Hampstead Garden Suburb – a history

This history of Hampstead Garden Suburb was a paper written for the London Division of English Heritage in December 1994 by Dr C E Miele. No copyright claim is assumed by this blog.

Begun in 1907 Hampstead Garden Suburb is known internationally as the most perfect example of its type. Its designers Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin (aided by Edwin Lutyens and other well regarded early 20th century architects) combined sophisticated planning, carefully studied architecture and a mix of cultivated and wild nature to produce an artful environment. The architects and promoters of the Suburb were acting within a well-defined tradition stretching back roughly a century to the Romantic Movement, one which sought to reconcile the perceived contradiction between modem industrial society and the natural world. To Henrietta Barnett, the driving force behind the Suburb, it was much more than this; she saw it as an experiment in social reform. In the future imagined by Mrs Barnett and the political moderates who moved in her circle, good architecture and planning would resolve tensions between rich and poor, who would live happily together in fully integrated, stable communities.

The desire to bring nature into close proximity with urban dwellings is the product of the Romantic Movement, and the figure who did more than anyone else to define the visual form of this interface was the architect John Nash in his Regent’s Park development for the Crown Estates begun in 1817. Although the vocabulary was neo-Classical, Nash, taking his cue from earlier developments in Bath and Edinburgh, twisted his terraces into sweeping curves, throwing picturesque details up against the leafy background of the newly laid out parkland. More influential for later developments were his 1829 designs for Park Village East and West at the north end of the new domestic quarter. Here large single and semi-detached dwellings are set along gently curving, tree-lined streets. The overwhelming sensation is one of privacy and exclusion, with the public way seemingly extruded from a series of private domains. This is the prototype for later Victorian and even modern suburban developments, and the residents of Park Village paid a premium for this illusion.

The development of reliable public transport, first omnibus services and then commuter railways, enabled more of the countryside around London to be colonized by Romantic villa-scapes spawned by Nash’s Park Village: St. John’s Wood, the Chalk Farm Estate, De Beauvoir Town, to name only a selection of the better known examples built during the 1840s and 1850s.

An important architectural development of the type came in the last third of the century with the laying out of Bedford Park by Jonathan Carr. Begun in 1877 and filled with houses designed by Norman Shaw and his followers, Carr sought to inject a more selfconsciously rural image into the modern suburb with architectural features derived from ordinary country buildings in the south of England, structures now commonly identified by the term ‘vernacular architecture’. Tile hanging, timber framing, roughcast surfaces, weatherboarding, steeply pitched and tiled roofs, prominent gables, these basic elements
formed the grammar of this vernacular revival. Architectural effect was achieved by the scale and proportion of forms as well as by the colour and texture of traditional materials.

Visitors marvelled at the results, comparing what they saw on leaving the overground train with the High Street of some country town or village. It was all an elaborate fantasy, of course, since the resemblance was remote, but it was enough to spark the imagination of middle-class people seeking relief from an increasingly hostile inner-city environment. The very spread of the commuter railway lines that fostered this second generation growth of London suburbs had cast a blight on earlier near suburbs which quickly degenerated into appalling slums.

The second strand of social and architectural thinking that would eventually coalesce in the Garden Suburb ideal developed in response to this impoverishment of inner cities.

Interest in working-class housing reform can be traced back at least to 1851, when Prince Albert commissioned a model dwelling for the Great Exhibition.

In the same year Sir Titus Salt established an entirely new community for workers at his factory just outside Bradford. Although designed to serve industry Saltaire reproduced the range of building types that one would expect to find in any small town. TO provide recreation there was a public park and of course the countryside was near to hand. The architects, Lockwood and Mawson of Bradford, took care to compose the modest houses in groups, giving them an architectural effect and dignity far greater than they would have conveyed singly.

Across the Pennines and roughly forty years later, Thomas Mawson was hired by W. H. Lever, the famous soap manufacturer, to advise on the laying out of another planned factory community, Port Sunlight, south of Birkenhead on the Wirral.

In the years between the building of Saltaire and Port Sunlight philanthropists were attempting to solve the problem of substandard working class housing. Although the bare bones design of their experimental blocks was utterly different to the artisans’ dwellings in Hampstead Garden, they were inspired by the same desire to raise the standards of housing. A series of short-lived groups were set up in the 1850s, taking their cue from Prince Albert’s small block at the Great Exhibition. In the following decade more successful organisations entered the philanthropic housing industry, with the lead being taking by the Peabody Trust founded in 1862 and Sydney Waterlow’s Improved Industrial Dwellings Company of 1863.

The person who combined these two distinct strands of social and architectural thought – the Romantic suburb and the philanthropic housing movement – was Ebenezer Howard.

In the early 1880s he was deeply influenced by utopian theorists who imagined that a crisis in thecapitalist system would produce a sudden and total revolution based on cooperation. Eventually he came to believe that the great changes envisioned by, among others, Edward Bellamy (whose book Looking Backward 2000-1887 of 1888 occupied a central position in Howard’s thinking) should be introduced gradually on a small scale in specially constructed new communities that anticipated the shape of a new society. The garden city was the result, and Howard described it in some detail in his 1898 Tomorrow. A Peaceful Path to Reform. Howard hoped to eliminate the evils of urban overcrowding and its complement, rural depopulation, by bridging the gulf separating town and country. City size was to be limited and growth directed to satellite settlements in the countryside.

On the strength of this book Howard was able to rally support for a Garden City Assocation which he established in 1899. Four years later the Association formed a company to develop Letchworth in Hertfordshire, and in 1919 Welwyn was similarly established on the fringes of the Metropolis. Parker and Unwin, whose cottages were among the first structures built at L.etchworth, exercised an important influence on its plan, elements of which would reappear in the Hampstead Garden Suburb layout of 1907.

The planning of Letchworth has been severely criticized down through the years largely because its town centre is cut off from both the railway and the residential groupings. The same criticism might be levelled at Hampstead Garden Suburb but for the fact that it was embedded in an established and growing urban network, which raises a point that must be stressed even at the risk of stating the obvious: Hampstead Garden Suburb is not a Garden City in the sense that Howard defined it. It was an amalgam of Letchworth, the philanthropic housing reforms of the late nineteenth century, and the Romantic suburb

Standing at the heart of the Suburb, in Central Square, gazing at Lutyens magnificent St Jude’s and the vast greensward on which it sits, the last image to come to mind is that of the Victorian slums of Marylebone or Whitechapel, and yet it was in these terribly deprived places that the idea for this particular suburb was born. The Suburb owes its existence to two people, The Rev. Samuel Barnett, and, in particular, his wife, Henrietta.

His first charge was St. Mary’s Bryanston Square, Maiylebone where the Rev. Barnett helped the housing reformer Octavia Hill to organise and distribute charities. Miss Hill convinced him that the solution to poverty lay not in small gifts to people in need but in schemes which improved the moral character of the poor through the personal example of the educated and privileged classes. Barnett arried this idea with him to the East End when he was appointed vicar at St. Jude’s Whitechapel in 1873. Here he met Henrietta Octavia Watson, a protege of Miss Hill who served in the latter’s corps of rent collectors and housing managers. In the same year they were married. He soon hit on what seems now like a most improbable idea. In April 1881 the Barnetts organized the first of many exhibitions of fme art at the adjacent school rooms. Under the spell of Ruskin, they believed that art evinced certain religious and ethical ideas which had the power to lift those who held them up into a higher realm of behaviour and in this way ultimately to improve their social standing or, failing that, at least to save their souls. Barnett believed that depictions of the natural landscape were particularly suited to this end, since they projected a sense of rest and calm which would, he reckoned, be especially appealing to slum dwellers. Barnett was certainly influenced by the Kyrle Society and the Metropolitan
Public Gardens Association which agitated for more public parks and greenspaces in densely built-up areas of cities.

In the summer of 1880 the Barnetts first rented a cottage on the verge of heathland stretching north from Hampstead Village, and it was their attachment to this weekend retreat that ltimately led to the creation of the Suburb. In 1896 their beloved heath was threatened with speculative development by proposals to build an underground station at North End, a small hamlet known for its inns and bowling reens. In response Henrietta Barnett formed the Heath Protection Society, joining forces in 1903 with a veteran conservation campaigner, Robert Hunter (a solicitor who had been instnimental in setting up the National Trust eight years before). They proposed to purchase 340 acres of land from the Eton College Estate to prevent its being subdivided and filled with speculative housing.

They formed the Heath Extension Council to negotiate the purchase. They proposed to develop the area on enlightened principles, setting aside 80 acres of choice heathland for a public park. The rest would be a ‘Garden City for the Working Classes’. The housing would not be of the ordinary type, but designed in a way which harmonised with the landscape. In the following year she asked Raymond Unwin to draw up a plan (his partner Barry Parker would play only a minor role in the Suburb’s layout and architecture), which was published in a prospectus dated 22 February 1905. Although it would be revised several times before attaining something like its final form in 1907, the essence of what Mrs Barnett and the Steering Trust were trying to do would remain unchanged.

The 1905 prospectus described a community with houses for all classes of people, from simple artisans’ flats to detached houses on three-acre plots. The ground rents of the latter would be used to pay road costs and reduce the rents on the former. With each rental payment Artisans contributed to the purchase of shares in the venture, allowing ordinary working people, in theory at any rate, the chance to accumulate capital through thrifty, regular habits. Housing for vulnerable groups (children, the disabled, the aged) was to be provided in quadrangles set back from the street in the midst of ordinary houses.

In March 1907 the Steering Trust was replaced by the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust Lid; a separate company called Hampstead Co-Partners Ltd. was set up to build houses.

In effect the Trust functioned as the ground landlord and the Co-Partners as developers. To ensure coherence and architectural quality, the Garden Suburb Design Committee was set up in July, with Parker and Unwin taking first place among a list of well known Arts and Crafts architects who would themselves design the houses: Michael Bunney, Courtney Crickmer, Guy Dawber, Geoffrey Lucas, Edwin Lutyens, Baillie Scott, Charles Townsend, and Edgar Wood. Restrictive convenants in the leases gave the supervising architect power of approval over all designs. Unwin retired as ‘overseer’ in 1914 to be replaced by Sutcliffe, who died the next year. John Soutar took over the position in 1915 serving the Trust as architect and surveyor for many years.

Arguably the most successful architecture in the original Suburb is that to be found in the humble Artisans’ Quarter (the core of which is formed by Asmuns Hill, Asmuns Place, a portion of Hampstead Way, Temple Fortune Hill, and Willifield Way). Most of these buildings came from the office of Parker and Unwin, with Unwin assisted by a team of young designers carrying out the work.

Why has it taken so long for these plain, unassuming houses to be fully appreciated? The answer lies in their very subtlety. For a start the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century buildings on which they are based stand outside the conventional categories of high style architecture and architectural history. By comparison, the upper middle class housing, which iradequately listed at Hampstead Garden Suburb, refers to the high style exemplars of earlier architecture rather specifically, and so appear more self-consciously ‘architectural’. In a sense the buildings already singled out for listing are those whose style tends to be worn on their sleeves, while the value and interest of the modest dwellings has become clearer as our appreciation and understanding of vernacular architecture itself has grown over the last decades.

The subtlety and architectural intelligence manifested in the Artisans’ housing are not merely the result of submerged formal references to the ordinary building of the English countryside. The positive qualities of Parker and Unwin’s designs emerge more fully only when they are read as a sequence of forms, each structure responding not just to those adjacent but to the entire range of structures in the group, to create a uniform townscape which is so varied in detail as to prevent monotony. It is very much a case of an entire experience taking precedence over the single element, and in this sense the judgment of quality is quite similar to that which listing inspectors and fieldworkers routinely apply to terraced housing, where the effect of the whole is of greater importance than that of an individual unit.

The best examples of the Suburb style are unquestionably the houses in Asmuns Hill or Temple Fortune Hill, all of which are recommended for listing in grade II. Walking along these streets one is impressed first by the sameness of scale, style and materials, and, then, by the fact that underneath this single effect one can discern great variety in compositional detail. In both streets there are two basic types of houses – what have been called in the appended list descriptions the ‘double-ended hail house’ and the ‘lobbyentry’ types for their superficial resemblance to common vernacular plan forms.

Unwin treated each block as a blank sheet on which he disposed of a limited repertoire of architectural features: casements of varying widths, gabled dormers of several kinds, round-arched or segmental-arched through-passages to rear gardens, swept eaves, boxed eaves, weatherings, paired porches, double-height and top-lit stair towers, etc. Doubleended blocks tend to face one another suggesting bilateral symmetry but closer examination shows that the disposition of elements on the paired elevations as well as the internal plans (as deduced from outside arrangements) are different. The lobby-entry blocks tend to relate to one another diagonally across the street, and strike a greater note of variety than the doubled-ended types which provide a base tone for the ensemble.

Every design can be related to its exact position in the sequence and, once the overall sequence is understood, to any other building in it. When two or more streets have been studied, several distinct types and countertypes emerge. The Artisans’ Quarter of the Suburb outlines what is, effectively, a rudimentary architectural grammar, one sharing with spoken language an interchangeability of parts and functional elements.

The work of Courtney Crickmer in Erskine Hill, Denman Drive and Demnan Drives North and South, while it is distinctive, does not establish the same sequence of formal Stresses as Unwin’s early works. It also lacks a certain material robustness, having a thin, slightly starved quality that urns counter to the cult of materials so central to the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Dr C E Miele
London Division
English Heritage
December 1994



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