A photo of The Queen Mother with the WGC Mayor, Dennis Lewis

Golden Jubilee – was it really half a century ago?

Welwyn Garden City Centenary Foundation
Memories of 1970 recalled in 2020 by Dr Dennis Lewis MBE

Sometime in the spring of 1969, I wrote a letter to the Welwyn Times (“makes a change !” I hear you say!) suggesting that our town should celebrate its Golden Jubilee the following year. The result was a deafening silence. But after a few days I received a phone call. The rest is history. Please read on…

At that time Welwyn Garden City (WGC) was governed and managed by two bureaucracies – the WGC Urban District Council and the New Towns Commission (NTC) WGC. Previously it had but a single leading entity – the original company, Welwyn Garden City Ltd, which was formed in April 1920 and disappeared in 1948 as a result of the takeover of its assets by the Development Corporation. From the time that we had a parish council in the 1930s and then a district council, the town had grown from a few hundreds to about 35,000 souls in 1970. The Welwyn Hatfield District Council took over from the WGC Urban District Council in 1974 in a massive restructuring of UK local government.

My wife and I arrived as newly-weds in WGC in 1956, knowing little about the unique history of the town, but I found myself, at the tender age of 40, elected to the District Council in 1968. Prior to that, in 1966, I had introduced the idea of an annual event on The Campus – ‘CONTACT’ the Convention of Town Activities. The phone call, referred to above, was from Mr Michael Biggs the Chief Executive of the NTC/WGC and therefore the most senior government representative in the town. As a result of that call, we met, and he said to me “I agree with you. We must celebrate the 50th birthday of this town! And you are the man to do it! We have the money, you have the energy – so let’s do it!” And we did!

So it came about that the good citizens of the town enjoyed celebrating our Golden Jubilee in 1970 with a wide variety of events, including a much acclaimed Royal Visit.

I recruited a small but fantastically energetic and highly proactive team, including Michael Biggs, the Chairman of the Council, and representatives of various voluntary bodies including Derek Palmer (The Barn Theatre) and Tony Wigens (Publicity) and we devised and organised a series of events and encouraged others to ‘do their thing’. Notable occasions were a Street Carnival consisting of a couple of dozen floats with many children involved, [Readers: Please note that the Centenary arrangements for our 100th birthday this year also included a Street Carnival, organised by my good friend Madeleine Clark, which has been postponed because of Covid until June 19th 2021]

A CONTACT exhibition on The Campus was the focus for the climax of the festivities in 1970, which comprised 120 local voluntary agencies plus the council and the NTC / WGC. As well as CONTACT, a variety of public entertainments were held on The Campus in celebration of the Golden Jubilee, promoted and fondly referred to as ‘GoJo 70’, which included all-in wrestling, open air theatre productions, running and jumping (athletics!) a miniature steam railway, and keep fit demonstrations by Scouts and Guides etc.

Not everything was organised for the Town Centre / Campus site – events were also located in our neighbourhood centres, particularly in the Community Centre at Woodhall.

Welwyn Garden City locomotive

Outside of WGC we persuaded British Rail to rename a locomotive ‘Welwyn Garden City’ for our Golden Jubilee year, which pulled the carriages for services to the North which passed through WGC station to roars of applause most days from crowds of WGCitizens amassed on the platforms…

Letters posted in WGC were franked with a ‘GoJo 70’ logo and there was a wide variety of merchandised goods which were very tastefully designed, of course !

The Royal Visit 

The climax of the celebrations was arranged for Saturday May 30th 1970 for the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, who we all fondly dubbed ‘Our Queen Mum.’  Her equerry lived in Welwyn village and he told me, in confidence, that HM ‘had a soft spot for Hertfordshire ever since she was a girl.’ She was in fact a Hertfordshire Hedgehog as she was born near Hitchin!

One of her duties that day was to officially open the Louis de Soissons memorial garden on the Campus. Until this year, the young architect who designed the famous town plan in 1920 had not been recognised formally. A garden was chosen for the garden city and the Campus the location as it was the social centre of the town and a wall with an inscription. Much controversy had ensued as the original wall was so high that it spoiled the iconic view from the white bridge down Parkway. The announcement of the Royal Visit forced a resolution, and the old wall was taken down and replaced with the wall you see there today.

She was scheduled to spend two hours in WGC with one hour at the CONTACT exhibition, but in fact she stayed for nearly 6 hours and said she “had had a lovely time, and Welwyn Garden City was a wonderful town.”

The official opening of Stanborough Lakes

In the late summer of that memorable year, 1970, the NCT organised an amazing Water Carnival to mark the opening of the Sailing and Boating Lakes at Stanborough, which included a fantastic fireworks display which was magnified magnificently by the reflections on the surface of the sailing lake. There were thousands of people there on that balmy evening in early September – of course, that wouldn’t be possible today for reasons of ‘ Elf and Safety’!

Welwyn Garden City’s centenary year

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to all those friends and colleagues who helped in 1970, and also pass on my congratulations tinged with sympathy to Mr Peter Waine, the Chairman of the WGC Centenary Foundation, Mrs Jennifer McCann our hard-working Secretary and colleagues on the Centenary Delivery Group for all their considerable efforts to organise a memorable year of activities, intending to mark a century of progress in this, our remarkable and unique town. What a pity that the huge effort that they have all contributed to in organising a memorable centenary should be brought to nought (save for two teams) by an invisible, microscopic enemy. But at least the effort has been made, and there will be events and a legacy of both memories for our townsfolk, and memorials for future generations.

A photo of Dennis Lewis MBE
Dennis Lewis MBE
Dennis Lewis enjoyed a long and successful career as a chemist with ICI, based in Welwyn Garden City and subsequently other national professional organisations. Concurrently he maintained a strong commitment to the local community as a Councillor for 39 years. During this time he also either founded, served on or supported in some measure over 20 local community organisations and is still actively involved in a large number, including the Heritage Trust, the WGC Society and now the WGC Centenary Foundation. In 2014 Dennis was appointed MBE for community work over 40 years.
A photo of Dennis Lewis 'PRE' MBE
Dennis Lewis 'pre' MBE as a baby in 1929

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