Celebrating 100 years of Welwyn Garden City

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 February 2020

Howardsgate gardens in the heart of town (c) Rolf Richardson/Alamy Stock Photo

Howardsgate gardens in the heart of town (c) Rolf Richardson/Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Rolf Richardson / Alamy Stock Photo

A year of celebrations is planned as remarkable Welwyn Garden City marks its centenary

Howard's plan for a 'group of slumless, smokeless cities', in his Garden Cities of To-morrow (c) Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies LibraryHoward's plan for a 'group of slumless, smokeless cities', in his Garden Cities of To-morrow (c) Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies Library

Welwyn Garden City is 100 years old in 2020 and to mark the major milestone, Welwyn Garden City Centenary Foundation, a community-led organisation, has planned a full year of celebrations with well over 100 events for residents and visitors to the town. 
The second garden city was founded by Ebenezer Howard, a visionary with utopian ideas who believed in social justice and healthy living in a 'marriage of town and country'. The events planned in this special year commemorate that vision.

Howard was born in London in 1859. He had a basic education and was from a humble background, yet went on to be a town planner of international importance. A diminutive figure, he had a powerful voice and great ambition. In his early 20s he spent time in the US trying his hand at farming. He returned to an overcrowded, unhealthy and polluted London where he found work as a shorthand writer in parliament. It was to be a life-changing position - as here he listened to debates about healthy living and sustainable accommodation.

Inspired by the American 'can do' attitude, he spent 20 years developing his vision for a new town planning concept and in 1898 his book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform was published (it was republished in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow). His concept of a self-sufficient town (not a dormitory suburb for cities), would spread internationally, with more than 140 sites around the world based on his principles.

He also had a vision of a 'Group of slumless, smokeless cities'. Ahead of his time, these included reservoirs, not only to supply water but to generate electricity; a town centre surrounded by green belt; electric rail; allotments, and an integrated transport system.

Parkway at the heart of the town centre (c) Carl Everingham/Alamy Stock PhotoParkway at the heart of the town centre (c) Carl Everingham/Alamy Stock Photo

In 1903 construction by First Garden City Ltd began at Letchworth, appointing architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin to design the masterplan for the new community, in its detail inspired by the Arts & Crafts movement.

The success of Letchworth inspired similar town planning across the globe, but not in England. Determined to continue to prove his ideas, Howard identified another area, put together a board, and with just £50 to his name, persuaded friends to loan him the rest of the money for the deposit at a land auction. Taking a huge risk, he became the owner of 1,450 acres near Welwyn village, for a total of £51,000 (approximately £2m today). Welwyn Garden City Limited was incorporated on 29 April 1920.

Young architect Louis de Soissons was appointed, and in just six weeks produced the WGC Master Plan, an exemplary interpretation of Howard's vision. The features he designed remain key to the town's identity today. These include the grandeur of the town centre as a park around Parkway and Howardsgate, while residential areas are more intimate, with roads following land contours and around trees. Cul de sacs offered safe spaces for children to play and to build communities. The neo-Georgian style homes were made from red bricks, made locally.

To quote Sir Frederic Osborn in his book New Towns; their origin, achievements and progress:

Shredded Wheat factory (c) KGPA Ltd/Alamy Stock PhotoShredded Wheat factory (c) KGPA Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

'WGC is a town planning masterpiece. It represents some of the best residential planning in the world and is the subject of international admiration.

'The central avenues of Parkway and Howardsgate, with the semi circular campus to the north, represent one of the most beautiful examples of formal landscape planning in Europe. As one comes down Digswell Road over the white bridge, the view along the lawns of Parkway to the central fountain spreading its spray against the trees that diminish in the long perspective to the blue distance beyond, is one of the unforgettable sights of England.'

Howard and his board defied the odds and through dedication and determination achieved what no-one believed possible. They took risks and made entrepreneurial moves to attract businesses and industry, financed through bank loans. Failing to attract a big name store to the town, they built their own, Welwyn Stores (now John Lewis). Needing a social space, they opened Cherry Tree Restaurant 'the finest restaurant in Hertfordshire' (now Waitrose).

In 1925, the town's healthy image attracted Shredded Wheat to build a factory in the UK, while a year later Minister of Health Neville Chamberlain opened the railway station, opening up commuter links to London and linking the two garden cities. A theatre and sports facilities were quickly built, generating 30 clubs and societies. Soon ICI and Roche followed the Shredded Wheat move and located their UK HQs in Welwyn Garden City.

Sir Ebenezer Howard OBE moved to the town in 1921 to a humble three-bedroom house in Guessens Road. He died in the garden city he had created, in 1928.

Centenary celebrations

A fantastic year of celebrations is planned for Welwyn Garden City in 2020. Here are just some of the many events and projects to look out for.

Garden City Lights launches the celebrations on January 17 and 18 as the town is illuminated with interactive light installations.

More than 70 sporting events are being held by 45 sports clubs across the town throughout the year - supporting Howard's vision of 'a town designed for healthy living'. A major focus will be a week of sport starting with Le Petit Tour cycling on June 28 and culminating with dragon boat racing on Stanborough Lakes on July 5-6.

The town's primary schools' gardens will be in full bloom in spring after they each planted 2,020 bulbs and a share of 100 trees last autumn. Pupils at all the town's schools are invited to enter a centenary photographic competition with the theme 'celebrations'.

On Saturday July 11 everyone is invited to come to the town centre for a day long carnival, complete with full procession.

The town's great heritage in music and the performing arts is celebrated as groups showcase their talents at more than 20 events throughout the year.

A 20.20km circular centenary walk around the town is almost complete and the route beautifully illustrated by a local artist. It includes a one mile fully accessible route. Four new 'tree trails' will celebrate the 19,000 trees planted around the town for the City of Trees project. 
A Henry Moore sculpture, Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge, on loan from the Henry Moore Foundation at Perry Green, has been installed next to the Coronation Fountain. A new bronze sculpture of Sir Ebenezer Howard commissioned for Howardsgate will also be unveiled.

A centenary garden is planned and there may also be a royal visit - a request has gone into the palace.

'A creative exploration of the garden city concept' will be held at an international symposium for architects and urban planners.

There are so many events to list, please visit the dedicated website wgc100.org for full and regularly updated details, as well as information on how to get involved as a volunteer.

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