Neo Georgian Houses at Welwyn Garden City
Architecture Post-War Architecture

The Story of Welwyn Garden City

Residents first moved in to Welwyn Garden City in December 1920. Here we look at its story from founding to the present day.

Residents first moved into Welwyn Garden City in December 1920.

The city’s radical plan and innovative approach to living were based on new ideas formulated by the Garden City Movement – founded by Ebenezer Howard in 1899 – and realised over four decades by Chief Architect and Planner, Louis de Soissons.

Here we look at its story from its founding to the present day.

The founding of the Garden City Movement

Ebenezer Howard sits in his garden, 1926
Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928), originally a shorthand reporter in London’s law courts, was strongly influenced by the writings of 19th century social reformers and the creation of two model villages for workers – Port Sunlight, Wirral (1888) and Bournville near Birmingham (1900). Despite having no experience as either a town planner or financier, over 10 years from 1889 he developed and campaigned for his utopian vision of a new type of settlement run for the public good. This image dates from 1926 and is in the Public Domain.

The Garden City Movement was a reaction against the slums, poverty, pollution and acute social problems of towns and cities where over half the population lived in the latter part of the 19th century.

In 1898, its founder Ebenezer Howard wrote his seminal book: ‘Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Social Reform’ (re-issued four years later as ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’) which had a strong influence on later urban planning across the globe.

Howard’s the ‘Three Magnet’, illustrated in his book
Howard’s the ‘Three Magnet’, illustrated in his book, showing the pros and cons of living in the Town (left) and Country (right), and the benefits of the merging the positives of the two: Town-Country (bottom). He wrote: ‘Town and country must be married, and out of this joyous union, will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation.’ He called this the Garden City. Image in the Public Domain.

In Howard’s vision, a garden city would be relatively small – limited to 32,000 residents – with no more than 12 houses to an acre.

This self-contained city would be built on 6,000 acres of agricultural land – only a proportion of which would be developed; the rest would be an encircling rural belt. The land would be invested in, owned and controlled by a small group of private individuals who would act as trustees and be paid dividends. Revenue, raised through rents, would be ploughed back into running city services.

one-sixth segment of his ‘Garden City.’
‘Diagram No. 3’ from Howard’s book illustrating a one-sixth segment of his ‘Garden City.’ Image in the Public Domain.

The city would be circular with a great garden area at its heart, ringed by civic and cultural institutions. Six wide boulevards would radiate outwards crossing concentric rings of tree-lined avenues. There would be parks and open spaces between the residential areas. Industry and commerce would be zoned on the outer perimeter.

Share certificate signed by Ebenezer Howard
Example of share certificate, signed by Ebenezer Howard, for the Garden City Pioneer Company Limited. Image courtesy of the Garden City Collection, Letchworth Garden City.

To pursue his concept, Howard set up the Garden City Pioneer Company in 1902 with the aim of attracting investors and finding suitable land.

He purchased nearly 4,000 acres in the following year to build Letchworth, Hertfordshire – the country’s first garden city – located just under 40 miles from London. It was designed by planner/architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin who drew on the Arts & Crafts movement for inspiration. Unwin’s Hampstead Garden Suburb in London, founded by wealthy social reformer Henrietta Barnet, came next from 1907.

But arguably the most sophisticated manifestation of such a city was Welwyn Garden City, created from 1920 just after the First World War (1914-1918), and benefiting particularly from the experience at Letchworth.

Louis De Soissons’ Welwyn Garden City masterplan

Parkway, Welwyn Garden City
The sweeping grand vista of Parkway, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, with the Coronation Fountain in the distance and the Louis de Soissons memorial and garden in the foreground. The inscription reads: ‘This garden is a memorial to Louis de Soissons (1890-1962) who designed this town’. Image in the Public Domain.

In 1919, when Howard was almost 70, he identified land near the old village and parish of Welwyn in Hertfordshire, 25 miles from London, that was suitable for a second garden city; purchasing a total of 2,378 acres at auction and by private agreement, helped by loans from supporters.

 Welwyn Garden City masterplan
Louis de Soissons’ Welwyn Garden City masterplan, June 1920. Image in the Public Domain.

30 year old Louis de Soissons, a French/Canadian brought up in London and a rising architectural star, was appointed April 1920 as consultant architect by Welwyn Garden City Limited, the company formally constituted as the city’s owner and developer.

De Soissons produced his acclaimed masterplan for the newly-named Welwyn Garden City in June. His detailed plans, submitted five months later, included a wide variety of housing –from modest terraces, cottages and maisonettes to imposing detached houses – as well as civic and community buildings, industrial buildings, churches, schools, shops and pubs, a theatre and open spaces.

Welwyn city from above
1948 aerial shot of Welwyn Garden City, clearly showing the central Parkway running north up to the semi-circular Campus – situated within the curve of the branch line. The dark parallel line is the railway, and bordering that to the right is the industrial area © Historic England/ EAW013993

De Soissons necessarily had to plan round existing topography and the north/south axis of the main railway line to London’s King’s Cross. Howard’s vision of a great central garden became the spectacular mile-long Parkway, running parallel to the west of the railway and up to the town’s civic centre (now known as The Campus), with housing along part of it and to the west.

The industrial area that Howard had planned round the city’s perimeter, now bordered the railway line to the east, with residential streets radiating out further beyond that. The whole city was encircled by an agricultural belt as per Howard’s garden city concept.

Architecture

Development of housing

Replica of a poster aimed at attracting new residents to the city.
Replica of a poster aimed at attracting new residents to the city. Image courtesy of Nicky Hughes.

Ebenezer Howard vision was to reverse the depopulation of the countryside which had seen thousands of people leave rural areas in the Victorian era and move to towns and cities in search of work.

These Welwyn Rural District Council houses were the first to be completed and were built with white rough-cast walls as a result of an extreme shortage of bricks post-war.

Terraced houses in Parkway Close with white windows and doors and a long green lawn infront
Terraced houses in Parkway Close © Historic England DP088300

The company founded its own brickworks and, whether buildings were domestic, civic, community or commercial, the architecture of the new city became principally red brick and neo-Georgian in the inter-war years (although other styles appeared as the city developed).

These designs by De Soissons referenced Hertfordshire’s many original Georgian buildings – geometric and unostentatious; with white-painted sash windows, pantile roofs and decorative elements such as pediments to entrances

De Soissons grouped buildings to have a visual impact and experimented with cul-de-sac design. Front gardens were open to the roads which had wide grass verges. There were no more than 12 houses to an acre as Howard had specified.

Houses in Peartree Lane with two large trees outside
Houses in Peartree Lane illustrating how De Soissons’ retained mature trees © Jerry Young.

Before Welwyn Garden City was built, the position of every tree on the original agricultural land was recorded. The city’s new streetscapes cleverly incorporated these mainly oaks and elms where possible (see the Handside Lane image earlier). Few were cut down. New roads were planted with young trees.

Examples of housing

By 1926, 1,818 houses had been built. Twelve years later the city’s population had reached 13,500.

Neo geogian house with white windows and doors, with a tree outside
Ebenezer Howard lived in the modest semi-detached house pictured – No. 5 Guessens Road – during the early development of the city. De Soissons moved to No. 17 in 1925, living there until 1937. Sir Frederic Osborn, a key member of the Garden City Movement, lived at No. 16 © Jerry Young

De Soissons was hugely influential on the development of Welwyn Garden City, designing and planning around forty percent of the building schemes over four decades, until his death in 1962. (Ebenezer Howard had died in 1928). Around 20 other architects worked on the city’s plan, with all designs subject to De Soissons’ exacting approval and the company directors’ agreement.

Louis de Soissons’ architectural practice bearing his name continues to this day.

Blue plaque with Sir Ebenzer Howard OBE, Creator of Garden cities, lived here 1923 - 1928, written on it in white text
Sir Ebenezer Howard’s plaque © Jerry Young

Civic and community buildings

Civic buildings and community facilities were also designed by De Soisson in the same restrained neo-Georgian style as his early housing.

Educational and religious buildings

Applecroft school, originally called Handside school, was the first school to be built in Welwyn Garden City, opening in 1923. Its design, with its light and airy classrooms, was considered radical at the time.

The Free Church – dedicated in 1929 – is in brick Dutch/Expressionist style, with a striking stepped gable entrance and matching imposing stepped windows.

Industry and commerce

Factories

Shredded Wheat advert with factory and the wheat
An ink blotter, probably from the 1930s, advertising Shredded Wheat produced in Welwyn Garden City. Image via Creative Commons.

A key aspect of Ebenezer Howard’s vision was that residents could find employment where they lived; that they could walk or cycle to and from work. Welwyn Garden City would not be a ‘dormitory town’, emptied of workers in the morning who only returned at the end of the day. To that end the city had to be economically self-sufficient.

Its industrial zone became home to many modern industries, attracted by the city’s healthy image, availability of land, good rail links and ready skilled labour.

Among them were Barcley Corsets (1927), Murphy Radio (1928) – one of the biggest electronics manufacturers in the world, Welwyn (film) Studios (1928), the American Nabisco Shredded Wheat company and the Swiss pharmaceutical business, Roche Products.

Shredded Wheat factory with its 15 enormous grain silos
The landmark Shredded Wheat factory with its 15 enormous grain silos, Broadwater Road, pictured before its partial demolition. Built in 1924, it closed January 2008. The site is ear-marked for mixed development, including residential and commercial. Listed Grade II © Historic England BB9204633.

Nabisco chose the city as its manufacturing base for Shredded Wheat after persuasive lobbying by Howard. Production started in 1925 with 100 employees.

De Soissons’ advanced modern factory design was complemented with model conditions for employees, including free midday lunches, pristine white-tiled bathrooms, tennis courts and a 5-day week.

Contemporary image of part of the administrative block of the former Roche Products factory
Contemporary image of part of the administrative block of the former Roche Products factory, Broadwater Road. (The company has since moved to a new site within the city). Listed Grade II. Image via Creative Commons.

Roche Products moved to the city in 1937. Their factory was designed by the Swss architect Otto Salvisberg in Modernist style and approved by Louis de Soissons. The factory was spacious and light-filled; its innovative design embodying the forward-looking nature of the the new modern city.

Retail and financial

The former Welwyn Stores
The former Welwyn Stores, Bridge Road, built 1939 – now a John Lewis department stor – designed by De Soissons, and an imposing presence facing The Campus © Historic England DP088288

The original plan was that the residents should shop in just one place and that would be the company’s own Welwyn Stores. In 1921, a ten year embargo was placed on private shops, much to the resentment of residents. WH Smith on Howardsgate became the first shop in the city centre, opening in 1930. The area gradually developed as further shops were allowed to start trading.

Barclays was the city’s first bank (1920), initially trading from a hut, before moving to a landmark neo-Georgian building in Howardsgate designed by De Soisson.

Post-Second World War

82-105 Knightsfield, 1955
82-105 Knightsfield, 1955. These maisonettes, created for the New Town Development Corporation, are part of one of De Soissons’ most distinctive post-war schemes. Listed Grade II. Only a handful of buildings in the city are protected by listing, but there are nine conservation areas © Historic England DP088302.

Welwyn Garden City was designated a new town under the New Towns Act of 1946. The Act allowed for an ambitious programme of building new towns near to London and other major urban areas as part of the regeneration of the country post-war.

The Welwyn Garden City company handed responsibility for future development to the Welwyn Garden City Development Corporation. Louis De Soissons was its Chief Architect. He contributed to, and oversaw, the city’s expansion until his death 16 years later, with his architectural practice continuing to be responsible for many building schemes and control of design in the following decades.

Welwyn Garden City, along with Letchworth, served as prototypes, providing a radical and inspirational contribution to urban planning, both in Britain and internationally.

Written by Nicky Hughes

Further Reading

9 comments on “The Story of Welwyn Garden City

  1. Great article. I like the designs throughout the article.Good reuse of thee building by John Lewis Co. too.

  2. Geoffrey Hollis

    Louis de Soissons was born into a wholly Polish family. His parents married in Paris then sailed to North America, adopting the surname De Soissons somewhere along the way.

  3. It would be interesting to see an assessment of how Garden Cities perform in today’s context of concerns with carbon footprint and the need for more sustainable ways of city building.

  4. Sundra West

    what is not known is that Letchworth garden city was dry (no pubs) don`t know about Welwyn

    • Denis Smith

      Possibly the same for WGC. The only pubs in de Soisons’s plan (above) were buildings constructed for another purpose and later converted, eg a small hospital is now “The Doctor’s Tonic” . Other pubs, I believe, are built on what de Soissons designated “Agricultural Land”

  5. Rebecca B

    great article – please correct the errant apostrophe in the heading ‘Louis De Soisson’s Welwyn Garden City masterplan’

  6. Christopher Gallagher

    How interesting to read this very informative piece. I have recently completed a Landscape Masterplan for The Homestead, York; a modest late Arts & Crafts house built 1904 for Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree to designs by Architect Fred Rowntree and senstively modified and extended as the offices of Rowntree Mackintosh in c.1978 by the Louis de Soissons Partnership, who also undertook landscaping works for an expanded garden & park at the same time. The park has been managed as a free-to-access public park since 1936, as explicitly requested by Seebohm Rowntree when he moved from The Homestead to Buckinghamshire, eventually residing in one of the wings of Hughenden House.

  7. Sanchia Redston

    I was interested to see the 1948 map of the town I was born in 1944 and lived at 9 Fearnley Road which was the last road in the town at that time.As a small child I remember with horror ,the felling of a row of huge oak trees just beyond our back gardenI ready for the building of Honeycroft.

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