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Welwyn Garden City
Author: Rudolph Robert
Published: 1968 by Hertfordshire Countryside (Letchworth Printers Ltd)
Format: Hardback 9" x 6" with 143 pages.
This book comprises a series of essays about highlights of the history of Herfordhsire from pre-Roman up till Ebenezer Howard's garden city movement. The chapter on Welwyn Garden City is just 2½ pages. There are about 60 good photographs in the book.
The aspect of this book which really interests me is the description in chapters 14 to 17 of Brocket Hall and the love triangle between Caroline Ponsonby (later Lady Caroline Lamb), William Lamb (later Lord Melbourne and prime minister of Britain), and Lord Byron. I was born in Brocket Hall in 1945 just after the War ended when part of that building was being used as a maternity hospital. A number of the photographs in the book are of the house and grounds near the village of Lemsford which is adjacent to Welwyn Garden City.
From the dust-jacket flap:
From the dust-jacket rear:
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Gaius Julius Caesar (102-44 B.C.)
The photographs, except where otherwise acknowledged are by the author.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DIGSWELL HOUSE
The village of Digswell, pleasantly situated in the Mimram valley, can trace its history back for at least 900 years. Just after the Norman Conquest in 1066 Geoffrey de Mandeville received a grant of land in the district. Two centuries later the parish may have been quite populous, for in 1278 Lawrence de St. Michel applied to Henry III for a charter permitting both weekly and annual fairs to be held. Quite abruptly, probably after the ravages of the Black Death, the population dwindled, and in 1428 there remained only some half a dozen householders in the parish. The Mimram valley sank into a reposeful sleep from which it was not to be roused for nearly 500 years.
"A commodious mansion"
Early in the eighteenth century an old manor house — inhabited by the families of Perient, Horsey, Sedley and Shallcross — stood a little to the west of present-day Digswell House, at the end of Monk's Walk, a magnificent avenue of lime trees, which had to be cut down only a few years ago. This manor house, dour and weather-beaten, was purchased in 1785 or 1786 by George Nassau Clavering Cowper, third Earl Cowper, who died three years later and was succeeded by his eldest son. The Cowpers were not only one of the wealthiest families in central Hertfordshire, but included a poet, William Cowper, famous for John Gilpin, in their ranks.
When Digswell manor house was demolished in 1805 it was a Cowper — the Hon. Edward Spencer — who built the splendid new mansion with the history of which we are now concerned. Erected a little to eastward of the site on which its predecessor had stood, it was a commodious country gentleman's home, built in an architectural style that can best be described as "neo-classical." A portico, with four massive columns, on the south front is its most impressive external feature.
Cussans, in his History of Hertfordshire, published in the 1870s and 1880s, tells us that the Hon. Edward Spencer lived in Digswell House for several years after its completion in 1806. In the decades that followed it became the residence of Sir James Mansfield, Sir John Norton, Thomas Powney Martin and others, who made few, if any, structural alterations or additions. More recently the house was used, at least temporarily, as a school and an office block.
When the seventh and last Earl Cowper died without an heir the estate passed to Lady Desborough, his niece.
An auction sale
During World War I Digswell House played an honourable role in serving as a hospital and nursing home for wounded Australian officers. Many were restored to good health in its peaceful surroundings, but seventy-three died there and these have their permanent memorial in the twelfth-century church of St. John, which stands very near to the house.
Shortly after the war, in May 1919, Digswell House, placed on the market by Lord Desborough for sale by auction, was acquired by Sir Ebenezer Howard — pioneer of the town-planning movement in this country — and a group of interested friends on behalf of the Welwyn Garden City Company, which, however, was not formed until the following year.
Sir Ebenezer Howard's copy of the auction sale prospectus, dated May 30, 1919, is still extant, and makes interesting reading. Digswell House (lot 12) is described as "an attractive residential property extending to an area of about 190 acres." After expatiating on the compactness of the estate, its exceptional advantages and its pleasant setting in "extensive woodlands, arable and pasture land" the auctioneer concludes his preliminary puff on the following note: "The residence occupies an excellent position on raised ground . . . . It is a substantial structure, with an imposing elevation, and commands good views over well-timbered undulating lands. The accommodation is spacious and well arranged over two floors."
In the following paragraphs brief descriptions are given of the lofty lounge hall, the drawing room, the library, the dining room, the billiard room, the eight principal bed and dressing rooms and the domestic offices, which included a butler's pantry, a large kitchen and a servants' hall — with the then ultra-modern conveniences of hot and cold water and electric light everywhere laid on !
We learn, turning over the pages, that the water supply in 1919 was obtained from a nearby Digswell spring, the water being raised by means of a water-wheel to storage tanks placed in the roof of the residence. Close to the house were adequate stabling quarters, with a coach-house, a coachman's cottage and a blacksmith's forge. Finally, mention is made of a gardener's "bothy."
The catalogue, though dull as all such compilations are, manages to convey most vividly the atmosphere of an age — stately, slow-moving, aristocratic — that is now vanished and gone beyond recall.
The Conference House
After Welwyn Garden City Company took over Digswell House no one knew what to do with it; in fact it became very much a white elephant. People loved visiting it at weekends. They loved sitting on the lawn in the shade of a fine cedar of Lebanon and, above all, they enjoyed watching cricket being played on one of the most delightful grounds in the county. But Digswell House lay in an area on the northern boundary of the garden city planned for late development, and until that development took place it had to justify its existence and earn its keep. This posed a difficult problem, and while it was being studied the house was rather neglected. Yet one of the most useful periods of its history lay immediately ahead.
Several public-spirited people, concerned about the future of Digswell House, began to turn various projects over in their minds, and eventually concluded that it might well be used for holding conferences — more especially those of an educational nature. The scheme was approved by the directors of Welwyn Garden City Company, and in 1928 a resident warden was appointed. A lively house-warming party was held and the first student conference took place only a few weeks later.
The innovation turned out to be a great success. Digswell House — only twenty miles from London and yet in the heart of unspoilt countryside — was in continuous demand, and between 1928 and 1939, when World War II broke out, some 500 conferences were held under its roof. The most varied organizations — religious, political, cultural — made use of it and, having done so once, came again and again. Every topic under the sun was discussed, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and those who came to talk or listen were drawn from every sector of society. Hospitality was extended to many foreign visitors.
Among the more famous guests of the Conference House (as it came to be called) were George Bernard Shaw, Paul Robeson, Jimmy Maxton, Lord Beaverbrook and Hugh Gaitskell, men prominent in the arts, literature and politics. At the height of this phase in its career Digswell House was accommodating 3,000 visitors annually. The charge for a weekend — starting with Saturday tea and finishing with Monday morning breakfast — was fifteen shillings !
An artists' workshop
As we have seen, Digswell House was originally a nobleman's residence and later functioned as a school, as a hospital, and as a meeting place for the compulsive talkers and listeners. The final transformation came in the 1950s, by which time the pioneer Welwyn Garden City Company had been superseded by the development corporation, a statutory body. Again the question of what to do with the "commodious and desirable residence" arose.
It was Mr. J. E. McComb, then general manager of the development corporation, who suggested the idea of converting it into a "little Montmarte or Chelsea" — a place in which a group of artists could work and live in reasonable freedom and without having to worry too much about the grocery bills. This plan was accepted and, after the house had been repaired and renovated, six young artists, all under thirty, took possession. The group was financed and governed by the specially formed Digswell Arts Trust, which not only commissioned work from the artists but assumed responsibility for sales. Further, these young men who found homes and studios at Digswell were charged only nominal rents. The experiment, believed to be unique in England, got off to a good start, and in 1959 Countess Mountbatten of Burma officially opened Digswell House as an art centre.
Nine years later, in 1968, it is still serving that purpose. The number of artists has increased to thirteen, among them being a weaver, a print-maker and a stained-glass artist. One day-who knows ? — Digswell may startle the world by producing a real genius.
WELWYN GARDEN CITY
It was in 1920 that an elderly man, with an obvious attachment to Hertfordshire, first prospected the site on which the second, and perhaps most successful, of the new towns was to arise. Around him rolled miles of undulating countryside, the boundaries stretching from Welwyn and Digswell in the north to Hatield 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 Mimrarn, serpentined along two of its boundaries and nearly all that lay between was agricultural land valued at some £40 an acre.
Only a year or two after that preliminary survey by Sir Ebenezer Howard work on the proposed garden city had begun, and 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 was 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 part 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 trees.
In a geographical sense Welwyn Garden City was fortunate, for its position in central Hertfordshire, straddling one of the main railway lines, was ideal. The distance from London, 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 that 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 substantial financial aid.
On the other hand, there were new and unfavourable factors, such as those produced in the early thirties by the world-wide economic 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 the townspeople was largely 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 Il broke out in 1939 the population was estimated at 18,000, a majority of the residents being young people.
By then, of course, a town hall, schools, a community centre and a department store had risen from the fields. The town had a cinema which could be quickly converted into a theatre and was, in fact, leased to the organizers of the Welwyn drama festival for one Week in the summer of each year. 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. The only thing lacking was a cemetery, but this hardly mattered, since it was claimed that no one ever died there !
On the whole, therefore, it can be said that despite many difficulties the progress made in the first twenty years of Welwyn Garden City's existence was satisfactory — and it must always be remembered that it was progress to a well-defined plan.
Almost immediately after the declaration of war in 1939 civilian building work was 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 increased; 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 1945 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 formed and an outline plan and programme for the future was prepared and published. Building progress, at first hampered by material and labour shortages, was later speeded up and within a few years Welwyn Garden City was growing rapidly. Today ninety industries are located in the town, the shopping and commerical centres are virtually complete, and the population statistics are rising fast towards the aim of 40,000 — more than double the prewar figure.
What would Sir Ebenezer Howard think of it all if he were to revisit the scene of his first solitary excursion over the fields ? No doubt there is much that he would deplore or even condemn outright. Of other things, including the general development of the town, it is probable that he would approve. 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, including many fine old trees. He could hardly fail to be gratified by the obvious efforts that have been made to adhere to the early plans.
BRASSEY BUILDS THE VIADUCT
This is the story — rough, tough and inspiring — of Digswell viaduct, one of the finest examples of railway architecture in the country. Six thousand men laboured and endured incredible hardships to bring it into being.
Few spots in central Hertfordshire retain more natural charm than the Mimram valley, which extends from Welwyn in the west to Hertingfordbury in the east. The hills, though they do not rise to any great height, are green and rolling. Between them flows a tiny river, rippling its way past stately homes and neat cottages. Even the Victorian railway builders must have been enchanted by the Mimram valley, though it posed for them a problem of no ordinary kind.
Twenty-four miles north of London, and nearly a mile wide, it had to be spanned if the Great Northern Railway, first projected in the 1840s, was ever to become reality. Critics of the scheme pointed out that the bed of the valley was little better than a water-logged swamp, and that there would be no foundations on which to build a bridge. Better to make a wide detour or abandon the idea of a railway from London to the north altogether.
However, the promoters were determined to surmount the "impassable barrier" as it was called. Digswell viaduct, one of the seven wonders of Hertfordshire, was begun and, thanks very largely to the energy and organizing ability of one man, was completed in just over two years.
The prince of contractors
Thomas Brassey, the son of a Cheshire farmer, had little education, but rose through sheer ability to become a highly successful railway contractor. Passing from one project to the next, and riding on the crest of the great Victorian railway boom, he eventually had interests in every part of the globe. The parliamentary Bill to establish a through line from London to York was passed — against fierce opposition — in 1846, and shortly afterwards E. Denison, chairman of the Great Northern Railway, enlisted the services of Thomas Brassey on a four-year contract. The building of Digswell viaduct turned out to be one of the major achievements of his life.
Brassey's methods were simple but thorough. There were, of course, no tractors, bulldozers, earth-moving machines or motor-lorries in those days. Only manpower, cheap and plentiful, was available. Under Brassey's direction an army of 5,000 navvies was marshalled and set to work digging foundations for the huge structure that was to leap across the valley and carry the iron road on its back.
Working with pick and shovel, the men dug an enormous trench 2,000 feet long, 300 feet wide and 100 feet deep. Spurred on by Brassey's demonic will and passion for speed, they toiled heroically through all the daylight hours, and even at night by the garish light of naphthalene flares. Thousands of tons of earth and saturated clay were dug from the valley bed, loaded into barrows, and dragged away by horses. At last, when the work of excavation was finished, mountainous loads of burnt clay and mortar were packed into the trench as a "grout," forming, as its builder had intended, a firm and indestructible base.
Then began the colossal building task. Five million bricks, made on the spot of Hertfordshire clay, were needed before the fantastic bridge, designed on the lines of a Roman aqueduct, rose above the marshy meadows and over the treetops in complete and monumental grandeur. It has forty arches, each with a span of forty feet. The overall length, including the approaches, is 2,000 feet.
Endless difiiculties were experienced while the constructional work was in progress, not least being the heavy frosts in the winter of 1849-50, but all were overcome, and so, little more than two years after the start, Brassey and his "navigators" could regard their work in its entirety, and they saw that it was good. Out of their unremitting toil had come something unique and inspiring — a masterpiece in brick.
The official opening of Digswell viaduct took place on August 8, 1850. Among the passengers in the first train to cross was a man named George Hudson, later castigated by Carlyle as "the big, swollen gambler" but then still enjoying renown as the "railway king." Hudson, for reasons of his own, had spent a fortune in endeavouring to stop the building of the Great Northern line. He had ridiculed the proposals for a viaduct, which he regarded as an impossible undertaking. When, obstinately, the Great Northern directors had declared their intention of going ahead he had predicted that they would lose every penny of their capital.
No doubt Hudson was furious with Brassey on that day in August 1850, but he could hardly have failed to be impressed as he looked down from his carriage window across the parapet of the viaduct into the lush green heart of the valley.
Knights of the shovel
How the 6,000 workers lived during the years that the viaduct and the Welwyn tunnels were being constructed is in itself an epic story. A great encampment was built to accommodate them — a shanty town, extending over a wide area, in which conditions must by any modern standards have been appalling.
The men — rough "knights of the shovel and pick" — ate and slept in tarred-canvas shacks. Exposed to all weathers, labouring like serfs and cut off from their womenfolk, they spent their leisure hours in drinking and fighting. Every Friday night they provided a brutal entertainment for the inhabitants of Digswell with their bare-knuckle lights. These were held at the back of an inn on the hillside at Burnham Green, The Duck, and the pugilists — for a small purse or a bottle of gin — would batter one another into insensibility. A bricklayer on the viaduct, Tom Sayers, attained championship status, and fought battles that are still spoken of with bated breath.
Engaged on a magnificent creative work in building the viaduct, these men were compelled to endure hardships and accept conditions which today would almost certainly start a revolution; yet for Brassey the men seem to have had the highest regard. They not only respected him but liked him, and in token of their appreciation presented him with a silver shield. This shield he displayed at the great exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851 — the year after work on the viaduct was finished.
A story, entertaining but apocryphal, still often told in Digswell on a winter's evening concerns Queen Victoria, who travelling northward on the Great Northern Railway for the first time was allegedly overcome by an attack of feminine nerves. Doubtful whether the viaduct would bear the weight or take the strain of a locomotive and carriages hurtling forward at high speed, she refused to be taken over !
The train was therefore stopped just short of the viaduct on the London side, and the queen, accompanied by friends and oilicials, dismounted and crossed the muddy, mile-wide Mimram valley on foot! Breathless but safe, she rejoined the train — which had meantime steamed to the other end of the viaduct — at a point now occupied by Welwyn North station.
The story is amusing, but was almost certainly invented — probably over the ale tankards at the Cowper's Arms, Digswell, the great contractor's headquarters — long after Queen Victoria's day.
The Victoria History of the County of Hertford, edited by William Page, F.S.A., four volumes, with separate index, 1902-14.
History of Hertfordshire, John Edwin Cussans, three volumes, 1870-81.
History and Antiquities of Hertfordshire, Robert Clutterbuck, F.S.A., three volumes, 1815-27.
The Historical Antiquities of Herfordshire, Sir Henry Chauncy, 1700. Reprinted and republished in two volumes, 1826.
The History of Hertfordshire, describing the County and its Ancient Monuments, Nathaniel Salmon, LL.B., 1728.
The History of the Abbey of St. Albans from the Founding thereof to its Dissolution (with Lives of the Abbots), Rev. Peter Newcome, rector of Shenley, 1795.
History of Hertford, Lewis Turnor, one volume, 1830.
Hertfordshire, Arthur Mee, revised edition by E. T. Long, with illustrations by A. F. Kersting, 1965.
Companion into Hertfordshire, W. Branch Johnson, 1952.
Hertfordshire, Sir William Beach Thomas, 1950.