Garden Cities grew from one man’s vision and inspired a movement for global change. Horrified at the urban squalor that followed rapid industrialisation in Britain, Ebenezer Howard envisaged a new form of settlement where everyone could enjoy fresh air and open space, alongside the opportunities for jobs and amenities found in cities. As Welwyn Garden City celebrates its centenary in 2020, Tony Skottowe explores the original vision of the Garden City movement and where Sir Ebenezer Howard drew his inspiration.

[New City Magazine – February 2020, page 4-9]

Nestling in the beautiful county of Hertfordshire just 22 miles north of London lays Welwyn Garden City. Seen by many as the culmination of Ebenezer Howard’s vision to create a town fit for people to live, work and play. WGC was the second Garden City Howard built, following the success of Letchworth Garden City (1903), just a few miles further up the A1 motorway. Is it by chance that in 1983 Chiara Lubich, founder of Focolare declared that Welwyn Garden City should be the main HQ for the Focolare in GB? She encouraged members of the Focolare to move there, establishing the Focolare Centre for Unity – once a convent High school for girls and now a beautiful and busy international conference centre. New City publishing house is now based in WGC with offices and a warehouse in an industrial park nearby.

Coincidences have fascinated human beings throughout history and the Town and the Focolare Movement share two common features. Both are celebrating centenaries and both aim to create and develop community. Chiara Lubich was born in January 1920 and Welwyn Garden City began to be built in the same year. WGC is a place where people come from all over the world to see a new model of town planning, through Garden Cities. So too, the Focolare Centre for Unity is a place where people can come from across the globe to learn to dialogue and build a more united world.

Many readers will be more familiar with the history of the Focolare than of the town, so this article offers a short guide to the origins of Garden Cities.

The vision of Sir Ebenezer Howard

Garden Cities have been much in the news in the UK in recent years and have continued to be of great significance as models upon which to base new settlements. Exposure to the media can frequently result in misunderstandings and the concept of Garden Cities in the UK media, fed by a lack of understanding by governments, is no exception. Garden Cities were not conceived as pretty places with quite a few trees. Ebenezer Howard developed his radical new ideas on the back of years of original thought by people wishing to improve the lot of the people. Howard and his colleagues were first and foremost social reformers. The ideals underpinning garden cities have been diluted over the last 100 years but most important principles remain intact. Let us now look at the precursors to Howard on whose shoulders he built his vision.

Forerunners to Garden Cities

Where to start from? There are many options but in the 16th century Thomas More imagined an island of cities with their governance based on that of Tudor England. Published in 1516 the island described in his book Utopia has become the symbol of a perfect place. Apart from Utopia little of consequence emerged until the impact of the industrial revolution drove a mass movement of the British population into towns. The speed of change was breath taking. In 1801 some 20% of the population of the UK lived in towns of over 5,000 but just 50 years later the figure was 54% and by 1891 it was 72% with the population of London quadrupling to 4 million.

The early changes occurred in the textile industry, much located in the north of the country, using the power of water to drive the machines of Richard Arkwright. Notable amongst these early arrivals was the cotton spinning mill built in1784 by David Dale at New Lanark on the River Clyde south of Glasgow. Now a world heritage site, the major changes were introduced by Robert Owen. Amongst the facilities provided by the company in 1816 was an infant school for the children, followed by schooling for older children and young adults, a shop selling good food, fuel and other items at cost and, most startling of all, a medical service for his workers and families. Competitors thought him mad but his innovations significantly increased profits.


A few other important developments need recognition all of whom owe their existence to prominent businessmen with the vision and money to build them. First in line must be Sir Titus Salt and his mill town of Saltaire near Bradford. Key was Salt’s adaptation of machinery to process alpaca wool leading to the success of the mills in Bradford. The result was that Salt built a mill close to the new railway and River Aire on a site a few miles outside the town. The mill was six storeys high, contained 1,200 looms and a chimney 250 feet high to ensure clean air and around it was built the town of Saltaire to house the mill workers. Sir Titus provided a church, schools, meeting places, baths and laundry, a first aid room – later a hospital – all tempered somewhat by a paternalistic attitude to how workers were expected to behave. Today the mill is still in place but run as a trust with one of the huge floors offering nothing but books and art materials. Elsewhere is a café, a restaurant, relics from the mill’s past and a gallery of David Hockney’s paintings.


The first evidence of the garden becoming a key influence is probably due to the first of our current household names Cadbury and their chocolate. In 1879 Bournville came into being close to the city of Birmingham. The Cadbury brothers had learned much from the successes of previous entrepreneurs, such as Owen and Salt, following their example of how to treat their workers and adding further benefits. The provision of houses with gardens in healthy surroundings was a key element and influenced Howard’s thinking later on. Seen now as a Garden Village, and the first of its kind, Bournville now runs as a Trust with strict rules in place to preserve its heritage and an excellent museum telling its story to visitors.

Port Sunlight

By far the biggest enterprise, and now a major multinational, was Lever Brothers, now trading as Unilever. William Hesketh Lever not only built a soap factory in 1890 but also a port for raw materials and to ship out finished products. Named Port Sunlight, Lever reflected the name in his principal product – Sunlight Soap. Amongst the distinguished architects involved in the project was Sir Edwin Lutyens. Much research was undertaken looking at mostly smaller developments such as Akroydon and Bedford Park for their picturesque architecture. Lever wanted a model village rather than a city. However, the management structure included many innovations. For example, rent for workers homes was deducted directly from their pay packets. The housing offered generous accommodation, even in the terraced homes and included a larder, wardrobe and gas appliances. Many public buildings were built including a major meeting hall, initially used as the men’s dining room until the factory canteen was completed. Another hall was created for women, which seated up to 1,500 people. A church, an inn, a hospital, schools and electricity replaced gas in 1929. Sporting activities were greatly encouraged as was music and drama. The modern Port Sunlight has retained the architectural style chosen by Lever but now includes an excellent museum and the Lady Lever Art Gallery built in her memory as the home for her art collection.

Rowntree Village

Another chocolate magnate, Joseph Rowntree, a good friend of George Cadbury, set up his operation to produce chocolate and cocoa outside the city of York. Immediately adjacent to a railway line the village of New Earswick was the site of the Rowntree Village run as a Trust that is still heavily involved in creating and building accommodation for the less well off. New Earswick is a modest relative of Bournville and Saltaire. Completed in 1904 the village offers well-spaced out dwellings of various sizes with ample green space for families and with indoor plumbing in the kitchen, a larder and an outside toilet. The design was by a well-known name in garden city annals, one Raymond Unwin. The modern village has a delightful Village Hall with café and friendly locals.

‘Town and Country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization.’ (Ebenezer Howard)

A peaceful path to real reform

The British Garden City Movement began in1898 with the publication of Howard’s first book Tomorrow, a peaceful path to real reform, which was revised and republished in 1902 as Garden Cities of Tomorrow and seen as revolutionary and quite beyond the understanding of many. The idea that you should create a town comprised of houses with spacious gardens, bathrooms and indoor toilets for working people was strange enough. Adding the concept of ‘Land value capture’ to fund the enterprise on behalf of its residents and surround it by the country, build factories that people could walk to and be able to bring up their children within a short walk of the countryside was seen as deranged by all but a few enlightened individuals. Despite the initial derision, the rejection by the government and many leading citizens, over the following years the ideals of the Garden City Movement were spread around the world. Today the flag is carried by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) in the UK and its companion organisation the International Federation of Housing and Planning (IFHP).

Today Welwyn Garden City, created by Howard and designed by the genius of Louis de Soissons, is preparing for a year-long birthday party to celebrate its Centenary and you are invited to join the celebrations.

Details of the programme of events can be found on

Further readings:

Garden Cities – The British Example from WGC Heritage Trust

Due March/April 2020 – Live, work and play. A Centenary History of Welwyn Garden City by Mark Clapson – The History Press and WGC Heritage Trust.

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