David Garnett in Letchworth
David Garnett (1892-1981), novelist, critic, publisher, and associate of the Bloomsbury Group, was the son of the distinguished translator of Russian classic literature Constance Garnett. He spent some time in Letchworth in 1909 and recorded his impressions in volume one of his autobiography “The Golden Echo” (1953).
Between January and October of that year, aged 17, he had time to fill between leaving University College School and starting a course in botany at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington. He was sent to Letchworth to be coached in physics and mathematics by a schoolmaster living in Hitchin. By chance, Garnett’s uncle was William Harrison Cowlishaw, architect of The Cloisters, and as soon as he was shown over the building by his relation he determined to live there.
Naturally, David Garnett was introduced to Miss Annie Jane Lawrence “a remarkable lady with a battered brass ear-trumpet”. “She was one of those ladies…who confidently expected to change the nature of the world by the expenditure of a few thousand pounds…”. He describes the extraordinary architecture of The Cloisters-“a building which was very beautiful but unlike anything ever built before.” He likens it to Nightmare Abbey in the eponymous novel
In his autobiography Garnett writes “I stood on my toes and feebly bellowed into the much contorted ear-trumpet and she shook her head and laughed.”.[Miss Lawrence would have been aged only 46 at this time so must have lost her hearing prematurely] “But I liked her and she liked me and the upshot was that I could live along with the Illuminati for twelve shillings and sixpence a week, until a worthier recruit turned up”.
Garnett describes Cloisters life with affection- sleeping in a hammock, eating communal meals and enjoying the swimming pool. “There was space, leisure, beauty and food (though not
Lastly, David Garnett gives an account of the special nature of Sundays at The Cloisters. He refers, ‘though not by name, to “a Man of God, a second-sighted dissenting Scot from the New Hebrides, who gave an address to everyone who would come to hear it in Letchworth”. This must be the Rev. J Bruce Wallace of the Brotherhood Church and founder of the Alpha Union. “He chose to speak in front of a glass screen put up to shelter him from the weather, so constructed that his short figure was silhouetted against a wooden cross supporting the glass panels. At the crucial moment of his sermon…he would fling his arms out along the horizontal limbs of the cross…as though crucified…in a moment of simulated unconsciousness, or death. Then the organ would peal forth and the audience would straggle out…”. “Looking back on it, I wonder that Miss Lawrence should have permitted these unpleasant scenes, but there was the extenuating circumstance that she could never hear what her spiritual adviser said”.
David Garnett left The Cloisters about June 1909, having received an invitation from Rupert Brooke to visit him in Cambridge. So he got on his bicycle and pedaled off through Baldock and Royston, probably never to return to Letchworth. Nevertheless, he has left us a fascinating and amusing snapshot of an aspect of life in the early days of the Garden City.
Quotations are from “The Golden Echo” by David Garnett (1953)