Letchworth (a footnote to John Buchan)

In John Buchan’s  Mr Standfast (1919), Richard Hannay is sent on an undercover mission to ‘the Garden City of Biggleswick’, to live among the   high-minded pacifists who set the place’s tone.
One of the residents describes the city:

‘It is one great laboratory of thought,’ said Mrs Jimson. ‘It is glorious to feel that you are living among the eager, vital people who are at the head of all the newest movements, and that the intellectual history of England is being made in our studies and gardens. The war to us seems a remote and secondary affair. As someone has said, the great fights of the world are all fought in the mind.’

Hannay notices that in Biggleswick there is ‘an abundance of young men, mostly rather weedy-looking, but with one or two well-grown ones who should have been fighting.’
Among these is ‘an unwholesome youth’ called Aronson, ironically described as ‘the great novelist’ and with a strong resemblance to D. H. Lawrence.
I’d heard before (I forget where) that Biggleswick was based on Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire. This had been founded, on idealistic principles, in the early years of the twentieth century, and it attracted many high-minded enthusiasts for a better life. Edward Carpenter lived there, as did many enthusiasts for rational clothing, vegetarianism and temperance. The only pub built for the new city offered soft drinks only.
So what was Letchworth really like during the Great War? Did its inhabitants live up to Buchan’s description of them (‘puffed up with spiritual pride’)?
The Daily Mail thought that they did.
An article printed on November 17, 1916 scornfully depicts the place as a haven for conchies.


Here’s an extract from a long and indignant article:

I like that phrase about ‘corsetless women working in corset factories’. The Spirella corset firm was apparently the first factory built in Letchworth, but the ‘advanced dress’ of the freethinkers freed them from corsetry.

Perhaps ironically, the Daily Mail had played a significant part in the development of Letchworth. Wikipedia tells us that in 1905, and again in 1907, the company developing the city

held the Cheap Cottages Exhibitions, contests to build inexpensive housing, which attracted some 60,000 visitors and had a significant effect on planning and urban design in the UK, pioneering and popularising such concepts as pre-fabrication, the use of new building materials, and front and back gardens. The Exhibitions were sponsored by the Daily Mail, and their popularity was significant in the development of that newspaper’s launching of the Ideal Home Exhibition.

By the way, John Betjeman also reached for metaphors of the Fall from Eden when he wrote about wrote about Letchworth some years later :

Huxley Hall

In the Garden City Cafe with its murals on the wall
Before a talk on ‘Sex and Civics’ I meditated on the fall.

Deep depression settled on me under that electric glare
While outside the lightsome poplars flanked the rose-beds in the square.

While outside the carefree children sported in the summer haze
And released their inhibitions in a hundred different ways.

She who eats her greasy crumpets snuggled in her inglenook
Of some birch-enshrouded homestead, dropping butter on her book.

Can she know the deep depression of this bright, hygienic hell?
And her husband, stout free-thinker, can he share in it as well?

Not the folk-museum’s charting of man’s progress out of slime
Can release me from the painful seeming accident of time.

Barry smashes Shirley’s dolly, Shirley’s eyes are crossed with hate,
Comrades plot a comrade’s downfall ‘In the interests of the State.’

Not my vegetarian dinner, not my lime juice minus gin,
Can quite shake the faint conviction that we may be born in sin.


  1. Keiren Phelan
    Posted May 21, 2015 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    That man Buchan! There’s a rather nice cover illustration of Mr Standfast conquering a mountain in the 1956 Penguin edition.

  2. Jim Brown
    Posted May 21, 2015 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I don’t recall any mention of corsets (or lack of) in Mr Standfast, but, like the author of the Daily Mail article, Buchan does draw attention to the hatlessness of the garden city women (end of chap. 3). It must have been something very striking at the time.

    • Roger
      Posted May 21, 2015 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      Hatlessness wasn’t just striking among women. Afew years earlier, George Gissing wrote a short story about a man whose hat is blown out of a tram [?] window and is driven to embezzlement by the need to buy a new one and ends up in gaol, and Saki has a story about a young man forced to escort his aunt on a shopping expedition who does not take a hat and turns out to be impersonating a shop assistant and selling goods unofficially.

    • Roger
      Posted May 21, 2015 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      A few years earlier hatlessness was striking among men too. George Gissing wrote a story about a man whose hat is blown out of a tram[?] window and takes to embezzlement to buy a new one and ends up in gaol. There is a story by Saki where a young man is dragooned into accompanying an aunt on a shopping expedition. To her alarm he doesn’t take a hat and it turns out that he is impersonating a shop assistant and pocketing the money.

      • Posted May 21, 2015 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

        These days some people get annoyed when Muslim women wear headscarves in the street or at work, taking it as some sort of affront to British values. So showing themselves ignorant of the fact that a hundred years ago most Englishwomen too felt it appropriate to cover their ‘crowning glory’ in public places.

  3. Bill
    Posted May 22, 2015 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    It was fairly early that the absence of hats seems to have been equated with being “modern” (as in Betjeman’s line about Edward VIII landing “hatless from the air”). Women without hats (or headscarves) were seen as being “fast” and also modern.

  4. Posted May 22, 2015 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Eliot’s ‘Whispers of Immortality’:

    Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
    Is underlined for emphasis;
    Uncorseted, her friendly bust
    Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

    By ‘Uncorseted’ was TSE suggesting Grishkin was one of the ‘advanced’ crowd?

  5. Posted June 23, 2015 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Here’s George Orwell, describing passengers on a Letchworth bus in the thirties, with at least as much disgust as Buchan:

    They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured ‘Socialists’, as who should say, ‘Red Indians’.

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