The Cloisters (Letchworth)
The Cloisters in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire in the UK, was built by Quaker Miss Annie Jane Lawrence (1863-1953), the daughter of Alfred Lawrence (1826 - 1875), who, with his brother Frederick, owned 'Lawrence Brothers, Smiths and Founders', and his wife Mary Elizabeth.
Originally built as an open-air school dedicated to Psychology, with accommodation for 20 students, students were encouraged to study "how thought affects action and what causes and produces thought." Through healthy outdoor living it was intended that the students would develop healthy minds. The building was also designed to hold lectures, conferences, drama and musical performances as well as organ recitals. Students were also taught skills from the Arts and Crafts movement.
Designed by architect William Harrison Cowlishaw, building commenced on the 3-acre (12,000 m2) site in 1905, and the building opened on 17 January 1907, having cost the then huge sum of £20,000. Miss Lawrence built a house for herself, 'Cloisters Lodge', alongside.
The design reputedly came to Miss Lawrence in a dream. The building originally consisted of a large half-oval 'open-air room' called the `Cloisters 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 and dressing rooms for an oval open-air swimming pool. It was designed according to the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, and was built using marbles and other materials from all over Europe.
A small community developed at The Cloisters dedicated to Theosophy. It became the base for the Alpha Union set up by J.Bruce Wallace of the Brotherhood Church, who organised summer schools and residential courses there. 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.
History since 1939
The Cloisters was commandeered by the Army during the Second World War and suffered damage. By 1948 Miss Lawrence found it increasingly difficult to maintain the building and to repair the damage caused by the Army. She initially offered it to the local Council, who turned it down. Eventually, she offered it to the local Freemasons who accepted it, turning it into the North Hertfordshire Masonic Centre. About sixty Masonic lodges and 'side degrees' meet at The Cloisters, and the centre is run and maintained by an elected Board of Trustees, The Lawrence Cloisters Trust. A Craft Lodge, the 'Cloisters Lodge No 7100' was formed there in 1951 to commemorate Miss Lawrence's generous gift of the building to Hertfordshire Freemasons.
Miss Lawrence moved to St Catherine's Nursing Home where she died aged 90 in August 1953
The Cloisters has been designated by Letchworth Garden City Corporation as one of the 'great historic buildings' of North Hertfordshire. It is a Grade II* listed building. In June 2013 The Cloisters appeared in episode 4 of ITV's five-part series Britain's Secret Homes, placing it in 16th place out of 50 historic buildings in Britain selected by English Heritage.
Although structurally sound, in October 2013 the building was put on English Heritage's 'At Risk Register' owing mainly to the poor condition of its roof tiles which have allowed water to cause damage.
Notable Freemasons at The Cloisters
- Miles, V.W., The Cloisters, Letchworth, 1907-1967 Published by The Lawrence Cloisters Trust (1967) pg 7
- Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945
- Gifford, Jack The Cloisters, Letchworth in Freemasonry Today Issue 11 (Winter 1999/2000)
- Christodoulou, Glenn The Cloisters Lodge: the Next Twenty-Five Years Privately printed by the Cloisters Lodge No. 7100 Festival Committee (2001) National Library of Australia
- 'The Cloisters' on English Heritage's Listed Buildings Online website
- 'Britain's Secret Homes: Episode 4' on the 'English Heritage website
- Historical building 'at risk' says English Heritage' - 'HItchin, Letchworth & Baldock Advertiser October 16, 2013 pg 7
- 'The Cloisters on at risk register' - The Hitchin Comet October 17, 2013 pg 7
- The Cloisters official website
- The Cloisters on Utopia Britannica
- The Cloisters and Letchworth Garden City