Knebworth Garden Village
An idea that never materialised
By Ann Judge
This is an extract from an essay written by Ann Judge, the full details of which can be read by clicking on the link at the end of the article.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a plan was devised for the development of a ‘garden village’ at Knebworth, along the lines of the Garden City at Letchworth which had started in 1903. An estate of 800 acres was laid out, but the plan never totally materialised. So, why was it planned, how did it progress, and why was it never completed?
In 1898, when Ebenezer Howard wrote down his ideas for a garden city in his book ‘Tomorrow – A peaceful path to real reform’, it was in response to the problems of squalor, congestion and poverty that he saw in London. It inspired him to believe that he had the solution to the problem of the uncontrolled growth of towns, and the migration of people from the countryside to the towns, seeking jobs and homes. He wrote “There are not only two alternatives – town life and country life – but a third alternative in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination. Human society and the beauty of nature are meant to be enjoyed together”.
The ‘Garden City’ movement
His idea was to create a ‘Garden City’, where there would be comfortable, well designed houses, with gardens set in tree lined streets. The factories would be clean, healthy and safe places to work in, and would not pollute the environment. The countryside would be brought into the town.
Howard’s first ‘garden city’ project was started at Letchworth in 1903 and at the same time, Victor, Lord Lytton was planning something along similar lines. The Garden City movement attracted pioneers, modernisers, socialists, idealists, people with a vision of Utopia – and Victor Lytton was similarly described as coming from a long line of individualists, with strong minds of their own.
In 1904 he consulted with his brother in law, Edwin Lutyens who wrote back to Lytton saying “I think, if you want me to help you, you ought to come and arrange some definite scheme or policy as regards the development of Knebworth, and not willy nilly to the beck of all comers. Your buildings proposed are horrible and very vulgar to look upon – do you mind this? “
THE CHARACTERS INVOLVED
Naturally, Lord Lytton wanted to consult with his own brother in law, Edwin Lutyens, but the key architects were Pepler and Allen. George Pepler was a colleague of Raymond Unwin who was working at Letchworth, and together they founded the Town Planning Institute.
Co-partnership tenant society
But it was not just the architects who Lytton brought in to help him; he also employed others involved in the Garden City movement. For example, in November 1911, Lord Lytton held a meeting to consider the formation of a co-partnership tenant society at Knebworth, and he invited Anthony Wilson to address a meeting of local residents.
Also acting as an adviser was Thomas Adams, who had been Secretary and then Manager of First Garden City at Letchworth from 1903 until 1906. He had in fact worked closely with Ebenezer Howard to locate the site for the first Garden City.
HOW THE PLAN DEVELOPED
With Thomas Adams now acting as a Consulting Surveyor, the project took on a new momentum. In September 1909, the Earl of Lytton had held a meeting with local residents to explain the arrangements he was making for the development of his land.
A new Parish Council
A Residents Council did indeed form, with its inaugural meeting in February 1910, but during that year, an application was made by Knebworth Parish Council to form a new civil parish, and the new enlarged Knebworth Parish Council was formed in July 1910.
An exhibition at Kings Cross
In July 1911, the claims of the garden village at Knebworth were brought prominently to the notice of the public by an exhibition of building plans at Kings Cross.
A brochure is produced
Also, brochures were also produced, containing plans of the 800 acre site, plans and elevations of the houses to be built, photographs of the surrounding countryside, and details of the costs of the properties and how they could be paid for. They also contained wonderful descriptions of the advantages of living in a garden city environment.
The first sod is cut
An article in The Builder, dated 26 September 1912, reports “The first sod of the Knebworth Garden Village on the estate of Lord Lytton was cut on Saturday last. About 1000 acres at Knebworth have been set aside and a comprehensive scheme of development has been prepared by Mr Edwin Lutyens, acting in conjunction with Mr Thomas Adams.
DETAILS OF THE PLANS
The brochure prepared to market the Village, gives details of its altitude (300-400 feet above sea level), its soil (sand and gravel sub-soil overlying chalk) and says that the Estate is ‘situated in a healthy and bracing locality, and commands some charming and picturesque views of the surrounding country’. The health aspect of life in Knebworth was an important part of the sales literature, and it goes on to say that ‘the fact that one of the objects is to restrict the average number of houses per acre, indicates that the district is likely to have exceptional advantages from a health point of view. Towns which possess crowded districts or slums of any description, however healthily situated, are productive of unhealthy conditions. Although these conditions only affect the well-to-do resident to a limited extent directly, they undoubtedly produce a large amount of disease indirectly’.
Knebworth Golf Club
Facilities at Knebworth were also highly marketed. Top of the list was of course Knebworth Golf Club, the course laid out by Willie Park, and the Club House designed by Lutyens. Amongst the Committee members were The Earl of Clarendon, the Right Hon Henry Asquith, The Right Hon A J Balfour, the Duke of Rutland and the Marquis of Salisbury. The railway and the station were quoted as showing “every desire to encourage the development of the estate. Season Ticket rates are as follows between Knebworth and King’s Cross: First Class £25 4s 0d; Third Class £14 7s 0d”.
The building plots
The 800 acre site was divided into 250 building plots, and a schedule indicated the size of the frontage, the cost per foot of frontage, the minimum value of the house to be erected, and whether the land would be freehold or leasehold.
Designs of cottages by Pepler and Allen and Crickmer were built, with rents varying from 6/- a week for the cottages to 10/6 a week for a house. The designs for the cottages show three bedrooms, living room, kitchen and a downstairs toilet, but no bathroom. In the house, designed for an ‘artisan’, there is a ‘parlour’ as well as a living room, and an upstairs bathroom. The scheme was supported by local farmers and their employees could have some priority. In fact local artisans did not fill the houses and a number were occupied by railwaymen travelling to London to work.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR AND BEYOND
During the First World War, building everywhere in the country came to a grinding halt. And the cost of materials rocketed. Also, because of the slow down in completing the GardenVillage, Lord Lytton made a reduction in the ground rents for those who had already purchased houses, or who were renting. At the same time, the 1918 Labour Party manifesto wanted “a substantial and permanent improvement in the housing of the whole people. At least a million new houses must be built at once at the State’s expense, and let at fair rents, and these houses must be fit for men and women to live in.” A letter from Hitchin Rural District Council to Knebworth Parish Council dated 5 March 1919, states “I am directed to send you a copy Notice of a Compulsory Purchase Order made by the Council yesterday in respect of land situate at Knebworth and Broadwater belonging to Lord Lytton”. A new era of council housing was starting.
Welwyn Garden City
In 1919, a second garden city, named Welwyn Garden City, was started. As it was only 13 miles from Letchworth, attempts were made to get an understanding between the two companies so that they should work together, having a common interest, but First Garden City (Letchworth) refused, looking on the new scheme as creating unnecessary competition.
The competition between the ‘garden cities’ was noted as early as 1910 in a letter from Pepler & Allen to Lord Lytton
By 1921, Garden Villages Limited was sending out letters to potential clients, marketing new houses for sale “We are not out to make a profit but his Lordship felt there was a scarcity of attractive country houses of this character. We are putting these up as an experiment. The price we can sell it, freehold, is £1650”.
By 1923, Lord Lytton was now in India, and his Estate Manager, William Wilson was writing monthly reports, including progress on new building in the village. In December 1923 he writes that “there is a revival for plots for building”, but nothing exceptional is reported until 1926.
So what happened? My research has found no specific documentary evidence explaining the failure to complete the project. The papers for Garden Villages Limited have not been located, and I would need to trawl through all the correspondence at Knebworth House Archives to uncover further letters relating to this matter for the years 1920s to 1940s.
But we can draw some conclusions. Responsibility for providing cheaper housing was now being met by the local authorities, and the co-partnership model went out of fashion. Housing for sale was now being provided at Welwyn Garden City, and Hatfield, as well as at Letchworth, so there was more competition. And also, the 1930s was a period of depression and high unemployment, so the idea of home ownership was out of the question for most people. The Town and Country Planning Act came into force in 1947 so responsibility for the approval of new homes now came under the local authority. All these factors probably contributed to the slow down, and eventual disappearance of KnebworthGardenVillage. Knebworth was even considered as a possibility for a new town, but the decision was made to create this at Stevenage where the station served two lines from London.
When one compares the plans designed by Edwin Lutyens with the village at it exists today, one can only wonder what it might have been like to live in a garden village.