Changing London

Discovering Henrietta Barnett’s utopian vision at Hampstead Garden Suburb

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Hampstead Garden Suburb

The spire of St Jude’s church – consecrated in 1911 – is a distinctive landmark on the north London skyline. Towering at precisely 178 feet on a hill in the centre of Hampstead Garden Suburb, it can be seen for miles around. And entering the church itself is also pretty special.

On a damp, yet beautiful autumnal afternoon where the trees were filled with leaves of warm colours, going inside St Jude’s provides welcome respite from the rain outside. Looking up, there were some wonderful murals high up on the ceiling, but seeing them was quite difficult given it was so dark. This church was clearly designed to be seen in the natural light.

It was remembrance weekend and quite unexpectedly the vicar emerged to address our group and he had some fascinating topical things to show us. First, there was a pioneering memorial to the 350,000 horses that died on the side of the Empire during the course of the First World War.

And then our group was ushered into what was little more than a cupboard to see something even more poignant – the first memorial in the country (probably paid for by subscription) to be put up, in 1916 when the fighting was still continuing, to the humans who died fighting in the conflict. Such was the innovativeness of this feature, that the king and queen are said to have come to visit and see it the following year.

Fascinating as these historic features are, the fact that there is a church here at all raises some questions given that the majority of people living in the parish are Jewish (only 20% of inhabitants describe themselves as even nominally Christian according to the last census). So why is this religious building here?

The answer lies in the fact that this church was at the heart of a utopian dream held by a determined women who wanted to preserve an area of north London that was threatened with rapid development. Henrietta Barnett, the wife of a curate working in the slums of Whitechapel, was appalled by the onward march of “rows of ugly villas such as disfigure Willesden and most of the suburbs of London.” Her ambition was “to house all classes in attractive surroundings at the Hampstead Garden Suburb,” while also saving vital greenery.

St Jude’s church – named after the East End parish where Barnett’s husband worked – was designed by Edwin Lutyens (once described as “the greatest British architect of the twentieth (or of any other) century”) and is more a monument than merely a religious building. He quickly found that she was a hard task master – he had wanted to create a dome, but she put her foot down in getting the spire (which was apparently given as a birthday present). But Lutyens also designed a smaller Free Church (essentially a smaller version of St Jude’s, the Church of England) across Central Square and it was here he got his wish with erecting a dome.

Setting off from St Jude’s, is today a great place to start exploring the vision of Henrietta Barnett.

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St Jude’s church, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Utopian designs 

Jump on the red H2 minibus outside Golders Green underground station and within a few minutes you arrive in the very centre of the original phase of the pioneering Hampstead Garden Suburb. With a mixture of Tudor-style arts and crafts homes and more formal baroque Georgian appearance properties, you feel like you are in the countryside. But the West End is only around 20 minutes away by Tube.

You won’t see any signs for streets here – avenues, which were lined with the aforementioned trees oozing with autumn colours, were the order of the day when I visited. But what could be a picture postcard scene is today only spoiled today by lines of residents’ parked cars (the Garden Suburb wasn’t built with garages as the promoters wanted to encourage walking, as well of the use of horse and cart and public transport).

Barnett knew the area well as she and her husband had rented a farm on the edge of Hampstead Heath in order to get respite from the squalid conditions in Whitechapel. And it was staying here that she heard about the plans for extensive development on the greenery which would cause the “ruin of the sylvan restfulness of the part of the most beautiful open space near London.” Barnett was thrust into action.

Some 243 acres were secured from Eton College in total in 1906 – 75 acres for the building of homes of two distinctive styles (but multiple variations), five acres for the grand Central Square (surrounding which were the two churches, as well as an institute for residents to take adult evening classes) and the rest remained wild for people to enjoy. Further parcels of land were acquired over the next two decades for later phases of the Garden Suburb and today it consists of some 5,000 properties.

Barnett employed Raymond Unmin and Barry Park, who designed Letchworth Garden City, to plan out the Garden Suburb. The difference here compared to the earlier development (championed by Ebenezer Howard) was that this would merely a place to live, rather than an a self-contained district which would also provide places of work (there were no shops or pubs here either). Hampstead Garden Suburb benefitted from the arrival of the Tube in north London which made reaching the centre of the capital convenient.

The private bill that was passed in Parliament provides useful detail of the thinking behind the Garden Suburb:

“There shall not be built in the Garden Suburb on the average throughout a greater proportion of houses to the acre than eight. On every road in the Garden Suburb (whatever the width of the said road) there shall be between any two houses standing on opposite sides of the road a space not less than fifty feet free of any buildings except walls, fences or gates.”

Bricks and timber were used in building the properties, rather than concrete. No fences could be erected in front of properties, only hedges. And intriguingly, according to the rules, no bells could be rung.

At the heart of the Garden Suburb was the idea that all the homes, no matter what their size would have had private gardens that residents could enjoy. These outdoor spaces were seen as merely an extension of indoor living areas. While the bigger properties would have featured tennis courts, those smaller ones – aimed out those on more modest income – were given apple trees so residents could grow their own fruit. Allotments were also provided.

Homes for all classes?

The grandest houses were built overlooking the wonderful and wild Heath Extension. Standing outside the walled area of housing and looking back at the homes themselves, it seems in some ways as though you are standing in front of a mock medieval castle. What look like turrets, were actually built as summer houses in the sizeable gardens.

Plush as these particular homes are, the idea of Hampstead Garden Suburb being a place for all classes to enjoy was lost – all houses here would in time be sought after. They soon attracted well-known personalities (I saw a blue plaque showing the house where Harold Wilson lived for example), a trend that has lasted till this day given that the likes of TV stars Jonathan Ross, as well as Richard & Judy, are said to live here. Properties today go for millions.

For Nick Barratt, author of Greater London: The Story of the Suburbs, the ambition to bring difficult social classes together was flawed from the start:

“The Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust Ltd, which owned the land, worked in partnership with development companies that actually built the houses, and people who wanted to participate had to purchase a share in the scheme. The initial investment of £5 was well beyond most working-class people, and so from the start they were effectively excluded.”

The old Institute building has now been taken over by the state-funded, all girls secondary school, the Henrietta Barnett School. It regularly achieves good OFSTED results, but entry standards are tough and pupils travel far and wide to attend it (rather than coming from the Garden Suburb itself). So perhaps this is perhaps partly helping fulfil Barnett’s vision of wanting to the new development to benefit all classes.

Today, the pleasant character of the area is upheld by the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust. Home owners need to get approval from the organisation before making any alterations to the external appearance of their properties, following a decision by the High Court in 1974 (it had become a conservation area in 1969). Consent even needs to be sought for major changes to gardens, including felling and pruning trees, as well as the erection of trees. While all this may seem very strict, it means that a key part of Henrietta Barnett’s vision remains alive.

I visited Hampton Garden Suburb as part of an excellent guided walk given by Karen Pierce-Golding. The tour is repeated several times each year – keep an eye on www.walks.com for future dates.   

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Inside St Jude’s church, Hampstead Garden Suburb

 

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Free Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb

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