Welwyn Garden City exhibition explores ‘a marriage of town and country’
Mill Green Museum
With Mill Green Museum currently closed, curator Emma Harper reports on the current Welwyn Garden City: By Wisdom and Design exhibition on the day the town celebrates its 100th birthday.
It is a shame that in this the centenary year of Welwyn Garden City a lot of the events arranged to celebrate our local area will be cancelled due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak.
In February at Mill Green Museum we opened our exhibition Welwyn Garden City: By Wisdom and Design looking at the early years of the town and how Ebenezer Howard’s vision of a Garden City became a reality through the work of the town’s architect, Louis de Soissons, and the Second Garden City Company.
Since you can’t visit us at the moment, we thought we would show you around our exhibition in this article instead.
Welwyn Garden City is Britain’s second Garden City founded in 1920, the result of an idea and set of ideals of Ebenezer Howard.
He wanted to create a place which embodied the best elements of town living, without the poor conditions that the industrial revolution had produced, and combine them with the benefits of country living. A marriage of town and country: a Garden City.
He drew many diagrams of town layouts illustrating his ideas with different areas for industry, housing, shopping, and leisure and, of course, gardens.
You can see some of these original diagrams in our exhibition, lent by Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS).
When Welwyn Garden City started to be designed, the layout of the whole town, individual streets, architecture and interior houses were all considered together.
The aim was to create a ‘unity of design and purpose’ but with architectural harmony and variety.
Many of the early houses were built to the owner’s specifications and included labour-saving devices such as the 1935 Gas Washing boiler and 91J Jackson Cooking Cabinet we have on display.
These were designed to make life easier for householders who might previously have had help from domestic staff reflecting the growing middle classes attracted to the Garden City ideal.
You can also see original furniture built for some of the first houses in the town, as well as one of the bricks in the exhibition.
Shopping and commerce were essential to Howard’s original vision for the second Garden City and these were highlighted as one of the benefits of town living.
The Second Garden City Company knew that to encourage residents and workers to the town they would need to provide local amenities for them.
Subsidiary companies were created to help the town develop including, in 1921, Welwyn Stores which became a hub for the town.
A key part of Howard’s vision was to attract industry to the town for the benefit of both employers and workers alike.
By 1930 several industrial firms such as Dawnays, Murphy Radio and Shredded Wheat had been attracted by newly built, well-equipped factories, a healthy environment with good working class housing nearby.
Many businesses also offered social opportunities for their staff through sports and social clubs as well as staff canteens, recognising the importance of a good work/life balance for their workers.
This ties back to Howard’s vision of garden cities as part of a lifestyle, the wellbeing of the community was of vital importance to the Second Garden City Company.
In 1922, a Health Council was formalised to organise first aid and an infant welfare service.
Employees of the company and its subsidiaries agreed to pay ‘a penny per man’, many years before a National Health Service was in place.
The company was also keen to create social opportunities for all as it recognised that wellbeing extended beyond a formal health service.
By October 1921, less than a year after the first residents had moved in, 13 clubs and societies had already been formed including Welwyn Garden City Football Association, the Music Society and a Chess Club.
There was also, of course, plenty of green space from gardens to parks and woods incorporated into the town where residents could spend the extra leisure time they gained from living near to their work, something we can take advantage of at the moment.
Hopefully this has given you a taste of our exhibition and we do hope to welcome you in person when we reopen.
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