Petts Wood: The making of a 1920s garden suburb

by Peter Waymark

Modern Petts Wood

By the outbreak of war in 1939 the Petts Wood suburb was in its essentials complete. Although Basil Scruby's direct involvement had ended some years before, he had left a strong and lasting legacy. His achievement was twofold. First, Petts Wood was a logically planned development, with station, shops, houses and open space all envisaged from the start as part of a coherent scheme. Secondly, Scruby's insistence on an estate of quality with a rural ambience but easy access to the centre of London gave Petts Wood its particular character.

Many of the early residents came from areas closer to the capital, happy to move out to a leafier and more spacious environment. People spoke of Petts Wood as having a "village" atmosphere.

The suburb was lucky to be surrounded by unspoilt countryside. Woods taken over by the National Trust in 1927 provided a welcome amenity to the north of the estate as well as a buffer against further development. After the war more areas of green belt land around Petts Wood were secured, largely through local pressure.

In Petts Wood itself after 1945 there was little new housing, for the estates on both sides of the railway had been virtually completed before the war and left few gaps. A Memorial Hall to commemorate the war dead was completed in 1954 and became a valued community and social centre. Up until the war St Francis was the area's only church and other denominations had to make do with temporary premises. But the 1950s and 1960s saw the building of Congregational (later United Reformed), Methodist and Roman Catholic churches. In the centre of Petts Wood the pressure for office space led to a number of commercial developments, seen by some as compromising the residential nature of the area.

Of more direct and immediate impact was the Safeway supermarket, which opened in 1982 on the site of the Embassy Cinema. With its generous opening hours, later extended to Sundays, 18 checkouts and an extensive range of goods from food to flowers, medicines and kitchenware, it offered "one-stop" shopping and was perfectly suited the needs of a community where increasing numbers of women worked and most households had a car. The casualties were the small shops, grocers, greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers. In their place Petts Wood saw a proliferation of estate agents, hairdressers, restaurants and fast food outlets.

Despite these changes Petts Wood retained much of its village atmosphere, while Scruby's concept of a garden estate, offering a taste of countryside only a short train journey for the centre of London, remained largely intact. For its 15,000 or so residents, it was still an attractive, and convenient, place in which to live.

(Peter Waymark is the author of A History of Petts Wood, the fourth edition of which was published by Petts Wood Residents' Association in 2000).