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Welwyn Garden City
Author: Frederic J. Osborn
Published: 1970 by Town and Country Planning Association
Format: Paperback 8½" by 5½" with 28 pages
BY BARONESS SHARP OF HORNSEY
How little the pioneers of Welwyn Garden City could have dreamed of all that was to follow it; the great development of new towns in the years following World War II. If they could have done I suppose they might have regarded it with slightly mixed feelings; delight that their faith had been justified in Ebenezer Howard's concept of (to quote Sir Frederic Osborn) "moderate sized towns in country surroundings where people could all have pleasant homes near work-places as well as modern services and facilities", but some doubt perhaps whether all the new towns are either as moderate sized or as green as they would wish to see. Nevertheless the new towns have been a superb vindication of their faith; and I do not think they would have happened had it not been for what was achieved at Welwyn.
There are now getting on for thirty new towns in Britain; some still at a very early stage, some already full grown — though none, I think, have yet stopped growing. They come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, ranging up to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, which may one day be a town of a quarter of a million people. Some of them started in green fields as Welwyn did. Others are being grafted on to old towns; sometimes towns with a pretty grim environment which sets the development corporation a formidable problem in creating a town in which all will have "pleasant homes". But I think myself that these adventures are the most exciting of all; and I feel pretty sure that the founding fathers would have approved them, even if they are a far cry from the dream of a garden city set in green fields.
Reading Sir Frederic's fascinating account of the early struggles of the little band who set to work to create Welwyn reminds me very much of some of the struggles we had in getting the new towns launched; the local opposition, the fears of the rough types from the cities, the financial problems. The later towns had other troubles from which Welwyn was happily free; but that is another story. In the upshot almost all of them are successful — those that have got far enough for this to be established. They do provide "pleasant homes near work places" and a great deal else besides. Moreover, most of the earlier towns are now showing that the enterprise can, in the long run, be a profitable one; something that when they started none of us would have dared to bank on.
Welwyn itself was taken over under the New Towns Act and enlarged beyond the original intentions. There was a good deal of opposition to this by the residents; what they feel today I do not know. It is more of a true city now and no doubt some regret this; but I think that the original style has been well maintained despite some much higher density building than anyone would have wanted to contemplate fifty years ago. Given that Britain now has to house a population far bigger than was dreamed of in 1920, it is inevitable that the new towns should be bigger and more tightly developed than was then thought ideal. But the garden city origin is still clearly visible in most of the new towns despite the changes in social habits and social thinking since Welwyn went on to the drawing board.
It is not only in the new town movement that the influence of Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-morrow and the great example of Welwyn has been felt. It is there in the whole development of planning in Britain; far though this has travelled since World War II from the garden city idea. The man to whom perhaps more is owed than to any other is Sir Frederic Osborn, without whose tireless persistence, unflagging faith, and endless vitality it might all have run into the sand. Welwyn and all it has stood for has had incalculable effects on the life of people in Britain; for thousands it has meant a kind of life they had never dared to hope for — and it will do for very many thousands more. Everyone of us must salute its Golden Jubilee — and with it Sir Frederic.
Osborn working in his garden on his 80th birthday, 26 May 1965
The photograph of F. J. Osborn above is not from the current book but from a biography called F. J. O. - Practical Idealist by his friend and collaborator Arnold Whittick (1987, Town and Country Planning Association). That biography can be viewed by clicking here.
Below is the full text and all illustrations from Genesis of Welwyn Garden City.
(the main text)
The choice of 1920 rather than 1919 as the birth-year of Welwyn Garden City is fair enough, as it was in that year that constructional work began, and in May 1920 that Welwyn Garden City Ltd issued its prospectus and went to allotment. The first trenches were cut and the first bricks laid at the end of April.
Before that, however, a lot of work had been done on paper and in the minds of the promoters and their professional advisers, and actually on the site by their surveyors. And of course there is a long pre-history of the site itself, where minor human settlements had existed for centuries; and another pre-history of the world's cities and towns and their troubles and of the emergence of the garden city movement that aspired to better the human environment.
In history there are datable events, but no absolute beginnings. Some astronomers tell us that our universe started with a "big bang" 10,000 to 13,000 million years ago. As a denizen for a mere eighty-five years of a small planet I find that difficult to swallow; it's a lengthy stretch, but it seems to me a bit short for the evolution of clusters of galaxies each 100,000 million light-years across. And I can't help thinking there must have been something already there to bang.
Welwyn Garden City's own "big bang" can be precisely dated. On Friday, 30 May 1919, at an auction sale of part of Lord Desborough's Panshanger Estate, Ebenezer Howard bought 1,458 acres of land for £51,000, without the cash to pay for it. The impact of that occurrence has reverberated round the globe and set off the creation of many new towns, clusters of towns, and possibly galaxies of towns. As I was within earshot I can recall what the bang sounded like to me. But first I must say something about the state of the garden city movement at the time and Howard's personal associates in the Welwyn Garden City venture.
Sir Ebenezer Howard
Even before World War I Ebenezer Howard was already famous as the originator of the movement by his book To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform of 1898 (now entitled Garden Cities of To-morrow). With the Garden City Association started by him in 1899 (now the Town and Country Planning Association) he had founded the First Garden City at Letchworth in 1903, which by the middle of that war had reached a population of 12,000. His great idea of building garden cities (moderate-sized towns in country surroundings where people could all have pleasant homes near work-places as well as modern services and facilities) had excited enormous interest, and the open and richly landscaped planning of Letchworth had set a new world-wide fashion in housing and urban development. Howard's book had been translated into other languages, and societies to advocate his principles sprang up in a number of countries. In 1913 the International Garden Cities Association (now the International Federation for Housing and Planning) was formed, and Howard was its universally acclaimed first president till his death in 1928.
Howard, however, was far from satisfied with his achievement. Though Letchworth had been firmly established as a self-contained industrial town, its example had not been followed as he had confidently expected. London and other swollen and congested cities at home and abroad had continued to grow apace. Though a few industries moved from central areas to city fringes, on balance the concentration of factories and offices increased, and the related increase of population was catered for by housing at higher densities in their inner parts and a vast expansion of suburbs over what should have been their green belts, with the disastrous consequences of long daily work-journeys, transport problems, and traffic congestion of which we are now (all too late) politically aware.
Throughout history people in city occupations who could afford houses with gardens have chosen to live in accessible suburbs. At the beginning of this century electric traction and the petrol motor made this possible for lower-income groups. The economical types of housing and planning developed by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker at Letchworth, and later at Hampstead Garden Suburb, made it possible for all. It was in fact a great advance in the form of the immediate family environment, and highly popular. Housing societies and speculative builders seized on the pattern with alacrity, and "garden suburbs" and "garden villages" proliferated all over this country and others.
The name "Garden City", and its foreign equivalents (Cité-jardin, Città giardino, Ciudad jardin, Gartenstadt, Tuinsted, etc.), was given to many of them. The terms became interchangeable in common use, and for a long time Howard's carefully defined concept was lost. It was specially exasperating to Howard and his true disciples that some planners, profitably engaged in designing dormitory extensions of over-large cities, described their misplaced schemes as "on garden city lines". There was a period in which the understanding of the real meaning of the garden city idea fell to such a low ebb that it began to look as if Letchworth was to remain its single monument.
C. B. Purdom
However, in 1917-18 Howard and three younger Letchworth men, of whom I was one, had renewed the propaganda for the essential garden city concept. The late C. B. Purdom, who had been through the whole experience of building Letchworth from the start in 1903, as accountant to First Garden City Ltd, was the prime mover in that revival. I had become an enthusiast through living and working as a housing manager in Letchworth since 1912, and in many discussions Purdom and I "dreamed up" a post-war governmental policy for combining the expected great housing drive with the building of many further garden cities. Howard was encouraged by our support, and with the wise counsel of another friend, W. G. Taylor (then on the staff of J. M. Dent and Sons, and later its chairman), we constituted ourselves the National Garden Cities Committee.
I wrote a small book, New Towns After the War, which Taylor got his firm to publish in 1918 at a shilling; this was well reviewed and went into several editions. And early in 1919 the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association, then so named, took our little committee over and appointed Purdom as full-time secretary and editor. At about the same time the Rowntree Village Trust, led by the great reformer B. Seebohm Rowntree, made a handsome grant to the Association, on condition that it coupled its advocacy of garden cities with a campaign for a massive post-war housing policy, and nominated Captain Richard L. Reiss as chairman of its executive. The Association engaged me as one of its lecturers, and in 1919 I travelled all over the country preaching the gospel to local authorities, civic societies, universities, and any other group that would arrange a meeting. Purdom put new life into the Association and its monthly journal, and he, along with Howard and I, gained the enthusiasm for the garden city idea of Reiss, a man of sincere devotion to public welfare, and political force, though at the time he joined the Association he had been primarily interested in land taxation (in Lloyd George's entourage) and public housing.
Captain R. L. Reiss
Now Howard, though he gave us his warm support, did not really believe we could succeed at that stage in inducing any government to sponsor the building of more garden cities. He said to me: "My dear boy, if you wait for the Government to do it you will be as old as Methuselah before they start." He thought another voluntary demonstration was required. On his frequent journeys from Letchworth to his shorthand reporting work in London he had often observed the large area of unbuilt-on land at the railway junction north of Hatfield and regarded it as the ideal site for a Second Garden City. In 1918, in fact, he had taken Purdom and me for a day's walk from Hatfield, through Peartree Farm to Hunter's Bridge at the railway junction, from which we could see a wide stretch of level farmland without any sight of a building, across Brocks Wood to the Red Lion, and back to Hatfield by the Great North Road.
We agreed it was a possible site, and useful to quote with others if we were challenged at meetings; but we did not contemplate proposing a specific scheme for a town on it.
Howard did. Without telling us, on 30 April 1919 he wrote to the (fourth) Marquess of Salisbury, to whom he thought some of the land belonged, asking him if he would sell the necessary area if a scheme were promoted. The Marquess, who was at that time president of the Garden Cities Association, replied next day that though some of his Hatfield estate might perhaps be developed some day, he did not consider it should be that part of it, and that anyway much of the proposed area was in another ownership. Howard replied on 4 May with an excellent argument for its suitability for a complete town. To which his lordship rejoined that, while he regarded old Howard (then sixty-nine) with the utmost respect as the founder of the garden city movement, he could deal only with a responsible group of leaders of the Association capable of financing a project and carrying it out. Between the lines it is evident that he shared the general opinion that Howard was a fine old spirit but no longer capable of initiating a great enterprise.
I admit I had the same view of him.
This correspondence (of the first stage of which Purdom and I had no knowledge then, though I now have copies of the letters) was still in progress when the most amazing coincidence occurred. In mid-May Howard was informed by Edgar Simmons, a Letchworth estate agent, of the forthcoming sale of part of Lord Desborough's Panshanger estate, including five farms (Upper and Lower Handside, Brickwall, Digswell Lodge, and Digswell Water) and Digswell House and Park, at an auction on 30 May 1919. Howard at once approached a number of his wealthy friends, and persuaded them to lend him temporarily various sums, amounting in total to nearly £5,000. He then appointed Norman Savill, of the well-known London firm of surveyors, to bid for the five farms and Digswell Park, which were knocked down to him for £51,000. The borrowed cash was not quite enough to pay the 10 per cent deposit, but Norman Savill advanced about £250 himself, a most unusual and generous professional deed. Among the subscribers to the fund were J. R. Farquharson, a philanthropic business man, a director of the Howard Cottage Society of Letchworth (who advanced £3,000), and Richard L. Reiss (£300), both of whom were to become directors of the Welwyn company.
On the same day (30 May) Howard to my astonishment appointed me at a salary of £8 a week to set about forming a company and organizing the project. When I examined the plans I saw at once that the Panshanger land was insufficient and that it would be essential to add a large section of the Hatfield estate, including Peartree, Woodhall Lodge, and Ascot farms. Reiss and Purdom agreed. But before reopening negotiations with Lord Salisbury we had to gather together a sufficiently weighty group of directors of a future company, to impress his lordship. I am amused to find in my diary that I spent my first week's salary, received on 7 June 1919, on a drawing-board, tee-square, other instruments, and paints, with which I pre- pared a sketch diagram plan of the future town in order to estimate the area required. [click here to see Osborn's plan]
In the next few weeks Howard (who by then had borrowed another few thousand pounds), Purdom, Reiss, and I met frequently to discuss whom we should invite, to study the site, to commission some of the necessary technical studies, and to agree on a provisional announcement of our proposals. We four could be considered the nucleus of the Welwyn Garden City organization — the "co-founders" — though a good case could be made for including the subscribers to the deposit. Clear and definite as we four were as to the project we had in mind, and as to the importance of the garden city movement to humanity, I do not think any of us realized what a revolution in our own affairs and those of our wives and families old Howard's initiative was to bring about. We were all destined to be among the pioneer inhabitants of Welwyn Garden City and to spend the rest of our lives in the place — one of the most interesting experiences that could fall to anyone's lot.
We soon agreed upon and recruited a small provisional board consisting of J. R. Farquharson, Lt-Col. F. E. Fremantle (Consulting Medical Officer of Health for Hertfordshire and later Sir Francis Fremantle, MP), Ebenezer Howard, Walter Layton, CH, the distinguished economist (later Lord Layton), C. B. Purdom, R. L. Reiss, and Bolton Smart (a director of First Garden City Ltd), and at its first meeting I was appointed as secretary. And this party agreed by 1 July 1919 on the historic memorandum, which I drafted and the others improved, entitled "The Proposed Second Garden City near Welwyn, Herts."
On 19 July 1919 I, as secretary, wrote officially to the Marquess of Salisbury, making a "firm offer" for 1,094 acres of his estate "at or near Hatfield Hyde", and asking him to instruct his local agent, the late J. C. McCowan, to discuss terms with the board's agents, Alfred Savill and Sons. I enclosed a typed copy of our memorandum, which stated that agreements had already been entered into for the purchase from Lord Desborough of 1,689 acres (including Sherrards Wood, added by agreement since the auction), but that a total area of about 3,000 acres was really desirable for a good garden city plan, including a modest amount of green belt. Ordnance maps showing the land we wanted were also enclosed.
The fourth Marquess of Salisbury
The negotiations with Lord Salisbury's agent were complex and took time and the area we suggested was considerably reduced, but by October 1919 agreement had been reached for the purchase of 694 acres at a most reasonable price (£40,000), taking no advantage of the fact that the marriage of this land to the Panshanger land must have considerably enhanced its market value for development. A proviso was made by Lord Salisbury (entirely justified but subsequently embarrassing to the company) that he should have the right of repurchase of the land if the scheme failed to materialize.
In the meantime a pioneer company, Second Garden City Limited, had been registered with a capital of £150,000 in ordinary £1 shares limited to dividends of 7 per cent per annum, all surplus profits to be used for the benefit of the town and its inhabitants. The directors were the seven persons already named, but it was intended to add others to the board to make it as representative as possible of the major national interests, influential for capital-raising purposes, and of an all-party character. A number of eminent personalities were approached: among them J. Ramsay Macdonald, MP, whom Howard and I had met during the war when he was leader of the minority movement for Peace by Negotiation, of which we had both been ardent supporters. We treated the future Prime Minister to a frugal lunch at an ABC teashop in Holborn. He expressed approval, even enthusiasm, for our scheme, but declined to join the board on the ground that as a highly controversial character he would do us more harm than good. He suggested as an alternative another Labour MP of cabinet rank, J. R. Clynes, who did accept, but was pulled out at once by his trade union, which would not allow him to become a director of a capitalist enterprise, although it was a non-profit company and offered no directors' fees.
We did, however, persuade Lord Lytton (the second Earl) to join us, but he was a director for only a few months, as in 1920 he became Secretary for India and in 1925 Viceroy. A whole-hearted supporter of our movement, he was president of the Town and Country Planning Association from 1929 to 1947. Others enlisted in 1919 and early 1920 were Samuel Smethorst, a successful builder in the north of England, and Sir John Mann, a well-known Scottish accountant. These served only for short periods, but made considerable contributions to the working out of the policy and programme.
The provisional board was immensely strengthened in the autumn of 1919 by the adhesion of Sir Theodore G. Chambers, KBE. He was introduced to Howard by Norman Savill as a possible managing director or chairman, in a letter (to my regret lost or mislaid) containing a shrewd and amusing character study, hinting that Sir Theodore might be too live a wire even for a set of optimistic madcaps like us. Howard and I interviewed him for the job on 15 September 1919, and he attended his first board meeting in October 1919, and on 11 November became chairman, a position he held till the town was taken over in 1948.
Sir Theodore Chambers, KBE
Chambers, a surveyor by profession, a director of companies in Africa and South-East Asia, and a man of experience in estate administration, had as Controller of the National Savings Committee during the war got to know and to be respected by "everybody who was anybody" in the Treasury, other Whitehall corridors of power, and the City, within which circles he put over the Welwyn Garden City project as a patriotic enterprise of the first order. I will not name here all the distinguished persons whose interest he aroused, many of whom gave us encouragement and influential backing. Among them was Sir Reginald (later Lord) McKenna, chairman of the Midland Bank, which outbid Barclays Bank with an overdraft (£100,000) that enabled us to pay for the land and the first stages of development in advance of our raising the necessary amount of share capital. I am amused to note that the Midland Bank, fifty years on, is publicly glorying in this deed of derring-do; and justifiably. But it should also be remembered that the directors were even more heroic in signing a joint and several guarantee for that overdraft, and by underwriting 100,000 shares incurred a further £95,000 liability — for them a very serious risk.
Much preliminary work had already been done between June and November 1919, and the advent of Chambers accelerated our efforts and enlarged them in scope and scale. We had tended to base our study of the innumerable problems on the experience of Letchworth, and to consult specially those who had taken part in or advised on the development of that town. Of course this was sensible and wise, because no comparable know-how existed anywhere else. But Sir Theodore, seeking as we all did to make the second garden city an advance on the first, wanted to consult also the top experts in every aspect of the enterprise. Figuratively one might say he had a Rolls-Royce outlook as compared with the modest pedestrian or tin-Lizzie aspirations to which we Letchworthians had been conditioned by our meagre cash resources. Thus he led us into engaging the most high-powered firms of consultants on water, drainage, and sewage outfall works, on electricity and gas supplies, on railway sidings, station and goods yard, on landscaping, street trees, and gardening, on geology and the exploitation of sand, gravel, and brick-earth, on finance and capital raising, on agricultural policy and compensation to farmers, and even on publicity (though we were already pretty good at this ourselves, as it happened). He brought in two firms of lawyers, a city firm whose name would give prestige to the prospectus of a new and more up-to-date company than our provisional Second Garden City Ltd, and a West End firm specially skilled in conveyancing, to draft our forms of leases and contracts.
These experts went exhaustively into everything, and seemed to me "to make a regular meal" of it, but I do not think they overcharged us. While these studies were being made, along with a contour survey at five-feet intervals on which we were already employing Benjamin Legg (whom many will remember as a pioneer citizen) and dear old Archibald Blomfield (who became a draftsman in de Soissons' planning office), the directors were considering the shape and standards of the future plan. A first outline had been prepared by Mr C. M. Crickmer, FRIBA, of Letchworth (still living there at the age of ninety-one) who also designed the first group of fifty houses in Handside Lane, which, though Bernard Shaw denounced it as a "slum", was really quite a pleasing example of roughcast brickwork in the Letchworth tradition. And at the end of 1919 W. E. James was appointed as the company's resident engineer, and C. W. Care as its accountant. James, a devout Christian who was to be a founder of the town's Free Church, was an equally dedicated member of his profession and had much influence on the working out of the plan.
I cannot in this brief account describe, even list, the multitude of problems which we had to tackle in the year before building began. Big books have been written on them, and probably some day fatter ones will be written by patient Guggenheim or Rockefeller scholars.
Among the matters we had to consider were the rearrangement of local government boundaries, the estate being in several parishes and three rural districts; and we had interminable negotiations with the ministries and the London Housing Board and the rural district councils about housing for workers under the financial and subsidy system at the time, which involved the contribution of a penny rate by some local authority. A new parish coterminous with the estate had to be created on which any costs to the local rates could be levied.
Another big question was the provision of a railway station and sidings, on which we had prolonged argumentation with the unadventurous management of the Great Northern Railway, who drove a hard bargain with us; we had to sell them strips of land on both sides of the main line at a ridiculously low price. This increased the already wide gap between the west and east parts of the estate and the length of future bridges across the line and the necessary tunnels under it for pipes, lines, and wires. There was a platform at the junction for German prisoners who had been felling timber in Sherrards Wood for a government department, and were still at it when we arrived. (We had to pay a lot of money to save the remaining trees.) The railway company did agree, after hesitation, to provide a temporary "halt" for passengers, but it was another six years before they built the permanent station. [click here to see the "halt"]
A small but troublesome negotiation was with the occupant of Digswell House and Park, Colonel A. D. Acland, who had sporting rights over a large section of the estate. He bitterly resented the sale of the land by auction, as he would have bought the Park himself if Lord Desborough had informed him in time. (He was not the only county resident who rounded on his lordship for opening the door to what they envisaged as a horde of yahoos from London.) However, he did in the end agree, subject to compensation, to a southern limit of his sporting rights which we named "the Acland Line". But he could not reconcile himself to the new town, and before long he sold his leasehold interest to the company and departed to some less infested domain.
The impact of our invasion on the indigenous community was of course revolutionary. In 1919 there were only 400 inhabitants, the majority of them agricultural workers scattered in small groups of cottages. This centre of Hertfordshire was very sparsely populated compared with areas of the other Home Counties at a similar distance from London. Having been part of the great Forest of Waltham it had been since 1066 the happy hunting ground of kings and feudal lords, and still contained many large country-house estates occupied by ancient noble families, wealthy merchants, and a few colonial and American millionaires. Early in the reign of Victoria much of the woodland had been cleared for agriculture by farmers imported, mainly from Scotland, by the landowners of the Panshanger and Hatfield estates, and the descendants of some of these immigrants of the 1840s were still in 1919 tenants of the Digswell, Handside, Brickwall, and Peartree farms.
Naturally both the "county" families and the tenant farmers resented our invasion. The farmers especially objected to being dispossessed, and were desperately scared of us as probably an unscrupulous set of "city-slickers". They need not have worried on this point. Beside them, as business bargainers, we were babes in the wood. We had to employ expert agricultural surveyors as tough as themselves to deal with their claims for tenant right. They were, however, impeccable in adhering to agreements. Their word was their bond. As a city type dealing with my kind I had been accustomed to putting all agreements in writing. These farmers wanted no documents; and as my memory was not equal to theirs I had to be careful to make written notes of every verbal bargain, great or small, for my own use.
Councillor W. C. Horn, JP
Nevertheless the tenant farmers, with one exception, remained pretty unfriendly. James Hunter of Peartree Farm, as a condition of our takeover, insisted on retaining occupation of his farmhouse and an insulation area surrounding it, where for the rest of his life he dwelt without any communication with the new population; and most of the other farmers sold out and moved away as soon as they could. The happy exception was the Horn family of Upper and Lower Handside and Brickwall farms, whose land was the first to be taken for development. The head of the family, County Alderman W. J. Horn, whose father had cleared these farms from primeval forest in the 1840s, his sons William Cooper Horn and J. B. Horn, Mrs W. C. Horn, their son Bill, and their sister Miss Mildred Horn (still with us at 88) not only tolerated our invasion, but positively welcomed it and entered eagerly into all the new community's affairs. W. C. Horn became in 1921 one of the original members of the Parish Council, and in 1927 first chairman of the Urban District Council, and as a civic director of the company gave invaluable advice on agricultural affairs. A limerick by William Ravenscroft Hughes affectionately commemorates this charming family:
And Mrs Horn entertained the early residents at tennis parties in the garden of Upper Handside Farm, and for a year or two she systematically called on all new immigrants, until they came in at such a rate that she could not keep pace with them, and had to give it up to avoid a nervous breakdown.
In contrast to the chilly attitude of "county" society, the Hertfordshire County Council, then administered, one might almost say dominated, by the powerful firm of solicitors Longmores, of which the head, Sir Charles Longmore, was clerk, gave us indispensable help in matters of local government reorganization, education, highways, housing, and other public services. His son, Elton Longmore, then clerk of the Welwyn Rural District Council, within whose area the new parish was to be placed, became a warm friend as well as a brilliant adviser. He helped us to dig out of law books such little-used expedients as the Parochial Committee of the Rural District Council and the power to levy road-surfacing charges on the rateable value of houses instead of on frontages, which saved us no end of trouble and expense. Incidentally, being a keen observer of character, he told me some entertaining stories about past and present personalities in the neighbourhood, such as the eccentric Mr Dering of Lockleys and the feud between the Wilfers of the Frythe and Ansell of Old Welwyn.
Handside Lane in 1919
Housing for the future town was of course a major consideration from the start, and in 1919 negotiations had already begun with the Ministry of Health, the London Housing Board, and the local district councils. In this field Richard Reiss, who knew the ropes, was specially active. Though Whitehall had no responsibility for the garden city project, and was lukewarm about it, it was not unco-operative, and did after persuasion agree to our taking advantage of loans and subsidies under the Addison Housing Act 1919 for the first scheme in Handside Lane, and for a public utility society formed by Reiss for a tenant-co-operative scheme in Brockswood Lane and Dellcott Close. And in 1919 the first steps were taken for a similar society to be known as Welwyn Homes Limited promoted by a group of civil servants led by W. H. Oldfield and others.
First houses in Welwyn Garden City, in Handside Lane,
designed by C. M. Crickmer, FRIBA
By the end of 1919 our chief technical consultants had acquired a general understanding of the physiography of the estate, and on 1 January 1920 an all-day conference of engineers was held under Reiss's chairmanship, and good progress was made on co-ordinating their provisional proposals. Mr Crickmer produced a sketch plan, placing the main zones for the town (business centre, factory area, and residential neighbourhoods) where in fact they now are. [click here for Crickmer's plan] The water and drainage expert, J. D. Haworth, in a fascinating lecture, produced unanswerable arguments for the location of temporary and permanent pumping stations, reservoirs, sewage and outfall works, and main pipelines. The gas and electricity experts did the same for their installations, and also elucidated the pros and cons for starting our own works or arranging for supplies from the existing statutory companies (ultimately we chose the latter after some complex bargaining); and the whole party arrived at a fair consensus of opinion as to where development should begin and the timing of operations.
One of the urgent problems was the improvement of roads. The only approaches to the area for first development were narrow country lanes petering out into dead-ends in the centre. Handside Lane was widened fairly early, but Brockswood Lane and Bridge Road had to wait, and soon degenerated to the muddy tracks of the famous "gum-boot" era. Engineer James, who was a capable member of the planning team, was perhaps slow in learning how to make hard roads with the local gravel within the cost limit he was allowed.
Caption in book: Reproduced by permission of Punch
The company appointed as its contractors for road work and housing Messrs Trollope and Colls Ltd who constructed early in 1920 a camp of old army huts for 200 building workers, who had to be brought in from outside. This had a canteen and a shop which supplied economical meals and necessities, the wages of labourers at the time being 1s. 6½d. an hour, and of tradesmen 1s. 9d. The camp was in charge of a lively character called Budge, who must have been a capable manager because there were never any serious signs of discontent. He was also the compère and a leading performer in the camp's evening entertainment. He led the crowd in what may rank as Welwyn Garden City's first folk-song. I took a shorthand note of the chorus:
Water is required for building, and the only supply was from an old well at the corner of Handside Lane and Bridge Road. This had to be deepened and a mechanical pump installed along with a temporary reservoir in Temple Wood. The local man in charge of the pump was very proud of his little oil-engine, which he personified in a poem he pinned up in the shed. I regret I do not possess the full text of this touching eclogue: it began with a boast of being "Petter by name and Petter by nature", and ended:
The board of Second Garden City Ltd and its committees continued to meet frequently in 1920, and many important decisions were taken and negotiations begun. A constitution and prospectus of the new company, Welwyn Garden City Ltd, were prepared and additional directors invited. Discussions were begun with the Daily Mail for its exhibition "village"; with the New Town Trust (a body that had hoped to start a socialistic community of its own, but decided, as a witty member said, to "put its Trust in Welwyn") for the taking over of our green belt by an Agricultural Guild; with the farmers about dates of possession and terms of compensation; with the North Metropolitan Electricity Company for a bulk supply to our own undertaking; with the two gas companies of Welwyn and Hatfield, which amalgamated in order to supply us; with the People's Refreshment House Association for a restaurant; with bankers, brokers, and auditors; with insurance companies about nomination in our leases; with Lord Desborough about further land we wanted (though he refused to sell); with a brickmaker about starting our brickworks; with the railway company about a service from King's Cross to the temporary station (for which we had to pay); with the GPO about posts and telephones; with the ecclesiastical authorities about redemption of tithes; and a host of other matters. Before building began we started a nursery garden, laid a light railway track for materials, and bought a lot of army huts for the camp, for our temporary office and a primitive community centre, which was later to serve as a church, concert hall, dance hall, infant school, and political forum. We fixed the scale of ground rents for housing. And we made further essential staff appointments.
Louis de Soissons, RA, FRIBA
(photo: Elliott and Fry)
Most important of these was the appointment of the architect planner, to the choice of whom much care was given. We asked distinguished planners and architects like Sir Raymond Unwin, Professor S. D. Adshead, and Oswald P. Milne to suggest candidates; we also advertised the post, and of more than thirty applicants we interviewed about a dozen without finding the right man. Then Sir Theodore consulted the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who recommended Louis de Soissons. Born in Canada in 1890, he had studied at the Royal Academy Schools and École des Beaux Arts and had won the Tite prize and Rome scholarship. He was appointed on 26 April 1920, got to work at once, and presented his first plan to the directors on 11 June.
I do not need to describe his plan, which is internationally renowned as a masterpiece. Planning is teamwork, and a first-class design of a town, as of a building, requires a good client as well as a good architect. The Welwyn directors were clear-minded about their aims; they wanted a beautiful town as well as an industrially efficient one, and socially acceptable to all classes. De Soissons was extraordinarily quick in the uptake, grasped the complex requirements, and gave them expression in a brilliant combination of harmonious buildings and delightful grouping and landscaping.
Under the company's leases the external design of all buildings was subject to the city architect's approval. This control is very difficult to administer, since prospective lessees, and their own architects, often object to their designs being rejected or modified, and much-wanted customers can be lost. For this reason the Letchworth control, despite the same powers in leases, was weak. The Welwyn directors were much firmer in supporting their architect-planner; and de Soissons was greatly assisted in this matter by his partner, Arthur W. Kenyon, who was remarkably resourceful in suggesting acceptable modifications, as Well as having the necessary strength and good taste.
De Soissons chose for the town's main style the red-brick Georgian architecture of Hertfordshire, which he refreshed and adapted to modern conditions. I think the concept of the spectacular layout of the town centre, with its spacious Parkway and Howardsgate, was primarily due to the imagination and boldness of Sir Theodore Chambers, and its planting with double rows of pleached limes to a lucky purchase of the trees from a bankrupt nursery in Surrey. But it was de Soissons who gave the concept its magnificent expression.
At the end of April 1920 the new company, Welwyn Garden City Ltd, was registered with a capital of £250,000, again with the dividend limit of 7 per cent per annum and the application of all surplus profits to the future town. The cost of the issue, including 250,000 copies of the prospectus, was £16,332. Unhappily it coincided with a sudden financial slump, and by 31 May only £70,000 was subscribed, and by the end of 1920 under £100,000. As the land alone had cost over £100,000, the share capital available for roads, public services, and buildings was a minus quantity, and even with bank overdrafts and mortgage loans up to the hilt development was always handicapped by shortage of capital. That it was actually started was an act of faith on the part of the 1920 board. That the enterprise survived in spite of difficulties and vicissitudes was due to the tenacity of the four directors who became pioneer residents, and especially to the indomitable enthusiasm and leadership of the chairman, Sir Theodore Chambers.
In effect the managing directorship of the company became a triumvirate giving almost full time to the business. Chambers was a most imaginative policy-maker and a fine propagandist who could inspire executives but was not an executive type himself. C. B. Purdom had considerable executive ability and as a result of his experience with the Letchworth company had strong views on many policy matters. As finance director he came to exercise a veto on all expenditure, and this proved unacceptable to the other chief officers of the company — all seven of whom in 1928 informed the board that they would resign if he did not. The fact that Purdom proved difficult to work with and that the break was inescapable, should not obscure the fact that he made distinguished contributions to garden city history by his leading part in the renewal of the movement in 1917 and by his unique books on the subject.
Richard Reiss was another director who came to live early in the new town and took part in its social and sporting as well as business life. The chief executives, including the city planner, the engineer, the accountant, the building manager, the farm manager, the personnel manager, the estate manager and company secretary, and others, did the same. And their wives also took part in local affairs — setting a standard of interest in welfare that I think has persisted.
This booklet, however, does not pretend to describe the real beginning of Welwyn Garden City society, which occurred when the first new houses and other buildings began to be occupied at the very end of 1920 and in 1921. The 1920 community I have described all too briefly was largely a temporary one, very rapidly changing in personnel. In 1921 many new houses were occupied, in Handside Lane, Brockswood Lane, and Dellcott Close, and temporary business premises, banks, club rooms, etc. also appeared. The temporary station was built, and the curious "gum-boot" age occurred. But that is another story.
By the end of World War II Welwyn Garden City had become a beautiful and prosperous industrial town of about 18,000 population, and we who had been responsible for its creation were, as members of the Town and Country Planning Association, urging the government to build new towns as part of a great post-war policy. Abercrombie supported this proposal in his Greater London Plan of 1944, and suggested Welwyn Garden City as a prototype. In 1945 Lewis (later Lord) Silkin appointed the New Towns Committee with Lord Reith as chairman, whose report led to the passing of the New Towns Act of 1946, under which many towns are now in progress in Great Britain.
Indeed a world movement for new towns, based essentially on the garden city idea, has at last sprung into being, in many varieties and in many parts of the world. Thousands of planners, architects, builders, and government personalities visit this country to study what we did at Welwyn: and thousands of experts from this country visit others to study what they are doing or to communicate the widening know-how.
HOWARD, SIR EBENEZER. Garden Cities of To-morrow. Edited with a preface by F. J. Osborn. Introductory essay by Lewis Mumford. Faber and Faber. 1965. 7s. 6d.
PURDOM, C. B. The Building of Satellite Towns. J. M. Dent and Sons. 1925. New edition 1949. 50s.
OSBORN, FREDERIC J. Green Belt Cities. Foreword by Lewis Mumford. Evelyn, Adams and Mackay. New edition 1969. 35s.
BEST, ROBIN H. Land for New Towns: a study of land use, densities and agricultural displacement. Town and Country Planning Association. 1964. Revised 1968. 10s. 6d.
OSBORN, FREDERIC J. and WHITTICK, ARNOLD. The New Towns: The Answer to Megalopolis. Introduction by Lewis Mumford. Leonard Hill. Second edition 1969. £8 8s.
THOMAS, RAY. London's New Towns: a Study of Self-contained and Balanced Communities. Political and Economic Planning Broadsheet 510. April 1969. 10s.
SCHAFFER, FRANK. The New Towns Story. Foreword by Lord Silkin. Macgibbon and Kee. 1970. 55s.
DUFF, A. C. Britain's New Towns: an Experiment in Living. Pall Mall Press. 1961. 10s. 6d.
TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING ASSOCIATION. New Towns Come of Age. A special issue of TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING. January-February 1968. 7s. 6d.
MINISTRY OF TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING and DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH FOR SCOTLAND. Final Report of the New Towns Committee. Chairman: Rt Hon. Lord Reith of Stonehaven. Cmnd. 1946 (reprinted 1962). HMSO. 5s.
Also: annual reports of the Commission for the New Towns and the Development Corporations.
(printed on the back cover)
Founded in 1899 the Town and Country Planning Association concerns itself with every aspect of town and country planning. It has been a consistent influence in the world-wide progress of planning law and policy. It is an all-party, non-sectarian body.
The Association advocates and promotes an understanding of national and regional planning policies that will improve living and working conditions, safeguard the best countryside and farmland, enhance natural, architectural and cultural amenities, and advance economic efficiency; so administered as to leave the maximum freedom to private and local initiative consistent with those aims.
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