The town's name is taken from one of the three villages it surrounded (the other two being Willian and Norton) – all of which featured in the Domesday Book. The land used was purchased by Quakers who had intended to farm the area and build a Quaker community. The town was laid out by Raymond Unwin as a demonstration of the principles established by Ebenezer Howard who sought to create an alternative to the industrial city by combining the best of town and country living. It is also home to the United Kingdom's first roundabout, which was built in 1909.
As one of the world's first new towns and the first garden city it had great influence on future town planning and the New Towns movement; it influenced Welwyn Garden City, which used a similar approach and inspired other projects around the world including Canberra, the Australian capital, Hellerau, Germany, small village of Tapanila, Finland, and Mežaparks in Latvia.) There is a link to town planning in the Soviet Union Stalingrad through the architect Semionov and a curious, possible if improbable, account of Lenin visiting the town when he visited England for a congress of the Russian Bolshevik party, then banned in Russia,.