The actor Una Stubbs has fond memories of her dad, Clarence Stubbs. “My father was a real family man,” she remembers, “somebody who everybody adored, even strangers in the street would smile at him.”
And yet there’s a gap in this happy picture. While Una has long heard stories of her mother’s grandfather, the garden city pioneer Sir Ebenezer Howard, she knows nothing about her father’s family, not even her grandparents’ names.
She begins her research by going to see cousins who knew the couple, Arthur and Annie Stubbs (née Robinson). It emerges that Annie was an unconventional character who lived life to the full. Perhaps Una’s quiet mother, who was prone to depression, felt overwhelmed by Annie, which would explain why Una and her grandmother never met. Whatever the truth, it turns out that dancing was important to Annie, and she lived long enough to be proud of former chorus girl Una’s success.
To find out more, Una heads to the couple’s former home in York, where Annie’s birth record reveals that she was probably an illegitimate child. History would repeat itself. In 1903, Annie’s first son was born in the workhouse, where unmarried mothers would go to get medical attention in the era of healthcare before the NHS. A second illegitimate child followed in 1908. Five months later, though, Annie and Arthur married. As to how they met, they both lived on the same terraced street.
Arthur worked at Rowntree’s Cocoa Works. “I was the Rowntree’s chocolate girl, Dairy Box, for years!” Una laughs, delighted by the coincidence. A meeting with the confectioners’ archivist, Alex Hutchinson, reveals that Arthur sat on the famously progressive company’s works council. However, in 1929, he lost his job and the family relocated, another coincidence, to the leafy new town founded by Una’s famous great grandfather, Welwyn Garden City.
But who was Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928)? Having finally got to know her grandparents as a septuagenarian – “I do love them, I really love them and always will” – Una now turns her attention to this famous social reformer. Ebenezer came from a comparatively modest background, a baker’s son born in the City of London in an era when much of the area consisted of dark, narrow streets and slums. However, he was sent to boarding school in the countryside. Could his ideas about garden cities – towns with lots of green spaces, an environment he hoped would help lessen social divisions – be rooted in this contrast?
Ebenezer trained as a stenographer and eventually went to work in Parliament at a time when there were many debates about conditions in Britain’s cities. Gradually, his own ideas began to coalesce and he wrote a hugely influential book, Garden Cities of To-morrow (1898). Promoting his ideas with talks, he was a leading light in the construction not just of Welwyn Garden City, but Letchworth, too.
He was rewarded with a knighthood, but his pioneering work didn’t make Ebenezer rich. When he died, he left an estate of just £800 in his will. No matter, Una is hugely impressed by both his practical idealism and character. “I’m so proud of him,” she says.