Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

A Cloistered Life

Gazetter entry

The Cloisters Letchworth

`every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England'
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

The new Garden City at Letchworth acted as a magnet for all manner of seekers for the new life. Here was the new world made in bricks and mortar waiting for its inhabitants. `The Simple Life Hotel' was one focus of activity with its food reform restaurant and health food store. In the evening the good Letchworthian could enjoy a non-alcoholic beverage at The Skittles, the infamous pub with no beer, advertised as 'The Liberty Hall of the Letchworth worker'. And at the weekend, clad in rational dress and sandals, a talk on 'Progressive Religious Thought' given by the Alpha Union could be attended at The Cloisters in Barrington Road.

At its dedication ceremony in January 1907, founder Miss Annie Jane Lawrence dedicated The Cloisters
`To the unity, eternal reality, through all diverse, temporary and fragmentary seemings, the perfect inviolable whole, wherein sin and pain and death are not, and all contradictions are reconciled, all discords resolved, I dedicate this building, confident that, through progressive recognition of this unity, mankind will ascend to a full, harmonious and joyful expression of life, in soul, body and social organisation.'

Annie Lawrence, daughter of one of the promoters of the Garden City Baron Pethick-Lawrence, had moved to Letchworth in 1906 and leased an isolated three-acre plot where she built a house for herself `Cloisters Lodge' and The Cloisters a fantastic towered building designed by William Harrison Cowlishaw intended as a Theosophical Meditation Centre and open-air school. The design reputedly came to Miss Lawrence in a dream and cost some £20,000. It consisted of; a large half-oval 'open-air room' called the `Cloister Garth' with an open colonnade to the south and large glazed bays to the north, this was flanked by two wings, one housing the kitchen and store rooms and the other the cubicles & dressing rooms for an oval open-air swimming pool.

The Cloisters Garth - open-air living room

Green veined Swedish marble columns supported the arcade of the Cloister Garth where at night men and women (strictly segregated by the expanse of the central hall) slept on hammocks that lowered from the ceiling on pulleys. A series of 'outdoor fireplaces' and canvas screens were provided in an, unsuccessful, attempt to ward of the winter nighttime chill. In the central hall of the garth there was an Art Nouveau fountain from which water flowed through a series of ceremonial hand washing basins and then on around the Cloisters in open channels.'The outward expression of these functions was remarkable, with myriad symbolic overtones......... ..........Cowlishaw was a gifted sculptor and modelled designs for the rainwater heads - doves represented guilelessness, bats were about to start their dusk patrols, bees built up honeycomb to provide food for the gods, and `butterflies dancing in the empyrean'.
Mervyn Miller. Letchworth The First Garden City.

A small permanent community grew up at the Cloisters augmented by people attending the numerous classes and summer schools. Communal meals were served on a great marble-faced dining table that stretched across a great bay window on a raised altar-like dais. Housework in the community was a male activity carried out by earnest young men in robes and sandals. Miss Lawrence was a believer in, and promoted the concept of a `Dual Day' whereby morning work was followed by a two-hour rest period and food and then re-assembly for communal recreation. Members of the community were encouraged to grow their own food, but seemed by all accounts to have preferred to spend their time philosophising, watching the sunset or stars from the rooftop promenade or partaking of nude bathing at dawn.

Hammocks that let down from the ceiling.

J. Bruce Wallace, one of the founders of the Garden City Association, found support for his Alpha Union at the Cloisters and between 1908 & 1911 organised an annual residential summer school. Bruce Wallace was formerly a leading light in the Brotherhood Church who had by this time 'converted' to Theosophy and his summer school students joined with the community members in practical craft activities such as woodcarving and sandal making whilst pursuing their personal quests for psychic growth and personal freedom. Wallace's connection with the Cloisters ended in 1912 when he married Mary Tudor Pole and went off to become involved in the Glastonbury mysteries.

Four electric organs had been installed in the Cloisters entrance hall, and through a system of pipes and louvers the disembodied sound of organ music would waft around the building. After Wallace's departure the place became less of a commune and more of an adult education establishment with organist, Frank Merry, as the warden ,organising courses and lectures including one titled ' The Garden City Philosophy of Life'. The Letchworth Adult Educational Settlement took over arranging courses after the First World War up until 1926.

Miss Lawrence, although somewhat deaf, was a great music lover. On one occasion she brought The London Concert Orchestra made up of 40 unemployed musicians to play at the Cloisters Garth. This was part of an ongoing series of concerts that she organised attended by audiences of 1,000 making organ recitals, band and choral concerts a regular part of the new town's cultural life. The last concert was given by the Brotherhood Orchestra in 1939 on the day the Second World War broke out. The building was commandeered during the War and suffered damage. The Cloisters became the North Herts. Masonic Lodge in 1948 when Miss Lawrence moved to St Catherine's Nursing Home where she died aged 90 in August 1953.

Whilst only a minority of Letchworth's residents subscribed to the more outlandish ideas of the new life The Cloisters was not the only place catering for 'Simple Lifers'. Amid the array of non-conformist chapels and recreation clubs Vasanta Hall, an odd flat roofed building in Gernon Walk, housed the local Theosophical society and The Mrs Howard Memorial Hall, the first public building in town modelled on the Folk Hall at New Earswick, and on the surface a civic extension of the activities that went on at the Cloisters.

'You will stroll into the Howard Hall one wintry day and find an artist . . . busy with decorating it . You will learn that there is to be a conversazione that night . . . or a gathering of new residents, or what not besides . . . There will be a scene from one of Tolstoy's plays or an impressive recitation .. . discussions upon the Liquor Question, the Unemployed, Methods of Education. Political Organisations, Arts and Crafts, Science and Civilisation and so forth.'
The 'Borough' Pocket Guide to Letchworth 1902

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