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Dame Henrietta Barnett

05 June 2019

For Ethel Day 2019, we're celebrating women in architecture whose stories may not be well known. India Whiteley takes a dive into the RIBA Collections in search of the driving force behind Hampstead Garden Suburb.

When you picture Hampstead Garden Suburb, north London’s curious living experiment in twentieth century town planning, it’s tempting to focus on its individual architects - especially familiar names like Edwin Lutyens, Charles Voysey and Raymond Unwin. But in many ways the mastermind behind Hampstead Heath’s verdant new community at the start of the twentieth century was its founder: social reformer and educationalist Henrietta Barnett.

1909 Edwin Lutyens drawing for the central square at Hampstead Garden Suburb, showing the Henrietta Barnett Institute in the centre. RIBA Collections.

It was Dame Henrietta who arranged the purchase of necessary land, approved the plans drawn up by Raymond Unwin, and made the symbolic first cut for the foundations at Temple Fortune. Mrs Jewitt, one of the suburb’s first residents, later recalled to Henrietta Barnett’s biographer how she watched the sod-cutting ceremony before choosing a plot for her own house in Temple Fortune Lane. Without Hampstead Garden Suburb, Mrs Jewitt declared, “we would have had to live in a pokey house in a suburban suburb.”

But founding the suburb wasn’t an easy task. In her own account of the project, Dame Henrietta recalls how the agent to Eton College, who owned the land she intended to purchase, told her the trustees would be unlikely to sign over such a significant estate to a woman: “If only you would get a few men behind you it would be all right!”

1960 Eric de Mare photograph of Lutyens’ Henrietta Barnett Memorial, erected in 1933 in the suburb’s central square. Eric de Mare / RIBA Collections.

Undeterred (although presumably indignant), Dame Henrietta assembled a steering group to lend her campaign support, petitioned the London County Council and finally succeeding in brokering a deal between them, Eton College, the Heath Extension Council and the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust in 1906. After Dame Henrietta's death in 1936, Raymond Unwin wrote in a journal entry (which can be found in the RIBA Collections), that “when her mind was made up, objections and difficulties ceased to exist for her”, describing how when he was asked to work on planning the Hampstead Garden Suburb, he jumped at the chance to work for someone he had so greatly admired. Today, the suburb's central square features two tributes to Dame Henrietta. Despite a sometimes tumultuous relationship with Dame Henrietta, Lutyens was selected to design a memorial to her, which can be found opposite the school she founded, the Henrietta Barnett Institute.  

The RIBA Collections hold a range of material on Hampstead Garden Suburb, including books and photographs plus original drawings by Lutyens, Voysey and others. Biographical files on Henrietta Barnett and the suburb's architects also contain press cuttings, journal entries and other materials. Find out more about the RIBA Collections.

Read more about Ethel Day 2019 and women in architecture.

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