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Welwyn Garden City

Hertfordshire Countryside Vol 12 No 46 Autumn 1957
Article: Progress Report on a Garden City

Author: Robert Rudolph (article)

Published: 1957 by Letchworth Printers Ltd. (Printed and published quarterly - then monthly)

Format: Magazine 10¾" by 8½" with 78 pages


Progress Report on a Garden City

From open fields to an industrial town in thirty-eight years


In spite of many difficulties, Welwyn Garden City has made steady progress during the past three decades and is now a thriving industrial town set in rural Hertfordshire. Its population is now reaching its target of 36,000, just double the pre-war figure.

It was approximately thirty-eight years ago that an elderly man, with an obvious attachment for Hertfordshire, first prospected the site on which the second, and perhaps most successful, of the new towns has since arisen. Around him rolled miles of undulating countryside the boundaries stretching from Welwyn and Digswell in the north to Hatfield in the south, from Lemsford and Brocket in the west to Panshanger in the east. Apart from a few farmsteads, a cottage or two, and the converging railway lines, there were few signs of human life. The area was well wooded; small rivers, the Lea and the Mimram, serpentined along two of its boundaries; and nearly all that lay between was agricultural land valued at some forty pounds an acre.

Sir Ebenezer Howard, whose dream of garden cities led to the development of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities.

(click image to enlarge)

Only a year or two alter that preliminary survey by Sir Ebenezer Howard, work on the projected garden city had commenced; the first of the factories and houses had been erected, and a railway station built. Despite many difficulties - for the start on Welwyn Garden City was made in the hard years following World War I - progress in the 1920s as continuous and on a worth-while scale. By 1928, the year in which "the father of the new towns" died, the outlines of the central portion of the town had taken shape. The plan was beginning to become apparent; industry and population were settling down in the meadows, among the hornbeams and the newly planted rows of poplar.

In spite of the growth of Welwyn garden City as an industrial town, its centre has been preserved as an open space.

The tree-fringed Campus is only a few yards from the shopping centre and not very far from large and busy factories.

(click image to enlarge)

In a geographical sense Welwyn Garden City was fortunate. Its situation in mid-Hertfordshire, straddling one of the main railway lines, was ideal. The distance from London, some twenty-one miles, was sufficient to ensure a rural environment without acting as a deterrent to the dweller in the "great wen" contemplating a change. To these advantages were allied others which had not been available when Letchworth was being built. The Government, for example, compelled to grapple with a gigantic housing problem, had in 1921 passed an Act granting the company then responsible for development very considerable financial aid.

On the other hand, there were new and unfavourable factors, such as those produced in the early thirties by the world-wide trade depression, which retarded the growth of the town if only because it applied the brake to the establishment of the new industries on which the livelihood of a substantial proportion of the towns people was to depend.

However, the work proceeded steadily if slowly, and by 1933 a number of factories, some small, some large, were in full swing, producing a variety of consumer goods such as wireless sets, pharmaceutical chemicals, grinding wheels and abrasives, processed foodstuffs, plastic moulding powders and electrical appliances. A film studio was producing films, and a famous racing motorist, Sir Henry Birkin, maintained a "stud" of Bentley cars in two of the Broadwater Road sectional factories, By the time that World War II broke out in 1939 the population was estimated at 18,000, the majority of residents being concentrated in the younger age groups.

By the same time, of course, a town hall, schools, a cottage hospital, a community centre and a department store had risen from the fields. The town had a cinema-cum-theatre, leased to the organizers of the Welwyn Drama Festival for one week in the summer of each year, and a picturesque barn in Handside Lane was placed at the disposal of the thriving amateur dramatic groups. Clubs and societies existed in considerable numbers, catering for the sports enthusiasts, the craftsmen, the literary folk and the debaters.

In many towns this 500-year-old barn might have fallen into decay and have been demolished, but imaginative residents converted it into the unique Barn Theatre, which was placed at the disposal of local amateur dramatic groups.

(click image to enlarge)

On the whole, therefore, it can be said that, despite shortcomings, the progress made in the first twenty years of Welwyn Garden City's existence was satisfactory - and one must always remember that it was progress to a well-defined plan.

Almost immediately after the declaration of hostilities in 1939 civilian building work vas brought to a standstill; but because several large London firms, including Imperial Chemical Industries, decided to use Welwyn Garden City as an evacuation base for staff, its population was greatly augmented, and, of course, once the local factories had been geared to the war effort, thousands of incoming workers aggravated the congestion still further. Eventually many of the migrants returned to London and elsewhere, but a proportion, having found local employment of a permanent nature, decided to stay. When the war terminated in l945 the problem that faced the Urban District Council and the company planners was no ordinary one.

But important changes were imminent in the ownership of Welwyn Garden City, and control passed out of the company's hands. In January 1947 Mr. Lewis Silkin, then Minister of Town and Country Planning, notified the parties concerned that he intended taking over. In due course a development corporation was set up and an outline plan and programme for the future was published. Building progress, at first hampered by material and labour shortages, has lately been speeded up, and Welwyn Garden City is now maturing rapidly. Ninety industries are centred in the town, the shopping and commercial centre is assuming a lively aspect, and population statistics are soaring upwards towards the aim of 36,000 - just double the pre-war figure.

Much of the factory architecture in Welwyn Garden City is as modern as the jet-plane. Whatever one thinks of its starkness, it is functional, and, anyway, the trees soften the outline.

(click image to enlarge)

What would Sir Ebenezer Howard think of it all if he were able to revisit the scene of his first solitary excursion across the Welwyn pastures? That is a difficult question to answer, but one feels that, while he might deplore or even condemn much that he saw, on the whole he would approve of the way in which Welwyn Garden City has developed. Certainly he would be delighted by the aspect of the public gardens, now that they have matured, and by the preservation to a great extent of the natural amenities. He would certainly be gratified by the obvious efforts that have been made to adhere to the early plans.