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Howard, Sir Ebenezerlocked

  • Mervyn Miller

Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928)

by E. Housden, c. 1908

First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth

Howard, Sir Ebenezer (1850–1928), founder of the garden city movement, was born at 62 Fore Street in the City of London on 29 January 1850, the third child and only son of Ebenezer Howard, confectioner, who owned several shops in and near the City, and his wife, Ann Tow, of Colsterworth, Lincolnshire. He was educated from the age of four to the age of fifteen at private boarding-schools, first at Sudbury, Suffolk, then at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and finally at Ipswich. After leaving school, he earned his living as a clerk in the City of London, obtaining a varied experience in the offices of a firm of stockbrokers, a firm of merchants, and two firms of solicitors. He taught himself shorthand in his spare time. After sending him a verbatim transcript of one of his sermons, Howard was employed for a short period as private secretary by Dr Joseph Parker, the renowned Congregational preacher (afterwards of the City Temple, Holborn), whose charismatic personality exercised a considerable influence on Howard.

Late in 1871, with two companions of his own age, Howard sailed for New York. They made their way to the mid-western state of Nebraska, appropriately to Howard county, where they arrived in March 1872. They took a 160 acre plot and attempted homestead farming, but the enterprise failed after one winter, and Howard went to Chicago, where he joined the firm of Ely, Burnham, and Bartlett, official stenographers to the law courts. The city was rebuilding itself after a serious fire in 1871, and its suburbs were spreading westwards. The extensive public parks then being projected and laid out gave the name ‘garden city’, a term not lost on Howard. His intellectual horizons broadened through friendship with Alonzo Griffin, a Quaker, who introduced him to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, J. R. Lowell, and Walt Whitman. He met Cora Richmond, a 'spiritualist medium', and studied Tom Paine's The Age of Reason and Benjamin Ward Richardson's Hygeia, or, The City of Health, both of which profoundly influenced him. He became a freethinker, although he continued to attend the Congregational church.

After returning to Britain in 1876, Howard joined Gurney & Sons, the official parliamentary reporters, as a shorthand writer: he carried on his own business as shorthand writer in the law courts, for a few years in partnership with William Treadwell, and later on his own, until his retirement in 1920. On 30 August 1879 Howard married Elizabeth Ann (Lizzie), daughter of Thomas Bills, a prosperous innkeeper of Nuneaton, Warwickshire. Within seven years they had one son and three daughters; a fifth child died in infancy, which undermined Lizzie's health, although she indefatigably and loyally assisted Howard's work. The Howards lived in Dulwich, then on the southern suburban fringe of London, later in Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, to the north. Howard had an inquisitive, inventive turn of mind, and began work on a variable spacing mechanism for typewriters, which he offered to Remingtons, and visited the United States in 1884 and again in 1886, but the deal was not closed as he regarded their offer of £250 for a half-share in the patent as derisory. His interest in typewriters remained to the end of his life. Late in 1879 Howard joined the Zetetical Society, a philosophical and sociological debating group, whose membership included George Bernard Shaw (with whom Howard remained associated until his death) and Sidney Webb, founder of Fabian socialism. In February 1880 Howard presented a paper on spiritualism, a topic which had fascinated him since making the acquaintance of Mrs Richmond.

In 1889 Howard read Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, which had been published in America the previous year. This book describes the experiences of a Bostonian who falls into a trance and wakes up in the year 2000 to find the United States transformed into an ideal community by technological advance and state monopoly capitalism. Howard read the book straight through at a sitting and, as he later wrote, 'realised as never before, the splendid possibilities of a new civilisation, based on service to the community, and not on self-interest … I determined to take such part as I could … in helping to bring a new civilisation into being' (Macfadyen, 20). As a first step he persuaded William Reeves, a radical Fleet Street publisher, to bring out an English edition, but only by offering to take the first 100 copies. Looking Backward acted as catalyst for Howard's drafting Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform. During its long gestation, other influences made their mark: Fields, Factories and Workshops, by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and Progress and Poverty, by the American Henry George, in which land nationalization was proposed. Howard had been aware of the latter since George's well-attended lectures in London in 1882. He acknowledged three sources which helped define his 'unique combination of proposals': the organized migration of population, as formulated by Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Professor Alfred Marshall, the system of land tenure proposed by Thomas Spence (a Quaker radical from Newcastle upon Tyne), with a modification by Herbert Spencer, and the ideal model city of Victoria, by James Silk Buckingham. Systematic decentralization of London's population had been advocated by monarchs in the sixteenth century, and as a compulsory policy by William Cobbett, but Howard firmly linked it to the development of new settlements. Howard circulated drafts of his book among friends, with the title 'The master key', while his ideal settlement progressed from 'Unionville' to 'Rurisville', then 'Garden City'. Swan Sonnenschein eventually published Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform in October 1898, with the inducement of a £50 donation to Howard from George Dickman, managing director in Britain for the Kodak Company. The book was republished in 1902 under the title Garden Cities of Tomorrow, by which it has subsequently become better known.

Howard's objective was to find a remedy for overcrowded and unhealthy conditions in the fast-growing industrial cities, and the accompanying rural depopulation and agricultural depression. He believed access to the countryside to be necessary for the complete physical and social development of humankind. It was no longer acceptable for urban development to be left to the minimally regulated private enterprise of landowners and industrialists. In taking evidence for royal commissions, Howard had been impressed by the unanimity of opinion of labour and capital over the failure of the city to provide decent housing and working conditions. Howard's solution was to provide a new form of settlement as a vehicle for radical social and environmental reform. He proposed the development of new towns, not for individual or corporate profit, but for the benefit of the whole community. These, the garden cities, were to be both residential and industrial, well planned, of limited size and population, and surrounded by a permanent rural belt, integrating the best aspects of town and country. Each garden city was to be self-contained, and built on land purchased by trustees, and used as an asset, against which the cost of development would be raised. The value of the land would increase, and periodic revaluation of the plots leased to individuals would reap the benefit for the community, with dividends to shareholders in the enterprise limited to 5 per cent. Howard envisaged that an urban cluster of garden cities, the 'Social City', would develop in the longer term, with a population of 250,000, in six garden cities of 32,000 each, and a central city of 58,000, all linked by rapid transit. Industrial development would eliminate pollution through the introduction of electricity as the major source of energy.

In 1899 Howard formed the Garden City Association to press for implementation of a garden city as a practical exemplar for others to follow. The movement was greatly assisted through the recruitment of Thomas Adams, a young Scottish surveyor, as secretary to the association, and Ralph Neville, an eminent lawyer and Liberal politician, as chairman. Widespread interest was fostered through international conferences, hosted by George Cadbury at Bournville in 1901, and W. H. Lever at Port Sunlight in 1902. These model industrial villages also demonstrated the benefits of enlightened design of working-class housing. In July 1902, the Garden City Pioneer Company was constituted, with Howard as managing director, to find a suitable site for the first garden city, and in summer 1903 a site at Letchworth, Hertfordshire, was acquired. Development, promoted by First Garden City Ltd, registered on 1 September 1903, began early in 1904, on the basis of a master plan by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin, selected through a limited competition. Howard's concept was modified in detail, though his general principles were maintained. Sites were leased for ninety-nine years, without interim revaluations, and growth was initially slow. The outstanding mortgage on the site, and the high cost of infrastructure were further handicaps; the first dividend, of 1 per cent, was not paid until 1913, and the cumulative dividend arrears were not paid off until 1946. The population rose to 10,212 in 1917 and to 20,321 in 1951, before achieving Howard's target of 32,000 in the late 1980s.

Lizzie Howard died in the late autumn of 1904. Howard moved to a house in Norton Way South, Letchworth, part of a group designed by Parker and Unwin. On 25 March 1907 he remarried; his second wife, Edith Annie (b. 1864/5), a 42-year-old spinster daughter of William Knight Hayward, farmer, of Highfield House, Wellingore, Lincoln, survived him. The marriage was unsuccessful, and Howard left for a while to live alone in the Homesgarth co-operative flats, Sollershott East, Letchworth, which he had founded in 1911.

The aftermath of the First World War brought government involvement with the provision of working-class housing, through grants made to local authorities under the 1919 Housing Act. Disappointed at the lack of commitment to the building of new self-contained communities by state or private enterprise, in 1919 Howard learned that a suitable site at Welwyn, Hertfordshire, 15 miles south of Letchworth, was about to be sold by auction. He raised £5000 from friends, attended the sale, and successfully bid for the land. Second Garden City Ltd was formed to take over and develop the estate. In twelve years, on the basis of a master plan by Louis de Soissons, Welwyn Garden City became a flourishing town of nearly 10,000 residents.

Garden Cities of Tomorrow was translated into many languages, and societies for the promotion of garden cities were established throughout Europe and in the United States of America. In 1913 Howard founded the International Garden Cities Association: he was its president until his death. His study of Esperanto, the international language, was intended to foster co-operation and understanding. Howard travelled widely in the 1920s, and returned to America in 1925, in the company of Parker and Unwin, for the International Garden Cities Association conference held in New York. Howard's ideas were extensively updated and modified during the twentieth century, with the growth of motor traffic, and Radburn, New Jersey, designed by Henry Wright and Clarence Stein, which pioneered the separation of pedestrians and motor vehicles, was begun in 1928, the year of his death. In Britain, through the efforts of Patrick Abercrombie, F. J. Osborn, and Raymond Unwin, the royal commission on the distribution of the industrial population reported in 1940 in favour of planned decentralization of London to a ring of garden cities. This was more precisely defined in Abercrombie's Greater London Plan, 1944, and enacted as a state reconstruction programme by the post-war Labour government, through the New Towns Act of 1946. This in effect fulfilled Howard's strategic objective, first proposed almost fifty years before in 'The future of London', the final chapter of Tomorrow.

Howard remained a poor man all his life, receiving little monetary return from his directorships at Letchworth and Welwyn. He was devoid of personal ambition, but had a remarkable gift of inspiring other people. Being absolutely convinced of the rightness of his ideas, he was driven by an ardent enthusiasm. Neither a professional town planner nor a financier, he convinced town planners and financiers of the practical soundness of his ideas, but readily accepted their expertise in carrying his concepts into practice. George Bernard Shaw aptly characterized Howard as 'one of those heroic simpletons who do big things whilst our prominent worldlings are explaining why they are Utopian and impossible. And of course it is they who will make money out of his work' (G. B. Shaw to A. C. Howard, 25 May 1928, Howard MSS, Hertfordshire County RO). Public recognition came late in life: he was appointed OBE in 1924 and knighted in 1927. Howard's public work and his profession allowed him little leisure for other interests. As a young man he enjoyed watching cricket at Kennington Oval. In later life he was a fair chess player. During his final years Howard divided his time between a projected third garden city, and developing his phonoplayer, a shorthand typewriter, of which prototypes were made. Early in 1928 Howard's health began to fail, and by mid-March he was confined to a sofa at his home at 5 Guessens Road, Welwyn Garden City; Mrs Howard slept upstairs in the only bed. Visitors were kept at bay, and he died, at home, in a neglected state on 1 May 1928. His funeral was held at the Free Church in Letchworth, and he was buried on 4 May in the cemetery on Icknield Way. His height was about 5 feet 5 inches, his hair and complexion fair, and his eyes blue and animated. A memorial tablet was installed in Howard Park, Letchworth, in 1930, and a plain brick memorial in Howardsgate, Welwyn Garden City. This was replaced in July 1964 by a bronze plaque by James Woodford RA, set flat in a cobbled surround, with a portrait relief, and inscribed 'His vision and practical idealism profoundly affected town planning throughout the world'.


  • R. Beevers, The garden city utopia: a critical biography of Ebenezer Howard (1988)
  • D. Macfadyen, Sir Ebenezer Howard and the town planning movement (1933)
  • F. J. Osborn, ‘Sir Ebenezer Howard: the evolution of his ideas’, Town Planning Review, 21/3 (1950), 221–35
  • S. Burder, Visionaries and planners (1990)
  • S. Burder, ‘Ebenezer Howard: the genesis of a town planning movement’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35/6 (1969), 390–97
  • W. A. Eden, ‘Ebenezer Howard and the garden city movement’, Town Planning Review, 19/3–4 (1947), 123–43
  • J. Moss-Eccardt, Ebenezer Howard, 1850–1928 (1973)
  • M. Miller, Letchworth: the first garden city (1989)
  • M. de Soissons, Welwyn Garden City: a town designed for healthy living (1988)
  • The Times (2 May 1928)
  • Letchworth Citizen (4 May 1928)
  • Letchworth Citizen (11 May 1928)
  • Welwyn News (4 May 1928)
  • Welwyn News (11 May 1928)
  • Garden Cities and Town Planning, 18/5 (1928), 101–3, 109–13


  • Herts. ALS, corresp. and papers
  • Welwyn Garden City Library, corresp. and papers of Frederic Osborn relating to Howard, incl. corresp. with him


  • First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth, Hertfordshire, The life of Ebenezer Howard


  • E. Housden, photograph, 1908, First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth, Hertfordshire [see illus.]
  • S. Pryse, oils, 1912, First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth, Hertfordshire
  • I. Young, bust, 1927, First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth, Hertfordshire
  • photographs, First Garden City Heritage Museum, Letchworth, Hertfordshire
  • photographs, Town and Country Planning Association

Wealth at Death

£788 14s. 1d.: probate, 25 June 1928, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)