A Brief History of Hilfield

An 1838 map names the site of today’s friary as ‘Flower’s Ground’, on farmland on the Batcombe/ Hilfield Parish boundary. In 1888, Flowers Farm was built here, around the courtyard. The 1901 and 1911 censuses name the tenant farmers. In 1913 George Montague, (later the ninth Earl of Sandwich) established the Little Commonwealth here, a radical community, with a Montessori school attached. 3 cottages, were built. Homer Lane superintended, though the children took the decisions. Photos show the child citizens laying concrete, and building the pump house. In 1919, The County Council leased it for ex-soldiers. Montague, still hoping to use it altruistically, offered it to Br Giles.

Laying concrete in the Courtyard

Building the Pump House

A Little Commonwealth meeting

Br Giles

On 21st December 1921 Giles founded the Brotherhood of St Francis of Assisi here, to minister to homeless men. Major Lloyd was bursar, renting a cottage. In 1923 Brother Douglas replaced Giles. Arthur De Winton joined in 1923 and Kenneth in 1925, printing The Flowerette on the community’s press. The farm was too much, so in1925 the Vardy family rented a cottage and farmland leaving the community 17 acres and 3 houses. For the rest of the 1920s, Douglas worked with wayfarers in the garden, with bees and by selling produce in Dorchester, to pay the bills. This tiny group, Douglas, Arthur, Kenneth, and Charles became novices in 1931.

Fr Algy

In 1936 Fr Algy, our other founder and quite different to Douglas, came as Guardian, while Douglas was largely away organising Homes of St Francis. Kenneth lived here until his death in 1991, doing many missions, while hundreds of brothers and residents came and went. A drawing of 1937 shows the community in action, an ‘electric plant’, swimming pool, and a basic wooden guest house. That year the BSFA merged with the Society of The Divine Compassion to form SSF. A 1939 census lists as living here- 11 friars, 12 novices and postulants, many of whom would join the Ambulance Corps, and over 30 residents. During the war, Owen started a school for maladjusted boys in Juniper House. It continued at nearby Hooke till 1992, keeping close links with us.

Tea break in 1962

After Mr Vardy died, a national appeal bought the buildings and 21 acres. The rest of Flowers Farm became a separate entity. The cemetery was established, where 111 brothers and residents now rest. In 1964 Leo House was built on the site of the Industries Hut, and then Douglas House for Guests. Simon was estate manager. There were 28 professed brothers, as well as some novices, in 1966, and 13 brothers and 2 novices in 1985.The 1960s saw changes in chapel, now with a central altar and fewer offices.

Joining in 1940, Christopher ran the Home in the original Farmhouse until he died in 1969., Martin Sharp, Allan Wippell (here ‘39 –‘97), and other residents lived in the ‘Home’ for decades. We were once called Batcombe Friary, or the Home of St Francis, Cerne Abbas, but in 1976 became Hilfield Friary. There were many visitors, and school groups. Brothers on mission hitchhiked.

When Algy died in 1955, Dennis became Guardian, then Oswald (’59), Michael (’66), Silyn (‘68), Jonathan (’72), Bernard (’77), Victor (’89), Samuel (’91), Philip Bartholomew (‘2000), and Benedict (’06 – ‘09).

While hundreds of brothers came and went, often for a year as novices before being posted elsewhere, some spent decades here. Sydney grew vegetables, Matthew made baskets, Patrick made habits, then was bursar, Roger kept bees. Vincent made habits and from the 1980s to 2020 created The Secret Garden. In the 1980s Juniper housed novices, Douglas guests, and Bernard men in rehabilitation. Wayfarers stayed in Giles house, with many at Christmas. Some ended their days here. Nobby Clark, one of the best remembered, left an autobiography. Over the years Scouts camped on our land. Almost every August since the 1960s the Family Camp and the Youth Camp have used our marquee, one camper never missing a year.

A wayfarer

Our Br Hugh and Allan Wippell

View of the Friary circa 2018

Br Samuel

By 2004 rural homelessness declined and there were fewer brothers. In 2006 Samuel re-established the community, at first called the Hilfield Project, to care for the land, as the climate crisis deepened. Douglas House became the house for young German volunteers, among others. Guests now stayed in Leo. By 2010 couples, and children, were living here long term as community members. Clark Berge became Guardian in 2018

Today there are 4 brothers here, with 20 other Community members. The Hilfield Update records this our latest period.

Despite an unsuccessful farming experiment in the 1970s, sheep and cattle were now successfully re-introduced. Solar panels and in 2014 the biomass heating system were installed. There is now a wood-chip barn, near the 1960s’ shed called the ‘White Elephant’ and a workshop rebuilt after a fire of c.2000. In 2015 we bought 2 adjoining fields, which are now part of a ‘conservation cluster’ with neighbouring landholdings. Over a century, every decade has brought fresh challenges – may we continue to adapt and evolve.