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Letchworth Garden City - history and further information

Letchworth Garden City was founded in 1903 as the world's first Garden City.  Following the ideals of Ebenezer Howard, it set a unique example of planned development and innovative housing design.  Today, it is a residential, commercial and industrial town drawing visitors from all parts of the world, with a population of around 33,690.

Ebenezer Howard's book "Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform", published in 1898, put forward a vision of towns that would take the best of the Victorian city - good employment prospects, relative wealth for its inhabitants and good communications - and merge it with the healthiness of the countryside.  In Howard's words, '... a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination.  Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together.'

An experiment in social reform as much as town planning, it was put into practice when First Garden City Ltd was formed in 1903 and purchased around 1600 hectares (almost 4000 acres) of agricultural land in the three adjacent villages of Letchworth, Willian and Norton.  The site met the need for good communication: it is close to the old Great North Road (now the A1 motorway) and on the London Kings Cross to Cambridge rail route (now electrified).

   

Letchworth Garden City old town hall

Letchworth Town Hall (1935)

The Palace Cinema, Letchworth

The old Palace Cinema, Eastcheap

  

A competition to determine the layout and character of the new town was won by the architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, whose plan was adopted in 1904.  The town was based either side of the railway, which separates it into a northern and southern half.  Residential and industrial zones were carefully separated, the latter to the east of the town, so that the prevailing winds would take smoke away from housing.

Despite a slow start, the town quickly developed a character of its own: houses influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement characterise the early residential areas, while the presence of trees and grass verges everywhere gives an ubiquitous impression of greenery.  The original town square, now Broadway Gardens, is dominated by the Town Hall of 1935, with the Museum (1914), Library (1938) and St Hugh of Lincoln's RC Church (1962) to the south-east, and the former Grammar School (1931) and St Michael and All Angels CoE Church (1968) to the north-west.  The gardens were redesigned in 2003 to commemorate the town's centenary, and the southern approach along Broadway is now framed by an attractive fountain.

After financial success in its early years, First Garden City Ltd was subject to a hostile takeover bid in 1960, prompting the creation of Letchworth Garden City Corporation by Act of Parliament in 1962.  Then, in 1992, the Corporation was asked to prepare to leave the public sector and, in 1995, Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation took over the management of the estate, which it continues to run for the benefit of the Garden City's residents.

The commercial centre was laid out with broad pavements, while a 1975 pedestrian precinct and recent traffic calming measures make shopping a pleasant affair than in many places, in harmony with Howard's ideals.  The centre also boasts the district's only cinema - the Art Deco Broadway Cinema, which currently has three screens, and is soon to gain another.  East of the town centre, Howard Park and Howard Garden have been a public open space since 1906, while the 25 hectare (63 acres) Norton Common was designated as a 'people's park' in the early plans for the town.  The town has good leisure and sporting facilities, including a lido style open air swimming pool in Norton Common, a 1980s Leisure Centre on Baldock Road and a state-of-the art tennis club.

The Garden City is also famous for its black (or melanic) squirrels.  A genetic variety of the imported grey, they were first spotted in 1944 and have now spread throughout North Hertfordshire into Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.

  

The Road by Spencer Gore

Spencer Gore: The Road (1912)

Historic Letchworth

The historic village of Letchworth lies to the south of the town and is approached along the narrow, tree-lined Letchworth Lane from Baldock Road, on the corner of which stands Scudamore, a sixteenth-century timber-framed house that was once the town's Post Office.  At its centre is the twelfth-century parish church of St Mary the Virgin, possessing the smallest nave of any Hertfordshire church, a reflection of the obscurity of the original village.  Close by is Letchworth Hall (now an hotel), a Jacobean house built by the Lyttons, then Lords of the Manor, but incorporating fifteenth-century elements with nineteenth- and twentieth-century additions, including a squat battlemented tower added by the eccentric Reverend John Alington.  Close by is a picturesque row of early seventeenth-century timber-framed cottages.  The village was first mentioned in Domesday Book (compiled in 1086), as Leceworde, meaning 'the farm by the fence'.      

St Mary's church, Old Letchworth

St Mary the Virgin, Old Letchworth

Willian

The Fox public house, Willian

The Fox, Willian

     

Of the three villages incorporated in the Garden City, Willian has most kept its rural character.  Dominated by the village pond and The Fox public house, its main street once ran across field to the north before being moved in the nineteenth century.  As a result of this, the front of the manor house, Punchardon Hall, is now at the back.  All Saints church is largely of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  During the nineteenth century, Charles Hancock started rebuilding the village as a model estate, with blocks of cottages set in large gardens, anticipating the designs of the Garden City half a century later.

The name is found as Weligas in Doemsday Book, meaning 'the willows' in Old English: willows still grow by the village pond. The name is identical in meaning to Welwyn, which became the site of the second Garden City in 1920.

Norton

The third village lies to the north-east of the Garden City and is first mentioned as Norðtune ('the northern enclosed farm') in a charter dated 1007, when it was granted to the Abbey of St Albans.  The church of St Nicholas was dedicated between 1109 and 1119, but enlarged in the fifteenth century.  The parish seems to have been badly affected by the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century but had become a prosperous farming community by the seventeenth century.  A Community Archaeology Group formed in 2006 is actively investigating the heritage of the historic parish.

Excavations before the construction of Kristiansand Way in 1988 revealed a forgotten settlement to the south-west of the historic village.  Occupied between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, it may be a place referred to in the charter of 1007 and in Domesday Book as Rodenhanger, a long-forgotten fourth village now in the Garden City.

     

The Three Horseshoes public house, Norton

The Three Horseshoes, Norton

Letchworth Links

Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery, Broadway.  Open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 10 am to 5 pm; closed Bank Holidays.  Telephone 01462 685647.

Letchworth Garden City Heritage Museum, Norton Way South.  Open Mondays to Saturdays, 10 am to 5 pm, closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day.  Telephone 01462 482710

Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation.  Telephone: 01462 476007

Letchworth Garden City Society

Rap-Aid, a young people and music charity that creates opportunities and provides facilities, Mrs Howard Memorial Hall, Norton Way South.  Open 10 am to 5 pm.  Telephone 01462 671700/671702.