StoriesPart of The Architecture Diaries

Building a dream in the garden suburbs

In Victorian times, England’s first garden suburb was designed to appeal to the health concerns of the literary classes. Conceived as a retreat from the crowds and disease of London, Bedford Park was trumpeted as the healthiest place in the world.

Words by Emily Sargent

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Artist's montage showing the garden suburb of Bedford Park within a snowglobe, with historical figures looking on
The Architecture Diaries, Eva Mlinar. © Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

I first came across Bedford Park, a leafy suburb in west London, in the collections at Wellcome. A small print dated 1882 showed large red-brick houses with expansive gardens, surrounded by cherry trees in blossom, their curving branches bearing the influence of the Japanese prints that were popular in fashionable society at the time.

A small group of children, the only people depicted in the print, are separated from the bucolic landscape by a large wall that encircles the houses.   

Part of the Bedford Park estate in Chiswick.

Discovering Bedford Park’s claim to be the first ‘garden suburb’ warranted further investigation. Who was this idealised community built for, and how did it respond to the health concerns of 19th-century London?

Bedford Park sits a short tube journey away from Wellcome Collection in central London, near Turnham Green station. As you arrive, a handsome sign, erected by the local historical society, proudly declares the area’s history. The idea for Bedford Park was apparently inspired by William Morris’s suggestion of an ideal town where “people lived in little communities among gardens and fields so that they could be in the country in five minutes”.  

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It was made reality by developer and merchant Jonathan Thomas Carr, and unlike the later garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn, which were built in a cooperative manner, it was conceived as a speculative development – one for profit. Carr’s previous property speculations hadn’t always been successful – he was subject to 342 bankruptcy petitions – but with his marriage, he gained access to 24 acres of land owned by his father-in-law in the west of the city.

The Queen Anne-style architecture was designed to appeal to those with aesthetic sensibilities and was aimed at the literary classes who could no longer afford Chelsea.  

Realising the ideal suburb

Edward William Godwin, an architect who had designed homes for Oscar Wilde and the American painter James McNeill Whistler, drew up early schemes. Godwin believed that architecture and thoughtful interior design could promote health, providing an alternative to the dusty clutter popular in Victorian times, as well as offering some psychological relief from the “high-pressure, nervous times” of busy urban life.

Godwin’s initial designs attracted criticism, however, and the job was passed to Norman Shaw, whose vision defined the final architectural character of the development, which was begun in the late 1870s.

The print in Wellcome Collection was part of a set of lithographs produced as promotional material, employing visual references and influences to appeal to the artistic set the developers hoped to attract. (A full set of these can be found in the print collection at the V&A.)

A healthy retreat from city squalor

But it was in Bedford Park itself that I discovered another version, which revealed another canny marketing ploy. In the hallway of David Budworth, a long-time Bedford Park resident and member of the Bedford Park Society, I saw a print titled ‘Bedford Park: The Healthiest Place in the World’, citing death rates of under six per thousand (in Bethnal Green at this time the rate was closer to 25 per thousand).

In the home he has inhabited for over 30 years, David explained some of the healthy principles that influenced the design of Bedford Park.

An advertisement for Bedford Park, in Chiswick, west London. The copy reads: 'The Healthiest Place in the World (Annual Death Rate under 6 per Thousand). About 500 Houses on the Estate, all in the picturesque Queen Anne style of Architecture. The estate is built on gravelly Soil and has the most approved Sanitary arrangements.'  Underneath a picture of the estate with red brick houses, leafy gardens, a women luxuriating on a chair and a young child walking around with a parasol, the copy reads: 'A Garden and a Bath Room with Hot and Cold water to every house, whatever its size. A Kindergarten and good Cheap Day Schools on the Estate, and a School of Art. Also Church, Club (for Ladies and Gentlemen), Stores, the "Tabard Inn", Tennis Courts &c. Several houses now to let at rents from £30 to £130. Apply"
Bedford Park, the Healthiest Place in the World, Unknown. © Unknown.

"The Healthiest Place in the World" proudly claimed an "Annual Death Rate under 6 per Thousand" in this advertisement.

In 1875 Benjamin Ward Richardson, an eminent doctor and sanitary reformer, published ‘Hygeia: A City of Health’ in which he set out a vision for healthy urban planning.

One of Richardson’s recommendations was that there should be no basement rooms, which were common in Victorian housing: “In this, our model city, there are no underground cellars, kitchens or other caves which, worse than those ancient British caves that still can show the antiquarian as the fastnesses of her savage children, are even now loathsome residences of many millions of our industrial classes.”

This was adopted in Bedford Park, and remains the case today, as the local council have rejected applications to install basements beneath the now listed properties.

Bedford Park was somewhat successful in its aim to attract poets, artists and writers. The Irish poet W B Yeats moved there, and the French-Danish artist Camille Pissarro spent time at his son’s house in Bedford Park, making several paintings of the area.

Painting by Camille Pissarro in the Impressionist style of small but visible brush strokes. Shows a road with red-brick houses in the background and leafy green shrubs and taller trees. A women and child dressed in white and beige tend to the greenery in the foreground.
Bath Road, London, Camille Pissaro. Source: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford WA1951.225.4. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Camille Pissarro's depiction of Bath Road was painted while he was staying at his son's house in Bedford Park.

But what of the health claims? Suburbs like Bedford Park were a direct response to the terrible conditions prevalent in London’s urban slums. Admirable attention was paid to the sanitary arrangements at Bedford Park, but the distance between the suburbs and the slums also provided a reassuring layer of protection.

Its calm, unified appearance – and the resulting uniformity of residents – was a world away from the chaos and squalor in London’s industrial areas. Described by one commentator as a “little piece of an old English town which has somehow or other escaped the ravages of time”, Bedford Park attempts to banish the threat of the town and city beyond – both literally and in the imagination – by retreating into the safety of a past architectural style.

Repeating the past in Poundbury

Fast forward 100 years and, in the early 1990s, construction began on an experimental new town, Poundbury, in Dorset. The town, an extension to Dorchester, sits on land owned by Prince Charles, who has openly challenged postwar planning.

It has divided opinion, and is undeniably a curious place to visit, with its mash-up of Georgian terraces, traditional cottages and a block of flats modelled on Buckingham Palace. Recent additions include some mock-industrial style buildings, for off-the-shelf loft living. 

A contemporary photograph taken in Poundbury. Shows streets empty of people and cars, and a purpose-built new boxy houses with old-style columns.
Nonsuch, Steffi Klenz. Source: Steffi Klenz. © Steffi Klenz.

This photograph, titled 'Nonsuch', was taken by Steffi Klenz in Poundbury in 2006 and is devoid of human presence.

Arriving by coach, on a tour organised by the Architecture Foundation, I see Poundbury looming into view rather suddenly. It has a somewhat unreal quality – captured in Steffi Klenz’s photographs, which are featured in the ‘Living with Buildings’ exhibition. As a large group of pedestrians we are a distinctive sight – apart from shoppers in the newly opened Waitrose in the town square, we are the only people on the streets.

Despite early hopes for a reduction, car use remains high here. Traditional style-shops, hung with Union Jack bunting, are empty on a Saturday afternoon.

As we approach the boundary with Dorchester, the unruly reality of 21st-century living confronts us – satellite dishes mounted on roofs, trampolines in front gardens. It serves as something of a relief: we exhale, shoulders drop.

But I’m struck by the familiarity, not of Poundbury’s particular architectural vision, which is unique, but of the motivation to use architecture as a refuge from the messy problems of modern life. While Bedford Park was a response to the threat posed by 19th-century London’s Dickensian slums, Poundbury is a retort to the dominant urban vision of the postwar period, and in particular the ultimate symbol of modern inner-city life – the tower block.

About the author

Photograph of Emily Sargent

Emily Sargent

Emily Sargent is Senior Curator at Wellcome Collection, and curator of 'Living with Buildings'. She has curated numerous large exhibitions on a wide range of subjects from human enhancement to the experience of consciousness.