A century of history

A FORMER school building with a wealth of history is flinging its doors open to celebrate its centenary with a charity event. The Cloisters, on Barrington Road in Letchworth GC, was built between November 1905 and November 1907 by Annie Jane Lawrence – th

A FORMER school building with a wealth of history is flinging its doors open to celebrate its centenary with a charity event.

The Cloisters, on Barrington Road in Letchworth GC, was built between November 1905 and November 1907 by Annie Jane Lawrence - the daughter of Alfred Lawrence who was the wealthy proprietor of the City Iron Works in London, - and is now home to North Hertfordshire Freemasons.

Miss Lawrence, inspired by travelling around the world, brought a variety of different building materials and architectural ideas to the planning of The Cloisters.

The exterior - with red brick, flint, stone tile work and towers - features cast lead and carved headers and down-pipes, depicting images of bees and honeycombs, doves, swallows, bats, harvest mice and ears of corn.


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The external roof areas have walkways lined with stone and brick balustrades.

Inside, the front entrance and vestibule is decorated with marble, its centrepiece is a Swedish green marble drinking fountain and the ceiling above is designed in the shape of a bat's wing.

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Within the temple there are green marble and timber-framed pillars and a domed roof with trusses and beams.

Miss Lawrence wanted to teach children living in London slums the joys and benefits of the countryside.

So she decided to use The Cloisters to accommodate and educate student teachers so they, in turn, could teach children.

At The Cloisters' opening ceremony she made the following dedication:

"To the unity, eternal reality, through all diverse, temporary and fragmentary seemings, the perfect inviolable whole, wherein sin, 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."

The Cloisters became a centre for learning about life, nature, arts, sciences and crafts.

The student teachers slept in hammocks, separated by curtains.

A permanent natural spring beneath the building provided water for the indoor fountain and Miss Lawrence was clearly conscious of wastage - the fountain was designed so people could drink from the top of it and the surplus would fall into sinks so it could be used for washing.

An automatic electric pump is now used to regularly reduce the level of water in a basement sump to avoid flooding.

In 1940, the building was commandeered by the army and became the headquarters of a large maintenance and repair camp for military, armoured vehicles.

During this occupation, the building was neglected and damaged and when vacated, six years later, it was in a sad state of repair.

Miss Lawrence offered the property to Hertfordshire County Council which refused it because of the cost of remedial repairs and maintenance.

After approaching several other bodies, who all refused to take the building on, she offered the property to the Freemasons of North Hertfordshire and in March 1948, ownership was transferred.

In 1950, major restoration work and structural changes began and the first Masonic meeting was held on the premises in October 1951.

About 900 Masons are currently members at The Cloisters, which is now a Grade II listed building.

Members of the Masons are hosting an Edwardian evening at The Cloisters on August 18 to mark the building's centenary.

The bar will open at 6pm, followed by entertainment from a live band playing Edwardian music.

There will then be a two-course meal, coffee and a raffle before the band starts up again.

There will also be a programme available.

Profits from the raffle will be donated to Dogs for the Disabled, profits from the programme sales will go to The Garden House Hospice and profits from ticket sales will be distributed among local charities by the Masons.

Tickets for the evening, including the meal, are £20 each and can be purchased by contacting Jim Smith on 01462 677101 or by emailing: jimandjanetsmith@aol.com

Organisers of the event are also keen to hear from people who have old photographs of The Cloisters, memorabilia or even memories from the past.

If you can help, or would like to donate a raffle prize or advertise in the programme, contact Jim Smith on the above telephone number or email address.

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