The Garden City, Letchworth

by W. Percival Westell, F.L.S.
Originally printed issue 69 June 1997

[This piece appeared in the June 1909 edition of "The Country Home". W.P Westell was of course the first Curator of the Letchworth Museum, and lived in the house (then called Verulam) built for him in Icknield Way in which I live. He should have known therefore, that Icknield Way is not Roman and in fact was already old when the Romans came to Britain Allan Lupton]

If some six years ago a resident in Charles Lamb's quiet, homely Hertfordshire had been told that six square miles of undulating agricultural land, interspersed with pleasant commons and copses, would be transformed into a garden city which to-day has a population of over 6,000, he would surely have imagined that his informant was bordering upon insanity.

Yet such is the case. Since Mr. Ebenezer Howard published in 1898 his well-known hook "Garden Cities of Tomorrow," this important, and, indeed, vital movement of town-planning has gone ahead by leaps and bounds. It has arrived at a very opportune time, for the continual cry of going back to the land, the provision of a quiet rural retreat for the town worker, and a haven of refuge for the artist, the sculptor, the musician, the literary man or woman, and those who have ceased to ply either wares or brains, and, what is more important, perhaps, proper housing for the industrial population, is heard on all sides.

One of the great social problems of today is the ways and means of finally sounding the death-knell of Slumdom, and even if Letchworth has not yet efficiently solved the question, the fact remains that a step has been taken in the right direction when one realises the squalor of the crowded garret and the misery of the filthy alley.

For those who love their country home, Letchworth Garden City offers advantages that are not found elsewhere. Equipped it is true with a train service that might at some periods of the day be vastly improved; well-sewered; possessing a good gas and water supply, and what is equally, if not more, important, pure invigorating air; all sorts and conditions of houses that would do credit to an international exhibition in homestead designing; large gardens simply waiting to be tilled; a wide expanse of blue sky by day and millions of twinkling stars by night; a seventy-eight acre common pitched, so to speak, in the centre of the city; an air of freedom and sociability delightful to notice and still better to experience; societies and institutions sufficient to cater for the tastes of all and sundry; the prevalence of a true spirit of citizenship and social intercourse rarely seen; good cricket, hockey and football clubs; an admirable golf course situated in a fine old park; small holdings that may be cultivated to advantage: such are a few of the many assets to which Letchworth may lay claim.

But just a word or two about the rents and rates. Of the former it is not desirable to speak too highly, for my personal experience leads me to the conclusion that whilst in many instances houses may be had at a reasonable rental, there are others which, compared with those of other districts, are poor indeed.

Yet one must not overlook one important factor, and that is the area of the garden. A house at £30 per annum in a country town rarely has a garden much larger than the one in which to swing the proverbial cat round, but at Garden City the number of even the smallest houses allowed to be built is twelve to the acre. In consequence of this the gardens are of good size; the houses are mostly detached, and there are none of those long lines of streets which, to one who loves the country, makes Suburbia such an undesirable place in which to reside. And the rates! Let me tell you that the return on capital to go eventually into the pockets of the shareholders in First Garden City, Ltd., is strictly limited to a cumulative dividend of 5 per cent. per annum. This being the case, it is intended when such time arrives as will result in a surplus remaining over that such surplus will be applied to the payment of those charges for which rates are levied in ordinary towns. Therefore, this awful bughear of rates, rates, rates, should, if all goes well, soon be drummed out of Letchworth, and the great shout of a rate-free city rend the air.

And it is beautiful air at Letchworth, as those who have visited the city will ably testify. Windswept, breezy it is true rather more frequently than most residents care for; favoured with sunshine from which it is difficult to escape and equally exposed in winter's storm, it is small wonder that the place of which we write is of such a healthy description and has a low death rate as 4.8 per 1000. In the west, high up on the Bedfordshire hills, there is a pine-laden stretch of country which serves Letchworth well, for when the west-south-west winds blow and these seem the prevailing ones - the oxygen given off by the pines away in the west is borne on the bosom of the wind and floats over the Garden City.

The wooded areas at Norton Village, Letchworth old village, Howard Park, various plantations and copses, and not forgetting the delightful Norton Common, all aid in making this modern Hertfordshire city a pleasant and a healthy spot in which to become a citizen.

The streets are planted with many kinds of trees which in course of time will beautify the place in a wonderful way, whilst the gardens and hedgerows, the absence of fences, and the immense pride taken in their gardens by residents all help to account for the really pleasant pilgrimage that may be paid to the city of which we write.

A new County Council school is in course of erection; there are two private schools, and of course hard by at the quaint old market town of Hitchin there is the Grammar School and several other educational establishments worthy of notice.

Good wide roads; model works owned by printers, publishers, bookbinders, engineers, embroiderers, and photographers; soapy mud in winter time that is the pest of the housewife and pedestrian, but which in summer becomes more like a billiard table; various soils such as chalk, gravel and clay; an open-air swimming bath, a Unionist club; five inns and hotels, two only of which - situate at Norton Village and Willian - possess licenses; four churches, a Free Church, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, and others; a flourishing adult school and branch of the Fabian Society; musicians, playwrights, artists, wood and metal workers and authors, such are a few more of the features of Garden City which exigencies of space make it necessary to tabulate in this way.

We are treading in many parts of the estate on historical ground, for along one side of Norton Common the Icknield Way of the Romans is still in existence, and many Roman remains - a villa, camps, pottery, coins - have from time to time been discovered, about which my good friend, Mr. George Aylott, has a wide and extensive knowledge, which he is at all times willing to place at the service of the interested visitor.

Walking along the Icknield Way today it is difficult to conjure up scenes that must have been on view in the long ago, and even now it seems ancient history to speak of the old coaching days which even some of those still living are able to remember.

But who was the Roman nobleman who resided at the villa between Willian and Letchworth? Was he attached to the southern Roman capital of Verulam some twenty miles distant? Was this one of the outlying farms, or villas, of the great Pompeii-like city that flourished near St. Albans in Mid-Herts., and where now the spreading oak and stately beech hold undisputed sway?

Such questions as these cannot fail to occur to the student of history who will take the trouble to make enquiries concerning the district in which he happens to find himself, and if we leave the immediate precincts of Garden City and strike towards the west there we shall find much to interest the geologist, the botanist, and the historian, for it was here that the Danes encamped themselves, and on the brink of the Chilterns yonder the last of the Hertfordshire beacons was lighted.

But let us return to Letchworth and ramble down Letchworth Lane, noting as we pass the old half-timbered house that serves as post office. One of our photographs shows this old homestead and also the lane, the latter being a delightful spot arched over with tall elms in which the sable rooks disport themselves; many of the trees are wreathed with ivy, and the high banks on either side are garlanded with many kinds of wild plants whose verdure cannot fail to attract notice.

This essay does not pretend to be a guide to the City, neither is it intended to provide the reader with a mass of figures and dry details more suitable for a prospectus; it is rather the intention of the writer to give his experience and opinions of the city, in which he now finds habitation, leaving the reader to pay a personal visit if sufficiently attracted as a result of what it has been possible to set out in a short contribution of this kind.

Of the Norton Common - starred as we write with the flaring yellow flowers of the Lesser Celandine and Cowslip and whitened with the bloom of Blackthorn - much might be written, for it really is a delightful rural retreat of which Letchworth City may well be proud. Possessing an acreage of 78 acres, well supplied with bushes and trees such as Privet, Elder, Buckthorn, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Fir, Poplar, Sallow, Bramble, Wild Rose, and others; caressed by a meandering little brook - the Pix - and clothed with a wealth of tangled grasses and wild plants galore, it is an ideal spot for the true and earnest naturalist who possesses the seeing eye and the receptive ear.

Bird life is particularly plentiful, and when May-time arrives and with its milk-white bloom envelops the Common in summer's bridal trousseau, then this grand open space is at its best. by then the birds are in fullest song Nightingale, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Willow Wren, Chif Chaff, Lesser and Greater Whitethroats, Tree Pipit, Wryneck, Cuckoo, Turtle Dove, and an abundance of indigenous feathered friends may be seen and heard, whilst the botanist will find many hidden treasures for the seeking, and the entomologist may gladden his heart at the sight of some insect wonder. A project is now on foot to form a bird sanctuary upon this Common, and the hoped for permission has been granted by the Garden City Company to enclose two or three acres in an efficient and attractive manner so that the shy nesting birds - and our British warblers and arboreal species in particular - may be encouraged to make their homes here and not be driven further afield as the city's population increases. This bird sanctuary has attracted a good deal of attention, and will, it is hoped, be an accomplished fact before the nesting season of 1909 commences.

As it fell to the lot of the writer to originate this scheme for the protection and preservation of our feathered population, and it was piloted by him through the local Naturalists' Society he views with no small amount of pleasure the enthusiasm with which the project has been received.