Towards the end of the 19th Century the ever-increasing size and congestion of cities gave rise to a feeling that there was a need to intervene more positively to provide better housing, particularly for the working class. Central and local government had long since taken steps to regulate with bye-laws the worst abuses of sanitation and public health. Two other influences now made themselves felt: the efforts of social reformers seeking a better society and the ideas of architects and civic designers hoping to create a more beautiful city. Examples of model housing by industrialists such as Cadbury Brothers at Bournville near Birmingham and by Lever at Port Sunlight, Liverpool, had existed since the 1880’s. At the turn of the century these trends found expression in the “Garden City” movement. The name came from Ebenezer Howard’s book, revised in 1902 under the title Garden cities of Tomorrow. His idea was to limit the size of main cities and to build, at some considerable distance the parent city, small satellite towns of some 30,000 inhabitants, complete with gardens, open spaces, parks, public buildings and supporting industry, and to surround each town by a wide, permanent green belt of agricultural land. He hoped thus to combine the advantages of the town and the beauty of the country. This concept has remained influential to the present day.
An enormous influence on the Garden City movement and on town planning and design generally was exerted by the architect Raymond Unwin (later Sir Raymond) (1863-1940). His book Town Planning in Practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs was of the first modern town. Some idea of the thrust of Unwin’s Criticism of some earlier suburban development is given by these words of his: Much good work was done but vast districts were built under Victorian bye-laws which for dreariness and ugliness are difficult to match and compared with which many of the old unhealthy slums are from the point of view of picturesqueness and beauty infinitely more attractive. With his partner Barry Parker he limited his practice to designing small cottages and housing schemes. For example, in 1902/3 they designed 28 houses in the garden village for Rowntree for workers at New Earswick near York.
The first opportunity to design a garden city in England came at Letchworth where in 1903 Parker and Unwin were commissioned to draw up plans for a garden city of 3,820 acres. By 1907 a town of 5,000 people had been created and was still growing. In 1905 Parker and Unwin were given the responsibility for the plans for the Hampstead Garden Suburb of 240 acres, which was inspired by the social reformer Henrietta Barnett, (later Dame Henrietta), wife of Canon Barnett, vicar of St. Jude’s, Whitechapel and Warden of Toynbee Hall which the Barnetts founded. It should be noted that “Garden Suburb” was not intended to contain the complete facilities and supporting industry envisaged in the concept of a “Garden City.” During the early 20th century the Hampstead Garden Suburb continued to grow in size and reputation. In contrast the Romford Garden Suburb at Gidea Park is not widely known, although many of the same architects were involved in its design.
In 1909, Raphael joined with John Tudor Walters Liberal M.P. for Sheffield, Brightside, and Charles Albert McCurdy to form the Gidea Hall Development Company, with the object of developing a garden suburb on the Gidea Hall estate, Raphael holding 80% of the shares. Tudor Walters was an architect and surveyor by profession. McCurdy barrister and unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the 1906 election, was already closely involved in the Hampstead project, as a director of the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust Co and of the Garden Suburb Development Co (Hampstead) Ltd. In 1909 Raphael also made an agreement with the Great Eastern Railway Co for the building of a new railway station to serve the Suburb on the main line from Liverpool Street. This was opened in December 1910 under the name “Squirrels Heath and Gidea Park”, providing 70 up and down trains every weekday, the fast trains taking about 25 minutes to Liverpool Street at a cost of 1s 9d third class return. By 1912 the station’s name had reversed to “Gidea Park and Squirrels Heath”.
From the spring of 1910 the Gidea Hall Development Co was submitting plans to the Romford Council for a garden suburb on lines similar to the one at Hampstead. The Suburb was intended to cover 450 acres of the Gidea Hall estate, embracing the 90 acres of Golf Course at its centre and an additional 60 acres south of Main Road. In 1912 the Golf Course and three further open spaces – Reed Pond Walk Copse, the centre of Gidea Close (now tennis courts) and the centre of Balgores Square (now a municipal car park) – were covenanted to remain free of house building in perpetuity.
The site chosen for the Romford Garden Suburb was an interesting and beautiful one in the grounds of Gidea Hall. At that time many of the attractive features of the old Gidea Hall estate were still to be seen and some have survived to the present day.
In the late 19th Century the main part had survived. The outline of the northern canal, called the spoon Pond, can now be seen as sunken tennis courts in Raphael Park; a western canal, known from the name of one of the hall’s owners as Black’s Canal, is now the lake in Raphael park; an 18th century bridge of three arches, designed by James Wyatt, known as Black’s Bridge (now a grade II listed building), still forms the north side of the bridge carrying main road across the southern end of the park lake. Two ponds lying in a straight line on the east side of the Hall, known as the Fish Ponds (once referred to as the “Hollebones” and known by individual names as the Fish Pond and the Lotus Pond) can still be seen from Heath Drive. A gateway, iron railings, brick piers and a length of old wall dating from 1750 or earlier (all of them grade II listed buildings) which once enclosed the Hall’s walled garden can still be seen bordering Heath Drive. The wall also extends along the rear gardens of houses on the south side of Meadway. The site of the Hall itself is now a patch of open grass on the north side of the tennis courts in Gidea Close. A semi-circular driveway from the Hall came out into main Road next to Black’s Bridge at the present entrance gates to Raphael Park and, at its other end, where Heath Drive now joins Main Road.
In 1897 Gidea Hall and its estate were bought by Herbert Raphael (1859-1924). Raphael had unsuccessfully contested the Romford constituency as a Liberal candidate in 1892 and 1897 and was a founder member of the Golf Club. He did not live at the Hall but at “Rosecourt” in Havering-atte-Bower and the Hall continued to be occupied by tenants, one of whom Henry Hollebone was still living at the Hall in 1912. Other tenants included Mrs Sulman and V. Castellan Esq., and probably with a view to protecting the character of any housing development which might take place on the remainder of the estate.
L. J. Leicester, M.A (Cantab.)