The Early Days of Letchworth
Letchworth’s layout largely follows the master plan prepared by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin. Many of the early houses are also designed by Parker and Unwin. Their drawing offices were in Norton Way South in a building which
The Initial Enthusiasm
Anyone coming to Letchworth now would find it difficult to understand. There were 227 people here when I first came here, nearly all farmers and farm workers. When development started there was nothing here at all; one had to shop in Hitchin and there was not even a station.
People came here out of tremendous enthusiasm. There were no subsidies. The board of directors were all idealists, trying to put into practice something they believed in.
We were unpopular. Hitchin didn’t want us. We were fighting against public opinion. Most people thought it was going to fail.
The first parish council had no political basis whatever. You got a body of people who were trying to do something they believed in. Compare that to a council today, where you have warring parties
Women had nowhere to meet. We got together and had working parties and got money. The Mrs Howard Memorial Hall was put up as the only
There was no motor car here until I had been here years. There was one horse and cab. If there was a dance at Norton you had to book the cab at different times to get there and back.
One of the directors built a cottage here; he was one of the first to realise we must have a cottage society because there were no subsidies. Various Quakers started a cottage society and then the Howard Cottage Society was formed.
Mr Pearsall (Howard Pearsall, a director of First Garden City) felt something was needed for the boys in the town. Nothing was provided except church organisations. He gave £1,000 for the boys club.
The Settlement started as temperance public houses. Edward Cadbury (a member of the famous family who was on the FGC board) and Williams (Aneurin Williams, an early FGC chairman) wanted our own public house. The town got very hot about it. A vote of all ratepayers was taken every so often, and for years they would have no drinking facilities until the vote went the other way quite recently,
Cadbury and Williams decided to build the Settlement as a public house. At one time, the ginger beer was above the amount of spirit it was meant to contain! It was called the Skittles Inn. In 1920, it became the Settlement adult
First Garden City didn’t pay even a dividend until 1920. They were always short of money for development, so they ploughed everything back into development. There was no question of people making money.
We had to do everything ourselves.
In the early days there was a certain amount of opposition because there were not enough resident directors. That was a feeling which arose after about 10 or 15 years. Mr Pearsall was the only resident director for a number of years.
Then came the war. All the foreign people tippling into Letchworth changed the character of the town. After 1918, there was no more really pioneering spirit. After
Letchworth’s first roads were built
Some of these men settled with their families. They had lived under very rough conditions. Mrs Pearsall was very anxious to raise the standard of the way they kept their houses. They’d never had a garden or a bath. We wanted their children to know hygiene. There were prizes for the best kept cottage. I was one of the judges. You would not believe anyone could enter a competition when their house was in such an absolutely filthy condition. We had to build up a home help service.
Arts and Crafts
The second and third generation were the distinct outcome of that early feeling for arts and crafts. There was the Cloisters, and the Settlement, where people did arts, crafts, drama, music.
Up to recently people came and settled here and said there is a different spirit here. There is something .... perhaps more freedom of self-expression.
So many artists came here who felt there was this freedom. We were a small community, but we got such interesting people here. We had visits from Bertrand Russell, H G Wells, Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter and others. A lot of the outstanding people from the beginning of this century came down to lecture and stay. The Pearsalls were great Fabians.
It was a most inspiring and fulfilling period of time - always thinking things and doing things. Many people coming here found a spirit of ‘something worth while to do.’
At first we were all like one big club. Then
We were a parish council for many years and then got an urban district council. When any question of planning or housing came up, they asked my husband to attend meetings. He retired in 1943. After doctors told him not to go out at night he still went to meetings because he felt it was important.
Letchworth came first and politics second in the election of candidates. I stood for council once, but lost by four votes.
People mainly stood as independents. I deplore
It’s important people understand that the Corporation is only a holding committee doing something for the good of the town. Ebenezer Howard’s idea was that we become one of the wealthiest municipalities. The average paid for the land when it was first bought was £40 an acre. The value now is very considerable.
I cannot understand this leasehold thing (a fight by householders to be able to buy the free-holds of their properties - houses were available only on a leasehold basis). It’s quite against Ebenezer’s idea that the increased value of the land should come to the community, not individuals. This was the whole point of the exercise.
The company wanted a higher standard than the average builder wanted, but it was not much use having sub-standard buildings. Clashes were got over by the company’s issuing its
I don’t see it is possible to stop Letchworth’s population growing to 35,000 and I don’t honestly see it matters. Early sites were of one or two acres, and a great many houses have a third of an acre. New development has
People don’t want large gardens because they can’t get the gardeners. They can’t go on developing big plots. Economics dictates what the future should be.
I don’t think they are going far away from the ideals, although a lot of people have said it.
I would say fundamentally the ideals are being fulfilled - the ideals to bring industry and workers into the country to live in conditions of pure air in a good
Ebenezer Howard we knew very well. He was a family man. He wanted the working man to get home to dinner in the middle of the day, not to be divorced from the family. He was a tremendous idealist. Today fathers can still get home to dinner if they want to.
Ebenezer wanted children to go out with jam jars and catch tiddlers. These are the things he cared about. Not like a new town, where you never see a frog or a worm.
The Common has been a controversial point right from the beginning. It was a thicket, a tangled mass of undergrowth. It is essential. It is common land; you can’t build on it and that is quite clear. I don’t think it was wrong to put the swimming bath there. It is central.
It has been a great difficulty in the planning. It has divided the
The curator of the museum, Westell (W P Westell, curator 1914-43). was very keen on bird-watching. He took schoolchildren in the common; they sometimes got lost and there were various unpleasant things happening. My husband had the idea of making a
I would not criticise anything that has been done there. True it has been opened out, and there are no nightingales now as there were when it was a thicket.
Hitchin is the market town for
Some of our earlier residents made themselves very conspicuous - the sandals group. Many were rather outrageously dressed. One man went to public meetings, in a smock and did his knitting. It was not quite customary in those days. The Cloisters was ridiculed as crazy.
In Hitchin the feeling was we were very inferior people. Socially we didn’t exist. They were a very close community. When Reginald Hine (A Hitchin solicitor and leading local historian) came to live in Willian people thought it was an awful comedown. People would look down on you if you said you came from Letchworth. The idea of a garden city took a lot of launching.