Franciscan brothers first arrived here in 1921 to establish a home of refuge and rehabilitation for the large number of displaced men who were then tramping the roads of rural England.
At the Friary they found a welcome as brothers, the restoration of their dignity through shared work, and the opportunity of rehabilitation and training.
From this small beginning has grown the Society of St Francis, an Anglican order of men and women inspired by the example of Francis of Assisi. SSF now has communities of brothers and sisters, and many lay or ‘tertiary’ members, throughout the world.
Hilfield Friary is now a retreat centre and welcomes guests from all over the world to Dorset.
Today the Franciscan brothers of SSF are joined by men and women—young and old, married and single—who together constitute the Hilfield Friary Community
This Community shares in a rhythm of daily prayer, looks after the Friary land and buildings, and offers hospitality to guests and visitors.
People of all backgrounds are welcome here – Christians, those of other faiths and of none – for rest, retreat, and renewal of life. The emergency provision for ‘wayfarers’ ended in 2004, but the Friary still provides a place of acceptance and supported living for those who are in particular need.
Following the example of Francis of Assisi there is a particular emphasis on living simply, generously and joyfully on God’s earth.
The land and the animals it supports are cared for and provide food for the community. There is a common table around which the Community and its guests share meals. There is also time and space to be quiet and alone.
The Friary is not just a beautiful and peaceful oasis; the Community has a concern for promoting justice and reconciliation in a troubled world. They proclaim a wise ecology in the face of our culture’s environmental foolishness.
At the heart of the Friary lies the Chapel where the Community comes together for prayer four times a day. Celebrating the Eucharist, praying the scriptures in the Daily Office and times of silent meditation bring us back to the source and goal of all creation. It renews us in the life of Jesus Christ and unites us with our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
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 for children with difficult background. It was a radical community. 3 cottages were built. Homer Lane superintended but the children took the decisions. The photo shows the child citizens laying concrete in the courtyard.
In 1919 the County Council leased it for ex-soldiers. Montague still hoped to use it altruistically and offered it to Br Giles.
On 17th December 1921 Giles founded the Brotherhood of St Francis of Assisi here to minister to homeless men. Major Lloyd was bursar and renting a cottage.
In 1923 Brother Douglas replaced Giles. Arthur De Winton joined in 1923 and Kenneth in 1925. Kenneth printed The Flowerette on the community’s press. The farm was too much so in 1925 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 of Douglas, Arthur, Kenneth and Charles make their profession in vows in 1931.
In 1936 Fr Algy, our other founder and quite different to Douglas, came as Guardian. Douglas was largely away organising Homes of St Francis. Kenneth lived here until his death in 1991 doing many missions. Hundreds of brothers and residents came and went. A drawing of 1937 shows the community in action with 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 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.
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. There were 13 brothers and 2 novices in 1985. The 1960s saw changes in the 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. He was followed by Oswald (1959), Michael (1966), Silyn (1968), Jonathan (1972), Bernard (1977), Victor (1989), Samuel (1991), Philip Bartholomew (2000), and Benedict (2006 to 2009).
Hundreds of brothers came and went often for a year as novices before being posted elsewhere but some spent decades here. Sydney grew vegetables, Matthew made baskets, Patrick made habits then became was bursar, and 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 there 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 missed a year!
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 House. Clark Berge became Guardian in 2018.
By 2010 couples, and children, were living here long term as community members. 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 that 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.
Hilfield Friary is part of the Society of St Francis, a worldwide Anglican
Religious Order. Visit their website: https://www.franciscans.org.uk/
We have a Community day off every Monday. In an emergency please
phone 01300 341345 and leave a message.