Raymond Unwin was born in 1863 in Whiston, Rotherham, the younger son of William Unwin, a tutor at Balliol College, Oxford and his wife Elizabeth Sully. He considered entering the Church of England, as his elder brother William did, but he was diverted, to his father’s disappointment, into a life of social activism.
Unwin was educated at Magdalen College Choir School, Oxford. In 1883, he settled in Chesterfield as an engineering apprentice at the Staveley Coal and Iron Company, and came into contact with the Socialist philosopher Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe, Sheffield.
In 1885 he obtained a post as an engineering draughtsman in Manchester but returned, in 1887, to the Staveley Coal and Iron Company in Barrow Hill as a draughtsman. Although he had no training in architecture, he was working primarily as an architect and was part of the Company team who designed housing at Barrow Hill, Duckmanton and Poolsbrook.
1894 Staveley Coal and Iron Company Staff. Unwin is standing on the extreme right.
Unwin married his cousin, Ethel Parker, in 1893, the same year that he received his first major architectural commission – to build St Andrew’s Church at Barrow Hill. This was completed with his brother -in-law,(Richard) Barry Parker.
In 1896, Unwin and Parker formed an informal partnership in Buxton and their early work consisted mainly of large houses. Unwin became convinced that Arts and Crafts principles should be applied to working-class housing, and in 1898-99 they published “Designs for co-operative housing.” This was followed by ‘The Art of Building A Home’ in 1901.
In 1901, Unwin and Parker were commissioned to design the garden village of New Earswick model village, near York, for the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust and in 1904 they won the contract for the building of Letchworth. This in turn brought the commission for Hampstead Garden Suburb 1905.
In 1908-9, Unwin wrote “Town Planning in Practice,” which made him an international authority on housing and town planning.
The Great War gave Unwin new opportunities. In 1915, he was seconded to the Ministry of Munitions to design the villages of Gretna, Eastriggs and Queensferry, and from 1917 had an influential role at the Tudor Walters Committee on working-class housing.
In 1919, he was appointed Chief Architect to the newly formed Ministry of Health, a post which had become Chief Technical Officer for Housing and Town Planning by the time of his retirement in November 1928.
From 1929 to 1933 Unwin served as technical adviser to the Greater London Regional Town Planning Committee.
Unwin was President of the RIBA in 1931-33 and was knighted in 1932
Unwin was lecturing in the USA when the Second World War broke out in September 1939. Unable to return home, he lived with his daughter Margaret Curtice Hitchcock (1899-1982) and it was at her house at Old Lyme, Connecticut that he died 28/29 June 1940.