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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Development of housing
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
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