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A Place to be Real Together

Adela Curtis and the White Ladies

Sometimes you can almost feel the history of a place. We're often aware of the White Ladies' enduring influence around Othona. Their ideals still have something to teach us. And their lifestyle has shaped our house and grounds.

Who were these White Ladies? A small community of women dedicated to a life of self-sufficiency and contemplative prayer. They had been part of a larger community founded by a remarkable woman called Adela Curtis – a writer, a spiritual teacher, and a pioneer.

Miss Curtis had taught meditation and started a vegetarian restaurant in West London in the early years of the twentieth century. She set up a large community in Wiltshire. And after some years she 'retired' to West Dorset, buying a large plot of land overlooking Lyme Bay.

Some of her followers insisted on following...! So instead of retirement she founded what became the Community of Christian Contemplatives. Independent of any particular church, this was a sort of 'convent for hermits', with no men allowed.

They lived a very simple existence, each woman cultivating the land around a small timber cottage in which she lived. And they wove their own habits of un-dyed cotton or silk – before long the locals called them White Ladies. The house which is now Othona was their guest house and meeting place. Some visitors came from as far away as America (before the days of transatlantic flights). And in 1937 they raised enough money to add the chapel.

Miss Curtis must have been an unstoppable woman. She was already in her 60s when she came to West Dorset. Her writings and talks clearly inspired many people. The topics ranged from prayer and theology to the best way of building a compost heap! The writer Aldous Huxley hailed her as one of Britain's greatest living mystics.

With the Second World War the main house was requisitioned by the army. A few sisters carried on living in the outlying huts and persevered in praying and gardening until the war was over. But it had dealt their community a body blow – with no visitors and some sisters dying of old age - from which it never recovered.

After Miss Curtis herself died in 1960, the trustees of her charity started looking for a suitable organisation to which they could give the house and grounds, with a few of the sisters' cottages. Eventually their path crossed with that of Norman Motley and the Othona Community.