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Book review: Ebenezer Howard: Inventor of the garden city by Frances Knight

08 December 2023

William Whyte reflects on the motivation of a great social reformer

EBENEZER HOWARD was an unlikely seer. Born the son of a baker in 1850, he became an articled clerk at 15, and a parliamentary shorthand writer at 26. Four years later, he tried (and failed) to make his fortune with a new typewriter mechanism — an obsession that would last the whole of his rather long life. He enjoyed watching cricket, and was reasonably good at chess. Sandy-haired, blue-eyed, of middle height, he was hardly the stuff of which prophets are conventionally made.

But Howard has some claim to be one of the most influential people of the 20th century. In 1898, he published Tomorrow: A peaceful path to real reform. In it, he argued for the creation of “garden cities” as a solution to England’s problems. They would, he urged, solve the crisis of urban overcrowding and ill-health created by the Industrial Revolution, while also ameliorating the decay and depopulation of the countryside. Little of this, in truth, was wholly original; but it struck a chord, and his visionary ideas were — improbably — enacted: first, at Letchworth, and then at Welwyn. Still more, his work would inspire the replanning of cities all around the globe.

Specialists, whether historians or planners, know this story well. What they know less about is the religious background to Howard’s work. He was brought up a Congregationalist, then became a freethinker and a spiritualist. He dabbled with Theosophy, and had much sympathy for Unitarianism, before founding a sort of ecumenical church to serve his garden cities.

A distinguished historian of 19th-century religion, Frances Knight is ideally qualified to discuss not just Howard’s own spiritual peregrinations, but also to reveal how important faith was to his project as a whole. He was convinced that the garden cities would effect spiritual as well as material reform, and remained confident that, in his own words, “there was a beneficent Power behind” his plans. Professor Knight teases out the theological underpinnings of his ideas, and reveals the networks of Christians — especially Congregationalists — who helped to realise Howard’s vision.

AlamyA sculpture of Ebenezer Howard by Ben Twiston-Davies in Welwyn Garden City

Perhaps above all, this book is brilliant at evoking the culture of serious theological debate and earnest spiritual searching of which Howard was a part. It shows that the lives of clerks and bakers, stenographers and secretaries were often far removed from the mundanity of Charles Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody.

Through séances and sermons, wide reading and often fierce debate, people like Howard were able to build up and then articulate their own quite distinctive religious ideas. For him, in fact, his idealism was a necessary consequence of his daily work. “I was restless because stenographers grow restless,” he observed. “They listen so much to the ideas of others that unless they think of something original for themselves they become mere phonograph records.”

Being a prophet is never easy. Nor does it pay. “I could wish that the good Lord who made you a Social Reformer had also given you the wherewithal to reform on,” his wife once wrote. Yet this short, readable, and well-informed biography does much to explain how Howard came to change the world. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, he was “one of those heroic simpletons who do big things whilst our prominent worldlings are explaining why they are Utopian and impossible”.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford

Ebenezer Howard: Inventor of the Garden City
Frances Knight
OUP £40
Church Times Bookshop £36

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