The Howard Cottage Society

by Tom Downing

Originally published Journal Issue No 45  March 1991


Very early in the life of the First Garden City, there was need for low cost, low rent housing for migrant workers arriving to build and live in the new town. In 1907 Letchworth Cottages & Buildings Ltd., (a subsidiary of First Garden City Ltd.) was formed, but this was mainly concerned with homes for the better off, though it had participated in the Urban Cottage Exhibition of 1907, building homes in Middle Street, (later to become Lytton Avenue). So in May 1911 serious consideration was given by members of the First Garden City Ltd., for the formation of such a company. "The object of the society shall be to carry on the trade of buying, selling, hiring and letting and developing land and buildings." (Notice there was no implied provision to build houses for the working classes), and on 17 August 1911 the first General Meeting was held at Hatton House, Holborn. The Howard Cottage Society's first Chairman was Mr H D Pearsall and his committee members/directors were Mrs E B Pearsall, Mr J R Farquharson, Mr Aneurin Williams JP, Mr Ebenezer Howard JP (after whom the Society was named) and Mr Bolton Smart. It was registered as a Housing Society under the Industrial & Provident Societies Act of 1893 and capitalised by the issue of  £3O, 726 in both shares and loan stock with a fixed dividend of 5%. Among the first subscribers was George Bernard Shaw.

It conformed to the requirements of the Housing & Planning Act of 1909 to be a public utility society so was able to draw on funds made available through the Public Works Loan Board. The early meetings of the Society took place in 'Glaed Hame' the home of Howard Pearsall. As had been planned, The Howard Cottage Society took over some of the building originally intended by Letchworth Cottages & Buildings Ltd., and financed mainly from the Public Works Loan Board set to work building cottages along Rushby Mead between Birds Hill and Hillshott. The architects for this scheme were Robert Bennett and Wilson Bidwell, who shared the ideals and design philosophy of Parker and Unwin having both spent some time in their practice. This development completed, the funding was rolled over to take on other developments including units in School Walk, Hillshott, Burnell Rise, Campers Road, Spring Road, Glebe Road, Ridge Road, Broughton Hill, Cromwell Road, North Avenue and part of Meadow Way Green.

By 1914, just three years later, some 300 cottages had been built at costs ranging from £150 for a 2 bedroom, non-parlour cottage, letting at 4/6 per week to the larger, 3 or 4 bedroom plus parlour cottages for artisans at £220 each, renting at up to 8/6 per week. In present day currency this was 25p to 40p per week, but it was expensive for the lowly paid workers before 1914. 

The quality and standards of the cottages together with their large gardens were in advance of most other workers cottages elsewhere. Building contin-ued up to 1916 and a further 96 cottages were built, mainly around Campers Road to create 'Little Belgium'.

After the Great War, Letchworth Urban District Council was created in 1919 and it set to work to provide working class housing adopting the policy and environmental standards associated with the Howard Cottage Society at that time. However, because of the shortage of skilled craftsmen and raw materi-als, cost escalated so much that by 1920 cottages were over £1000 each. 

Nevertheless by 1924 the Society had completed the last of the Meadow Way Green units including those with the communal dining room, and although the architect used was the same as for those constructed before the war, (Courteney Crickmer) the general quality of the latter development suffered to some extent in comparison with the former. Bolton Smart became Chairman in 1919.

From 1935 to 1940 as the town expanded northwards of the Common, cottages were completed in Archers Way, Hazelfoot, Grange Road, Wilbury Road, Orchards Way and Lammas Way. These were funded largely with a local authority loan (LUDC) of 40 years. J C Tickle was the main architect during this period and a total of 281 more units were built. Not all development was easy and some difficult site conditions were sometimes en-countered. For instance, in 1948 at Corner Close, poor load bearing ground was encountered and it was reported that there was more brickwork in the foundations than above ground. Similar problems due to old foundry sand were encountered at a site in Icknield Way near Redhoods Way, and in Bedford Road piling had to be used to stabilise the foundations.

In 1946 A WE Bullmore became Chairman and he was followed by Ralph T Edge MA in 1951. Also in 1951, Hugh Bidwell (our first Chairman) was the architect appointed to design offices incorporating one flat in Station Road for the Society. In 1962, the Letchworth Garden City Corporation took over from the troubled First Garden City Limited, which it replaced, and in 1965 the Leasehold Reform Act was passed bringing in its wake many problems for leaseholders including the Howard Cottage Society as a major leaseholder, problems which have not been completely resolved at the present time. In 1958 the name changed to become Howard Society Ltd.

In 1962, Edwin Nott MBE, son of Fred Nott, became Chairman, and in 1970, cottages were completed at Stonnells Close and in Grange Road. In 1975, in Pixmore Road some 32 cottages and 60 garages were demolished and replaced by Boscombe Court, designed by Hugh Bidwell. In 1980 Miles Tabor MA became Chairman and the first of the freehold dwellings in Hawkfield were completed in 1981 an occasion marked by the planting of a tree by Ian Stewart MP for North Herts. Later Pentangle submitted designs which were accepted for building sheltered accommodation at Edwin Nott House, named after the Society's chairman of the '60s, and the occupants together with the Warden moved in by 1986. In 1989 modernisation and extension of the Society's offices were completed to designs by Pentangle. Then in the period 1989-90 at Pearsall Close, named after the Society's founding Chairman, a joint scheme with Letchworth Garden City Corporation to develop 16 flats and a residential home run by Mencap for the mentally disabled was completed and again Ian Stewart performed the opening ceremony. From the start a close association was enjoyed by the Society with the First Garden City Ltd, continued with the Garden City Corporation as well as with the Letchworth Urban District Council and subsequently with its successor the North Herts District Council.

This year 1991, has seen the start of a new project on plot J/K at the Standalone site with Phase I comprising 12 units of sheltered accommodation and services to be completed by the autumn. This is to be followed by Phase II, which will bring the total accommodation to 36. To date the Society has provided 25 units of sheltered accommodation, however, there are 108 more required by 126 residents who are presently occupying larger properties with a total of 252 bedrooms.

The majority of the Society properties, 2,3 and 4 bedroom cottages and family homes are mainly leasehold, but do include a small number of freehold properties. Prior to 1989 the properties were rented under a Fair Rent Scheme, but in 1989 the new Housing Act 1988 came into force and properties are now to be let under an Assured Tenancy Agreement. By the end of 1990, the Society had 37 properties let or re-let under the Assured Tenancy Scheme.

The Future

A 17 acre site at Valley Road carries a number of prefabricated buildings put up by the local authority at the end of the Second World War. They are to be demolished to make way for a new development and the Council has accepted a tender submitted by a consortium of Ave bury Projects, Sanctuary Housing and the Howard Cottage Society to develop the site. Details of the programme to be undertaken by the Society have not yet been finalised. In the future the Society may widen its area of activity by operating jointly with others including the North Herts District Council in other parts of North Herts than Letchworth.

The present Chairman, elected in 1983, is Stephen Ward FCA and the present Executive Director is David Brightwell having been Housing Manager prior to 1974. looking back, the last 80 years have seen great changes in the Letchworth community, resulting partly from two world wars and the chang-ing expectations of the population. Letchworth's population has grown from a few hundred to over 33,000. As a result there are still steady demands for the supply of rented homes for low income people and families, including some who find living in one of Letchworth's larger homes too great a burden. The Howard Cottage Society has endeavoured to meet some of this need and will continue to do so in the future.