Letchworth

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Letchworth Garden City, commonly known as Letchworth, is a town and civil parish in Hertfordshire, England. The town’s name is taken from one of the three villages it surrounded (the other two being Willian and Norton) – all of which featured in the Domesday Book. The land used was first purchased by Quakers who had intended to farm the area and build a Quaker community. They very quickly discovered the soil to be chalky and of poor agricultural value.

The Garden City was founded in 1903 by Ebenezer Howard, was one of the first new towns, and is the world’s first Garden City designed to incorporate elements of the country, alongside city life. Its development inspired another Garden City project at Welwyn Garden City, as well as many other smaller projects worldwide (Canberra, the Australian capital, was influenced by its design concepts, as was Hellerau, Germany, small village of Tapanila, Finland, and Mežaparks, Latvia), and had great influence on future town planning and the New Towns movement. Today it has a population of around 33,600.

In 1898, the social reformer Ebenezer Howard wrote a book entitled To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (later republished as Garden Cities of To-morrow), in which he advocated the construction of a new kind of town, summed up in his Three Magnets diagram as combining the advantages of cities and the countryside while eliminating their disadvantages. Industry would be kept separate from residential areas—such zoning was a new idea at the time—and trees and open spaces would prevail everywhere. His ideas were mocked in the press but struck a chord with many, especially members of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Quakers.

According to the book the term “Garden City” derived from the image of a city being situated within a belt of open countryside (which would contribute significantly to food production for the population), and not, as is commonly cited, to a principle that every house in the city should have a garden.

The concept outlined in the book is not simply one of urban planning, but also included a system of community management. For example, the Garden City project would be financed through a system that Howard called “Rate-Rent”, which combined financing for community services (rates) with a return for those who had invested in the development of the City (rent). The book also advocated a rudimentary form of competitive tendering, whereby the municipality would purchase services, such as water, fuel, waste disposal, etc., from (often local) commercial providers. These systems were never fully implemented, in Letchworth, Welwyn or their numerous imitators.

A competition was held to find a town design which could translate Howard’s ideas into reality, and September 1903 the company “First Garden City Ltd.” was formed, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin were appointed architects, and 16 km² of land outside Hitchin were purchased for building. In keeping with the ideals only one tree was felled during the entire initial construction phase of the town, and an area devoted to agriculture surrounding the town was included in the plan – the first “Green Belt”.

In 1905, and again in 1908, the company held the Cheap Cottages Exhibitions, contests to build inexpensive housing, which attracted some 60,000 visitors and had a significant effect on planning and urban design in the UK, pioneering and popularising such concepts as pre-fabrication, the use of new building materials, and front and back gardens. The Exhibitions were sponsored by the Daily Mail, and their popularity was significant in the development that newspaper’s launching of the Ideal Home Exhibition (which has more recently become the Ideal Home Show) – the first of which took place the year after the second Cheap Cottages Exhibition.

A railway station was opened in 1903 a few hundred yards west of its current position and railway companies often ran excursions to the town, bringing people to marvel at the social experiment and sometimes to mock it: Letchworth’s founding citizens, attracted by the promise of a better life, were often caricatured by outsiders as idealistic and otherworldly. John Betjeman in his poems Group Life: Letchworth and Huxley Hall painted Letchworth people as earnest health freaks.

One commonly-cited example of this is the ban, most unusual for a British town, on selling alcohol in public premises. This did not stop the town having a “pub” however – the Skittles Inn or the “pub with no beer” which opened as early as 1907.

Despite the ban it is not entirely true to say that there were no pubs in the Garden City. Pubs that had existed from before the foundation of the Garden City continued – including the Three Horseshoes in Norton, The George IV on the borders with Baldock, and the Three Horseshoes and The Fox in Willian – continued to operate (as they do to this day), and undoubtedly benefited from the lack of alcohol to be had in the centre of the town, as did the pubs in neighbouring Hitchin and Baldock. New inns also sprang up on the borders of the town, one such example being the Wilbury Hotel which was just outside the town’s border.

This ban was finally lifted after a referendum in 1958, which resulted in the Broadway Hotel becoming the first public house in the centre of the Garden City. Several other pubs have opened since 1958, but to this day the town centre has fewer than half-a-dozen pubs – a remarkably low number of a town of its size. One effect of this is that the centre of the town is normally a noticeably quiet and peaceful place in the evenings.

One of the most prominent industries to arrive in the town in the early years was the manufacture of corsets: the Spirella Company began building a large factory in 1912, close to the middle of town and the railway station that opened the next year. The Spirella Building, completed in 1920, blends in despite its central position through being disguised as a large country house, complete with towers and a ballroom. During the Second World War, the factory was also involved in producing parachutes and decoding machinery. Because corsets fell out of fashion, the factory closed in the 1980s, and was eventually refurbished and converted into offices.

Another significant employer in the town was Shelvoke and Drewry, a manufacturer of dustcarts and fire engines which existed from 1922 until 1990; as was Hands (Letchworth), James Drewry joining them in 1935, who manufactured axles, brakes and Hands Trailers. Letchworth had a very diverse light industry, including K & L Steel Foundry, often a target for German bombers in World War II, the Letchworth Parachute Factory, J M Dent and Son (also known as The Aldine Press, Garden City Press).

The biggest employer was British Tabulating Machine Company, later merging with Powers-Samas to become International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) and finally part of International Computers Limited (ICL). At one time the “Tab” as it was known had occupancy of over 30 factories in Icknield Way (the original pre-Roman Road), Works Road and finally in Blackhorse Road. Blackhorse Road was built on what was the continuation of the original “Icknield Way”. Upon building the new ICL building the remains of a large Roman camp was found, many articles being found and saved for display in the Letchworth Museum & Art Gallery. In WWII a number of early computers were built in what became known as the ICL 1.1 plant.

In addition to the usual local government bodies, Letchworth is unique in having a private charity responsible for the management of many aspects of the town (or the “Garden City estate”) which has many planning and grant making functions normally associated with elected public authorities.

The civic local government of Letchworth has always been separate from the Company, Corporation or Foundation.

Before the founding of the Garden City each of the three original villages – Letchworth, Norton & Willian – were within the Hitchin Rural District Council’s district. An unofficial “Residents’ Union” or “Residents’ Council” for the town was established in June 1905, meeting monthly until March or April 1908 when Letchworth (Civil) Parish Council was formed, within Hitchin RDC. In 1919 Letchworth Urban District Council (UDC) was formed, replacing the Parish Council, and taking responsibility from Hitchin RDC for the local services – such as libraries, museums, parks and leisure, etc. – which were not the responsibility of the county council. Although the council had no active role in town planning & building control until after 1945 it built nearly 5,000 homes in the town. Letchworth UDC was abolished in 1974 under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972. Most of its responsibilities passed to the newly created North Hertfordshire District Council, though some became the responsibility of the county. From 2005 to 2013 a new Parish Council, Letchworth Garden City Council, was in existence.  It was abolished after much controversy over its activities, the election of councillors opposed to its existence, and a referendum.

The current arrangements have evolved from one of Letchworth Garden City’s founding principles which, unlike any other British attempt at new town design, was that land should be held in common for the good of all.

From 1903 First Garden City Ltd owned the entire estate. The original idea was for the residents to purchase the estate after seven years so as to become responsible for the town, but “When the company was formed, however, this period of seven years was omitted.”. Until 1945 FGC Ltd, with the compliance of the District Councils, ran almost all aspects of life in the emerging town, leasing plots to citizens for building houses, to farmers for growing crops, and so on. The rents provided income for the company, which it would then invest back into the community. All citizens were shareholders, so all money was invested for the common good, and developments which the citizens disliked (tower blocks, for example) could be restricted as they pleased. This only began to change from 1945 when changes at the national level resulted in several of FGC’s services (such as electricity and gas generation) being nationalised while the UDC took on a greater responsibility for planning.

The arrangements began to break down and many residents in the town would often remark about the town being run by the “forty thieves”. In 1961 matters came to a head when Amy Rose and a company named Hotel York Ltd realised that if it bought enough of the shares from the citizens it could have a controlling interest in the town’s estate, with no guarantee that the money would be used for the common good.

To remedy this, the then Member of Parliament, Martin Madden sponsored a bill in Parliament, and Parliament passed the Letchworth Garden City Act 1962, which created a public body, the Letchworth Garden City Corporation, to take on the business of First Garden City Ltd; as a statutory corporation it could not be bought. The Corporation’s officers were appointed by the Crown and could level a supplementary rate, which for some years it did partly in order to pay Hotel York compensation.

The main task for the Corporation was to own and manage the 5,300-acre (21 km2) Garden City estate – including offices, factories, shops, houses, community amenities, farms and land. This included powers related to planning applications (which would normally be the preserve of the local council) in order to safeguard the character of the Garden City.

By the 1990s the political tide had turned against “Quangos” and it became policy of the then Conservative government to abolish them, wherever possible. As a result in 1995 the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation Act 1995 replaced the public sector Corporation with the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation – an “Industrial and Provident Society” registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies with “exempt charity” status.

The new Foundation retains most of the former Corporation’s functions and responsibilities. Its published mission statement says that the Foundation exists “to create, maintain and promote a vibrant, quality environment in Letchworth Garden City, for all those who live, work and visit the world’s first Garden City.” It also aims to “maximise the financial returns from the assets we hold in trust and to re-invest those returns:

  • To improve an increasingly valuable asset base; and
  • To support charitable activities which meet demonstrable needs and provide a proven benefit to the community.”

Although a private body – with a Chief Executive (currently John Lewis) and a team of Executive Directors – the Foundation also has a degree of democratic accountability with the Directors reporting to a Board of Management, which includes local authority representatives, plus six of the thirty Governors of the Heritage Foundation, who are elected to be representative of various groups in the town.

Many of the original ground leases were written to last for nine hundred and ninety-nine years, but some ran for only ninety-nine; around 2001 many of these shorter leases began to expire, whereupon the Foundation sold the freehold of the land to the houseowners.

Several housing estates have been added to Letchworth since its inception. To the north of the town The Grange began construction in 1947 and to the south east Jackmans was built from 1961. These were council / municipal housing estates with many residents originally coming from the London overspill. Two more prosperous (and private) estates – Lordship and Manor Park – were built from in 1971 to the south west. Smaller areas of in-fill housing also appeared in the 1990s, particularly on land adjacent to Jackmans on the sites of a former creamery and the Willian Secondary School, which had closed in 1991 when school rolls in the town had begun to fall.

Willian School, along with two primary schools (Lannock and Radburn) had been built as part of the Jackmans Estate, which was constructed with not only its own schools, but also shops, library, community centre, sheltered housing, and public house. Bordered by major roads this almost self-contained community developed a reputation as being slightly cut-off from the rest of the town and tends to be overlooked in most studies of Garden City development.

This is an unfortunate oversight as the plan of the estate (based on the “Radburn principle” pioneered in Radburn, New Jersey – a town whose design was itself inspired by the original Garden City) was an impressive and largely successful addition to the town, and matched most Garden City principles. Certainly for a period that has a reputation for poor town and residential planning it is remarkably well executed piece of urban design. Almost all residential housing on Jackmans is in a series of cul-de-sacs with access off a single feeder road – appropriately called Radburn Way – which in turn is crossed by a series of underpasses. The effect is to largely separate pedestrians from motor traffic. Most houses do not open onto streets with passing traffic, but onto pedestrian squares, green areas, and children’s playgrounds. The estate is crossed by a series of footpaths. In some cases the housing itself varied in quality as – perhaps harking back to the Cheap Cottages Exhibition 60 years before – various different construction methods were tried, including the pre-fabrication of some houses at a shipyard in Sunderland. This resulted in dwellings with large amounts of internal space, but of variable build quality (particularly, it is alleged, for houses whose panels were constructed on Friday afternoons). Other parts of the estate used more traditional methods. Over time increased mobility and changing age profiles has reduced the need for the estate to have its own facilities. Although a small parade of shops and a community centre flourish, the estate lost of its secondary school (Willian) in 1988, its public house (initially called the Carousel, later the Gateway) in 1998, and its public library in 2006. By 2007 the two primary schools on the estate were both running at under 50% capacity, and the county council closed Lannock Primary School, the smaller of the two, in 2009.

The Garden City estate began to turn a profit in the 1970s, leading to investment in a number of town amenities: a working farm, Standalone Farm, in 1980, a leisure centre and a theatre named Plinston Hall in 1982, a free hospital (the Ernest Gardiner Day Hospital) in 1984, and major refurbishment of the town’s cinema and shopping centre in 1996 and 1997. A further major programme to improve and update facilities in the town centre – entirely funded by the Foundation – began in 2009.

On 1 October 1995, the ‘Foundation day’ event took place celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the establishment of Letchworth. Markets and stalls ran throughout the day, whilst a fun fair was erected in Norton Common, where tribute bands performed and a fireworks display was held. ‘Foundation day’ was shortly an annual event for around 5–6 years. The Foundation later celebrated the town’s centenary in 2003 by building a landscaped path for walkers and cyclists. The path, known as the Greenway, forms a 20 km loop around the town.

Letchworth Croquet Club is based at Letchworth Sports and Tennis Club in Muddy Lane. Letchworth Garden City Croquet Club was founded in 1987 by a small group of enthusiasts and with the help of the (then) corporation. After only two years the club won the Longman Cup, the premier national handicap competition.

For the more serious golfer Letchworth Golf Club offers a full 18 hole course, designed by Harry Vardon in 1911 but based upon a small nine-hole course first laid out as early as 1905. Vardon’s course was extended to a  6,459-yard (5,906 m) par-71 course in 2003.

Swimming also had an early start in the town – the first outdoor pool opening in 1908. However this rather basic original amenity (it was filled from the waters of Pix Brook and apparently grew murkier and murkier as the summer went on) was replaced by a state-of-the-art “Lido” on Norton Common in 1935. Letchworth Amateur Swimming Club, founded in 1932 continues to use the outdoor pool throughout the spring and summer.

During the winter months the club uses the public indoor pool which was opened as part of the North Herts Leisure Centre in the 1970s, although as a leisure pool it is unsuitable for competitive galas. The indoor pool, previously owned by the council, has recently been taken over by Stevenage Leisure Ltd.

The Letchworth & District Astronomical Society is well-known and meets at the Elizabeth Howard Memorial Hall.

In 1909, the first cinema opened outside London, the Palace Cinema, in Letchworth, and it was refurbished in 1924. Six years later, on a neighbouring site, the luxurious art deco Broadway Cinema was created, opening with a black tie gala screening of Follow the Fleet starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Palace closed in 1977; The Broadway was refurbished in 1996.

Letchworth is twinned with Chagny, France; Wissen, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany; Kristiansand, Norway.

St. Christopher School is arguably the most famous school in Letchworth, it is vegetarian and has a strong Quaker ethos. It originally occupied the St Francis College site where some of its original buildings remain, one of which displays a foundation stone bearing the name of Annie Besant and including some of the “open air” classrooms which remain in use to this day (albeit adapted slightly). Both schools admit both boarders and day-pupils.

Letchworth Garden City is home to one of the UK’s largest colonies of black squirrels, a rare example of Melanism. Sightings of black squirrels originally appeared in the area of Norton Common and later the centre of the town from the 1950s, and possibly before, and have since gradually spread, becoming common on the Jackmans estate by the 1980s and Lordship in the 1990s. Reports of black squirrels in the neighbouring town of Hitchin started to appear in the local press around 2005.

There are also muntjac deer living principally on Norton Common, but also increasingly elsewhere in the town (Jackman’s Estate, for example where they often leave evidence of their presence on the allotments, much to the annoyance of allotment holders!). About the size of a large dog, they also find their way to domestic gardens and have been seen occasionally in the town centre. They can be something of a traffic hazard, especially on winter evenings, as they do not readily move out of the way of cars.

In 2007 architectural writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades devoted a programme in his series Jonathan Meades Abroad Again to Letchworth. In “Heaven: Folkwoven in England” Meades suggested that many of the main features of British urban design in the twentieth century owed their origins to Letchworth Garden City – “a social experiment on a par with the Welfare State, a social experiment that affected us all and still does.” Meades’s thesis was not entirely complimentary (“its legacy is Britain’s ubiquitous, banal sprawl”) but it is a theme that other writers have supported. Many factors underlying British housing design, and also town planning, began in Letchworth. The popularity of Parker and Unwin’s “country” style, plus the success of the Cheap Cottages Exhibitions of 1905 and 1907, inspired British urban architectural design for many decades – a style which, according to Meades “shunned urbanism to an extent otherwise unknown on this continent”.

However, innovation in Letchworth was not confined to the design of buildings. During January 2005 “Sollershott Circus” (to give it its formal name) in Letchworth Garden City was recognised as having the first roundabout on a public road in the United Kingdom, dating from circa 1909 (there are two signs on the roundabout saying “UK’s First Roundabout Built circa 1909″). This was probably inspired by the traffic system at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a city which was familiar to Parker and Unwin.

When first built traffic could circulate around the central island in both directions. The more familiar rules of the road for roundabouts were not adopted until the 1920s. Roundabouts remain a feature of the Garden City’s road network, which has only two sets of true traffic lights (discounting those on pedestrian crossings).

In addition the town was also the birthplace of the “Green Belt”, certainly in its modern form of an area of land surrounding a town, designed to constrain its outward expansion. Its was an important feature of Howard’s concept – he saw a Garden City as having a maximum population of about 30,000. The Green Belt also aimed to make the Garden City self-sufficient in food and agricultural products. In addition Letchworth was also intended to be self-sufficient in gas, water and electrical power – an aim it achieved, exporting power to neighbouring towns and villages until the late 1940s when power and gas generation were nationalised. The originally coal powered electricity station was first converted to gas power in the last quarter of the 20th century before eventually being decommissioned and demolished in the early years of the 21st century.

To the west of the town are the remains of Wilbury Hill Camp an Iron Age hill fort. It comprises two adjacent enclosures and lies close by the Icknield Way. Settlement is understood to have started in the late Bronze Age, 700BC and it was further developed during the Iron Age. There is also evidence of continued occupation during the period of the Roman colonisation. Regular digs are conducted by Norton Community Archaeology Group in the fields between Norton village and the A1, where they have found evidence of Bronze Age, Romano-British and late Iron Age settlement.

  • “The Lion and the Unicorn” In his polemic essay on wartime Britain, George Orwell said “The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new” and added that “every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England” lived in the town.
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish In the fourth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Ford Prefect complains about the difficulty of persuading telephone operators that he is calling from Letchworth when tapping into the British phone system from the Pleiades. Remarkably a new Coat of Arms, issued for the Garden City Council in December 2010, includes a motto (Share, Enjoy, Prosper) that is almost exactly the same as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s “Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division” (Share and Enjoy).
  • Bigipedia (Series 1, episode 2) included reference to the “Letchworth Dog” – a fictional legend about a mysterious animal supposedly seen in the town in 1908.
  • The film The World’s End, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost was filmed in 2012 throughout Letchworth. A number of attractions and locations have been filmed, and in most cases set dressed with fictional names.

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