The Cloisters – History

At its dedication ceremony in January 1907, founder Miss Annie Jane Lawrence cited:
         “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”.

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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 Cowlishawintended 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.

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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. The building was commandeered during the War and suffered damage.

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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.

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.