The Early Days of Letchworth
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 also became the home of Mr and Mrs Barry Parker. Mrs Parker eventually made the building available to the Garden City Corporation to become the Garden City Heritage Museum. In an interview in 1970, she talked about the early days.
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 etc. There was a religious type of fervour. They gave up their time to serve on the council and establish a garden city.
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 place we could meet for anything. We wanted everyone to feel welcome. There was no class distinction; that was a very fundamental thing. In 1905/06, everyone was welcome to the town. When anyone came into the town they were called on. We had the whole town divided into little bodies, and someone would go and see them. ‘Will you come to our next meeting?’‑ where they got welcomed and introduced. It’s difficult for people today to understand the tremendous feeling ‑ like the Pilgrim Fathers ‑ of starting something new.
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, and the Broadway was built.
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 education centre.
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. There was a pioneering feeling in working together. It was frightfully exciting and enormous fun. There was great public spirit. There was hardly any evening when there wasn’t something going on. I saw little of my husband; he was out every evening. The company was a body of idealists trying out a new thing, but were ahead of the average demands of the townspeople.
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 1919 housing subsidies came in, which changed the whole situation. Ebenezer Howard went off to start the Welwyn Garden City, which started with housing subsidies and ample capital. We were always short of capital here.
Letchworth’s first roads were built by unemployed, who came down from London. They were housed in Spirella sheds, which later became the first school in the town.
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 things became more sectionalised.
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 the present political system because one wants to make sure one gets people who do the work for the good of the town. They follow the national policy rather than doing what is best for Letchworth.
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 own by-laws. My husband spent his life more or less apologising because he never had the standards he wanted. The directors would let the plots to anyone who would take them. Barry had to compromise tremendously over standards. He was always on good terms with the builders like Openshaw.
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 eight to the acre; this is quite inevitable. It’s no use saying we are losing our ideals.
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 home.
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 town.
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 driftway from south to north and pathways leading in.
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 North Herts, and we could never compete with it. We were very unpopular at first. Hitchin was a very conservative country town, with its traditions. They thought of Letchworth as ‘a cranky idea - it will fail.’
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.