Who was who in Dulwich - Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928)
by Bernard Nurse

Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the Garden City movement, spent the first years after his marriage in 1879 in Dulwich. A blue plaque commemorating him has been placed on the house in Stamford Hill which his family occupied later, but one could equally well have been put up at 4 Ildersly Grove, Croxted Road, London SE21, which he rented until about 1885 or 1886.

Britain at the time was in the grips of a severe agricultural depression driven by cheap imported food. Swollen by workers from the countryside, towns rapidly increased in population, none more so than London. The population of the metropolis grew by nearly a million between 1871 and 1881 and many moved from the overcrowded centre. Dulwich changed from a small village of about 1700 inhabitants in 1861 to become a suburb on the fringes of London three times the size by 1881.

Howard was a part of this movement. He lived for most of his life on a modest income as a shorthand writer. At the time of his marriage he was working in the Law Courts and Parliament, arduous work which often kept him late, reporting debates into the early hours of the morning. In Ildersly Grove he had a newly-built semi-detached house five miles from Westminster with good links by train from the nearby West Dulwich Station, at a rent which he could afford. Howard was restless and regarded himself primarily as an inventor. While in Dulwich he tried to make the typewriter more useful by introducing a variable spacing bar. He visited America in an attempt to sell the patent, but was not offered enough money for it. He often referred to the garden city as an invention: it would improve the mechanism of providing housing.

By the time of the 1881 census there were four occupants in the house in Ildersley Grove; Ebenezer, his wife Eliza, their daughter, Kathleen and one servant. One of his daughters said later ‘we never had any money, but we didn’t miss it…He [Ebenezer] was always full of schemes which were to make us rich, but we had no luck in that respect…his favourite amusement was watching cricket at the Oval. When he could manage it he would spend a whole day there.’ Two more children were born by 1883 and Howard then suggested to his wife that they move to a larger house. Eliza refused because she thought they could not afford it. Ebenezer worked out that they could pay £40 a year as rent, which means that he probably earned about £150-170 a year, an income which was regarded as fairly average for the lower middle class. It was not enough to provide the sort of home he aspired to, and keeping a maid must have been a struggle. Howard recognized that new houses in the best suburbs, such as Hampstead were out of his reach and proposed that they rent a larger house jointly with his brother ‘with perhaps a lawn tennis ground’. A further advantage was that ‘in the long summer holidays we need have no difficulty about leaving the house for burglars to make free with as they not infrequently do’. He also thought that having a common kitchen would reduce costs, lessen work and allow for greater variety of foods. Although his plan for co-operative housing came to nothing, after the birth of a fourth child, they moved to Islington.

By then, his ideas on town planning were beginning to take shape and later became highly influential. He was concerned to find a remedy for the overcrowded and unhealthy conditions found in the rapidly expanding industrial cities. His solution was to create new towns in the countryside on land owned by trustees so that the community would benefit from increasing values. He published his proposals in 1898 in a book later entitled Garden Cities of Tomorrow, which aroused considerable interest but slow adoption. Building began in Letchworth, the first garden city in 1904 and land was bought for the second, Welwyn Garden City in 1919. Howard remained poor most of his life and public recognition came late with a knighthood awarded in 1927, a year before his death. It was not until after the Second World War that his vision came finally to fruition when the government adopted the policy of planned decentralization of London to a ring of new towns such as Harlow and Milton Keynes.

Further reading
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Robert Beevers, The Garden City Utopia (1988); Stanley Buder, Visionaries and Planners (1990)

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