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From Chicago to Letchworth via Westminster

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: History of parliamentary reporting

Heres a name: Sir Ebenezer Howard OBE. 

And here are some pertinent facts about him: 

Readers of this blog may be familiar with Jean Winder, the first female parliamentary reporter, from Portia’s excellent post, but you may not know of Sir Ebenezer Howard. 

Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Dickens before him, Sir Ebenezer was an illustrious parliamentary reporter of the 19th century. 

Born in the City of London on 29 January 1850, he was educated in Suffolk and Hertfordshire. His parents were shopkeepers, and he left school at 15 to work in several clerical positions, predominantly in Temple Bar. But he didn’t stay in one place for long.

Sir Ebenezer Howard

Spiritual incidents 

One Sunday, Ebenezer went to a chapel where the theologian Dr Joseph Parker was preaching. Having taken down the sermon in shorthand, Ebenezer sent the typed-up version to Dr Parker, following which he was taken on as Dr Parker’s private secretary. 

One incident during this time is reported in the 1933 book, Sir Ebenezer Howard and the Town Planning Movement, by Dugald MacFayden. 

Dr Parker said:

Mr Howard, I dont believe in phrenology as some people do, thinking they can read every bump and pimple on a mans head, but still in its broad features I think there is something in it and I should like to feel your head.

Having done so, Dr Parker is reported as saying to Ebenezer:

I think you should have been a preacher. I would rather see you in a pulpit than any young man I have met. 

This was not to be the only spiritual incident in his life.

Farming and preaching 

In 1872, Ebenezer left for America to become a farmer in Nebraska after working for three years in a solicitors office, where his skill in shorthand had proved useful. He claimed to have gone “partly for the benefit, as we anticipated, of the buffaloes, but in fact he left on doctors advice to address a weakness of his lungs.  

As the group made their way to Nebraska, some Irish-Canadians joined them in Iowa. On reaching Nebraska, the Irish-Canadians started a church, naming it after Ebenezer. Ebenezer Howard briefly became a preacher there, at Ebenezer church, in Howard County, Nebraska. 

Little is known about his agricultural career, but the farming life clearly didnt take. After a few months Ebenezer relocated to Chicago, where he became a stenographer with Ely & Burnham. This move greatly influenced the course of his life, but more on that later.  

The most rapid shorthand writer in London 

In 1879, Ebenezer returned to the UK and got a job as a parliamentary reporter. He continued working in the role (later as a freelancer) until 1920, when he retired. His career in parliamentary reporting is not particularly well-documented, which is in a way the goal of a reporter. (In fact, we're not sure whether he ever actually worked for Hansard, or only for Gurney & Sons, then the official shorthand writers for Parliament.) But a cousin did say of him:

He was then one of the, if not the most rapid shorthand writer in London.

Ebenezer was something of an inventor, too. He had patents for printing machines and for decades attempted to perfect the shorthand typewriter, a scheme that ended in failure due to lack of interest. 

But not all his schemes were failures. 

Chicago influence 

Ebenezer was a designer, with strong religious convictions and a great interest in politics, and those three strands were to come together for his greatest creation: the garden city movement. 

In 1871, shortly before Ebenezer’s time there, the great fire of Chicago (apocryphally started by Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern) had destroyed 17,500 buildings and killed 300 people. Ebenezer witnessed much of the planning and rebuilding of the city. He credited Chicago as having had

great influence on my life—giving me a fuller and wider outlook on religious and social questions than I should have gained in England.

It was where he was introduced to Quakerism. These religious views no doubt informed his desire for better housing and the elimination of slums, but he was also inspired by the many debates he attended in Parliament, where he would have heard much about the wider social issues of the time, particularly about urban life. Ebenezer may well have reported consideration of the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890, for example, which empowered local authorities to condemn slum housing.

Currier & Ives lithograph of Chicago in Flames, 1871

A series of circles 

While hed been in Chicago, a Christian science lecturer, Cora Richmond, had told him: 

I can see no future for you in [mechanical inventions]. I see you in the centre of a series of circles working at something which will be of great service to humanity.

Ebenezer articulated his vision for garden cities in his 1898 book, “Garden Cities of To-morrow”. He took Cora Richmond’s vision literally–his design was based on a concentric pattern of civic buildings, housing, open spaces and parks, with six wide radial roads extending out from the centre. The outermost circle would be agricultural—Ebenezer putting farming to one side once more. 

Ebenezer described the idea behind garden cities as follows: 

There are in reality not only, as is so constantly assumed, two alternatives—town life and country life—but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination.

A flourishing movement 

In 1898, Ebenezer founded the Garden City Association (later to become the Town and Country Planning Association) to build the first garden city, Letchworth.  

Construction started in 1903. Keeping with the rural ideals behind the garden city, only one tree was felled in the entire first phase, although the concentric, symmetrical design was abandoned for a more organic vision. 

Welwyn Garden City followed in 1920, where the Howard shopping centre serves as a reminder of Ebenezers key role in the town’s creation. 

Both garden cities flourished, and many more towns inspired by the movement have been developed, both in the UK and elsewhere.

Garden city diagram from Howard's "To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform"

Untiring work

Ebenezer’s love of design and invention, his exposure to new ideas in his long career as a parliamentary reporter and his religious values combined in his creation of garden cities.

He may not have become a preacher, as Dr Parker predicted, but maybe Cora Richmond was right when she predicted he would be of great service to humanity. Will any Hansard reporter of the present or future make such a mark? 

One description of the man certainly speaks to Hansard reporters through the ages. A cousin wrote of Ebenezer, describing: 

always untiring work—work at high speed.

If Hansard had a motto… 


*This post was originally published on 5 July 2019 with the title "From Chicago to Letchworth via Hansard". Minor updates were made on 9 July 2019 to reflect the fact that although Sir Ebenzer Howard was a parliamentary reporter, there is no primary source evidence to confirm that he specifically worked for Hansard.

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