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Welwyn Garden City

F. J. O. - Practical Idealist. A Biography of Sir Frederic Osborn

Author: Arnold Whittick

Published: 1987 by the Town and Country Planning Association

Format: Hardback 8½" by 5½" with 167 pages

(click image to enlarge)

Arnold Whittick was friend and colleague of Frederic Osborn from 1941 until Osborn died in 1978. They jointly wrote the book The New Towns - the answer to Megalopolis which was first published in 1963 (view here). The third edition, re-titled The New Towns - Their Origins, Achievements and Progress, was published in 1977 (view here). Whittick himself died in May 1986 having just completed writing this biography of Osborn, the publication of which was carried through by Whittick's wife Helen.

The book is illustrated with 31 black and white pictures, mostly photographs of Osborn.


About F. J. Osborn (dust-jacket front flap)

Sir Frederic J. Osborn will be remembered in history as the great pioneer of the policy of dispersal from overcrowded cities by means of new towns. He had a world-wide reputation as such. It was principally his propaganda that led to the New Towns Act of 1946 which provided for the designation, planning and building of new towns under the administration of Government appointed Development Corporations. 28 New Towns in Great Britain have been designated, planned and built between 1946 and 1970. It was due to Sir Frederic Osborn's zeal and persistence, fortified by a wide knowledge of planning in all its aspects — social, economic and aesthetic — that made this ambitious programme a reality.

He is known as an ardent disciple of Ebenezer Howard but he was much more than that. At the meeting in Welwyn Garden City in June 1985 to celebrate the centenary of Osborn's birth Wyndham Thomas, a former Director of the Town and Country Planning Association, said that in his view Osborn "achieved even more than Ebenezer Howard to bring garden cities into concrete reality. And if Howard was responsible for the garden city idea, it was F. J. O. who was responsible for the new towns."




About Arnold Whittick (dust-jacket rear flap)

Arnold Whittick, the author of this biography, knew Sir Frederic Osborn for 36 years, having first met him in 1941. From the beginning they worked together and collaborated in the book on New Towns. The first edition (1963) was entitled "The New Towns — the answer to megalopolis," but this was changed for the third edition (1977) to "The New Towns — their origins, achievements and progress".

Arnold Whittick was the author of many books on art and architecture and related subjects, the principal of which is a history of European Architecture in the Twentieth Century. He served in the First World War with the Infantry in France, and in the Second World War he lectured to the Forces (Navy, Army and Air Force) on Architecture, Planning, Housing and Reconstruction. He was a member of the Town and Country Planning Association from 1941 to his death in 1986 — was elected a vice-president in 1981. In 1979 he was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University.





Foreword (by Lord Stewart of Fulham, P.C., C.H.)
Chapter 1   Imprint of Childhood
|      These three chapters are autobiographical
|       and are three broadcasts that Osborn gave
|       of his early life, 1885-1912.
Chapter 2   City Clerk
Chapter 3   Non-U University
Chapter 4   Letchworth and the First World War: 1912-1918
Chapter 5   Post War Genesis of Welwyn Garden City: 1919-1921
Chapter 6   Early growth of Welwyn Garden City: 1921-1932
Chapter 7   Quickening Propaganda: 1932-1939
Chapter 8   The Second World War and Reconstruction: 1939-1945
Chapter 9   Post-War Achievement: 1945-1953
Chapter 10   Keeping the new towns policy alive: 1950-1960
Chapter 11   Witty Verse
Chapter 12   Expanding Propaganda: 1960-1968
Chapter 13   The Venerated Planner: 1965-1971
Chapter 14   Last Years: 1971-1978
Chapter 15   The Significance of Osborn's achievements
Bibliography of the principal writings of Frederic J. Osborn




In the preface, Whittick explains that the first three chapters of the book were, in fact, written by Osborn himself, being the texts of the first three of five short broadcasts on his life which he gave in 1967. These chapters describe his childhood and first clerical jobs in London. He was born in a terraced house in Kennington, son of a mercantile clerk. The family later moved to Clapham. He first went to a dame school and then another private school before transferring to a council school at age 11 when his father became ill and could no longer afford the fees. He describes himself as a shy and timid boy, very fond of reading. He also tells of his joining the ILP and then the Fabians after becoming a fan of H.G. Wells.

In chapter 4, Osborn becomes, in 1912, secretary and manager of the Howard Cottage Society in Letchworth, having applied for the job, at £150 per year, which turned out to be a life-changing move. It involved settling families into new houses and collecting rents. Whittick gives a brief account of Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Association of 1899 formed the year after the publication of his book Tomorrow, and the subsequent formation of the First Garden City Ltd in 1903. Osborn gained valuable experience in Letchworth because he was dealing directly with the tenants and was able to give feedback to the architects about their wants and needs. After 1914, Osborn continued at Letchworth taking no part in the War on the grounds that "the Great Powers had blundered into conflict". In 1916, he married Margaret Paterson Robb, a Glasgow graduate of poetry, whom he had met at the Fabians. During the War, development at Letchworth slowed and eventually stopped, and Osborn went to London to avoid military service, and spent his time studying at the British Museum Library supported by his wife. Osborn became part of the New Towns Group (Howard, Purdom, Osborn & Taylor) who campaigned for more new towns, and Osborn wrote his book New Towns after the War in 1918. (A later edition of this book, published in 1942, is reviewed on this website.) Also in 1918, he wrote an article entitled The Public Control of the Location of Towns for the Economic Journal under the pseudonym Edward Ormiston.

Chapter 5 gives, very briefly, the events leading up to the formation of Welwyn Garden City Ltd in 1920. In 1918 the New Towns Group formed the National Garden Cities Committee chaired by Howard. This Committee and the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association joined forces, with Purdom becoming editor of the Association's journal, and Osborn giving talks around the country. The Committee and the Association sent a memorandum to Dr Addison, President of the Local Government Board, advocating a national policy for the building of new towns on the garden city principle, but they were rebuffed. Meanwhile, Howard had spotted a large area of agricultural land north of Hatfield which would be an ideal site for a second garden city, and he took Purdom and Osborn for a walk in the area. By chance, part of this land came up for auction, and without telling the others, Howard raised the deposit money and bought it at auction on 30th May 1919. The same day he appointed Osborn, on a salary of £8 per week, to form a company and organise the project. A pioneer company, Second Garden City Ltd, was formed in October 1919. The following April, Welwyn Garden City Ltd was formed. Purdom was finance director. Louis de Soissons was planner and architect. Osborn was company secretary, estate manager, and publicist, as well as being clerk and finance/rating officer for the local authority.

Chapter 6 covers the start of the building of Welwyn Garden City, with Osborn moving, in 1921, into 8 Brockswood Lane, one of the first houses to be built. While here his children were born - Thomas in 1921 and Margaret in 1923. In 1925 he moved to 16 Guessens Road which he occupied for 53 years until his death. [Howard was at 5 Guessens Road from 1921 until his death in 1928.] Osborn was intimately involved in the day to day work as the houses were built and occupied, as he had done in Letchworth. Much of the chapter concerns the rift which developed between Purdom and other company executives which led ultimately to the resignation of Purdom in 1928. Osborn was among those signing a memorandum, of 7th February 1928, to chairman Sir Theodore Chambers. This did not name Purdom but was clearly about him. Much later, in 1951, Osborn met with Purdom to try to heal the rift but was not successful. [Purdom's side of the story can be found in his autobiography of 1951.] The chapter finishes by relating how Osborn became chairman of the WGC Drama Festival with Flora Robson as stage director, and also Osborn's fondness for the piano, having a Blünther grand in his drawing room.

Chapter 7 describes Osborn's campaigning for garden cities in the period 1932-1939. Whittick describes Osborn's paper Industry and Planning given to the Town Planning Institute (TPI), of which he was an associate member, in 1932. Next he describes Osborn's involvement with Dr Thomas Adams in the Town and Country Planning Summer School of the TPI. He then describes at length Osborn's pamphlet Transport, Town Development and Territorial Planning of Industry presented to the Fabians. In 1936 Osborn's employment with WGC Ltd as Secretary and Housing Estate Manager came to an end, the reason being "obscure" possibly due to "some disagreement on policy with the Chairman, Sir Theodore Chambers". Osborn then became financial director of Murphy Radio Ltd on condition he would be given time to continue his campaigning for new towns. Osborn also became Honorary Secretary of the Garden City and Town Planning Association (GC&TPA). He prepared, on behalf of the GC&TPA, Evidence for the Royal Commission on the Geographical Distribution of the Industrial Population, whose conclusions were presented in the Barlow Report. He presented this Evidence jointly with Cecil Harmsworth. Whittick goes into this Evidence at length. Whittick finally describes Osborn's address (later printed as a pamphlet) to the Conference of the National Housing and Town Planning Council entitled The Planning of Greater London.

Chapter 8 covers the WW-II period. In 1941, Osborn was seconded as advisor to Lord Reith who was appointed by Churchill to study post-war reconstruction. The GT&TPA had now become the Town & Country Planning Association (T&CPA), and it was at its London office that Whittick and Osborn became friends. At this time Osborn was editing 13 booklets on Rebuilding Britain published by Faber & Faber (1941-1945), the first of which, Overture to Planning, was written by Osborn himself. Whittick describes this at length. In 1942 Osborn prepared for the T&CPA a statement to the government entitled The National Planning Basis. This statement was influential in the planning laws passed from 1946 onwards. In 1943, the County of London Plan, prepared by J.H. Forshaw and Patrick Abercrombie, was published. Osborn was critical of this report and Whittick goes into this at some length.

Chapter 9 covers Osborn's achievements in the period 1945 to 1953. Osborn became an influential member of the New Towns Committee (Lord Reith was chairman) which was set up by Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning in Atlee's post-war government. From this Committee came the New Towns Act of 1946, which authorised the building of 14 new towns. In 1948, Osborn underwent a gastoenterostomy operation from which he took 3 months to recover. Despite the operation, Osborn made several lecturing trips abroad to North America and Europe during the period covered by this chapter. He was by now Chairman of the T&CPA (since 1944) and Editor of its Journal (since 1949).

Chapter 10 covers the period from 1950 to 1960 during which Osborn campaigned tirelessly for new towns. 14 had been designated under Labour between 1945 and 1950, but only 3 more under the Conservatives between 1950 and 1964. [11 were designated by Labour during 1964-1970.] This chapter also covers Osborn's knighthood which he received in the birthday honours of June 1956 (he had turned down a C.B.E. in 1946). Osborn had more health problems in this period with a prostate operation in 1954, and then 2 eye operations following glaucoma. In 1959 he had a bad attack of 'flu which left him with a weakened heart.

Chapter 10 deals with Osborn's poetry which he had published occasionally in The Spectator, The Times, The Observer, etc. He also published a small volume of verse in 1959 entitled Can Man Plan ? Whittick quotes from several of Osborn's verses including from his sonnets of which there were 132.

Chapter 11 discusses the 1963 book The New Towns, the Answer to Megalopolis by Osborn & Whittick. The remaining 3 chapters deal with his later years and summing up of his achievements. Osborn died on 1st November 1978, at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital at Welwyn Garden City, age 93½.





Principal writings and editorial activities of Sir Frederic Osborn.

The Public Control of the Location of Towns, The Economic Journal, December 1918. For this article Osborn adopted the pseudonym of Edward Ormiston.

New Towns after the War (Dent), London 1918, second edition (Dent), London 1942. (view here)

Industry and Planning: Journal of the Town Planning Institute, July 1932.

Transport Town Development and Territorial Planning of Industry (Victor Gollancz and New Fabian Research Bureau), London 1934.

The Planning of Greater London, with foreword by Sir Raymond Unwin (Garden Cities and Town Planning Association), London 1938.

Evidence to the Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population: 1938. This was prepared for the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association by F. J. Osborn and presented on the 20th and 23rd days by Cecil Harmsworth (later Lord Harmsworth), Chairman and F. J. Osborn, Secretary.

Edited a series of 13 booklets on Rebuilding Britain, 1941-44 of which two were written by Osborn. The complete series (all published by Faber & Faber) is given in reference 3 to Chapter 8 [see below]. Those by Osborn are:

No. 1 Overture to Planning with introduction by Lord Samuel, 1941.
No. 7 The Land and Planning with introduction by Lord Justice Scott, 1942.

Green Belt Cities: The British Contribution (Faber & Faber), London 1946, second edition (Adams & Dart), Bath 1965.

New edition of Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow edited with preface by Osborn (Faber), London 1946.

Editor of Town and Country Planning (Journal of the Association), 1949-1965. Osborn generally wrote the leading articles, and a section called Planning Commentary that appeared in each issue, and many special articles. Following is a selection which includes contributions by him before and after he was editor.


1942 (Summer issue). The National Planning Basis, statement by Osborn, Secretary, of the principles of town and country planning submitted to the Government.

1943 (Spring issue). Housing, Town Planning and Full Employment.

1947 (Spring issue). Planning Comes of Age.

1949 (December issue). Italian journey — an account of the T.C.P.A. touring party.

1950 (February issue). The Aims of Planning.

1950 (May issue). Planning and its Critics — the administration of the Planning Act, 1947.

1951 (August issue). Review in the Planning Commentary of C. B. Purdom’s autobiography "Life over Again". Purdom is criticised for not giving due credit to others in the New Towns Movement.

1952 (July and August issues). Review of books by Le Corbusier Concerning Town Planning and The Home of Man.

1952 (December issue). T.C.P.A. Spanish Tour, 1952.

1953 (January issue). Leading article: New Towns in Full Career. Review of Clarence Stein's "Towards New Towns in America."

1953 (September issue). Letchworth's First Fifty Years.

1953 (December issue). T.C.P.A. French Tour.

1954 (January issue). Success of the New Towns. Reply to critics in the Architectural Press.

1954 (February issue). Planning and Housing in France. Second article on T.C.P.A. French Tour.

1954 (June issue). Skyscraper Housing — Glasgow's Redevelopment Dilemma.

1954 (October issue). Our Fiftieth Year. Account of the Life of the T.C.P.A. journal over 50 years.

1954 (December issue). Housing Density in England. Condensed Report prepared for the International Housing and Town Planning Congress, 1954.

1955 (September issue). Housing Subsidies and Densities in City Development.

1956 (January issue). The Significance of the New Towns.

1956 (October issue). The Layouts of Heaven and Hell. Swedenburg's Survey and Analysis.

1958 (June issue). The Future of New Towns. Statement by the Executive Committee of the T.C.P.A. of whom Osborn was Chairman. He drafted the statement.

1958 (July issue). A Toast to the Electric Sign. After lunch speech to the Electric Sign Manufacturers Association. A good example of a witty speech.

1959 (September-October issue). Sixty Years of Planning Thought — Diamond Jubilee of the T.C.P.A.

1960 (June issue). Planning Problems of the Large Towns. T.C.P.A. Executive Committee's statement submitted to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

1961 (April issue). The Conqueror City. Paper read to the American Society of Planning Officials.

1962 (February issue). The Letchworth Affair — Comments on the bill before Parliament.

1963 (January issue). Population Densities.

1963 (February issue). Urbanity: Ruskin Stands for Us.

1963 (May issue). First Thoughts on the Beeching Report.

1963 (August-September issue). Bigger Cities or More Cities: address at the Golden Jubilee Conference of the International Federation for Housing and Planning, Arnhem, 26th June 1963.

1964 (October issue). Sixtieth Anniversary of the T.C.P.A. Journal.

1965 (December issue). Report of World Town Planning Day at which Osborn presided.

Osborn resigned as editor at the end of 1965, but continued to contribute the Planning Commentary and many articles. In 1966 (April issue) in an article 'Yesterday's Seventeen Years', he looks back on the planning panorama while he was editor.

1970 (January issue). New Towns: which party's pet.

1971 (December issue). The history of Howard's "Social Cities". Analysis of the changes made to the first edition of "Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform" of 1898 in the second edition entitled "Garden Cities of Tomorrow" of 1902.

Town Planning is Industry's Problem Too. The Director, January 1952.

How Subsidies Distort Housing Development. Lloyds Bank Review, April 1955.

The British New Towns Policy. Land Economics, August 1956.

Can Man Plan ? and other verses (George G. Harrap)' London 1959.

Frederic J. Osborn and Arnold Whittick: "The New Towns: the answer to Megalopolis" (Leonard Hill), 1963. Second edition 1969. Third edition with changed title: New Towns— Their Origins, Achievements and Progress, 1977.

Genesis of Welwyn Garden City. Some Jubilee Memories with Forward by Baroness Sharp (T.C.P.A.), 1970. Osborn's writing at its best although written when he was 85. (view here)

The Letters of Lewis Mumford and Frederic J. Osborn, A Transatlantic Dialogue 1938-70, edited by Michael R. Hughes (Adams & Dart), Bath 1971.

13 booklets on Rebuilding Britain, 1941-44 of which two were written by Osborn - reference 3 to Chapter 8. [see above]

The complete series, published by Faber and Faber, is as follows:

Overture to Planning.
By F. J. Osborn. With an Introduction by Viscount Samuel. A short statement of the problems and principles of the replanning of Britain's island living-space.
Britain's Town-Country Pattern.
A summary of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population. (The 'Barlow Report'.)
Regional Planning in England and Wales.
A study of the administrative methods by which planning expression can be given to the character of town and country in the various regions.
The War and the Planning Outlook.
By Dr. W. A. Robson. A study of Town and Country Planning issues as affected by bombing and war changes.
Plan for Living: The Architect's Part.
By Clough Williams-Ellis.
Industry and Town Planning.
By Roland Pumphrey. With an Introduction by Sir Montague Barlow, Bart.
The Land and Planning.
By F. J. Osborn. With an Introduction by Lord Justice Scott. An explanation for the general reader of the problems of Compensation and Betterment, Land Ownership, Pooling and Public Acquisition, as they bear on Planning.
Planning and the Countryside.
Edited by F. J. Osborn. A memorandum on the settlement of industries in small towns and villages and its effect on rural life.
The Social Foundations of Post-War Building.
By Lewis Mumford.
Civic Design and the Home.
By Arnold Whittick. With an Introduction by Prof. Sir Patrick Abercrombie.
Land Settlement and Town Planning.
By A. C. Richmond. With an Introduction by Viscount Bledisloe.
The Plan of London County.
By Lewis Mumford.
Portrait of a City's Housing.
By B. Seebohm Rowntree. Edited by R. L. Reiss.



Osborn at the entrance to his house in Welwyn Garden City, 1954