David Garnett in Letchworth

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​​ by Thomas Love Peacock (published in 1818), a satire on the figures and ideas of the Romantic movement. [Garnett went on to write a study of Peacock in 1948].


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​​ wine) provided…”.Writing at a distance of some forty years he does not remember much of his fellow Illuminati (his term for those Cloisters-dwellers who would go out into the world to spread Miss Lawrence’s philosophies). However, he does mention one named​​ Stanley Potter “an anarchist, who enjoyed life, refused to be a wageslave, and was confident that if Miss Lawrence got tired of supporting him he could always earn a living by making sandals and rucksacks and selling them to other cranks”.


Garnett claims​​ that it was Potter who influenced Miss Lawrence to adopt the agricultural principles of Kropotkin and set about growing wheat in one of her fields surrounding The Cloisters. Prince Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921) was a Russian geographer, social philosopher and theorist of anarchism. He spent time in exile partly in England between 1876 and 1917. He was a prolific writer, his best known works being “The conquest of bread” and “Fields, factories and workshops”. He advocated the local production of food and that​​ a country should strive for self-sufficiency, believing that irrigation and growing under glass would help achieve this. Garnett thought that Kropotkin had no experience of growing wheat but had​​ deduced that it was similar to the Chinese practice of cultivating rice. Each seed should be sown separately and each plant tended individually throughout its growth. He writes of how the inhabitants of The Cloisters planted each grain of wheat a foot from its neighbor during February and March. Alas, although the​​ wheat sprouted so did the many types of cornfield weed. The experiment was a failure!


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)


Philippa Parker

March 2016