A forgotten figure in the Garden City movement

Gary Rycroft.
Gary Rycroft.

A hardy perennial of local newspapers is the planning committee. A recurrent theme is local opposition to over development. Developers roll out the ‘progress and necessity’ argument against naysayers.

One hundred years ago the Garden City Movement was a reaction to the threat of urban sprawl. Garden cities were conceived as self-contained communities surrounded by so called ‘green belts’ with proportionate areas of residential houses, industry and agriculture.

Sir Ebenezer Howard is quite rightly remembered as the founder of the movement. He had the utopian vision. But many good ideas have failed to ignite because of a lack of financial backing and a solid legal platform and in the story of Garden Cities a forgotten figure is solicitor John Stanwell Birkett.

Mr Birkett was a local lad, baptised at St John’s Church, Yealand Conyers, in 1866. He went to Cambridge University and by the early 20th century was a partner in an up and coming London law firm, Withers Benson Birkett and Davies. The firm is still in existence – Withers Worldwide has 17 offices across Europe, the US, Caribbean and Australia.

Back in 1912 when there were still just four partners in the firm, Mr Birkett was an enthusiastic advocate of Ebenezer Howard’s drive to improve housing conditions. He was a member of the Council of the Garden City Association (later the Town and Country Planning Association) and trustee and solicitor to Hampstead Garden Suburb (which began in 1905).

Mr Birkett also brought some of this passion back to his native North of England, being instrumental in building some fine Arts and Crafts houses in Portinscale near Keswick. There they still stand, a tribute to his vision of the possibility that urban development could be in tune with nature.

Mr Birkett was a man who lived according to his personal beliefs. At the outbreak of the First World War he apparently understated his age (he would have been nearly 50) and enlisted. He was killed in action on July 8 1916 leaving a widow and four daughters.

Nearly 100 years later it is a shame we are still battling to improve living standards and save our green belts.