Tell us something of the history of Letchworth Settlement
When people ask me why is Letchworth so special I am quick to respond. It’s because of its unique combination of special buildings and rich social history.
We are fortunate not only to live in the world’s first garden city but to have places like Letchworth Settlement which first saw the light of day in 1920.
It was one of a number of Settlement Houses established around the country from the 1880s onward. The original idea for their formation began in the 1860s when a group of reformers sought to bring the poor working class into contact with other classes and bridge what they saw as the worsening social divide in Britain.
The first Settlement workers were Oxbridge graduates who ‘lived in’ and tried to bring the culture of university life to those who had no such experiences. The first purpose-built Settlement House was Toynbee Hall in London, which is still active today and indeed is where Graham Fisher was CEO before taking the helm of the Heritage Foundation. I love the way the links with social history and equality continue to the present day.
In 1925 the Letchworth Settlement moved into what had been The Skittles Inn (more famously known as ‘the pub with no beer’). The building was designed by Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin and is now a Grade II listed property. It was purchased by the Letchworth Adult Educational Settlement and owned by them until 1995 when financial difficulties forced the Trustees to take the difficult decision to gift the building to the Letchworth Heritage Foundation in return for a peppercorn rent.
The first Settlement Warden in Letchworth in the early 1920s was James Dudley whose portrait can be seen over the fireplace in the Brunt Room of the Settlement.
James lived in a small flat on the second floor, as did his successors until the last Warden, Roy Evans, who raised his young family there from his arrival in 1963 until he moved to a house he bought directly opposite the Settlement in 1976. The upstairs was then converted to classrooms, office, loo and storage for the Settlement Players costumes and props.
Ebenezer Howard reopened the Settlement in 1925 with a speech delivered in Esperanto which those of us of a certain age will recall was touted as the future international language, but few people under the age of 60 has heard of today! Howard and George Cadbury were Trustees on the first Board of the Settlement.
In the early 1950s, William Wallace Kincaid, Director of the Spirella Company left money to the Settlement to enlarge the Main Hall to allow a proper stage and behind the scenes facilities to be constructed and this opened in 1956. In 1975 a purpose built Craft building was added to the rear of the main building, paid for by the Letchworth Garden City Corporation. Today, Letchworth Settlement is one of the very last of its kind still in operation as it was almost 100 years ago. Our aim is to keep it that way!
So how are you planning to do that?
Well, we have expanded our horizons quite a bit in the past three years. We have always run lots of long courses – languages, arts and crafts, academic courses of all kinds and these remain the core of our work. But over the past three years we have embarked on a number of short courses and workshops which recognise the needs of modern families with limited time availability. So we now do silver jewellery making, ikebana, glass fusion, party baking for children’s parties, flower arranging of all kinds, encaustic wax painting, creative writing workshops and more!
We have also developed a new programme which we call our ‘Twilight Talks’ where we invite someone from an interesting and unusual background to come along and give a talk on their specific subject area. So far we have had, among others, the former Director of MI6, the great granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst, the Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and a leading heart surgeon from Papworth who also happens to be a world authority on the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, oh and a former member of the Royal Household who discreetly leaked a few interesting titbits! In the year ahead we shall have one of the original Concorde pilots, Bridget Kendall (the former BBC Moscow Correspondent and well known R4 voice), Helen Pankhurst launching her new book at the Settlement, to name just a few.
We receive absolutely no grants from anywhere and we are on a full Repair and Maintenance lease with the Foundation so we have to ensure we put funds away to meet all the requirements of our lease which are significant for a Grade II listed property. Plus of course we have to constantly upgrade and improve facilities so as to continue to be able to offer new and exciting ideas to would be students. We have always sought to keep our fees at reasonable levels so that our courses and activities are as accessible as we can possibly make them.
We also run a range of fundraising activities during the course of the year which help us with improvements – Quiz Night, Fair, Christmas Raffle, Open Gardens occasionally and so on. One of the other ways we manage to live within our means is through the willingness and enthusiasm of our volunteer Trustees and other supporters who carry a lot of responsibility and are very hands on. We have a brilliant paid staff of some 3.5 full time equivalents and between us we do all that is needed to keep the show on the road.
All our courses are listed on our website pages www.letchworthsettlement.org.uk and you can find out more about us via our Face book pages https://www.facebook.com/LetchworthSettlement/ please take time and have a look at what we do, who knows we may something to tempt you.
Do you have any concerns for the future?
Just the ones which all charities have really – shortage of volunteers and future students – today’s world is not an easy one and people struggle to make a living, raise families and do voluntary work or non vocational studies.
But I remain confident that we will see our second century off to a good start and if anyone is intrigued about what we do and wants to get involved please contact the office on 01462 682828.