The golden mile on the Great West Road in Brentford is famous for its procession of art deco factory buildings, mainly designed by the firm of Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. After the vandalous demolition of the Firestone factory in 1980, many of the other factory buildings lining the road were listed and preserved. Another golden mile, much lesser know, but once full of modernist factories has not been so lucky. The idea of a designed town, perfectly balanced between work and leisure, city and countryside, was bought to live in Hertfordshire by Ebenezer Howard, first at Letchworth and then Welwyn. The garden cities aimed to be self sufficient, with industry providing work for its residents.
Welwyn GC’s industrial zone was located in the eastern sector of the town, separated from Louis De Soissons neo-Georgian town centre by the railway line, with industrial buildings springing up along Broadwater Road from the foundation of the the town. The idea of industrial zoning was, and still is, a novel one in Britain, but fully part of the Garden City ideal. Welwyn estate manager, Frederic Osborn, even wrote to architect Berthold Lubetkin, asking for advice after the architects spell working in the Soviet Union. His reply is unrecorded. Built in 1925, and still one of the town's most prominent landmarks, is the Shredded Wheat factory, also designed by De Soissons, now Grade II listed. Its white rendered concrete structure, stands out against the red brick Howard shopping centre, despite the dilapidated state it has fallen into since production was moved to Wiltshire in 2008. Tesco now own the site and have been submitting and re-submitting plans to turn the building into a residential and leisure centre, without success so far. Another survivor along this road is the Roche Products Factory (1940), designed by Swiss architect Otto Salvisberg in the international modernist style. The company's site grew in the post war period with a series of monolithic industrial buildings designed by James Cubitt & Partners (1961-69), all of which have now been demolished for housing. The only remains of the Roche site are the 1940 Grade II listed building and the 1977 James Cubitt designed offices opposite.
These are the last remains of the many factories that populated Broadwater Road from 1925 until the turn of the century. Many buildings came and went, with the occupants also changing frequently. Where now, a large barren space appears between the Shredded Wheat factory and the Roche building, stood a number of interesting industrial buildings. One of the first was Welwyn Studios, a film studio built in 1928 by British Instructional Films. The studio operated until 1950, producing a number of educational films, as well as some features, including The 39 Steps, Brighton Rock and two early Hitchcock films. The site was then sold to Ardath Tobacco and a factory designed by De Soissons was built around it. Next to this was a factory for Young, Osmond & Young (1939), manufacturers of electric heaters, by Wallis Gilbert & Partners designers of so much of the other golden mile. This factory did not live up to the high standards of their Great West Road work, and was demolished sometime in the early 21st century.
On the opposite side of the road where a couple of sectional factories, designed to accommodate smaller businesses, and premises for Murphy Radio. Murphy’s originally had a 1930’s factory, before a new, larger building was designed for them by CW Hutton and opened further north on Bessemer Road in 1961. Around the corner from the Murphy factory on Bridge East Road sat two more interesting interwar factories, one for Norton Grinding Wheel Ltd, and another for Barclay Corsets. The brick Norton factory (1931) was designed by the American firm of Frost, Chamberlin & Edwards and is still standing, now next to a B&Q. Opposite it was the Barclay Corset factory, now a car showroom, featuring a large, glazed central staircase tower and pink and black interior tiling. Another early occupant of Broadwater Road was Cresta Silks who had a factory on the east side of the road, a simple workshop style building with interiors designed by Canadian architect Wells Coates. The company's founder, Tom Heron, had employed Coates to design the interiors of the shops on Brompton St, London and elsewhere around the country, including Welwyn itself.
Over the junction where Broadwater Road crosses Bridge Road and becomes Bessemer Road, was the location for this golden miles most interesting post war factories. The garden city was designated a New Town in 1946, and expansion was made to the north and north east of the town centre, for housing in Panshanger and industry in Mundells. The most striking building of this period was the Smith Kline & French HQ (1964) designed by Arup Associates, a six storey brutalist block on stilts, with a brick podium below. This block towered over the other low rise buildings of the garden city until it was pulled down in 2003. The British chemical company ICI based its headquarters in WGC from 1938, at at its peak in the mid 1960’s employed around 4000 people at its 65 acre site. The site was built in phases from 1954 to 1963, using a variety of architects; J. Douglass Mathews & Partners, E. D. Jefferiss Mathews and Ronald Salmon & Partners; all contributing to the designs. The site even included a prototype plastic bungalow, unfortunately this, like the rest of the site has been demolished. One surviving post war building is the Rank Xerox Research Centre (1988) by Nicholas Grimshaw. Designed in his usual Hi-Tech style, with exposed service pipes, the building is now a business centre with an unfortunate cladding on the frontage.
If all the buildings we have mentioned had survived, it would be a truly golden mile, a survey of industrial building from the 1920’s right through to the 1990’s, taking in international style modernism, art deco, brutalism and hi-tech. Unfortunately, there are now only a handful of survivors, trying to avoid being demolished as well. The ideal of the garden city, balanced between living and work has also been burnished with more and more people commuting to London to work. With constant talk of building new garden cities, we can only hope that any new towns will give us as rich an architectural history as the golden mile of Welwyn Garden City.