Welwyn Garden City. Firbank
Like everyone else, elderly people need more than just a place to live. They also need social connections and activities, particularly as they will probably not have the interaction working people may have. Lack of this was one of the objections to the Catchpools’ application to build some almshouses in 1957.
Planning and Construction
The site that husband and wife E St John (Jack) and Ruth Catchpool wanted was close to the Friends Meeting House in Handside Lane, which they attended. The Council commented that the site at the time was classed as backland, a little way from Welwyn Garden. The residents may have felt isolated as there was no frontage to the main road. However, Catchpool pointed out that it was close to the meeting house. There would be a club room and a library they could use. People visiting the meeting house would be encouraged to visit the old folk. The Barn Theatre was very close, providing somewhere to go for entertainment. It used the old barn (hence the name) for non-professional productions. The first production seems to have been in 1923 when the local population amounted to around 800 people. Conversion to its present use took place in 1931. We could add there was some housing nearby. The Jewish community in Welwyn Garden City was helped by the Quakers in 1939. The land for the synagogue next door was purchased in 1951, the foundation stone was laid in 1955 and it was opened in 1956. Hence the site was not as isolated as may first be thought.
Conversely the other objection was that the site was too close to other properties such as Appletree Cottage and some other housing. At least 100ft was required. The application was for 3 bungalows. For some unspecified reason the Council wanted either 2 bungalows, or 4 dwellings on 2 storeys on the same plot. There is a document recommending approval for the 3 bungalows in June 1957, with a follow-up document the following month stating the above objections. A letter dated 3 Aug 1957 commented that the Development Corporation would support the application but the Planning Office would not, as they thought the development was sub-standard.
As if the planning delays weren’t enough, a flu outbreak caused further delay. The architect, Mrs Roberts and planning officials were affected. One letter from St John Catchpool sought an agreement to avoid an appeal, which could cause delays, but matters had still not been resolved by 14th August. Catchpool wrote asking for permission by Sep 12th as he wanted to have a stone-laying ceremony on Sep 23rd 1957. These applications were made under the name of the Firbank Housing Association. There are further planning applications for the area from 1962 onwards, not linked to Firbank.
At any rate a 2 storey block was eventually built, becoming Firbank House. The architect was Mrs Roberts, who had prepared the original plans for the 3 bungalows. This was followed by applications in 1959/60 to convert Appletree Cottage into 2 flats, a pair of bungalows 9 – 10 Barn Close in 1960, and a further bungalow (No 11) in 1961. Eventually the accommodation consisted of 8 flats and 8 bungalows.
That wasn’t the end of the discussion. At some time roads were built into what became an estate. Catchpool wanted the name to be Meeting House Lane. However the Council had plans to develop the land at the rear of Barleycroft Green and may not like the name. It became Barn Close. There was an ancient barn (parts dating back to the 17th century) serving what was previously a farm, which became The Barn Theatre. An interim suggestion was to use the name of Firbank Cottages. As yet I haven’t discovered the origin of this name.
People’s motives for providing almshouses vary considerably. The Catchpools stated that their motive was that a number of older folk had asked them for help. The two factors of rising rents and increased cost of living were placing them in difficulties. You can place those comments in almost any age, and at the time of writing (Jan 2023) the news reports constantly refer to what they call a cost of living crisis. In one letter they explained they could just as easily have used their money on some luxury or other luxury but chose to help others.
As noted above, the dwellings were constructed under the auspices of the Firbank Housing Society. It was registered as an independent and non-profit making housing association.
It was taken over in 2015 either by Howard Cottage Housing Association (HCHA) or Welwyn Garden City Housing Association, which in turn were amalgamated into First Garden Cities Homes (FGCH) in 2020. They are now run as a housing association.
The definition of an almshouse is rather fluid. Firbank was affiliated to The Almshouse Association according to a list supplied in 2016, at about the time it was adopted by HCHA or WGCHA. It may well be that nowadays it more of a general housing association, though it follows in the traditional almshouse provision as it is aimed at the older population. It is registered as an independent non-profit housing association.
From the start the provision was to provide older people with the facilities for remaining active and independent. While not sheltered accommodation with warden support, there existed a tradition of mutual help within the community, together with support from the members of Welwyn Garden City Quaker Meeting. There are buses into town, and nearby shops, but the close itself has the air of being peaceful, without the bustle of city life.
Applicants need to over 60 years of age and be unable for various reasons, such as financial or medical, to find settled accommodation themselves. Some priority is given to people who have lived in Welwyn Garden City for some time and / or have some links to the Quaker movement. There is an equal opportunities policy covering sex, race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religious belief, marital status or disability. Within this the highest priority is given to those with the most pressing housing needs.
Barn Close, Welwyn Garden City
Georef: 523221 212616
Grid ref: 51° 47′ 55″N 00° 12′ 52″W
OS map Hertfordshire XXVIII.11 1943 shows the area before development
OS map 1:2500 TL2212 – 2312 1972 shows the development
Documents held at HALS
UDC/21/77/3020 Oct 1956 – Jul 1965. Application No. 1344 for 4 old peoples flats at Barn Close. Includes site plan, plans of property, and correspondence
UDC/21/77/3021 (Dec 1959 – Mar 1960) Conversion to 2 flats of Appleton Cottage
UDC/21/77/3022 (Mar 1960 – Jan 1961) Pair of bungalows at 9 and 10 Barn Close.
UDC/21/77/3024 (Jul 1961 – Oct 1961) Bungalow at 11 Barn Close.
http://www.firbankhousing.org.uk/index.html. Accessed 2017; not available Jan 2023
https://housingcare.org/housing-care/facility-info-901-firbank-welwyn-garden-city-england. Accessed 2017; not available Jan 2023
https://www.fgch.co.uk. Accessed Jan 2023
https://www.barntheatre.co.uk/about-us/history-as-a-theatre/. Accessed Jan 2023
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1348120. Accessed Jan 2023