Letchworth Garden City, more commonly Letchworth, is a town 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 use.
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. 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) and Hellerau, Germany, 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 Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (later republished as Garden Cities of Tomorrow), 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.
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 1907, 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.
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 less 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, and the biggest employer British Tabulating, later to become Hollerith, then ICT and finally ICL (International Computers Limited).
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. In WWII a number of early computers were built in what became known as the ICL 1.1 plant.
In 1974 - along with UDCs and RDCs across the country - the Council was abolished and local government became the responsibility of the North Hertfordshire District Council, the headquarters of which is based in Letchworth.
In 2003/2004 the closure of Norton School, the threatened closure of the outdoor swimming pool and problems with planning in the town (planning applications need to be cleared by both the District Council and the Foundation) saw campaigners agitate for a separate town council. A petition was duly raised and presented to the District Council. In response to this the District Council held an opinion poll in December 2003, 21% of the town voted in favour of establishing a town council. Elections to the new body were held in late May 2005. Though the political parties all put up candidates for all seats, independent candidates won all the seats. Support for the current parish council represents 7.54% of the eligible votes in the parish.
In August 2007 the town council's chairman, (Philip Ross) adopted the title of Mayor, as is the usual practice for a Chairman of a town council.
However, the new Town Council is not without detractors.
In 2006/07 in excess of 50% of its funding was spent on administrative overheads. In 2007/08 Operational overheads consumed 80% of the councils precept in the council tax.
The Town Council has been accused of claiming credit for the actions of others in a dispute on the Grange Estate and has spent £11,000 on a chain of office for the mayor and a coat of arms for the town because the new council is not entitled to use the existing Coat of Arms and Crest.
The body is now on its fourth town clerk since its inception and Councillors have been the subject of complaints to the Standards Board for England.
To date despite a number of councillors resigning their posts no further elections have been held. The councillors have instead relied upon their right to co-opt new members to vacant seats.
For 2008/09 the council has increased it's charge in the Council Tax by 206.7% to fund projects not included in their original election manifesto. This compares to a 4.5% increase by Herts County Council and North Herts District Council.
A recent poll in the town on the question 'Should Letchworth Garden City Council be dissolved?' resulted in over 76% of respondents voting in favour of its abolition; turnout was 15.6%. A larger percentage are in favour of the abolition of the Town Council than were in favour of its creation. In contrast the Town Council's survey suggesting 54% percent of households who responded would prefer a single permissions scheme for planning applications is described by the Town Council as significant
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. First Garden City Ltd owned the entire estate, but leased plots to citizens for building houses, to farmers for growing crops, and so on. The rents would provide income for the company, which would then invest the money 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 arrangement began to go wrong and many residents in the town would often remark about the town being run by the "forty thieves" which in 1961 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 suplementary 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 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:
Although a private body - with a Director General (currently Stuart Kenny) 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.
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. The idea is not unique to Jackmans, and has been tried in New Towns elsewhere, but rarely so successfully.
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. As well as the loss of its secondary school, the public house closed in the late 1990s, and the public library in 2006. By 2007 the two primary schools on the estate (Lannock and Radburn) were both running at under 50% capacity, and after a brief consultation the county council announced that Lannock will close by 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.
On 1st 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 would 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 20km loop around the town.
A cricket field appeared on some of the very earliest plans for the town, and the town's cricket club was established within two years on the foundation of the Garden City.
Based for many years at Muddy Lane, the club moved to the former ICL sports field in Whitethorn Lane in 1996, a move that has allowed it to expand its junior section significantly to the extent that the club now has one of the largest and most successful junior cricket sections in the county. This in turn has been recognised by the club being one of very few clubs in Hertfordshire to be named an ECB "Community Focus Club", following on its Clubmark accreditation (which recognises sports clubs who exhibit excellence in club organisation and have active policies relating to Equity, Child Welfare and Safety). There are five men's teams which all compete in leagues.
The growth of the club resulted in the opening of a second ground in 2006 - the restored former Fairfield Hospital cricket ground in nearby Arlesey.
The club is also the home of a Women's and Girls' section, originally formed in 1985 as part of Hitchin Cricket Club (though for the first two years its home games were at Knights Templar School in Baldock). Jackie Lansdown, the club's founder, persuaded several international cricketers to play for the team in its first few years - including Avril Starling, Megan Lear, and Gill McConway. The promise of improved facilities and support resulted in the team moving to Letchworth in 2004.
The cricket club shares its Whitethorn Lane home with Letchworth Hockey Club, which has grown to become one of the region's strongest sides, as well as having a large junior section.
After a short period as a football ground, the cricket club's former ground in Muddy Lane is now the home of Letchworth Tennis Club which had previously been hidden away on Paddock Close.
Selling its old home for housing allowed the club to develop Muddy Lane into what is one of region's largest and most state-of-the-art tennis venues, which has in turn lead to an explosion in membership as well as a number of awards from district and county sporting organisations.
The tennis club facility also offers squash and croquet, being the home of Letchworth Croquet Club Croquet is a fairly recent addition to the town's sporting CV, being formed in 1987. Its original home was the Par 3 Gold Centre in Willian Way, but it moved to the purpose built and "laser level" greens of the tennis club in 2006.
The "Family Golf Centre" at Willian Way is one of two facilities for the sport within the town. 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, however, considered to be a little short for modern purposes and work began to extend the course in 1999, the new par-71 course being opened in 2003.
Letchworth Rugby Club has also been an important part of the town's sporting life for over half a century, and is one of the oldest (and highest ranked) rugby clubs in the north of the county, being formed in 1926.
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.
This coincided - or was perhaps main the driver for - the introduction of competitive swimming in the town with the formation of Letchworth Amateur Swimming Club Today it provides teaching and competitive swimming for children up to the age of 19, run by Head Coach Alan Tomlin.
The Club continues to use the outdoor pool - described by the Times Newspaper in 2004 as "Possibly the best open air pool in the area" - throughout the spring and summer. As well as a 50 m six lane main pool with a large trainer pool alongside, the facility includes an extensive sun bathing area, and free parking. Unfortunately increasing stringent health and safety regulations have resulted in the disappearance of the original diving boards and slides.
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.
Two other pools in the town - at the two independent schools - are also widely used by the community, including the Letchworth Adult Swimming Club, though this is also predominantly a teaching club. The leisure centre is also the home of Letchworth Roller Hockey Club which was for many years one of the strongest clubs in the country..
One sport that has had a remarkably difficult history (considering its national popularity) is association football. Letchworth's main semi-professional club - Letchworth F.C. (the "Bluebirds") - went out of business in 2002, only a few years after reforming following Letchworth Garden City FC's financial problems, but nearly a century of struggle and repeated name changes. The eventual demise of the club was not unconnected with the club's home ground becoming Hertfordshire FA's headquarters in 2000.
The first club to represent the town - Garden City FC began playing in 1906. It lasted barely a season under this name before reconstituting itself (for reasons unknown) as Letchworth Athletic, under which name it gradually worked it way through county and regional amateur leagues before becoming Athenian League champions in 1975.
The following year another name change saw the club become Letchworth Garden City, a move which unfortunately coincided with a gradual decline for the town's team down the divisions, resulting in financial problems, a brief re-invention, and then eventual closure in 2002. With Baldock Town also closing at the same time the only senior league team in whole of North Hertfordshire is now Hitchin Town, which for the "national sport" might be considered quite unusual.
This is all the more remarkable because junior football continues to be hugely popular. Letchworth Garden City Eagles, was formed in 1979 and now has over 400 active members, including two girls' teams. The club attracts good sponsorship and regularly picks up trophies.
Letchworth is also home to a thriving Sunday league football culture, which makes use of Letchworth's many green areas and recreational playing fields.
The Letchworth & District Astronomical Society, with approximately 80 members, is one of two major such societies in Hertfordshire. The society meets on the last Wednesday of the month at Plinston Hall in the centre of the town. They hold observing evenings at their observatory which is based at the Standalone Farm Centre, where they also hold Public Star Parties, allowing visitors to observe the Moon, planets, meteor showers and eclipses.
The broadway Cinema: The story of independent cinema in North Hertfordshire reached a new climax on 12th July 1996 with the re-opening of the luxurious 1936 art deco, Broadway Cinema situated in the heart of the world's first Garden City.
This latest chapter continues the rich tradition of local cinema. In 1909, the first cinema opened outside London, the Palace Cinema opened in Letchworth. The Palace was refurbished in 1924. Six years later, on a site a few yards away, the Broadway Cinema was created. The cinema opened on 26th August 1936 with a black tie gala screening of “Follow the Feet” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The Palace Cinema in Letchworth closed its doors on 31st December 1977. The Broadway Cinema closed its doors temporarily at the end of February 1996 with a special screening of “Windbag the Sailor” starring Will Hay.
To ensure the continued prosperity of the Broadway, the sixty shareholders of The Letchworth Palace Ltd had come together with the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation in a £2m programme to revitalise the cinema from a single to a triple screen facility to combine the latest in sound, seating and projection with the original exterior and luxurious art deco interior features.
The private schools in Letchworth are St Christopher School and single-sex girls' school St. Francis' College. 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.
The Knights Templar School is another local school. Although in the neighbouring town of Baldock, many children from Letchworth are taught there, especially following the closure of Norton School in 2002 which, for its final year of operation was called Knights Templar (Letchworth). Teacher shortages at the school had lead to significant numbers of temporary staff, with the quality of teaching by some staff deemed unsatisfactory by an Ofsted report. It was the second of Letchworth's original four secondary schools to close, following the former Willian School which closed in 1988.
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.
Meades 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 one set 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.
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