Letchworth Garden City
Letchworth Town Hall - geograph.org.uk - 106326.jpg

Letchworth Town Hall
Letchworth Garden City is located in Hertfordshire
Letchworth Garden City
Letchworth Garden City
Location within Hertfordshire
Population33,249 (2011 census)[1]
OS grid referenceTL215325
District
Shire county
Region
CountryEngland
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Post townLetchworth Garden City
Postcode districtSG6
Dialling code01462
PoliceHertfordshire
FireHertfordshire
AmbulanceEast of England
UK Parliament
List of places
UK
England
Hertfordshire
51°58′41″N 0°13′48″W / 51.978°N 0.230°W / 51.978; -0.230Coordinates: 51°58′41″N 0°13′48″W / 51.978°N 0.230°W / 51.978; -0.230

Letchworth Garden City, commonly known as Letchworth, is a town and unparished area, in the North Hertfordshire district, in the county of Hertfordshire, England. It is noted for being the first garden city. The population at the time of the 2011 census was 33,249.[1] The town lies on the Bedfordshire border and is the administrative headquarters of North Hertfordshire District Council.[2]

Letchworth was an ancient parish, appearing in the Domesday Book of 1086.[3] It remained a small rural village until the start of the twentieth century. The development of the modern town began in 1903, when much of the land in Letchworth and the neighbouring parishes of Willian and Norton was purchased by a company called First Garden City Limited, founded by Ebenezer Howard and his followers with the aim of building the first "garden city", following the principles Howard had set out in his 1898 book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. Their aim was to create a new type of settlement which provided jobs, services, and good housing for residents, whilst retaining the environmental quality of the countryside, in contrast to most industrial cities of the time.[4]

The town's initial layout was designed by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker.[5] It includes the United Kingdom's first roundabout, Sollershott Circus, which was built c. 1909.[6][7]

Letchworth today retains large business areas providing jobs in a variety of sectors, and the landlord's profits are reinvested for the benefit of the community by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, a charitable trust which since 1995 has owned much of the town as successor to First Garden City Limited. The town has extensive parkland and open spaces, with Norton Common and Howard Park both holding the Green Flag Award for well-managed green space.[8] The town lies 32 miles (51 km) north of London, on the railway linking London to Cambridge, and it also adjoins the A1 road, making it relatively popular with commuters. Residential areas in the town are mixed, with large parts of the town covered by conservation areas in recognition of their quality, whilst the town also contains four of the five poorest-scoring neighbourhoods in North Hertfordshire for deprivation.[9]

As the world's first garden city, Letchworth has had a notable impact on town planning and the new towns movement; it influenced nearby Welwyn Garden City, which used a similar approach, whilst aspects of the principles demonstrated at Letchworth have been incorporated into other projects around the world including the Australian capital Canberra, Hellerau in Germany, Tapiola in Finland and Mežaparks in Latvia.[10]

History

Before the Garden City: Old Letchworth

St Mary's Church, Letchworth
St Mary's Church, Letchworth

The area now occupied by Letchworth has been inhabited since prehistoric times. A late Bronze Age hill fort, thought to date from c. 700 BC, stood on Wilbury Hill, beside the ancient road of Icknield Way. The hill fort was refortified c. 400 BC in the Middle Iron Age, and appears to have been occupied until the Roman conquest of Britain.[11] Evidence for Bronze Age, Romano-British and late Iron Age settlement has also been found in the fields between Norton village and the A1.[12]

By the time of the Norman Conquest, Letchworth was established as a village. The name is derived from the Old English "lycce weorth", meaning a farm inside a fence or enclosure.[13] It appears in the Domesday Book of 1086 as "Leceworde", when it was described as having nine households of villagers, four cottagers, one slave and one priest. The presence of the priest suggests that Letchworth was by that time a parish.[3] Letchworth's parish church was built in the 12th century, but likely on the site of an earlier building. The original dedication of the church is unknown, but it was rededicated to St Mary during the First World War.[14][15] The village was along Letchworth Lane, stretching from St Mary's and the adjoining medieval manor house of Letchworth Hall up to the staggered crossroads of Letchworth Lane, Hitchin Road, Baldock Road and Spring Road.[16] Letchworth was a relatively small parish, having a population in 1801 of 67, rising to 96 by 1901.[17]

The early days of the Garden City

Howard's depiction of the choice of town design as a contest between three magnets (select image for transcript)
Howard's depiction of the choice of town design as a contest between three magnets (select image for transcript)

In 1898, the social reformer Ebenezer Howard wrote To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (republished in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow), in which he advocated the construction of a new kind of town, which he called a "garden city". The idea was summed up in a diagram called the "Three Magnets", showing how the mixed advantages and disadvantages of town or country living could be combined into a third option, "Town-Country", offering the advantages of both cities and the countryside while eliminating their disadvantages. Industry would be kept separate from residential areas, whilst the residents would have good access to parks and the countryside. The garden city would be contained in a belt of open countryside. Howard saw this surrounding band of countryside an integral part of the garden city concept, providing land not just for agriculture, but also for children's homes, asylums, new forests and brickfields. Echoes of this idea of a protected rural belt were later taken up more generally in town planning in Britain from the mid-twentieth century as the green belt.[18][19]

Howard's ideas were mocked in some sections of the press but struck a chord with many, especially members of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Quakers.[20] After examining several possible locations for establishing a garden city, the garden city pioneers settled on Letchworth as the chosen site. The Letchworth Hall estate had come up for sale, and whilst it alone was too small, secret negotiations with fourteen adjoining landowners allowed an estate of 3,818 acres (1,545 hectares) to be assembled and purchased for £155,587. A company called First Garden City Limited was established on 1 September 1903 to purchase the land and begin building the garden city.[19]

In 1904, architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker won a competition for designing the town's layout, and were appointed as consulting architects to the company. Most of the pre-existing trees and hedgerows were preserved in the layout. Unwin took the alignment of the town's main avenue (Broadway) from three old oak trees which stood on the central plateau of the estate and were incorporated into the central square (Broadway Gardens).[21][22]

A temporary railway halt was built in 1903 on the Great Northern Railway's Hitchin, Royston and Cambridge branch line, which crosses the middle of the garden city estate. Initially, services were irregular special trains for excursions and construction workers. A more substantial (but still temporary) wooden station was opened in 1905 with a regular passenger service. The current railway station was built in 1912 a little to the east of the wooden station, in a prominent location at the end of Broadway.[23]

The first new houses were occupied in July 1904. The following month First Garden City Limited held a vote amongst shareholders and residents on what name the new garden city should take. Several options were proposed, including "Garden City", "Homeworth" and "Alseopolis". The chosen name was "Letchworth (Garden City)".[24] The company adopted this as its name for the town, but adoption of the name was not universal. The legal name of the civil parish and (after 1919) urban district remained simply "Letchworth". First Garden City Limited also gradually dropped the "(Garden City)" suffix from the name, partly reflecting common usage, and partly taking the view that as the town matured it should not permanently be seen as an experiment. Similarly, the town's railway station was initially called "Letchworth (Garden City)", but was renamed "Letchworth" in 1937.[25]

Mrs Howard Memorial Hall, opened 1906
Mrs Howard Memorial Hall, opened 1906

Ebenezer Howard's wife, Lizzie (Eliza Ann Bills), died in November 1904 in London, shortly before she had been due to move to a new house in Letchworth with her husband. As a memorial to her a public hall was built, paid for by public subscriptions. The Mrs Howard Memorial Hall opened in 1906 and was one of the town's first public buildings.[26]

In 1905, and again in 1907, the company held "Cheap Cottages Exhibitions", which were contests for architects and builders to demonstrate innovations in inexpensive housing. The 1905 exhibition attracted some 60,000 visitors. The popularity of the exhibitions was significant in leading the Daily Mail to launch the Ideal Home Exhibition (which later became the Ideal Home Show), in 1908.[27][28] One possible visitor to the fledgling town was Lenin, who was reputed to have visited during May 1907 whilst attending the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in London. Contemporary evidence confirming the visit is lacking, but the claim was published in the Daily Mail and the Daily Sketch in November 1916 as part of articles accusing the town of being a haven for communists and conscientious objectors—claims which the town denied.[29][30][31][32]

Howgills, the Quakers' Meeting House of 1907
Howgills, the Quakers' Meeting House of 1907

For the first few years the new town's Anglicans had to travel out to the old parish churches at Letchworth village, Willian or Norton on the edges of the estate. Many of the town's pioneers had non-conformist leanings, in keeping with the radical spirit of the early town. The first new place of worship to be built was the Free Church, built in 1905 (later rebuilt in 1923). It was followed in 1907 by 'Howgills', the Meeting House for the Society of Friends.[33]

The Skittles Inn, opened 1907. Became "The Settlement", an adult education centre, in 1925.[34]
The Skittles Inn, opened 1907. Became "The Settlement", an adult education centre, in 1925.[34]

Letchworth's founding citizens, attracted by the promise of a better life, were often caricatured by outsiders as idealistic and otherworldly. John Betjeman in his poems Group Life: Letchworth and Huxley Hall painted Letchworth people as earnest health freaks. One commonly-cited example of this is the ban, most unusual for a British town, on selling alcohol in public premises. This was initially decided by a public vote in June 1907, in which 54% voted against allowing a licensed public house. This did not stop the town having a "pub" however – the Skittles Inn or the "pub with no beer" which opened in March 1907.[35][36]

Despite the ban it is not entirely true to say that there were no pubs in the Garden City. Pubs that had existed from before the foundation of the Garden City—including the Three Horseshoes in Norton, and the Three Horseshoes and the Fox in Willian—continued to operate, and undoubtedly benefited from the lack of alcohol to be had in the centre of the town, as did the pubs in neighbouring Hitchin and Baldock. New inns also sprang up on the borders of the town, including the Wilbury Hotel which opened in 1940 just outside the town's border.[37] The ban was finally lifted after a referendum in 1957, which led to the opening of the Broadway Hotel in 1962 as the first public house in the centre of the Garden City. Several other public houses have opened since then, but to this day the town centre has only about half-a-dozen pubs, a remarkably low number for a town of its size.[38]

Industry

The Spirella Building

One of the most prominent industries to arrive in the town in the early years was the manufacture of corsets; the Spirella Company, an American business, founded its British subsidiary in the town in 1910. In 1912 they built the first phase of a large factory, the Spirella Building, designed by Cecil Hignett in the Arts and Crafts style. It was completed in 1920. The building's prominence in the town led to it being nicknamed "Castle Corset". During the Second World War, the factory was also involved in producing parachutes and decoding machinery.[39]

The town attracted and developed a diverse range of industries. Other significant early businesses included:

The biggest employer for a number of years was the British Tabulating Machine Company, which moved from London to Letchworth in 1920. In 1958 it merged with Powers-Samas to become International Computers and Tabulators (ICT) and finally became part of International Computers Limited (ICL) in 1969. At one time the "Tab", as it was known, occupied over 30 factories in Icknield Way, Works Road and finally in Blackhorse Road. In the Second World War, a number of early computers were built in what became known as the ICL 1.1 plant.[47]

During the 1970s and 1980s many of the town's large manufacturing businesses closed. The Kryn and Lahy Steel Foundry closed in 1979.[48] Spirella and ICL both closed their factories in 1989. Borg-Warner also closed its factory during this period. The town went through a period of relatively high unemployment in the early 1980s. Some of the vacated factory sites were redeveloped as business parks and serviced offices, and the town's economy shifted away from a small number of large manufacturing businesses to a large number of smaller office-based businesses.[49]

Housing

217 Icknield Way: Winner of best £150 cottage competition at the 1905 Cheap Cottages Exhibition.[50]
217 Icknield Way: Winner of best £150 cottage competition at the 1905 Cheap Cottages Exhibition.[50]

Early housing development in Letchworth largely followed Unwin and Parker's masterplan. The first houses built after the founding of the garden city were a group of six houses called "Alpha Cottages" at 22–32 Baldock Road, where the first residents moved in during July 1904.[51] The Cheap Cottages Exhibitions of 1905 and 1907 saw many individually-designed and often experimental homes built. The 1905 exhibition was mostly held in the area between the railway and Norton Common, along a road called Exhibition Road (later renamed Nevells Road) and the adjoining roads. The 1907 exhibition was mostly to the south of the town in the area around Lytton Avenue and Souberie Avenue.[52][53]

Prior to the First World War much of the town's other housing development was to the north-east and east of the nascent town centre, within walking distance of, but separated from, the main industrial area on the eastern edge of the town. To the north-east of the town was an area which had been known as Glebe Fields, stretching up to the edge of Norton village. To the east of the town centre was another area of modest housing around Rushby Mead, largely built in an informal Arts and Crafts style, with many of the houses being finished with cream painted rough-cast render, green doors and drainpipes, and red clay-tiled roofs. To the south-west of the town centre was an area of larger individually-designed houses along Broadway and Sollershott towards Letchworth village, which were mostly built for the upper middle classes and were furthest away from the industrial area.[53]

In the interwar period housing was built to the east of the town in the Pixmore area (taking its name from the moor of the Pix Brook, the main watercourse in the town), the Westbury area to the west of the town, and the Wilbury area to the north-west of the town, taking its name from the Bronze Age hill fort.[54]

After the Second World War the focus for new development was on large council estates. To the north of the town work began on the Grange estate in 1947. The estate included its own primary schools, recreation ground, public house and a neighbourhood shopping centre on Southfields. The land for the estate was compulsorily purchased from First Garden City Limited by Letchworth Urban District Council.[55][56]

In 1959 an area to the south-east of the town was also compulsorily purchased by Letchworth Urban District Council from First Garden City Limited, with funding provided by London County Council as the area was to accommodate London overspill. This became the Jackmans estate, taking its name from an old wood there called Jackmans Plantation, which had already lent its name to the nearby street of Jackmans Place, built in the 1920s.[57][58] The Jackmans estate was developed on the "Radburn principle" which had been pioneered in Radburn, New Jersey, a town which was itself inspired by the garden city movement. The main road on the Jackmans estate is called Radburn Way in acknowledgement of its inspiration. The idea was to minimise the impact of traffic by having houses face onto pedestrian-only green lanes and open spaces, with parking and servicing provided in garage courts behind the houses. In some cases the housing on the Jackmans estate varied in quality as various different construction methods were tried, including the pre-fabrication of some houses at a shipyard in Sunderland.[59]

Private housing resumed more slowly after the Second World War, partly due to the tight controls on building materials and licences which were imposed and remained in force until 1954.[60] As these restrictions eased, additional areas of private housing were built to the south of the town around Howard Drive. This area south of the town was significantly enlarged by the Lordship estate, begun in 1971, which took its name from the old farm in Willian to which the fields had belonged. The nearby Manor Park Estate, to the south-west of the town adjoining Letchworth village, was also begun in 1971. Following the completion of these developments in the 1980s, most new housing in the town has been on previously-developed land, as sites vacated by closed schools and businesses have been redeveloped.[59][61]

UK's first roundabout

Sollershott Circus, the United Kingdom's first roundabout
Sollershott Circus, the United Kingdom's first roundabout

Innovation in Letchworth was not confined to the design of buildings. The 1904 layout plan included a point on the main avenue where six roads converged, with the roads later being named Broadway (two arms), Spring Road (two arms), Sollershott East, and Sollershott West. Detailed plans drawn up in July 1908 proposed a circular traffic island at this point, influenced by the Place de l'Etoile in Paris, which Unwin wrote about in 1909. The Letchworth roundabout is known to have been in use by 1910. When first built, traffic could circulate around the central island in both directions; the instruction to keep left was not added until 1921. It was named "Sollershott Circus" and is recognised as the first roundabout on a public road in the United Kingdom. Two signs were erected on the roundabout in 2006 saying "UK's First Roundabout Built circa 1909".[62][63]

Wider impact of garden city

As the world's first garden city, Letchworth had a notable influence on town planning and the new towns movement in the twentieth century. It directly influenced Welwyn Garden City, founded by Ebenezer Howard in 1920 using a similar model to Letchworth,[64] and Hampstead Garden Suburb, founded in 1906 and also designed to a layout by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker.[65] Aspects of Letchworth's approach to blending town and county were subsequently used in the Australian capital Canberra, Hellerau in Germany,[66] Tapanila in Finland and Mežaparks in Latvia.[67]

Letchworth today

First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth
First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth

Since 1995, the garden city estate has been owned and managed by the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation. The estate eventually started yielding a financial surplus which could be used for the benefit of the town in 1973.[68] This led to investment in a number of town amenities: a working farm tourist attraction opened at Standalone Farm in 1980, the North Herts Leisure Centre and Plinston Hall theatre opened in 1982, and a free hospital (the Ernest Gardiner Day Hospital) opened in 1984.[69] The Broadway cinema was extensively refurbished in 1996, and the Heritage Foundation has also supported several projects to enhance the town centre.[70]

Large parts of the town covered by conservation areas in recognition of their quality. Conversely, the town also contains four of the five poorest-scoring neighbourhoods in North Hertfordshire for deprivation, being in parts of the Jackmans estate, Grange estate and Wilbury area.[9]

As the town approached its centenary, there was a campaign to change the name officially from Letchworth to "Letchworth Garden City", this time without the parentheses of the 1904 version of the name. Proponents of the change argued that as the later Welwyn Garden City incorporated the "Garden City" within its official name, so too should the first garden city at Letchworth. (The reason that the full name Welwyn Garden City had stuck for the second garden city was to distinguish it from nearby Welwyn which remained a separate village, unlike Letchworth village which had been subsumed within the first garden city.) The Letchworth campaign was successful, with the name of the railway station being changed in 1999 and the SG6 post town changing from Letchworth to Letchworth Garden City in 2003, the town's centenary year.[25]

The Heritage Foundation marked the town's centenary in 2003 by building a landscaped path for walkers and cyclists. The path, known as the Greenway, forms a 13.6-mile (21.9 km) loop around the town.[71]

Governance

There are two tiers of local government covering Letchworth, at district and county level: North Hertfordshire District Council and Hertfordshire County Council. In addition to these local government bodies, Letchworth is unique in having a private charity, the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, which is responsible for the management of many aspects of the garden city estate, having some planning and grant-making functions similar to those normally associated with local authorities. These functions derive from the Heritage Foundation's ownership of the estate and do not replace the usual local authority functions and responsibilities, but operate in addition to them.[72]

Local government

Historically, Letchworth was an ancient parish in the hundred of Broadwater. The parish also had a detached portion at Burleigh Farm, between Langley and Knebworth, some 6 miles (9.7 km) to the south of the rest of the parish.[73]

The parish of Letchworth was included in the Hitchin Poor Law Union from 1835.[74] Under the Local Government Act 1894, the parish became part of the Hitchin Rural District. The 1894 Act also created parish councils, but Letchworth's population was below the threshold to be given one, and so it only had a parish meeting.[75]

Following the commencement of work on Letchworth Garden City in 1903, the area purchased for the new town straddled the parishes of Letchworth, Willian and Norton. An unofficial "Residents' Union" or "Residents' Council" for the town was established in June 1905.[76]

Letchworth Parish Council (1908–1919)

The civil parish of Letchworth was substantially enlarged on 1 April 1908 to take over all of Norton parish, which was abolished, and the northern part of Willian parish. The detached part of Letchworth parish at Burleigh Farm was transferred to Knebworth at the same time. A parish council was established to administer the enlarged Letchworth parish, which remained part of the Hitchin Rural District. The first election to the new parish council was held on 6 April 1908. Sir John Gorst, a barrister and former Conservative Member of Parliament, was elected the first chairman of the parish council.[77][78][79]

Letchworth Urban District Council (1919–1974)

Letchworth
Urban District
Letchworth Urban District Council coat of arms.jpg
Coat of arms
Population
 • 192110,302
 • 197129,760[80]
History
 • Created1 April 1919
 • Abolished31 March 1974
 • Succeeded byNorth Hertfordshire
 • HQLetchworth
Contained within
 • County CouncilHertfordshire

On 1 April 1919 the parish of Letchworth was made an urban district, removing the parish from the Hitchin Rural District.[81] Letchworth Urban District Council was formed to replace the parish council, as well as taking over district-level responsibilities from the Hitchin Rural District Council. The first election to the urban district council was held on 9 April 1919, when fifteen councillors were elected: nine "all party", four Labour, and two independent. The first chairman of the urban district council was Charles Ball, a Conservative, who had been the chairman of the parish council since 1916.[82][83]

In the early years, the urban district council met at the Mrs Howard Memorial Hall, whilst administrative office functions were carried out at Broadway Chambers, part of the same building as First Garden City Limited's estate office.[84][85] In 1935 the council built Letchworth Town Hall on Broadway to act as its meeting place and offices. The building stands in a prominent position overlooking Broadway Gardens in the centre of the town. The building was initially called "Council House", changing its name to "Town Hall" in 1960.[86][87] The urban district was enlarged on 1 April 1935, absorbing the rest of Willian parish and parts of the neighbouring parishes of Graveley, Great Wymondley, Little Wymondley, and Weston.[88]

The council was granted a coat of arms on 11 December 1944.[89]

Letchworth Urban District Council, and particularly its town clerk, Horace Plinston, played a pivotal role in the battle for control of the garden city estate in the early 1960s. The council galvanised support for legislation creating the Letchworth Garden City Corporation to take over the assets of First Garden City Limited, which had been acquired by a property company and was considered to be at high risk of asset stripping.[90]

Over the course of its existence, the urban district council built nearly 5,000 homes in the town.[91]

North Hertfordshire District Council (1974–present)

Along with all other urban and rural districts in England, the Letchworth Urban District was abolished by the Local Government Act 1972. It merged with the urban districts of Hitchin, Baldock and Royston and the Hitchin Rural District to become the new district of North Hertfordshire on 1 April 1974.[92] With over 30% of the population of the new district, Letchworth was too large to be given a successor parish, and so it became an unparished area, governed directly by North Hertfordshire District Council, with higher-order services being provided by Hertfordshire County Council.[91] North Hertfordshire District Council established its headquarters in Letchworth in 1975 at the newly-built Council Offices on Gernon Road, which had been built as part of the Central Area (later Garden Square) Shopping Centre redevelopment.[93][94][95]

Letchworth Garden City Council (2005–2013)

The new two-tier arrangement stayed in place until 2005. During 2003 a petition was organised by a group of people dissatisfied with how the town was being managed by the Heritage Foundation, proposing that a parish council should be established for the town.[96] North Hertfordshire District Council then held a postal ballot on the issue in December 2003. On a turnout of 33%, there was a majority of 62% in favour.[97] The necessary order was made in December 2004 and a new civil parish called "Letchworth Garden City" came into being on 1 April 2005. The new parish council was officially "Letchworth Garden City Town Council", but chose to style itself "Letchworth Garden City Council", omitting the "Town" for simplicity.[98]

At the first elections to the town council all 24 seats were won by independent candidates. In August 2007 the town council's chairman, Philip Ross, adopted the title of mayor, as is usual for a chairman of a town council.[99]

The creation of Letchworth Garden City Council did not change the legal status or role of the Heritage Foundation. The town council tried to use its position to stimulate a debate about how the Heritage Foundation and the town more generally should be managed. Others felt that the town council itself was an unnecessary layer of administration, in particular criticising the growing amount of money it was adding to council tax bills.[100][101] The opposing views about both the Heritage Foundation and the town council were put to a poll in April 2008, which asked two questions. One was "Should Letchworth Garden City Council be dissolved?" which was supported by 76% of respondents. The other question was on whether the board of the Heritage Foundation should be directly elected, which was supported by 65%.[102][103]

Opponents of the town council organised themselves into a group called "Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish Council" (HELP).[104] At the June 2009 election HELP won 22 of the 24 seats on the council and began the process of trying to get the council formally abolished.[105] Among those to lose their seats in 2009 was the mayor, Philip Ross. The incoming council chairman, George Ritchie, announced at the first meeting of the newly elected council on 17 June 2009 that he would use the title chairman rather than mayor. As such, Letchworth had a mayor for less than two years.[106]

Shortly before the 2009 election, the town council had petitioned the College of Arms for a coat of arms, having found they were unable to use the former coat of arms of Letchworth Urban District Council. The incoming council was unaware of this application and, in the absence of any request to stop the process, the college issued the council's new arms in May 2010, which include the three magnets from Ebenezer Howard's diagram on a green background, and a black squirrel.[107]

The process of abolishing the town council took over three years, including legal action being taken and public consultation. The parish of Letchworth Garden City and its town council were eventually abolished on 31 March 2013.[108][109] Since 2013 the town has therefore once again been an unparished area, directly administered by North Hertfordshire District Council, as it had been between 1974 and 2005.[110] The 13 Letchworth councillors on the district council meet as the Letchworth Committee.[111]

Management of the Garden City estate

The current arrangements have evolved from one of Letchworth Garden City's founding principles, that the profits from the town should be used for the benefit of the residents.[112]

First Garden City Limited (1903–1962)

Estate Office, Broadway: First Garden City Limited's offices, built in 1913.
Estate Office, Broadway: First Garden City Limited's offices, built in 1913.

First Garden City Limited was founded in 1903 with the objectives of purchasing the land, overseeing the development of the town and managing it on behalf of the community. Once the garden city was substantially complete it was envisaged that the estate would be transferred to a public body which would manage it for the benefit of the community. The company's original articles of association limited the amount of return it would pay to its shareholders to no more than 5% per annum, and committed to reinvest the rest of its profits to develop the town and ultimately for the benefit of the residents. This commitment made it a very unusual company, but it was otherwise legally an ordinary joint stock company, owned by its shareholders.[113][114]

Until the Second World War, First Garden City Limited largely ran the emerging town. Where the law dictated that approval from the local authority was required, First Garden City Limited developed close working relationships with the Hitchin Rural District Council and (after 1919) Letchworth Urban District Council which ensured that such approvals were given when the company requested them. The company's layout plan was not underpinned by any statutory town planning role, but was instead a statement of intent from a private landowning company laying out its land as it wished.[115]

The relationship between the company and the council began to change after the Second World War. Nationally, the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 gave councils a far greater responsibility for town planning in their areas, introducing the general requirement for planning permission to develop land, and transferring all development value arising from the grant of planning permission to the state through the levying of a development charge.[116] The company's role in providing local utilities also changed, with its electricity services being nationalised in 1948 and gas services in 1949.[117][118] Meanwhile, the Companies Act 1948 created a simpler mechanism for companies to change their articles of association. In September 1949 the company took advantage of this new mechanism and changed its articles of association. Whereas the 1903 articles had indicated that when the company was wound up any surplus would be applied for the benefit of the town, the 1949 version of the articles indicated instead that the benefit to the town was to be only 10% of any surplus, with the rest to be distributed among the shareholders of the company.[119][120]

The government's repeal of the development charge in 1953 restored the future development value of the estate to the company, but nevertheless the amount of surplus likely to pass to the town was further eroded through the 1950s. In 1956 limits on dividends to shareholders were removed, with the company chairman, Eric Macfadyen declaring that "there is no binding obligation to carry out the original policy." By 1959 the dividends being paid represented a 23% return for shareholders on the original capital.[121][122]

In December 1960 a company called Hotel York Limited acquired a controlling interest in First Garden City Limited. Hotel York's chairman, Amy Rose (née Charles), became managing director of First Garden City Limited in January 1961.[123][124] Hotel York Limited had been founded in 1906 and had previously owned and run hotels in London, including the Berners Hotel. The Rose family had taken control of Hotel York in 1957, and by 1960 all its properties had been sold, leaving the company with large reserves of cash. The town feared that such asset stripping might now happen to Letchworth, and the likelihood of the town gaining the financial benefit that Howard and the pioneers had originally envisaged was rapidly decreasing.[125] Initial assurances from Mrs Rose about maintaining the integrity of the estate did not last long. During 1961 First Garden City Limited started auctioning freeholds of parts of the estate and the company proposed to the county council that much of the estate's agricultural belt could be developed, allowing the town to grow to 60,000 people rather than the 32,000 which had originally been envisaged.[126]

Letchworth Garden City Corporation (1963–1995)

In response to these actions of First Garden City Limited under Mrs Rose's control, the Letchworth Urban District Council began a campaign to try and restore the original ethos of the garden city to the estate. It enlisted the support of the local Member of Parliament, Martin Maddan, who sponsored a bill in Parliament which, despite much opposition from Hotel York Limited, became the Letchworth Garden City Corporation Act 1962. The act created a public body, the Letchworth Garden City Corporation. On 1 January 1963 the new corporation was to take over the garden city estate as it had existed on 20 July 1961.[127][128] The corporation's officers were appointed by the Crown, the county council and the urban district council.[129] As the bill progressed through parliament and it became clearer that it would succeed, the relationship between First Garden City Limited and the council descended into open hostilities. When the new corporation's management finally arrived at the Estate Office on 1 January 1963 to take over, they discovered that the building had been stripped of its furniture and stationery the day before; it took some weeks to get Mrs Rose to release them.[130][131]

Compensation had to be paid to First Garden City Limited, which continued to exist as a company after its assets were claimed by the act, being a shell company controlled by Hotel York. Negotiations on the level of compensation took over three years to resolve. First Garden City Limited was finally wound up on 17 March 1966, and in July that year the company's liquidators and the corporation agreed compensation of £3,115,000.[132][133] Paying this compensation led to the Letchworth Garden City Corporation operating at a loss for its first few years, funded by loans from the urban district council. The debt was repaid in 1973 and the estate finally started to yield a profit that could be used for the benefit of the town as Howard had originally envisaged.[68]

Having recently taken over the freehold of the garden city estate, the corporation tried unsuccessfully to secure an exemption from the Leasehold Reform Act 1967, which gave long leaseholders of homes the right to acquire the freehold. A "scheme of management" was therefore introduced to allow the corporation to control changes which could be made to properties which had been acquired freehold (as well as retaining their control as landlord over land which remained leasehold). Such permissions under the scheme of management operate in addition to any requirement for planning permission from the council.[134] The scheme of management did not apply to the parts of the original garden city estate where the freehold had already been sold, notably including the Grange and Jackmans estates.[135]

Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (1995–present)

By the 1990s the political tide had turned against "quangos" and it became policy of the then Conservative government to abolish them, wherever possible. As a result, in 1995 the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation Act 1995 replaced the public sector corporation with the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation (LGCHF) – an "industrial and provident society" registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies with "exempt charity" status.[136]

The Heritage Foundation retains most of the former corporation's functions and responsibilities, and continues to operate the scheme of management for proposed developments on the estate.[137] Although a private body, with a chief executive (Graham Fisher, appointed 2017) and a team of executive directors, the Heritage Foundation also has a degree of democratic accountability with the directors reporting to a board of management, which includes local authority representatives. Six of the thirty governors of the Heritage Foundation are directly elected by residents, and ten governors are nominated to be representative of various groups in the town. The other fourteen governors are appointed by the board of trustees.[138][137][139]

The original ground leases were typically written to last for 99 years.[140] Following the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 many residents took advantage of the right to acquire the freehold of their properties, although the cost of acquiring freeholds significantly increased where there was little time left on the original lease.[141] Whilst many residential properties have been sold, the Heritage Foundation remains the landlord of most of the town's industrial, office and retail premises and the surrounding agricultural belt.[142]

The Letchworth Garden City estate is therefore owned by a charity which is intended to act for the benefit of the town's residents. In 2020 its assets were valued at £193 million. The net income is reinvested for the benefit of the community in accordance with the Heritage Foundation's charitable purposes. Such payments in 2020 totalled £6 million.[143]

Geography

Climate

Letchworth experiences an oceanic climate (Köppen climate classification Cfb) similar to almost all of the United Kingdom.

Climate data for Climate data from Letchworth
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 6.7
(44.1)
7.0
(44.6)
9.9
(49.8)
12.7
(54.9)
16.1
(61.0)
19.2
(66.6)
21.8
(71.2)
21.6
(70.9)
18.3
(64.9)
14.1
(57.4)
9.7
(49.5)
6.9
(44.4)
13.7
(56.7)
Average low °C (°F) 1.2
(34.2)
1.0
(33.8)
2.7
(36.9)
4.0
(39.2)
6.9
(44.4)
9.8
(49.6)
11.9
(53.4)
11.8
(53.2)
9.9
(49.8)
7.1
(44.8)
3.8
(38.8)
1.6
(34.9)
6.0
(42.8)
Average precipitation mm (inches) 67.0
(2.64)
47.7
(1.88)
49.1
(1.93)
54.1
(2.13)
52.0
(2.05)
52.7
(2.07)
48.8
(1.92)
62.5
(2.46)
57.2
(2.25)
81.1
(3.19)
75.0
(2.95)
65.1
(2.56)
712.3
(28.04)
Average precipitation days 12.1 9.4 10.2 10.2 8.8 8.6 8.0 8.8 8.9 11.0 11.6 11.0 118.5
Mean monthly sunshine hours 60.6 77.3 111.7 159.9 193.9 199.1 207.1 199.1 143.7 113.2 69.1 50.6 1,585.3
Source: [144]

Letchworth was struck by an F1/T2 tornado on 23 November 1981, as part of the record-breaking nationwide tornado outbreak on that day.[145]

Wildlife

Letchworth Garden City is home to one of the UK's largest colonies of black squirrels, which were first recorded in Letchworth in 1912. The origin of the colony is unclear, but a 2014 study at Anglia Ruskin University concluded that the squirrels are a variation of the common North American grey squirrel with a faulty pigment gene. The black squirrel is now a relatively common sight across Letchworth and the surrounding area.[146]

There are also muntjac deer in the town, living principally on Norton Common, but also seen elsewhere.[147]

The Garden City Greenway

The Greenway is a 13.6-mile (21.9 km) circular route that surrounds the Garden City estate. There are a variety of routes, open spaces and points of interest around the Greenway. Car parking at Radwell Meadows and Northfields Playing Field give access to disabled users and those with pushchairs as there are good sections of pathway from these access points. The Greenway received £1 million funding from the Heritage Foundation, to act as a permanent commemoration of Letchworth Garden City's first centenary in 2003.[71]

Sport and leisure

Sport has played an important part in the town's history, with open spaces and playing fields being incorporated into the town's layout. Many early businesses in the town provided recreation facilities for their workers, in keeping with the ethos of the garden city movement.[148]

Sports clubs

The town has numerous sports clubs, which are generally amateur in nature. Many of the clubs compete in regional and national leagues. These include:

Recreation routes

The Icknield Way Path, a multi-user route for walkers, horse riders and off-road cyclists, passes through the town on its 110-mile (180 km) journey from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Knettishall Heath in Suffolk.[176]

Other leisure activities

Astronomy

The Letchworth & District Astronomical Society has been meeting in the town since 1991, and has over 100 members. It has an observatory at Standalone Farm and holds regular meetings.[177]

Cinema

The Broadway Cinema in 2017
The Broadway Cinema in 2017

Letchworth had one of the first purpose-built cinemas in the country, the Picture Palace (later the Palace Cinema) on Eastcheap, which opened on 4 December 1909 with a showing of "Juggins on his Motor Skates".[178] It closed on 31 December 1977.[179]

The nearby Broadway Cinema at the corner of Eastcheap and Gernon Road opened on 26 August 1936 with a black tie gala screening of Follow the Fleet starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was built in the Art Deco style and was operated by Letchworth Palace Limited, which also ran the Palace Cinema.[180] From the 1990s the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation worked in partnership with Letchworth Palace Limited to run the Broadway Cinema and fund refurbishments. The Heritage Foundation took full control of the cinema in 2008.[181][182] The building was adapted in 2016 to allow the main screen to be used as a both a cinema and theatre, with dressing rooms and technical facilities incorporated into a new extension.[183]

Letchworth Arts and Leisure Group

The Letchworth Arts and Leisure Group (LALG) was founded in 1987 to provide year round leisure activities. Membership exceeds 1,300 households in Letchworth and the surrounding areas. Members with specific interests run groups linked to the main organisation, which include wine appreciation, film, gardening, singing, theatre, games, sports, outings, walking, reading, language practice, music, quizzing, and more.[184]

Town twinning

Letchworth is twinned with:[185][186]

Schools

St Francis' College from Broadway in 2017
St Francis' College from Broadway in 2017

Letchworth has a mixture of private and state schools. There are two state secondary schools:

When work began on the garden city, there were pre-existing church schools in the villages of Willian and Norton. A "Garden City School" opened in November 1905 in temporary sheds near the railway. It transferred to a new building on Norton Road in 1909, becoming Norton School.[160][178] Pixmore School opened in 1913 on School Walk, followed by Westbury School on West View in 1925. These were elementary schools, catering for children from ages five to fourteen, which was the school leaving age at the time.[160] Letchworth Grammar School opened in 1931 in prominent buildings in the town centre, with the name carved in the stonework over its doors.[189]

The school leaving age was raised to fifteen under the Education Act 1944 and schools were gradually separated into primary and secondary schools. The secondary part of Pixmore School relocated to new premises on the Jackmans estate in March 1962, becoming the Willian School. The junior part of Pixmore School kept the name, but later moved from School Walk to Rushby Mead. The Highfield School opened in September 1965.[190]

With the move to comprehensive schools, Letchworth Grammar School changed its name to Fearnhill School in 1973 and moved to its current site on Icknield Way in 1976.[191][192] Willian School closed in 1991.[193] Norton School closed in 2002, having been run as part of The Knights Templar School in Baldock for its final year.[194] The Highfield School was rebuilt in 2016.[195]

The private schools in Letchworth include the St Christopher School and St Francis' College. The St Christopher School was founded in 1915 as "Arundale" by the Theosophical Educational Trust, which took over the vacated buildings of the short-lived private Letchworth School on Barrington Road, built in 1909. A new school building was built at the junction of Spring Road and Broadway in 1919, when the school assumed its current name, with the Barrington Road building then being used as accommodation for boarders. There is a visible cornerstone on the Broadway building lain by Annie Besant. The school consolidated onto the Barrington Road site in 1928. It is noted for its distinctive vegetarian and Quaker ethos.[196][189][197]

The site vacated by the St Christopher School on Broadway became St Francis' College, a girls' school, in 1934. Both private schools admit boarders and day-pupils.[189]

Electricity generation

Letchworth had two adjacent electricity generating stations known as Letchworth A and B which were built in the 1920s and 1930s. Both were coal-fired and used chain grate boiler stokers. The buildings were in redbrick with a single brick chimney.[198]

Letchworth A had a rated output of 8 megawatts (MW) and its oldest equipment was installed in 1930.[199] The boiler delivered 115,000 lb/hr (14.5 kg/s) of steam at a pressure of 200 psi and 354 °C.[200] By the 1960s the A station was generating less than 8 GWh per year of electricity, it was decommissioned in 1968. Letchworth B had a higher rated output of 13 MW and its oldest equipment was installed in 1942.[199] The boiler delivered 160,000 lb/hr (20.2 kg/s) of steam at a higher pressure of 300 psi and 454 °C.[200] The B station was decommissioned on 18 March 1974. Both stations used cooling towers to condense steam.[200] The electrical output in GWh from the B station over the period 1961 to 1973 was as follows:[200][201]

After the coal-fired stations were decommissioned a new gas turbine power station was built. This was adjacent to the railway and had two reinforced concrete chimneys.[202] The station had two 70 MW gas turbines, giving a total generating capacity of 140 MW.[200] The first turbine was commissioned in May 1978. The generating capacity of the gas turbine station in GWh was as shown:[200]

The high output for the year ending 31 March 1985 is in the context of the UK 1984–85 miners’ strike.

The power station was demolished in 2007.[202][203]

Notable residents

Letchworth in popular culture

The author George Orwell lived in the nearby village of Wallington in the 1930s. In his polemic essay on wartime Britain, "The Lion and the Unicorn", he said "The place to look for the gems of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new." In The Road to Wigan Pier, chapter 11, he described "two dreadful-looking old men", supposedly socialists, getting on a bus in Letchworth.[233]

In So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the fourth book of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, the character Ford Prefect complains about the difficulty of persuading telephone operators that he is calling from Letchworth when tapping into the British phone system from the Pleiades. Co-incidentally, the coat of arms issued for the Garden City Council in December 2010 included the motto "Share, Enjoy, Prosper", which is similar to the "Share and Enjoy" slogan of the fictional Sirius Cybernetics Corporation in The Hitchhiker's Guide.[234]

The radio series Bigipedia (Series 1, episode 2) included reference to the "Letchworth Dog" - a fictional legend about a mysterious animal supposedly seen in the town in 1908.[235]

The 2013 film, The World's End, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, was filmed in both Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. The film is structured around a pub crawl, and several premises in Letchworth were used to portray the pubs in the film, including shops and the Broadway Cinema (which appeared as "The Mermaid") as well as the small number of actual pubs in town.[236][237]

See also

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