The Cloisters

This Grade 2 Listed building was dedicated on 27th and opened on 28th January 1907, by Miss Annie Jane Lawrence (1863-1953), the third child of Alfred and Mary Elizabeth Lawrence. Her Father was in partnership with his brother Frederick as the City Iron Founders (Smiths and Founders, Est. 1852). Alfred died at the age of 48 years and was survived by his Wife for 28 years, who was left to care for their five children.

Annie Jane inherited many of the qualities of her Grandfather, William Lawrence (1789-1855), a native of Cornwall, who in 1808 set off for London with two guineas and a bag of carpenter’s tools. At Plymouth, with friends, he took ship to the City. His success was such that in 1848 he was elected Master of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters. In 1868 he became Lord Mayor of London. Like his Father, with a great interest in the improvement of the disadvantaged, persuaded the Wardens and Masters of the leading livery companies to urge the necessity of technical education, which ultimately led to the formation of the CITY AND GUILDS INSTITUTE.

Miss Lawrence, steeped in the family tradition of generosity and social service and having experienced, through her work, the drabness and unhealthiness of the London slums, conceived the wonderful idea of erecting a building where poor children could grow up in fresh air and open country surroundings.

She chose Letchworth, the First Garden City, where her brother, Frederick William, Baron Pethick Lawrence (1871–1961), later helped to promote the Garden City legislation.

She leased a plot of land to the south of the Baldock Road, three acres in extend, which was to become the Cloisters and Cloisters Lodge (now Ladybarn), A School of Philosophy was to be founded there, the principal object being the study of “how thought affects action and what causes and produces thought”. The concept of residential students in an open air atmosphere, although her first intention, was modified when she perceived that, if teachers received the benefit of her modernistic pursuit, to improve the moral and social outlook through residential courses at the Cloisters, in crafts and sciences based open open discussion and free thought, this would perpetuate through the children they taught.

THE CLOISTERS, designed on a somewhat open brief by Miss Lawrence’s chosen Architect, William Harrison Colishaw, F.R.I.B.A. (1869–1957), is enriched with many details from the fluent art of Colishaw, and influenced by architectural details Miss Lawrence had observed during her travels abroad in her formative years. The initial cost was £20,000.e initial cost was £20,000.

Residential Summer Schools were regularly held until 1911, with students sleeping on flat hammocks lowered from the vaulting around the open Cloister Garth, the overall observation being the spirit of harmony and sociability. The Reverend J. Bruce Wallace was the Resident Warden and Director of Studies.

There followed a period of musical tradition, probably the greatest contribution to the cultural life of the new Garden City, with Sunday Organ Recitals, evening Promenade Concerts in the summer performed by the Town Band, Recitals by Orchestras and a String band. Many Choirs also performed. The numbers of orchestras, bands, choirs etc., is far too numerous to list, all arrangements being in the capable hands of the lady herself, Miss Lawrence, who was in fact profoundly deaf and used an ear trumpet. Also impressive were local Artists, mostly very well known, who either gave recitals on the magnificent organ or sang as soloists. The Sunday Concerts continued right up until the Second World War.

In 1940, the Cloisters was commandeered by the War Department for the Army and when returned six years later, had suffered so badly at their hands, that compensation in excess of £2,500 was claimed towards its restoration. The beautiful organ had been damaged, however, beyond economical repair. Ladybarn (formerly Cloisters Lodge), Miss Lawrence’s original home, was converted to a Nursing home for the elderly. Miss Lawrence vacated the property and bought a house in Willian Way, but her frailty bade her enter St. Catherine’s Nursing Home in Letchworth in 1948, where she died on 3rd August 1953, at the age of ninety years.

The TempleHer over-riding concern during her time at St. Catherine’s was to see her beloved Cloisters restored and occupied. To this end, she offered it to the County Council free, with an annuity of £1,000 and income from £20,000 after her death. This offer was refused on the grounds of the costly work required to restore and maintain it. The Cloisters was also offered to various organisations and societies, who also refused it on similar grounds. Fortunately, a chance remark by her local solicitor, Mr T. Bainbridge, inspired her to offer the Cloisters to the local Masonic fraternity. Among the Lodges were several well known and generous businessmen who accepted the challenge, and a Board of Trustees was formed.

The Cloisters, by this time, was now being used as a temporary store by the British Tabulating Machine Company (now ICL), and required extensive repairs and adaptation, all subject to planning approval. The building was accepted by the Fraternity on 22nd May 1948 and before the first Lodge Meeting in October 1951, some £3,500 was spent to render it suitable.

The enhancements that have taken place over the years are evident before your eyes, major additions being the Dining Hall, modernised Kitchen and the new Bar Lounge (formerly the Bainbridge Room). Currently, with a ‘volunteer’ Management Trust, a great deal of extremely hard work and enthusiasm, the whole concept has been improved. The facilities are now available for private hire for parties, receptions, luncheon clubs, etc. Lodges and Side Degrees numbering well over twenty, and outside use, will we hope, see its future assured as an historic gem of Letchworth’s architectural heritage.

When the Cloisters was first constructed, and stood in isolation on high ground, the general aspect must have been impressive, and the Octagonal Tower very prominent.

Drinking Fountain and Wash BasinsImmediately upon entry, the marble fountain, so impressive, dominates the front vestibule. In the Springer Stone above the fountain, a glass cask is sealed, containing an inscription and dedication, written and illuminated on vellum. The upper of the two basins was to provide drinking water, whilst the lower was for washing hands. The overflow from the basins was intended to run away in two streams to the Cloister Garth, which is still identified by the Pavanasso marble mosaic in the floor. Hooks above the basins were for drinking cups on the upper, and mirrors on the lower.

The columns around the Cloister, erected in pairs, were of Swedish green veined marble, polished with the veining running upward, to indicate growth. The two fireplaces were of red veined marble, indicating flames. The timber columns in the present Temple were added to support the roofing over of the Cloister.

Turning right from the entrance, past the fountain towards the Bainbridge Room, now the lounge bar, one sees on the right, in the bay window, a raised marble slab. This served as a dining table in its original concept, and is now an overflow bar, serving wine for Patrons using the Dining Hall facility.

Access to the tower and flat roof, one of the highlights for visitors, because of the view over Letchworth, had to be curtailed to obviate the heavy expense of roof repairs, not to mention severe damage to the tower caused by pigeons.

Written by W.Bro. Jack Gifford PPGReg, Jan '99 (Died 14/12/01)