By Angela Eserin
Local historian and Trustee of the
Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust.
Welwyn Garden City Heritage Trust.
At first sight Ebenezer Howard seems an unlikely candidate to achieve world wide acclaim and a knighthood.
Born on 29th January 1850 in the City of London, he was the son of a non conformist shopkeeper. He had a basic education, left school at fifteen and spent his working life mainly as a stenographer or shorthand writer, often recording debates in the Houses of Parliament.
He had none of the advantages of wealth or high social position and yet his garden city idea transformed British town planning, spread around the world and is still the subject of study and discussion today over 100 years later. An amazing achievement.
Howard himself has been described as a practical idealist, an inventor, a planning visionary and a heroic simpleton. I think that he was in some measure, all of these things. He was certainly a thinker and a practical man who read widely.
The turning point in his life came when aged 21, he decided to emigrate with two friends to the USA to try his hand as a farmer in Nebraska. Unsurprisingly he failed in the harsh climate and moved instead to Chicago, where he took up a post as a junior shorthand writer mainly working in the law courts. His office colleagues proved lively and interesting and introduced Howard to a world of radical ideas and free thinking, transforming his outlook. At this time Chicago was being rebuilt after a disastrous fire, so new wide streets and tall buildings were going up all around, adding to the atmosphere of excitement, innovation and progress.
After five years in the USA Howard returned to London, no one is quite sure why and found employment as a stenographer in the Houses of Parliament. In 1879 he married Elizabeth Bills, who proved an important happy influence in his life and a great supporter of his work. The London he returned to with its dreadful overcrowded slum conditions provided a huge contrast with Chicago.
“Garden Cities of Tomorrow”
Howard, along with other Victorian social reformers, believed that something must be done to improve matters. It took him many years to work out his solution for providing better housing conditions and quality of life for all, but in 1898 his book “Tomorrow; a Peaceful Path to real reform” was published, later re-titled “Garden Cities of Tomorrow”.
The book was neither a great scholarly tome nor merely a Utopian vision. It was a practical blueprint. He went to great lengths to explain how the garden city could become a physical fact, with diagrams and detailed cost analysis.
Two of his diagrams have become iconic.
1. The Three Magnets. The “marriage of town and country”.
2. The Social City. Here Howard envisages a ring of garden cities around the central city all separated by green belt, which contains allotments, new forests and farms. Integrated transport systems are mainly electric, the power generated from the water in the numerous reservoirs. Canals are used for heavy goods. All this in 1898 before the term “Green” had even been invented!
Barely a year after his book first appeared he had gathered enough enthusiasts, including some MP’s and members of the great and the good of the time such as the Cadbury’s and Lord Lever, to form the Garden City Association, now the Town and Country Planning Association. How did a mere clerk achieve this? Although a mild and unassuming man who made no great impression at first, Howard had a beautiful voice and was an eloquent and persuasive speaker. As one supporter said; “I was attracted with the ardent enthusiasm of the little man with gleaming glasses and earnest honesty. Howard radiated magnetism which helped him to gather an extraordinary variety of people around him”.
Letchworth Garden City
Howard and his wife and friends campaigned tirelessly for his cause, lobbying hard and giving lectures. In 1902, a mere four years after the book was published, a Pioneer Company began work on the world’s first garden city at Letchworth.
Letchworth became a success, attracting visitors from Europe and America. Howard’s ideas spread across the world, even reaching Australia. His book was translated into Russian.
Yet Letchworth’s example was not followed in Britain in the way that Howard had hoped and he began to fear that it was in danger of being seen as a quirky one off experiment. So he decided to build a second garden city himself. That he was approaching 70 and had no support for this initially, not even from the Garden City Association, made no difference at all. He was determined to go ahead. Also he knew exactly where he wanted to build it.
The story is well known of his purchase of the land for Welwyn Garden City, borrowing the money for a deposit, going alone to the Panshanger auction and taking on a personal debt of £50,000 (over a million pounds today), with no hope of ever paying it back should his second garden city fail. This more than anything illustrates his total faith in his idea and his iron will and single mindedness in its pursuit. He wasn’t just the kindly white haired gentleman we see in the photos!
Yet, once his garden cities had been started he was happy to leave the details to others better qualified, so he was far from obsessive in that way. Indeed, particularly in his later years, he spent more time on his lifelong invention of a shorthand typewriter.
Howard died in Welwyn Garden City in 1928 and is buried in Letchworth. His lasting legacy is of course his two garden cities, which still attract visitors from around the world.
I myself have shown groups of planners around Welwyn Garden City from countries as diverse as France, Japan and South Korea. Such is its enduring attraction as a planning icon, something it is only too easy for those of us who live and work here to forget.
It is also easy to forget that what drove Howard was not wealth or fame but a sincere desire to improve society. He made little money from his great idea and although knighted it wasn’t until 1927, just a year before he died. Primarily he was a social reformer. Frederic Osborn, a friend and follower described him as; “a very simple, modest, wholly sincere man, who pursued his idea in spite of every discouragement”.
Howard just wanted his garden cities to provide a better quality of life for all through properly planned, environmentally friendly towns with good quality housing. A place to “Live, work and play”.
An admirable aim now as then, so a big Thank You “Ben”, especially for our Wonderful Welwyn Garden City and Happy Birthday!