World's first New Town celebrates 75th anniversary

People and shops in the central square in Stevenage town centre Hertfordhshire UK showing th

Town Square at the heart of the pedestrianised town centre - Credit: Julian Eales/Alamy Stock Photo

The world's first New Town was designated 75 years ago this year.  A vision for a better way of living, Stevenage was a revolutionary place. Richard Young looks at the town’s evolution.   

Sep. 09, 1958 a New piece of statuary, Joy Ride, unveiled in the new town centre of stevenage; The Hon D

Joy Ride statue is unveiled in September 1958 by David Bowes Lyon, Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire. The clock tower is still under construction behind - Credit: Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo

‘Our towns must be beautiful. Here is a grand chance for the revival or creation of a new architecture. The monotony of the interwar housing estate must not be repeated. The new towns can be experiments in design as well as in living.’  

It was May 8, 1946 and the Minister for Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, was addressing parliament about the New Towns Bill – legislation which would see the draft designation of Stevenage on August 1 that year as Britain’s first New Town.  

The wave of new towns which began with Stevenage was intended to help alleviate congested urban areas and provide homes for people displaced due to bombing in the war.  

The New Town Movement was derived from the Garden City Movement, founded by Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800s as an alternative to overcrowded and polluted industrial cities.  

The garden city principles included creating communities with proportionate areas of residence, industry and agriculture, with generous green space including a surrounding belt of countryside to prevent sprawl.  

In his address, Silkin continued: ‘The demand for the erection of large numbers of houses and the need to rebuild war-damaged towns are pressing. Between the wars, five million houses were built, and the effect on the countryside and on our towns has been almost calamitous. Large numbers of people in the towns are living in grossly congested and overcrowded conditions, and there is almost always a serious lack of open space, particularly in the poorer parts of our towns.  

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‘[The new towns] must be so laid out that there is ready access to the countryside for all. This combination of town and country is vital. Lack of it is perhaps the biggest curse of the present-day town dweller. I believe that if all these conditions are satisfied, we may well produce in the new towns a new type of citizen, a healthy, self-respecting, dignified person with a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride.’  

Stevenage cycleways historic image

Cycleways and pathways criss-cross the town, avoiding the roads - safety was a primary concern for planners - Credit: Stevenage Museum

With its proximity to the mainline railway and Great North Road, as well as its excellent infrastructure, Silkin strongly favoured Stevenage as a new town, and the final Designation Order for it was made on November 11, 1946, setting out an intended population of 60,000. 

Silkin's enthusiasm, however, was not shared by people living in what is now Stevenage Old Town, which then had a population of around 6,400.  

Expressing feelings of powerlessness, residents changed the railway station's signs to Silkingrad for his arrival in the town one December night in 1946.  

The vision for Stevenage New Town was bold and experimental in its approach, embracing radical ideas including a pedestrianised town centre and an extensive network of cycleways that both encouraged sustainable transport and made travel safer.  

The process of design was complex, with the key period lasting from the mid-1940s until the early 1960s.  

Planning was a collaborative effort, formed by the ideas of architects and planners including Gordon Stephenson, Peter Shepheard and Clarence Stein, with the detailed design undertaken by the Stevenage Development Corporation under chief architect Leonard Vincent and his deputy Raymond Gorbing.  

The corporation had been specifically established to plan, build and manage the new town.  

The essence of the plan was a new town centre a mile south-east of the old High Street, surrounded by six neighbourhoods - Bedwell, Broadwater, Shephall, Chells, Pin Green and the existing Old Town, each intended to house around 10,000 people and have their own neighbourhood centre and facilities, including shops, schools, churches, community centres, pubs and recreation grounds. 

Marymead Shopping Precinct in Stevenage in 1957

Marymead Shopping Precinct in Stevenage in 1957. Each neighbourhood had its own dedicated facilities - Credit: Stevenage Museum

The first houses were completed in 1951 in Broadview, not far from the Old Town, and the first of the new neighbourhoods to be developed was Bedwell, built in 1952-3, with the last Pin Green from 1962.  

The earliest residents were called 'pioneers'.  

Andrew Robson remembers the town's earliest days as a child. His parents married in 1948 and moved to Stevenage, living briefly in Haycroft Road before moving to Brox Dell - now Broxdell.  

He says: 'Living in Stevenage during the 1950s meant we were around when the new town centre was being constructed, and there were new housing developments springing up all around the area, notably around Bedwell Crescent and new roads like Plash Drive and Cuttys Lane. The half-built housing estates became a regular playground, and we spent many happy hours playing in what was destined to become someone’s living room or bedroom. Of course, we weren’t supposed to be there, but that never stopped us.'  

Stevenage was the first town in the country to have a completely pedestrianised town centre, with first floor canopies unifying the Modernist architecture.  

The Queen officially opened the new shopping precinct and toured the town in April 1959 and visitors travelled to Stevenage specifically to see the pedestrianisation.  

 Queen Elizabeth II visiting the factory of English Electric Aviation in Stevenage 1959

The Queen visiting the factory of English Electric Aviation during her tour of Stevenage New Town. In the background is a Thunderbird anti-aircraft missile - Credit: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By the end of the 1950s, Stevenage's population had reached 30,000. In 1959, a new final population of 80,000 was agreed - up 20,000 from the original estimate - before a bombshell decision by the government in 1962 to increase the population to 150,000.

This ambitious target was dismissed three years later in favour of expansion through natural growth.  

One of the key principles of new town planning was economic self-containment.  

With good communication links by road and rail, affordable housing and a growing population, Stevenage became attractive for new industries and businesses. 

English Electric was one of the first factories to settle on a 70-acre site - moving to Stevenage from Luton in 1955 - and brought plenty of employment to the area.  

Other major early employers including the British Aircraft Corporation and Taylor Instruments. 

The first new town industry to open was printing works Bay Tree Press in 1952, and De Havilland Propellers came to Stevenage the following year.  

In 1954, British Visqueen - part of ICI - began manufacturing polythene in Stevenage, and International Computers and Tabulators - later International Computers Limited - and Kodak also moved to the new town that same year.  

By 1961, 22,000 jobs had been created - 15,500 in the manufacturing industry and 6,500 in the service industry. 

The Queen is greeted by residents after a visit to a new home during her three-hour visit to Stevenage in April 1959

The Queen is greeted by residents after a visit to a new home during her three-hour visit to Stevenage in April 1959 - Credit: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Sharon Taylor, leader of Stevenage Borough Council, has lived in the town her whole life.  

She says: 'Our motto is "the heart of a town lies in its people". The original vision was to create a series of neighbourhood communities that worked for individuals and families, each with their own facilities and linked with the central facilities offered in our historic High Street and town centre. This model has stood the test of time.  

‘The great strength of Stevenage has been our ability to be innovative and flexible, quickly adapting to changing times and keeping our focus clearly on achieving the best for all the people who live, work and visit here. Long may that continue.' 

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