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. (See pencil sketch of her below. This is thought to have been done by her brother George, who was an artist.)
Miss Curtis had taught meditation and run a bookshop in West London in the early years of the twentieth century. She set up a large community in Cold Ash in Berkshire. And after some years she 'retired' to West Dorset, buying a large plot of land overlooking Lyme Bay in 1921.
Some of her followers insisted on following...! So instead of retirement she founded what became the Community of Christian Contemplatives. Most of her followers were women (Sisters) but some men also supported the work and took the title Brother.
The Sisters 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 wool or cotton – 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 clearly inspired many people. She was writing books and pamphlets every morning. She gave two or three addresses in the chapel each week and held regular silent healing sessions. She wrote about prayer and theology and also about practical matters, such as 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 and the chapel became the storeroom for the furniture from the house. 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. Some of the sisters died during this period also and although there continued to be some community life here into the 1950s, it was much diminished.
After Miss Curtis herself died at the age of 92 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.
Liz Howlett, a resident member of the core team at Othona, has been researching Miss Curtis and her community. If you are interested in reading more about her, click on this link which will take you to a blog published on the Dorset History Centre website in 2021. A more recent blog (May 2022) has focussed on one of the sisters, Evelyn Bendy, who lived here for almost 20 years in the mid 20th century. Click on this link for her story.