Ebenezer Howard (1850 - 1928)

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The man behind the birth of the Garden City movement was born in Fore Street in the City of London, the son of a shopkeeper.

He had no particular advantages of class, or special education, but at an early age he was sent away to school, where recieved an early exposure to a more rural environment. Firstly in Suffolk, then Cheshunt in Hertfordshire and finally completing his education at the age of 15 at Stoke Hall, Ipswich.

He worked in a series of clerical posts and learned shorthand.  Transcribing sermons for one of his early employers,  Dr Parker of the City Temple, who observed that he could have been a successful preacher.

Influenced by an Uncle who was a farmer, at the age of 21 he emigrated with two companions to the United States with the intention of farming. They travelled to the West and he settled on 160  acres in Howard County, Nebraska as a homestead farmer. This venture did not work out and shortly he made his way to the city of Chicago, Illinois to resume his career as an office worker.

He arrived at a time when the city was recovering from the Great fire of 1871 which had destroyed most of the central business district.

While he worked for a firm of law stenographers Howard witnessed the regeneration of the central business district and the development of the city's rapidly growing suburbs.

The American landscape artist F.L.Olmsted prepared a master plan for a suburban community where the layout was informal with spacious plots for houses with landscaped parkway roads. Olmsted was also responsible for Central Park , New York.

In 1876 Howard returned to England where he joined a firm of official Parliamentary reporters. Here he was responsible for recording the details of debates , committees and commissions. Through his work he became aware of, and frustrated by how difficult Parliament found it to find solutions to the problems of housing and labour.

Howard observed that all parties no matter how opposed politically, socially or by religious beliefs were virtually united by one issue, the continued stream migration from country districts to the already overcrowded cities.

On the other side of the problem , the country and agricultural land was being stripped of its able bodied population. Depressing the economy of these areas and leaving villages deserted with the remaining population crowded into poor quality dwellings.

The shortage of living accomodation for agricultural workers and the decline of the agricultural communities increased the pressure that drove the people towards the towns and cities.

Working long hours for low wages the agricultural workers could not afford to rent properties at a level that encouraged new building.

The migration of the population led to disasterous living conditions in both the cities and the country for those without the money to get away from the worst of it. The overcrowding and the industrial pollution together with the lack of good water supplies, poor drainage , poverty and slum living conditions led to disease.

Several outbreaks of cholera between 1831 and 1854 killed hundreds of thousands, creating national concern for the public health. Various reports around the early 1840's reported on Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes . Polluted water supplies due to inadequate or total lack of sanitary sewage and waste facilities , poor burial practices , and the effect of overcrowded housing were all identified as sources of disease.

Gradually public health legislation led to improvements in water supply and drainage and planning controls for buildings were introduced. This led to the mass of suburban housing built to conform with the new legislation around existing cities. It didn't address the problem of migration.

Howard had always been interested in inventions and inventing. He revisited America between 1876 and 1898 in connection with these and the introduction of the Remington typewriter into England.

In 1879 he married Elizabeth Ann Bills, an intelligent woman with a love of the countryside. They had three daughters and a son, and nine grandchildren.

Although it is doubtful that he ever made any profit from his inventions , they were an important part of his life, and he had a small workshop to develop his ideas throughout most of his life.

Once an idea for a project took shape he would pursue the solution relentlessly even if there was no likelyhood of any financial gain from his efforts.

As a young man Howard had spent his spare time moving in various intelectual circles including nonconformist churchmen , other religious groups and reformers. The land question was a major source of discussion among these groups, and the many issues concerning land ownership, land nationalisation, land taxation, land values, and the problems of urban squalor and poverty would have been issues he was well aware of.

He could also see the various attempts being made by industrialists to set up healthy, well planned model communities for their employees.

There were several developments earlier developments for example Copley in 1849-53, but the most notable were those by W.H.Lever (1851-1925) and George Cadbury (1839-1922) who were both later involved in the Garden City movement.

Lever built an empire from the success of Sunlight soap, and in 1888 began the creation of a model village on the west bank of the river Mersey, near his factory . This was near an earlier model village built by Prices Patent Candles around 1853. Lever interested in architecture and town planning, also built housing at Thornton Hough, and his developments became a great attraction to polititions and royalty.

Cadbury produced a quite different community which made up to half the housing in the available to the general public, making it a more normal community. Starting  around 1895 Bournville's architect / planner was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement he designed terraces and semi detached cottages, with garden areas and allotments to allow families to grow their own fresh food.

The housing here was of a quality and design that influenced later construction at New Earswick (built for the employees of Rowntree in 1902, this village was begun by Parker and Unwin before Letchworth and features many of the ideas that they would develop for the Garden City), and early estates by London County Council.

By the late 1880's a new movement in architecture and design was being advocated by John Ruskin and William Morris .

Ruskin in particular appears to have forseen the Garden City movement with descriptions of improved environment, and integration of town and country in his writings.

Morris lectured for the socialist league and promoted the concept of "decency of surroundings" which included: "Ample space, well built clean healthy housing , abundant garden space, preservation of natural landscape, pollution and litter free". Raymond Unwin joined the socialist league in the 1880's and was closely involved with Morris.

In 1884-5 The Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes reported on the worstening conditions of slum housing, and in 1888 a major study of urban conditions by Charles Booth revealed that over 300,000 of the 900,000 population of East London were living in extreme poverty.

Howard's reading included a wide variety of works on diverse political and economic theories and he later credited various philosophers and reformers with nearly discovering the Garden City.

The Trigger

A novel by the American novelist Edward Bellamy "Looking Backward" (a futuristic novel about Boston in the year 2000), published in 1888 impressed Howard so much that he purchased 100 copies which he distributed among his friends. (The link should take you to a site that seems to have the whole novel on it)

He was inspired by this rather Utopian vision of a future city and society to be involved in bringing a new better civilisation into existence, and he began to create his own plan.

Howard immediately began apply his practical brain to the Utopian dream that had inspired him and by combining elements of various projects and concepts , refining theories and philosophies that he came to develop his own master plan published in 1898 "Tomorrow a Peaceful Path to Real Reform / Garden Cities of Tomorrow"

He described his concept in great detail using diagrams and economic argument but made it clear that the plan was be adjusted to suit the site of the city.

An illustration to show one of Howard's key ideas

The individual Garden City was only part of a much larger development which proposed a cluster of Garden Cities around a Central City all interconnected and sharing leisure facilities and services.To this end Howard acquired the land for Welwyn Garden City shortly after Letchworth was started.

His book met with mixed reaction. Howard however began lecturing around the country and by June 1899 enough interest had been aroused in his ideas for the Garden City Association to be inaugurated. The  Association met and discussed practical ways of implementing the plan.

Its membership took in a broad selection of polititions, industrialists and professionals who considered a multitude of related topics in committees. In May 1900 the Association resolved to form a limited company, but this did not materialise for two years.

In 1901 Ralph Neville K.C. was recruited to the Association and subsequently elected chairman, and Thomas Adams a Scots surveyor interested in rural regeneration was appointed Secretary.

The first Garden City Association Conference was held in 1901, hosted by George Cadbury.

Among the speakers Raymond Unwin moved a resolution and complemented the London County Council on its recent legislation to undertake housing schemes to improve housing for the working classes.

Bernard Shaw also made a contributions as did F. Lee Ackerman and H Claphham Lander. (Designer of the co-operative flats in Sollershott East).

Publicity from this conference and the A.G.M in December 1901 was considerable and Adams promoted and represented the Association in the press and at conferences.

Howard revised and republished his book as Garden Cities of Tomorrow, as it is known today. It cost 5p in paperback.

Support grew and in 1902 the Garden City Pioneer Company was formed to locate and aquire a site on which to create and manage the proposed Garden City. Ralph Neville KC became chairman, Howard , Managing Director and the board included Edward Cadbury, T.H.W. Idris and H.D.Pearsall a civil engineer. Principal share holders included George Cadbury , W.H Lever and A. Harmsworth (proprietor of the Daily Mail).

The search for a suitable site was quite extensive and several sites were considered and rejected, but in 1903 Herbert Warren the Pioneer Companies solicitor examined the site of Letchford Manor between Hitchin and Baldock in Hertfordshire. The estate was not large enough but surrounding land was acquired from other land owners.

First Garden City Limited was formed in September 1903 and shares were issued to raise capital, and although initial investment was quite rapid this slowed. The early development of the city reflected the lack of readily available funds.

The Estate was declared open October 9th 1903 at a very muddy ceremony by Earl Grey, Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland a patron of the Garden City movement.

Now that the land had been acquired it was urgent that a layout be devised and develoment commence. Several designers were approached and a limited competition was held to choose a plan. Three entries were presented Parker and Unwin's, Lethaby and Riccado's and Lucas and Cranfield's. All three groups were at that time part of the Art and Crafts Movement in Architecture and design.

Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin , arranged for plans to be presented to the board in January 1904 and subject to the requirements of the Great Northern Railway they were provisionally accepted. In February these plans were issued as The Company Plan and a public launch in London was arranged.

In March 1904 Parker and Unwin were appointed consulting architects to oversee the project.

The attempt to create a community blending the advantages of both the town and the country, with pleasant environment, plentiful local employment, peopled in Howards own words "by a happy people", began.

Mrs Howard died in 1904 just as the building of Letchworth began and Howard went to live in The First Garden City himself in 1905, and remarried in 1907. Howard lived in Norton Way South for a time and Homesgarth from 1911.

He was elected President of the newly formed Garden Cities and Town Planning Federation in 1913, an influential international body , became an honorary member of the Town Planning Institute in 1914.

He moved to Welwn Garden City in 1921 where he had begun his second Garden City. He remained here until his death on May 1st, 1928 after being diagnosed as suffering from a chest infection and stomach cancer in March.

Howard was Knighted in the New Years honours for 1927

Elements of the Garden City concept can be seen in many developments throughout the country. Welwyn Garden City was developed as a second Garden City. The land for this was purchased by Howard for development just 15 years after Letchworth was started which seems to show his confidence in his master plan.

Letchworth has tried over the years to remain true to the concepts and principles of Ebenezer Howard, with varying levels of success.

Some of the housing on the new estates built by the councils are just typical social housing, but many have good sized gardens and pleasant surroundings .

Many of the original industries that came to Letchworth have gone away, failed or changed almost beyond recognition, and as with all towns and cities a constant battle goes on to keep the town center alive in the face of out of town and now online competition.

New industries constantly start up on the industrial estates as others close or move away. With some of the Indusrial space being used for new housing.

The cities business space is constantly evolving trying to meet ever changing needs. The Spirella Building has been refurbished to meet the needs of new hi tech industries instead of manufacturing corsets and Shelvoke's old beilding has changed use a couple of times and is presently the home of the Heritage Foundation.

A new supermarket and college has replaced the old college complex that was so out of keeping with its surroundings.

The Arcades been refurbished, traffics been calmed, public houses suddenly start sprang up and new traffic systems and CCTV cameras watch from street corners.

Some people are pleased to see change, others want it to be like a museum, speaking of which Letchworth's Museum and Art Gallery has been relocated to a new building in Hitchin and forms part of a new North Herts Museum

There are museums of the Garden Cities History, but I think the original concept was to make a pleasant living functional city. For it to stay that way it has to change to meet the needs of the day, without giving up its original aesthetic and moral principles to provide a good living and working environment for all its inhabitants.

It's not an easy job and now in 2015 with changes to the residential, shopping and business areas Letchworth has lost a lot of its character and is beginning to look like many other towns, with a original buildings being extended and altered and the newer more crowded housing being developed.

Howard at Spartacus Educational

Howard at Herts Memories

LETCHWORTH a town built on a book (digital archive) Garden City 1898

Any opinions expressed above are personal opinions of the the author of this site, all facts are as accurate as the various sources I have used. Please verify independently if it's important for your work.. I have no connection to any official organisation or authority