Society People
Dr. Mervyn Miller

Reproduced from Journal issue no 41
March 1990

Mervyn Miller was born in  Walsall and attended the local school. His interest in architecture stemmed from receiving the 'Observer book of Architecture' as a school prize. Though at the time he would have preferred the 'Observer book of Dogs' but that was chosen by one of the other winners.  His father, now retired, and was an industrialist not an architect.  In the early 1960's Mervyn attended the Newcastle School of Architecture, which was part of Durham University, where Letchworth and the Garden City movement figured in the Third Year history lectures.

He subsequently studied planning at the University of Illinois on a Fullbright Scholarship during 1968 to 1970. His interest in architecture is twofold as he sees in the houses of the past, images of the social life of the occupants, in addition to the reflection of local crafts, traditions and materials.

He was able to extend is knowledge and interest in the Garden City and especially in the work of Parker and Unwin when he was appointed Senior Architect - Planner in 1972 with the Hertfordshire County Council.  Following the reform of local government in April 1974 he came to Letchworth as Principal Planning Officer for the North Hertfordshire District Council. He defined the boundary of the Letchworth Conservation Area, then researched and published the Letchworth Buildings Index, initially as private research, and subsequently the basis of North Hertfordshire District Council's approach to the Minister of the Environment list historic early Garden City buildings.  In  1981, Mervyn received a Ph.D. from Birmingham University for his study of Sir Raymond Unwin, the 'practical' partner of Barry Parker and responsible for much of the evolution of British town planning.

Mervyn shared his enthusiasm and researched knowledge of the Garden City principles with the general public by giving courses, and in 1977 the embryo group that was to form the Letchworth Garden City Society attended his series of 12 lectures at the North Herts College in room 409. I still have my enrollment slip and the notes that I took during those weeks.  The sessions had such titles as   'Practical Experiments' and 'Parker & Unwin - Derbyshire - Letchworth'. We were also given the opportunity to meet people from Hampstead Garden Suburb. The final evening was dedicated to the course's own experience of Letchworth when we were invited to bring in Garden City memorabilia. It was out of that experience that the course members together with Mervyn went on to forms the Garden City Society the following year, with Hugh Bidwell and Horace Plinston as Chairman and Vice-Chairman.  Mervyn became one of our first Council Members standing for 3 years.

Mervyn is the Executive Secretary to the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust and his work with them involves further restoration of the Cromer windmill, which at one time was a suggested for removal to Standalone Farm.  He also encouraged the attempt to preserve the 'Round House', built by the Darlington Construction Company on Wilbury Road, by its rebuilding at Standalone Farm as an exhibit.  This was unfortunately frustrated by terminal decay of the 16 prefabricated concrete panels.  The Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust is presently involved with the preservation of the blacksmith's forge at Much Hadham.

I asked Mervyn for his views on creating exhibitions of preserved buildings, like the site at Beamish in the North of England, "Though I am not against such exhibitions, they can be overdone, and if possible the building should be preserved in situ. For example Letchworth itself is its own exhibition and the atmosphere, 'the spirit of the place', could not be captured elsewhere".

Mervyn is pleased that the North Hertfordshire District Council is applying for further Listing of Letchworth buildings and hopes that this and the 'Design Guide' which he is co-ordinating with the Council and the Letchworth Garden City Corporation will halt the spread of inappropriate alterations such as 'plastic windows', satellite dishes and concrete roof tiles that detract from the architectural quality of our Letchworth buildings. He also mentioned the graffiti that currently adorn many of our public buildings and features, in particular the memorial to Ebenezer Howard in Howard Park. Last summer he was ashamed to show this to a high powered international conference. Though he notes that the Corporation has recently undertaken its cleaning, he wonders if a more fitting memorial, like the bronze plaque at Welwyn might be more appropriate and less prone to vandalism. The problem is not only local however, as at Hampstead Garden Suburb the memorial to its founder, Dame Henrietta Barnett, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, has been destroyed through misuse as a climbing frame.

By now you will have all seen Mervyn's book 'Letchworth  -The First Garden City' published in December last year.  It had the distinction of selling the most copies ever in a single day at David's Bookshop where 440 were sold when Mervyn attended to sign copies. Mervyn was also pleased with the display in W.H.Smiths, arranged so that the cover photograph, of the Silver Birch Cottages was prominently displayed. It is now included in Smith's best seller's area. Published by Phillimore  &  Co.  Ltd.  specialists in  local history, the price of £14.95 is very reasonable and the  book has  been  enhanced  by   the   Garden   City   Corporation's sponsorship of colour illustrations. Distribution has so far been limited, with an initial print run of only 3000 copies.

A 'labour of love', rather than a commercial venture, Mervyn paid tribute to all those who assisted in its production when he likened it to Elgar's Enigma Variations as being  'my friends pictured within'. Mervyn dedicated the book to his 14-year-old son Sam, in compensation for time spent writing it at weekends.  Sam attends King Alfred's School in Hampstead, a St Christopher style school, with campus buildings designed by Barry Parker, and where the Unwin and Lutyens children were educated. Sam and Mervyn enjoy exploring France using Rail Passes, which enables them to imbibe French life, cuisine and architecture without the hassle of driving.

I asked Mervyn about the future of the Garden City,

"1 believe the time of massive governmental involvement in

Housing and in new towns is at an end, and we will witness the re-emergence of private development of new settlements. Even Prince Charles, who has been critical of most modern architecture has announced development of Poundbury Farm on the Dutchy of Cornwall land at Dorchester."

Though not a competitive sportsman, Mervyn can often be seen at lunchtime at the leisure centre or open-air swimming pool on Norton Common where he likes to keep fit. He hopes to swim 90 miles in 1990, taking a well earned respite from his work as Executive Secretary to the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust, Trustee of Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, Architectural Advisor to the Lutyens Trust and of course his small private practice.