained firmly of the view that the existing LCC boundary was synonymous with “London”.  While an understandable position given party politics – the LCC had for a long time been in Labour hands and any attempt to expand it by including suburban Conservative strongholds would threaten this dominance – the claim was a highly dubious one.  The boundary hadn’t even truly represented the edge of the wider metropolis when the LCC was formed in 1889 as by then Ealing, Willesden, Tottenham, East Ham, West Ham and Croydon, among others, might have had good claim to be within London.  In fact, the LCC boundary harked back to that of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, which in turn was based on an area previously determined by the Registrar General in connection with the compilation of mortality statistics.

So, left to its own research, the Commission was able to give its view on the size of Greater London, represented in the map below.  This outer boundary survived into the White Paper of 1961.  Yet the final Greater London area as enacted in 1965 was much smaller – the Commission had done its job and now politics took over.



The fun begins

Between the publication of the White Paper and the London Government Bill of November 1962, much thought was given in Whitehall to the Greater London boundary.  It was a highly politicised issue.  As alluded to above with the LCC’s concerns, the more local Councils from the Tory shires that could be included within Greater London, the greater the chances of a Conservative majority on any future London-wide Authority.  On the other hand, it would result in a larger number of Conservative-voting ratepayers in the leafy suburbs having to subsidise the inner city – an electorally unattractive outcome for some in the Party.  A group of Surrey Conservative MPs would apply consistent pressure on the Government throughout the process to ensure their constituents were excluded.

The drawing of the final boundary kicked off in earnest in mid-February, with Iain Macleod (then Leader of the House) setting out in the Commons four criteria which would be extremely influential in the coming deliberations [4]:

1. The intention was to include in London only the area enclosed by the Green Belt.

2. There was no desire to force into the London system of Government areas which were not truly part of London – the Government would “look with as sympathetic an eye as possible on proposals for adjusting the boundary”.

3. The object was to include within the London system the whole of the continuous town but no more than that.

4. As far as possible, local authority areas should not be divided.

At face value, this clearly meant a Greater London smaller than that envisaged by the Royal Commission and bringing the Green Belt more explicitly into matters doubtless emboldened a number of geographically outlying objectors.

Shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government wrote to the “peripheral” authorities along either side of the proposed boundary.  Turn the pages of the files at the National Archives and you will find a succession of formally worded statements on the neat letterheads of numerous authorities (from the Hertford Rural District Council through to the Borough of Reigate) all politely declining the offer of inclusion within Greater London.

By early April 1962, the Civil Servants assigned to the process were able to report on the likely areas of tension.  Cheshunt was a hotspot.  900 people had attended a public meeting organised by the Urban District Council to rally against inclusion and a petition had been received with over 11,000 signatures.

Chigwell U.D.C. also provided a full folder of evidence arguing for their exclusion.  But, as would continue to unfold in the coming weeks, it was in Surrey where some of the strongest resistance was to be found.

A delegation of Surrey Authorities was received in Whitehall on 16 April and the cases were made.  Iain Macleod’s pronouncement about the Green Belt loomed large in discussions, with Walton & Weybridge, Caterham & Warlingham, Coulsdon & Purley and Banstead all invoking it as a reason to be excluded.  Of the Authorities represented, only the Borough of Surbiton wished to become part of Greater London (and their Green Belt claim was weakest).  The two major problem cases were Esher, whose urban area bled into Surbiton at Long Ditton, and Epsom & Ewell, the northern border of which (to quote the Civil Servant Ronald Brain [5]) “marches with Malden and Sutton and is an area of suburban development indistinguishable from its neighbours”.

Ten days later it was confirmed that Walton & Weybridge, Caterham & Warlingham and Banstead would be excluded.  There would be more deliberations on the others, but by mid-May the then Minister, Charles Hill, was able to write to the Prime Minister to further confirm that Esher, Cheshunt, Sunbury and Staines would be excluded and that – contrary to Macleod’s wish to avoid partition – the northern parts of Epsom & Ewell would be split off and become part of Greater London.  The correspondence on file has a brief annotation from the PM: “This is good.  H.M.”

Suffice to say, “this is good” was not the view of those living in the northern wards of Epsom & Ewell.  But more on that next time…


(1) A succinct overview of the reforms is given in Tony Travers’ “London’s Boroughs at 50”, Biteback Publishing, 2015. A fuller account is given in W.A. Robson’s “The Government of London: the struggle for reform”, LSE/Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970.

(2) Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Greater London 1957-60 para 902, HMSO 1960

(3) The criteria were: (i) continuity of built up area with London: (ii) urban land use: (iii) density of population: (iv) frequency of trains into central London; (v) time taken to reach Central London; (vi) population travelling to work to Central London; and (vii) population travelling to work to Inner London

(4) Based on a summary of quotes (in an undated briefing note for the Minister) from Macleod’s speech on 20 February 1962 as recorded in Cols, 330 and 331 of Hansard

(5) MHLG memo dated 18 April 1962

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