Hertfordshire heritage: Ebenezer Howard – a visionary for Garden Cities

The Ebenezer Howard statue in Welwyn Garden City.

The Ebenezer Howard statue in Welwyn Garden City town centre. - Credit: Robert Gill

In his regular Hertfordshire heritage column, Andrew Rylah, of Codicote Local History Society, looks at the life of Ebenezer Howard.

The Letchworth History Group will mark the 90 year anniversary of Ebenezer Howard's death with a tal

Ebenezer Howard founded Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City on the same principals - Credit: Garden City Collection

Looking around Codicote, I see lots of fields earmarked for housing development. This is something that causes much heated debate.

How will the beauty and character of our village change? Can Codicote cope without an improvement to its infrastructure?

Increased congestion is going to happen, especially if large numbers of houses are shoehorned into tiny plots.

But I can also see that we need more affordable housing to cater for a growing population. Too many people have been priced out of the housing market over years.

This got me thinking of the early 20th century innovative movements to support developments, but in ways that brought housing, space and attractiveness to town centres.

Welwyn Garden City town plan diagram on display at Mill Green Mill and Museum

Garden City diagram on display at Mill Green Museum at a previous exhibition. - Credit: Mill Green Mill and Museum

Back in 1898, Ebenezer Howard, an urban planner, published a highly influential book ‘To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform’, revised in 1902 to ‘Garden Cities of To-Morrow’.  

Most Read

This book distilled Howard’s thoughts on how places could combine the best of cities and the countryside.

It was highly influential and became the catalyst for the Garden City movement.

Howard’s book addressed a key question ‘Where will people go?’, a question just as relevant today.  

The original Garden City concept by Ebenezer Howard, 1902.

The original Garden City concept by Ebenezer Howard, 1902, originally published in Garden Cities of To-morrow - Credit: Public Domain

He developed his ‘Three Magnets’ concept: town, country and town-country. This concept balanced individual and community needs, and offered a utopian vision of people living in harmony with nature.

Towns would be slum-free and enjoy the benefits of urban life (jobs, entertainment, high wages, good housing) and the country (environmental beauty, fresh air, low rents).

Howard proposed a series of new, planned suburban towns of limited size, permanently surrounded by rural land, a concept later developed into the Green Belt. Such towns would be run independently, managed by local people.

The company, First Garden City Ltd, chose Letchworth as its initial site, after the Letchworth Hall estate came up for sale. It was bought in 1903 with 3,826 acres of adjoining land for c£160,000.  

A life-size statue of Ebenezer Howard in Letchworth. Picture: Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation

A life-size statue of Ebenezer Howard in Letchworth. Picture: Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation - Credit: Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation

At that time Letchworth was a small rural village – population 96 in 1901. Later purchases were made with the aim of developing a town of 30-35,000 people.

Whilst some thought the town was too spacious with few buildings of architectural merit, many welcomed the green spaces, which were often lacking in larger towns and cities.  

Today the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, a charitable trust, owns the garden city estate and reinvests landlord’s profits for the benefit of the community.

Welwyn Garden City (WGC, originally given the name Digswell), followed in 1920, built on woodland and open fields that Howard bought with £5,000 borrowed from friends.  

By the 1930s WGC’s population had grown to 10,000 and it had established residential, industrial and commercial zones.

With tree-lined streets and neo-Georgian architecture, wide grass verges and a central grassy parkway almost a mile long, Welwyn was seen as a healthy area to live in, with lower death and infant mortality rates than London.

The Coronation Fountain in Parkway in Welwyn Garden City.

The Coronation Fountain in Parkway in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: Alan Davies

Howard didn’t achieve all his aims for WGC. He had wanted philanthropic investments, but investors were keen on financial returns. Original planners created the Welwyn Stores monopoly for all residents to shop in one store.

This caused resentment and the Welwyn Stores were taken over by the John Lewis Partnership in 1984.

Ebenezer Howard died in 1928 and is buried in Letchworth Cemetery. But his legacy lives on. The Howard Centre shopping centre in Welwyn Garden City is named after him.

His work influenced the development of ‘New Towns’ after World War Two, Stevenage being the first.

Germany built the garden city of Hellerau (1909); Howard’s ideas influenced the development of Canberra, Australia.  Several garden suburbs in the USA drew on his ideas – plus Walt Disney’s original design for EPCOT, later adapted into part of Disney World, Orlando.

Many of Howard’s principles are still used in modern town planning. So, whilst building is inevitable in Codicote, I certainly hope that it is done in a style and with an ethos that preserves the character and beauty of our village.

Are you interested in local history? Codicote Local History Society is starting a new programme of activities in September. Everyone is welcome.

We are also holding a special Choir concert at St Giles Church, Codicote, on Saturday, October 15.  

For details, contact Nicholas Maddex (nkmaddex@btinternet.com) or check www.codicotelocalhistorysociety.co.uk. Explore your interest in history today!

References: Wikipedia pages on ‘Ebenezer Howard’, ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’, ‘Welwyn Garden City’, ‘Letchworth'.