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Sir  Raymond Unwin (1863–1940), by George Charles Beresford, 1922Sir Raymond Unwin (1863–1940), by George Charles Beresford, 1922
Unwin, Sir Raymond (1863–1940), engineer, architect, and town planner, was the younger son of William Unwin (1827–1900) and his wife, Elizabeth Sully, of a family from Bridgwater, Somerset, with shipping interests in the Welsh coal trade. His father had inherited a tannery at Rotherham, Yorkshire, and it was at Whiston, near Rotherham, that Raymond was born on 2 November 1863. In 1874 William Unwin, whose mother had the reputation of being a local bluestocking, gave up his management of the tannery business and moved with his family to Oxford. There he enrolled in middle age for a degree as an unattached student, before transferring in 1877 to Balliol College and graduating in the following year. Unwin senior became a private tutor, frequented progressive circles, and made the acquaintance of Arnold Toynbee and the Revd Samuel Barnett, promoter of the settlement movement and other charitable projects in the East End of London. Raymond was devoted to his father and owned a framed photograph of him inscribed: ‘One who leaned upon the rod of duty’. Oxford also exerted a lasting influence upon him: he attended Magdalen College School, heard Ruskin and Morris lecture, and imbibed the subtle and accretive virtues of the city's topography.

Early career

Unwin contemplated entering the Church of England, as his elder brother William did. But he was diverted (to his father's disappointment) into a life of social activism, reputedly on the advice of Samuel Barnett, who bade him ask himself which concerned him more, humanity's sinfulness or its unhappiness. Another influence may have been his friendship with the charismatic radical and homosexual Edward Carpenter, who had left the church and after some years as a university extension lecturer settled in the Sheffield and Chesterfield area from 1878. After declining a scholarship offered at Magdalen College, Unwin in 1881 took up an engineering apprenticeship with an affiliate of the Staveley Coal and Iron Company at Chesterfield. This was the home town of a brother-in-law of his father, Robert Parker (1828–1901), branch manager of the Sheffield Banking Company. Among Parker's children Unwin became intimate with his two cousins Ethel (1865–1949), his future wife, and , his future partner. A formal engagement with Ethel was forbidden until 1891, because of Unwin's risqué friends and socialist ideals; they were eventually married (by civil ceremony) in 1893.

Unwin spent much time in the 1880s at the ‘simple life’ community founded at Millthorpe near Chesterfield by Carpenter, who described him in retrospect as ‘a young man of cultured antecedents … healthy, democratic, vegetarian’ (E. Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, 1916, 131–2). But for two years from early 1885 he worked as an engineering draughtsman in Manchester. Here he threw himself into political agitation. He became branch secretary of William Morris's newly founded Socialist League, met Morris himself and Ford Madox Brown (then completing his paintings for Manchester town hall), contributed to the league's magazine, Commonweal, and made other political friends, notably Bruce Glasier (1859–1920), who stimulated his interest in architecture.

The failure of the league's Manchester branch, coupled with growing self-education in co-operative theory, converted Unwin to a reformist and technical view of socialist progress, which he never henceforward abandoned. He found new political outlets in the Ancoats Brotherhood (founded in 1889) and the Labour church (established in 1891). In 1887 Unwin returned to the Staveley Coal and Iron Company as chief draughtsman, at first designing mining equipment, then grappling with the poor standards of layout and facility offered by the company's colliery housing. This led in 1894 to Unwin's first formal collaboration with Barry Parker (then fresh from his articles as an architectural pupil) on the design of a simple church for the mining community of Barrow Hill. Unwin devised the strategy and layout and Parker the aesthetic detail; and such, as a rule, was to be the division of labour in their later working relationship.

Architectural partnership

There followed the formal architectural partnership of Parker and Unwin, run between the brothers-in-law on an easy and amicable basis between 1896 and 1914. It was at first based in Buxton, whither the Parker family had now moved. Housing was always the focus: initially the internal planning of the middle-class home or artisan's house, then the grouping of small houses, and finally complete suburban and civic layouts, as Unwin's mastery of all sides of ‘the housing question’ grew. The partners' early practice consisted largely of arts and crafts homes for progressive businessmen, furnished with ample living-rooms and inglenooks in the manner of M. H. Baillie-Scott or C. F. A. Voysey. But in The Art of Building a Home, which they published in 1901, such designs alternate with picturesque, communal groups of working-class cottages round an open green, with plans offering bigger living-rooms at the expense of the outmoded front parlour.

In 1902 appeared the first of Unwin's planning tracts, Cottage Plans and Common Sense, which declared war on back extensions and called for lower housing densities. In the next year, following a talk by him at the Garden City Association's Bournville conference, Parker and Unwin secured their first important planning commission. This was for laying out suburban factory housing at New Earswick, York, for the Quaker cocoa manufacturer Joseph Rowntree, in response to the impassioned report of his son Seebohm Rowntree on social conditions in York, Poverty: a Study of Town Life (1901). At New Earswick the design of the cottage housing itself, in a rationalized vernacular manner, was still the partners' main focus. Not so at Letchworth, the first garden city, with a target population of 33,000, the plan for which Parker and Unwin won in a limited competition promoted by Ebenezer Howard's Garden City Association later in 1903. The concept of the self-sufficient garden city promoted by Howard in Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1898–1902) having been entirely diagrammatic, Unwin was in effect asked to endow Letchworth with an image and identity. This raised issues of industrial and civic planning, phasing, and investment on a scale that no British architect had hitherto faced. The plan was revised in 1905–6, when work at Letchworth commenced. The housing areas got the earliest attention, Unwin tackling road layout, grouping, plot size, style, and supervision with originality and a remarkable perception of the complex issues. But Letchworth's civic centre, which was allotted an axial approach perhaps derived from Wren's plan for rebuilding London, grew too slowly for the ideas of Parker and Unwin to be carried through, and remains a grave disappointment.

Despite Unwin's critical role at Letchworth, where he lived between 1904 and 1906, he never identified wholly with Howard's obsession with autonomous garden cities on virgin sites detached from metropolitan influence, and indeed left further work at Letchworth to Parker after 1914. His main concern henceforward was the general improvement of housing standards. He took on numerous commissions and consultancies for garden suburbs and co-partnership housing on the outskirts of cities—many of them curtailed by the First World War. Much the most successful was Hampstead Garden Suburb, Middlesex, first formulated in 1905 but commenced to a radically revised plan only in 1907. Here Unwin's mature grasp of the aesthetics of picturesque housing layout (in which the ideas of the Austrian planner Camillo Sitte and study of German medieval towns played a strong part) and a fine, accessible location on the fringes of Hampstead Heath helped the project to success. He also had the doughty support of the suburb's chief promoter, Henrietta Barnett, wife of Unwin's early mentor Samuel Barnett, in securing a private act of parliament to circumvent irksome building by-laws. This enabled the Parker and Unwin office to realize the most sophisticated of all their plans, ringing the changes on short rows of houses with deep gardens, culs-de-sac, open courts, advanced and recessed frontage lines, boundary hedges, a varied geometry of open spaces, ‘vista-stoppers’ for sight-lines, and skewed road junctions. Again, however, the centre, in part entrusted to Edwin Lutyens and commenced only after the housing was well advanced, remains an uncompleted hole in the suburb's heart. The Unwins moved in 1906 to Wyldes, a farmhouse on the southern edge of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which remained their home until his death.

Town planning

The garden suburb as envisioned by Parker and Unwin (rather than the garden city as adumbrated by Howard) spread internationally with notable speed, in particular to Germany, Belgium, and the United States. A key to this was Unwin's book Town Planning in Practice (1909), a shrewd concoction which combined technical information, quaint medievalizing sketches, and even qualified homage to the formal ‘City Beautiful’ movement of American origin, which Unwin by no means disdained. Many consultancies and invitations followed, and in 1910 he organized the Town Planning conference of the Royal Institute of British Architects. This represented the peak of the British garden city movement's international influence.

After the passing of the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909, which promised much but delivered little, Unwin's chief ambition became to create a national planning framework for imaginative, low-density housing. His personal credo was set out in the pamphlet Nothing Gained by Overcrowding (1912), which sought to show that, because of the heavy price of road making, ‘by-law’ development in terraces at high density cost almost as much as low-density garden suburb development at between twelve and fifteen dwellings per acre with all the houses round the edges of a large block and generous internal common gardens. The economic assumptions in this document are questionable. But it commanded huge moral authority, led between the world wars to the American housing ‘superblock’, and was still a force in what became known as ‘perimeter planning’ in 1960s Britain.

In December 1914, some months after dissolving his partnership with Parker, Unwin embarked on a public career by taking over from Thomas Adams as chief town planning inspector to the Local Government Board. His hope was to push through planning schemes formulated under the 1909 act. But in July 1915 he was seconded as chief housing architect to the wartime Ministry of Munitions. This marked the start of Unwin's influential alliance with Christopher Addison, then minister of munitions, and a renewed connection with Seebohm Rowntree. Teams under Unwin built munitions housing at Gretna and Eastriggs on the Solway Firth and at Mancot Royal, near Chester, which prefigured the plainer manner of cottage housing after 1918.

In July 1917, with Addison now minister of reconstruction, Unwin was appointed to the Local Government Board's Tudor Walters committee. Its task was to report on ‘the methods of securing economy and despatch’ in providing working-class dwellings across the country after the war. By now it was clear to Unwin that adequate housing for the nation could not be secured without a concerted municipal programme, based on the direct subvention from central government that had been signally missing at Letchworth and in the garden suburbs. His was the dominant hand in the bold, progressivist tone of the Tudor Walters report, published in October 1918, which called for obligatory state provision of housing via local authorities. In June 1919 the Ministry of Health took over housing responsibilities from the Local Government Board, with Addison as its head. Addison immediately pushed through the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919, which endorsed the Tudor Walters recommendations and ushered in universal local-authority housing. It was accompanied by a Housing Manual largely drafted by Unwin, now chief housing architect to the Ministry of Health, with layouts and house plans following simplified models of the Parker and Unwin idiom. In tandem with all this, Unwin encouraged the infant Building Research Board (now the building research establishment) to experiment with new structural and material solutions for the coming housing programmes.

The high expectations of the 1919 Housing Act went unfulfilled: inflation savagely reduced the number of houses constructed, and Addison crumbled under the strain. Nevertheless, nearly 200,000 dwellings were built, and the model of development prescribed by Unwin survived the Addison Act and was endorsed with less generous space standards in the ‘Wheatley’ Housing (Financial Provisions) Act of 1924. Down to his retirement from the ministry in December 1928, Unwin continued to work persuasively with successive ministers of health, notably Neville Chamberlain, for his ideal of well-planned, low-density housing.

For the remainder of his life Unwin called indefatigably for a wider vision of planning, turning his experience to issues of city size, shape, land values, compensation, and transport. An immediate focus was the unwieldy, 45-strong, Greater London regional planning committee, inaugurated by Chamberlain to bring coherence to London's inexorable growth. Unwin had already studied metropolitan planning in some depth during the First World War, in collaboration with the London Society. Between 1929 and 1933 he acted as the committee's full-time technical adviser and wrote the bulk of its reports. His recommendations for a regional planning authority made no headway in a period of slump, but he made a trenchant case for a London green belt and satellite towns. Both were to be fulfilled: the former by piecemeal purchase and negotiation after Labour won the London county council in 1934, the latter after Unwin's death, following the report of the royal commission on the distribution of the industrial population (to which he gave evidence) and the New Towns Act of 1946.

Later years

Unwin was president of the Royal Institute of British Architects from 1931 to 1933, received the institute's gold medal in 1937, and was knighted in 1932. He was president of the Town Planning Institute in 1915, and of the International Federation for Housing and Town Planning between 1928 and 1931. He travelled much in his later years, notably to the United States, where his daughter, Peggy, had married Curtice Hitchcock, a member of Woodrow Wilson's peace delegation. His contacts with Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein, and other American planners were close, and he was marginally involved in the planning of Radburn, New Jersey, in 1928. He took a close interest in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal housing programmes, and met the Roosevelts in the course of a Rockefeller-funded international housing commission in 1934. From 1936 Unwin accepted a visiting professorship for four months of the year at Columbia University, New York, where his manner in the studio was appreciated. Stranded in 1939 by the outbreak of war, he was still in the United States when he fell ill and died at Old Lyme, Connecticut, on 28 June 1940, aged seventy-six. His ashes were eventually interred at Crosthwaite church, Cumberland.

It may be claimed that Raymond Unwin had a greater beneficial effect on more people's lives than any other British architect. Creative ideas for improving cottage plans and housing layout had been developed, notably in the factory villages of Bournville and Port Sunlight, before he adopted them. But he fought for them and refined them at every technical and political level, and succeeded in carrying through a national and to some extent international revolution in housing standards. Adamant in his zeal for the benefits of low-density planning as against either undisciplined sprawl or multi-storey flats in cities (which he consistently opposed), he won his case through quiet powers of persuasion united with technical concentration.

Unwin's approach to planning touched a deep and enduring chord in English attitudes towards the home. But it was unfortunate that his campaign against the high costs of road making in housing development should have coincided with the coming of the automobile, to the growth of which, despite his advocacy of the separation and screening of arterial roads by means of ‘parkways’, he could offer no fully developed response. Though not an intellectual of the stature of Patrick Geddes nor a romantic idealist of such transcendental vision as Ebenezer Howard (he enjoyed friendships with both), Unwin ranks beside them as one of three commanding British planners of the twentieth century, and the most practically productive of all three. All architect–planners of the next generation were indebted to his ideas, most notably in Britain, Patrick Abercrombie. The Parker and Unwin office also trained a whole generation of architects whose skills in designing low-density housing persisted, so long as the garden city and new town ideal remained dynamic.

Lewis Mumford described Unwin as ‘politically gifted, dispassionate, reasoned, always a bit of a Quaker, a sound practical man due to his apprenticeship as an engineer’ (Miller, Raymond Unwin, 226). He derived his aesthetic instincts from William Morris's later beliefs in plainness, usefulness, and a good English garden; he had no feeling for architectural modernism, though he appreciated its rationalizing ambitions. He had unbounded respect for a sober and neighbourly style of family life, which he thought it his duty to promote. Tweedy in dress, mustachioed, with a good shock of hair, Unwin had a mild but persistent manner; he made friends easily but was rarely passionate. Though not a strict pacifist during the First World War, he maintained his socialist and internationalist beliefs and was a member of the group which led to the founding of the League of Nations Union. A frugal but hospitable routine and a largely vegetarian table were maintained by the Unwins at Wyldes; Ethel (Ettie) Unwin was a member of the Society of Friends, dressed in Liberty style, and unremittingly knitted or embroidered. There were two children: Edward (1894–1936), who became an architect and helped his father on his Greater London work but died of cancer, to his parents' great grief; and Margaret (Peggy) Curtice Hitchcock (1899–1982).

Andrew Saint


M. Miller, Raymond Unwin: garden cities and town planning (1992) · M. Miller, Letchworth: the first garden city (1989) · C. B. Purdom, The building of satellite towns (1949) · F. Jackson, Sir Raymond Unwin: architect, planner and visionary (1985) · ‘Report of the committee appointed to consider questions of building construction’, Parl. papers (1918), 7.391, Cd 9191 · C. B. Purdom, Life over again (1951) · G. E. Cherry, Pioneers in British planning (1981) · DNB


First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth, papers and architectural drawings · NRA, priv. coll., family MSS, corresp. · RIBA BAL, corresp., working papers · University of Manchester, school of planning and landscape |  Bodl. Oxf., letters to Gilbert Murray · First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth, Letchworth collections · Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, archives · Keele University Library, LePlay Collection, corresp. and minute book entries as member of Sociological Society committees · LMA, minutes of Greater London regional planning committee · NL Scot., corresp. with Patrick Geddes · TNA: PRO, files of Local Government Board, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Munitions, etc. · Welwyn Garden City Central Library, corresp. with Frederic Osborn


G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1922, NPG [see illus.] · G. Clausen, oils, 1933, RIBA · photographs, repro. in Miller, Raymond Unwin, frontispiece, 13, 233 · photographs, First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth

Wealth at death  

£8229 3s. 2d.: probate, 31 Dec 1940, CGPLA Eng. & Wales