The strange death of the British Utopia - or how Britain lives in her own past


‘Deserted’ says the taxi driver and so it proves to be. As I walk through the back streets of Britain’s last planned village in between drizzle and sunshine, I am struck by its quiet and lack of people. I hear children playing but their voices are disembodied, muffled behind high brick walls. All I notice is the crunching of gravel underfoot. The place has a film-set quality – an unreal vision of a timeless England.

This is Poundbury, the creation of a Prince; a dabbler, longing for a rosy, reimagined society that could only be glimpsed from palace gates and made whole by an architect-fan of Albert Speer’s Theory of Ruin Value. A nowhere- town with a bad case of that peculiarly English disease, nostalgia. A village in the rich tradition of English planned communities, yet a symbol of a smug Middle-England bolted onto the very real working town of Dorchester.

How at the start of the twenty first century have we ended up with such a backward-looking mess?

The British have a long and unique relationship with their home, its ideal and planning. From the early modern period onwards, to repeat a cliché, an Englishman’s home was his castle. Thomas More first articulated the perfect place to live in the modern sense with his Utopia (1516-17), a coded satire of England. He imagined an island in the middle of the Atlantic living in communal harmony. Literally a ‘no-where’ place. More wrote at a time characterised by repeated uprisings due largely to the displacement of the rural poor because of the enclosure of common land by the wealthy. This process had been underway since the late mediaeval period and ended a traditional system of arable farming in open fields, replacing it with pasture for sheep. Over time this movement created a landless working class that would eventually form the basis for industrial labour in later centuries. More’s writing feeds into a continuum that connects the mediaeval notion of English religious freedom with the radical charge of the Peasant’s Revolt of the 1380s, through the English Revolution in the 1640s to the Utopian Socialists of the nineteenth century. It could be said that the line continues to the present through the anti-Capitalist movements of the 1990s and to today’s global Occupy movement that finds a modern context in which to organise people’s lives through planned community.

The impulse to modern community in England can be traced to the radical political and non-conformist dissenting groups of the 1640s, the Diggers, Levellers and Ranters. Combining elements of early communism and millenarianism, all emerged during the bloody conflicts between Parliament and the defeated, executed King. The Diggers’ programme included common ownership of the land, free universal education and the abolition of money. Gerrard Winstanley foresaw a “world turned upside down” turning the earth “into a common treasury”. In 1649 amidst a terrible hunger, they dug up waste ground on St Georges Hill in Surrey and planted communal crops, living together in basic settlements without weapons or finance. Their forces were eventually routed but the ideal of planned community would be harder to break. 

By the start of the next century this increasing sense of individual freedom became the concern of the new commercial classes that formed an overwhelmingly urban bourgeoisie. It is their identity that becomes central to the concept of a city. This new class with its heart based in rationalism, trade and science began to sweep away the mediaeval streets and towns expanded. As Malcolm Miles in his book Urban Utopias contends, “When the centre of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, it was rebuilt as a commercial centre on a grid plan”. In a similar fashion, crowded inner-city streets like those around London’s Regent Street and Trafalgar Square were razed and new broad avenues constructed. Haussmann demolished much of the labyrinthine and squalid districts of working-class Paris and constructed a bourgeois city of apartment blocks. More altruistic motives for all of this were overshadowed primarily by the need to make profit for speculators and, moreover, for security and control. If the countryside had in a sense been enclosed by the wealthy for their own ends, the mercantile class were busily making their own subtle enclosures in cities: zoning the poor and the destitute. A century later the critic and thinker Walter Benjamin would compare the underground Paris – its catacombs and darkness - to the ‘overground’ city of arcades and boulevards.

By the eighteenth century, great mercantile wealth began to show its effects on the English countryside. Landowners, buoyed by trade, courted fashionable notions of taste and employed urban architects to built and extend their country piles. Grand Tours to Europe had convinced the English leisured classes that beauty might be created in terms of the Picturesque – an aesthetic movement framed by the emerging Romantic sensibility of the age. The possibility that the rugged beauty of the English countryside – inconvenient peasants included – might mirror the classical ruins of Italy meant entire communities were removed and rehoused elsewhere in planned settlements. The process known as ‘emparking’ transformed much of the English landscape by physically removing the unsightly shacks of the poor from the vistas of elegant new houses. The villagers were transplanted into

‘model villages’. Today, in large parts of the English landscape, an isolated church stands a distance away from rows of identically built cottages, perhaps at right angles to the gates of a great house or symmetrically at the sides of a road. As Gillian Darley’s comprehensive Villages of Vision makes clear, sometimes “… the village itself became an object of interest… a foretaste of the magnificence of the mansion beyond”. Philanthropy in the era was viewed at best as eccentric and yet for many of the peasants, the rehousing usually meant an improvement in living standards. The construction of houses in the preceding period had stagnated and depended on what materials were available locally or the builder’s income. Traditionally, planned settlements revolved around a particular trade or university but planning around obscure country settlements – planning for planning’s sake - marked something new.

As matters of taste became more important for landowners, urban architects rather than local builders became responsible for these early planned communities. The Society of Dilettanti formed in 1733 reflected an increasing interest by the gentry in aesthetic architecture. Despite Walpole’s conviction that (it was) “...a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy… the real one, being drunk”, it led to a professionalism in architecture but also to a contrived nostalgia. “The cottage was becoming” according to Darley, “a form of garden ornament.” As late as 1895, a guidebook (Murray’s ‘A Railway Miscellany’) was commenting on the red uniforms that the cottagers of Old Walden in Bedfordshire wore to match the paintwork in their village. They had become actors in their own landscape. Myth built on myth of Olde England. The past was becoming (as the historian Sir John Plumb would write in his seminal ‘Death of the Past’)... “a created ideology with a purpose designed to control.”

If aesthetic responses to wealth were a motivation to model community planning so was an emerging morality. Early model communities were principally founded on a religious basis. A German Protestant sect, the Moravians, had built seven villages in England and Ireland between 1744 and 1780 around the idea of an extended monasticism through textile work and other trades. In 1819 Robert Owen, a British industrialist, reprinted a pamphlet from 1696 by John Bellars that outlined plans for an advance on the workhouse system. Owen’s financial success allowed him to develop New Lanark, a town in Scotland for his mill workers on broadly Socialist lines emphasising morality, education, temperance and cleanliness. Children were educated until the age of ten and community activities were central to the idea of living within modern, purpose-built tenement blocks. For Owen, a man’s character was formed by his surroundings and he played a major role in establishing the Cooperative movement. A link between early industrial planning and later Victorian philanthropy, Owen saw progress within a moral order overseen by an elite. Unlike the later Chartists (a working class movement for reform that would dominate political discussion mid-century) his work marks a clean break with the levelling aspects of the ideal society of the English Revolutionaries two centuries earlier. 

The big industrial cities of this period, best captured by Dickens as the fictional Coketown in Hard Times (1865), were untouched by planning - moral or otherwise. Representing both the advances of an industrial society and its complete disregard for human life, their depictions in art and literature started to place a burden of responsibility on Capital that it could no longer ignore. The pressure for at least some piecemeal legislation culminated in the Housing and Working Classes Act of 1890 which might be seen as the first evidence of State intervention in planning. It would however take two world wars and a sustained bombing campaign by a foreign power to dislodge the last remnants of the Victorian slum in both the physical presence and the imagination of the British city. 

Some industrialists, heir to Owen’s initiatives, had by the mid-1880s moved their factories to the edges of cities in a sustained attempt to create better conditions for their workers. Titus Salt’s new mill on the River Aire outside Bradford was an early example (although he did move the river to make the view more picturesque) as were the Cadbury brothers’ more substantial attempts at Bourneville. Quakers, their plans were the first that included housing for general workers as well as industrial labour. The factory was surrounded by gardens and greenery and exercise and health were promoted. When the leader of the Reichstag visited in 1912 he was greeted by evidence that showed Bourneville children were two or three inches taller than their counterparts in the surrounding Birmingham slums. The German architect of the Krupp Village, Margaretenhöhe was sent to study the place that further proved an inspiration for Lever’s Port Sunlight. William Hesketh Lever, a Nonconformist grocer grown rich from Sunlight Soap, built a model village whilst moving and expanding his factory. His vision, an oppressive Christian paternalism, would ultimately stifle his workers but the village still stands (ironically entirely owner-occupied). As a union official reported at the time “No man of independent turn of mind could breathe for long in the atmosphere at Port Sunlight”. Architecturally, as Darley points out, both Bourneville and Port Sunlight shared a design that was about “cloaking working class housing in a middle class disguise”. They owed much to the garden suburbs of the Northern industrial towns and in that way, significantly, they were clearly aspirational.

According to Richard Sennett in his Flesh and Stone, “by the end of the 1880s the urban tide that had flooded into London had begun to flow out”. When that tide had receded, Victorians were shocked to find in the inner-city rock pools, lost tribes of the East End poor living like African villagers that the Empire was busily plundering abroad. The middle classes lost faith in city living and now looked to decamp en masse to new suburbs that promised the best of the countryside and the city.


I have been quietly following a Japanese tourist who is taking pictures of a roundabout. No ordinary roundabout however, this is Britain’s first – built in 1909 in Letchworth Garden City - a planned town that marked a watershed in contemporary urban thinking and clearly a minor magnet for planned-town buffs the world over. It is a good roundabout. If small…

 A train from London’s Kings Cross decamps me (and the tourist) at a very tidy neo-Jacobean railway station. Ahead is a wide avenue with plantings of lime trees and hornbeam hedges and a large, rather utilitarian fountain. Roads radiate from this central artery in an ordered, regular fashion. Down one of the roads, following the Japanese consulting his map, birds sing in trees full of blossom and white-rendered houses stare cheerfully back. Letchworth and its comic/touching love for commemorating roundabouts looks like the quintessential English suburb. A suburb is however the last thing it was designed to be.

By the late 1880s movements in literature and art, recoiling from the values of the age manifested themselves as the Arts and Crafts Movement. Both the critic John Ruskin and the designer and thinker William Morris had written at length about the shortcomings of industrial society but it was the latter’s ‘News from Nowhere’ that caught the public’s imagination. A work that fused Socialism and romance it imagined, in the tradition of Thomas More, a future society based on common ownership and democracy. In Morris’ future there was no money, no private property, no class system and crucially no big cities.

England “is now a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt…” Harking back to an (imagined) age he continued, “Like the mediaevals we like everything trim and clean… as people do when they have any sense of architectural power…” Various community experiments in communal living that channelled a libertarian nod to the Diggers and Levellers (including one near Sheffield by Ruskin) collapsed without a trace but something that echoed the words of the George Cadbury, architect of Bourneville that “ no man ought to be compelled to live where a rose cannot grow” had literally taken root in Britain.

Another Utopian novel, ‘Looking Backward’ by Edward Bellamy (1888) describing the transformation of Boston by 2000AD into an urban garden community so disturbed and excited a young draughtsman, Ebenezer Howard, that he spent the rest of his life planning and realising what would become the Garden City Movement. Letchworth would be the prototype. Clearly influenced by Hyndman (the founder of the Social Democratic Federation) and the Anarchist, Kropotkin, Howard proposed his solutions through one of planning’s most famous diagrams, ‘The Three Magnets’. Here ‘Town’ and ‘Country’ merged to become ‘Town-Country’ combining the best of both worlds. For Howard, cities suffered from overcrowding, the absence of nature, alcoholism and pollution. Rural life was healthy but lacked employment at decent wages. “…out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilisation”. In 1898, to very little notice, he published his ‘Peaceful Path to Real Reform” which was republished much more successfully in 1902 as ‘Gardens of Tomorrow’. Howard’s Utopia would consist of a Garden City with a population of 30,000 people with a further 2,000 in a surrounding agricultural belt. It was a city with a garden at its centre that would take only 15 minutes to cross by foot. Light industry would provide jobs using local materials to meet local needs.

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