I first visited Hampstead Garden Suburb back in 1997 when I came to trace the footsteps of long lost ancestors. My great grandfather, Edgar Verney, was one of the earliest inhabitants following its founding in 1907, and by all accounts was an active participant in its community until his retirement in the 1950s, when he and his wife retired to the Isle of Wight. His daughter, my grandmother, was married in 1937 in St Jude on the Hill church, a report of which appeared in this very newspaper beneath the rather grandiose headline “Opera ‘star’ married”.

The Suburb therefore has a personal fascination. It was, of course, the brainchild of Dame Henrietta Barnett, the social visionary who set out to create a community for all classes, enriched by manicured lawns, privet hedges and plentiful social and cultural activities.

But as the saying goes, war changes everything, and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 presented considerable challenges to the newly formed community, which are neatly documented in a new book, Hampstead Garden Suburb During the Great War, by John Atkin.

The introduction acknowledges Barnett’s own published work from 1924 which detailed the development of the Suburb and included a chapter on the war. Her war memories stand up well to modern scrutiny but she played down the economic distress caused during the opening months of the war as a result of valuable export markets being lost, and the closure for several months of the London stock market.

The Suburb, even then, was comparatively wealthy. Even so, for some residents the impact was severe as incomes were hit as men voluntered for military service, and prices rose. Development of the Suburb was inevitably hindered, with house building all but stopping from 1915 onwards.

A residents’ council was set up to help and in the first nine months of the war, 120 people were provided with winter clothing. Volunteers helped the war effort by sewing, making and mending.

The club house in Willifield Way, destroyed by enemy bombing during the Second World War, initially became a centre for Belgian refugees and later a military hospital. The refugees were widely although not unanimously welcomed. Some 250,000 came to Britain, most in the opening months.

Similarly, the book later describes plans for a nursery training school where working class girls would be trained. The proposal attracted much criticism in the form of petitions and letters. Opposition was swept aside, but it appears that the halcyon ideal of all living in happy harmony was inevitably never quite a reality.

The book reminds us that bombing raids of the Blitz were not the first such experience for Londoners of aerial bombardment. Airships, and later in the war, bombers, claimed many lives, although there were no recorded deaths, injury or damage in the Suburb itself.

But for many the terror must have been palpable, especially in those early days of aviation. Dame Henrietta herself recorded a daylight raid in 1917 when a V formation of bombers came over the Suburb’s central square and church spire on its way towards London.

One of the Suburb’s more colourful characters, mentioned in this book, is Rev Basil Bourchier, the first vicar of St Jude’s. The author Evelyn Waugh, whose family worshipped at the church at the time, describes him in colourful terms in his autobiography A Little Learning.

Bourchier was among a trio, who with the best intentions of helping wounded allied troops at a field hospital, was accused of being a spy by the Germans in Belgium. He and the others faced being shot until a judge, familiar with the Suburb and those who had set it up, ordered their release. Bourchier later said of the incident: “It was the greatest thrill of my life.” On their return they were given a hero’s welcome.

It is not known how many men from the Suburb died as a result of the conflict. Memorials in the two churches list nearly 40, but it is certainly many more, says the author. 

A great deal has, of course, been written about the Great War. Less well known is the impact back home. This little book provides a valuable insight into a period of history in this unique community. For the likes of myself with close family connections, it paints a vivid picture of a distant past.

Hampstead Garden Suburb During the Great War by John Atkin is published by the Hampstead Garden Suburb Archives Trust and is available for £10 from www.suburbarchives.com