The Spirit of Place in Letchworth Garden City
On 12 December, Dr Mervyn Miller, the leading expert on garden cities, shared his deep knowledge of Letchworth, the world’s first garden city, at our annual lecture in the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Theatre of the Arts Educational School.
The first steps in the creation of Letchworth followed some 30 years behind the establishment of Bedford Park. Yet Dr Miller found many parallels between these two experimental communities and in their ‘spirit.’ In both cases there was an engagement of at least some of those attracted to live in the communities with the radical ideas and politics of the time. The reputation for eccentricity of some of the inhabitants gave rise in both cases to a good deal of ironic commentary from contemporaries. In addition, the two communities shared an adherence to an architectural manner with a strong relation to the Arts and Crafts movement.
The foundation of Letchworth had its roots in the work of Ebenezer Howard, a parliamentary shorthand writer, who had become deeply interested in the problem of the poor living conditions of the vast majority of city dwellers. Through the 1890s he worked on a scheme for the creation of a ‘garden city’, and published his ‘Tomorrow, a Peaceful Path to Real Reform’ in 1898, republished as ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ in 1902.
Howard’s underlying rationale was expressed in his ‘Three Magnets’ diagram, which summarised the advantages and disadvantages of country and town living and suggested that the advantages of both could be combined in what he called ‘Town-Country,’ which would provide a combination of work and social opportunities with access to nature, fresh air and clean water. An important element of his scheme was that the land would be leased to residents and businesses but continue to be owned by the community, which would thus enjoy the benefits of the increase in land values.
Inspired by this scheme a number of investors came together to raise capital to create a Garden City and subsequently purchased the 3,818 acres on which Letchworth would be built. The architects and planners, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, won a competition to develop a general scheme for Letchworth and subsequently designed public buildings and a large number of individual houses. The same partnership would also be responsible with Lutyens for the design of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Other house designs would emerge from a competition for lower cost housing. The architecture has much in common with Bedford Park, in spite of the general practice of enclosing the brickwork in render.
The majority of those attracted to Letchworth were middle class, as in spite of efforts to devise low cost housing, the prices tended to be out of reach or the working classes. Nonetheless, important businesses were attracted to the town, such as Spirella, makers of corsets and J.M.Dent, a publisher known for its low priced editions of classic literature.
Letchworth’s reputation for eccentricity seems to have been based on the behaviour of some residents, which appears to have been rather more extreme than that of the residents of Bedford Park. The Cloisters was constructed in 1905-7 for the wealthy Annie Lawrence as a place of study. The architect William Harrison Cowlishaw worked on the basis of a design, which had come to Annie Lawrence in a dream. Conceived as a centre for instruction in ideas related to the then fashionable theosophy, students were expected to sleep in hammocks and swim in the unheated pool.
There was also a link with Edward Carpenter, whose advocacy of a spiritual socialism and of a return to nature, combined with his homosexuality meant that he was labelled as a ‘crank’ by many. One of Carpenter’s notable eccentricities was a belief in sandals and his associate George Adams established an activity making sandals to Carpenter’s design in Letchworth. All of this is reflected in George Orwell’s description of a visit to the town, in which he notes that two “dreadful looking old men” had got onto the bus causing the driver to mutter “socialists.” Orwell went on: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words socialism and communism draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England.”
Dr Miller is a distinguished architect, town planner and historian and is currently writing a book about Barry Parker, who with Raymond Unwin was the creator of Letchworth.