In 1792, France was revolting; in America, George Washington sanded off his choppers for a second term as president; in England, Joanna Southcott, a farmer’s daughter from Devon announced herself as the Bride of Christ. Busy times for all. It’s easy to envisage cults existing in remote areas of America and pseudo-religions in Asia, with gurus beaming broadly whilst siring many children and enjoying the benefits of a healthy, God-given bank balance. In Britain, it’s a little harder to immediately think of clusters of feverish folk closer to home, dedicating their lives to what can appear to many as ABSOLUTE NONSENSE. Even Witchfinders had to fiddle with the facts to uncover devilment and organised crackpottery. Southcott, however, lit the touchpaper for a collective which even now smoulders – The Panacea Society.
Joanna Southcott was born in 1750, first arousing suspicion whilst working as a domestic servant in Exeter, sacked for what a footman described as ‘growing madness’. Upon joining the Wesleyans in 1792, she confidently declared herself a prophetess, touched by God himself, as described in the Book of Revelation:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
In actual fact, the wilderness she was called to was London, where she sold paper “seals of the Lord” for a guinea (about thirty quid into today’s money) a time to those hoping to join 144,000 others in eternal salvation. Two books were published containing her prophecies, ‘A Warning to the World’ and ‘Book of Wonders’, both crammed with Biblical ramblings truly awful rhyming couplets and a disclaimer that she was only the messenger. At the grand old age of 64, to the delight of her now 100,000 followers, she announced she was pregnant with the Messiah (“Prince of Peace”) with a delivery date of October 1814 set.
This new holy person was an entity known as Shiloh – a visitation to Earth before Jesus himself would once again return. Hundreds camped outside her address awaiting the second coming, three dying through exhaustion. Her age caused some heathens to doubt this (she was also a virgin which may have also been taken into consideration) but a total of 17 doctors confirmed her pregnancy. A slight delay turned into a much longer one in December when she dropped dead, though many of her flock were convinced she’d rise from the grave. Her legacy was a sealed wooden box containing the prophecies which would cure all Mankind’s ills when opened a hundred years hence at a time of great peril by 24 bishops.
Foretelling the future, well or badly, is an excellent way of ensuring your name lives on well after your death. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Mother Shipton other than her petrifying cave and garbled soothsaying, nor anything about Nostradamus’ daily routine, and yet their names live on. Joanna’s prophecies may or may not have intrigued over the decades but the promise of magic residing in a trunk did very nicely indeed. Not being alive did inevitably have an impact on the number of her flock but those who remained had significant power. Actually, that’s not strictly true – they had significant amounts of money.
In 1844, one such follower, Anne Essam, bequeathed a significant amount of money to keep Southcott’s writings in print and to keep spreading the good word. It was enough to ensure that Soutcottians survived to the turn of the century, by which time, the focus was very squarely on what lay inside the box. The Crimean War had already given rise to calls for its opening but the Great War, tantalisingly close to the centenary of her death, caused much commotion but no bishop was willing to sanction the great event. One hundred years was enough time for a new wave of ‘extreme believers’ to emerge, chief among them Mabel Barltrop of Peckham, later to reside in Bedford. Barltrop had learned of Southcott through another devotee, Alice Seymore, though neither saw eye-to-eye and only the chance that one of them may be the one to open the box prevented a public fall-out.
In 1919, Barltrop made the plunge and declared herself “the daughter of God” and founded the Community of the Holy Ghost, based at her home at 12 Albany Road, Bedford. No messing about with pregnancies this time, Barltrop gave herself the name Octavia and the Shiloh Southcott had predicted. To fully establish herself, lest there be any doubt, the Holy Trinity was necessarily reworked to now be, “God the Father, God the Mother, Jesus the Son, and Octavia the Daughter“. Catchy. The collective began to grow far more rapidly and appeals to any bishop within earshot to open the trunk of prophecies grew louder, but the box in question was always kept remotely, held under lock and key by a succession of other Soutcottians, notably the Jowett family in Yorkshire, who had far less intention of allowing it to be opened.
In 1927, the box came into the possession of Harry Price, the renowned psychic investigator and sceptic, best known for his trashing of ectoplasm-vomiting mediums and the alleged hauntings at Borley Rectory. With a disgruntled clergyman in tow, the box was opened and found to only contain a collection of semi-literate papers, a nightcap, a lottery ticket and a horse pistol. Barltrop and her followers were quick to declare the box a fake and their work continued.
By this time, Barltrop had already announced that her late husband had in fact been Jesus and that what they were actually waiting for was not the second coming but the third. Alas, she didn’t live to see it, dying from complications from diabetes in 1934. Like Southcott before her, there was the full expectation that she would spring back to life and her body was kept warm for several days in readiness. Her body was eventually buried in Bedford, the place where activities by the society she founded would henceforth be directed from. Detailed plans were drawn up for the day when Mankind would be saved and the society, now known around the world by around 2000 followers as the Panacea Society, spent fortunes on huge press and advertising campaigns alerting the populous as to the urgent necessity to gather together 24 bishops to open the box.
The income generated by the society came from both generous members and the dopey general public. Early exploits included Barltrop blessing tap water and selling it to locals but demand necessitated a larger-scale operation. In 1924, the Panacea Society was registered as a charity in order to ensure that money could be left in wills and other tithes. Since that date, the Panacea Society had sold strips of linen, blessed by Barltrop (simply by breathing on huge rolls of the material) which could cure a wide range of illnesses, from cancer to wounds. Instructions were given on how to best make use of these sacred rags. You would first soak the linen in ordinary tap water, the resulting liquid being ‘Water A’, to be drunk four times per day in order to cure the most serious of ailments. Thoughtfully, the society offered money-saving tips Martin Lewis could only dream of, suggesting premium water could be diluted yet further in order to produce a still holy, ‘Water B’, suitable for dabbing on body parts, adding to bath water or sprinkling around the home for protection.
Encouraged to write back to inform the society of remarkable results, you might think this was strange behaviour even for the early 20th century but the sales continued until – wait for it – 2012. 130,000 strips of cloth sold in total. Though not exclusively women, the society did have an unusually high female membership. Largely single ladies of the upper classes, they were the very epitome of middle England, gathering for tea and cake in the garden and a chat about the end of days. Suffragettes often joined, encouraged by the pivotal role women played. Celibacy was a requirement but it was suggested that some only took this as meaning relationships between men and women, not those of the same gender.
They lived according to ‘The Manners Paper’, a set of instructions Mabel had received from God. These included: how to eat a baked potato (split with the fingers, not a knife); using the word ‘napkin’ but never ‘serviette’ (a word deemed rather common); they should eat asparagus using their hands and not cutlery; if your teeth clicked whilst eating toast, it was recommended you don’t eat toast any more.
Not only had Bedford become the epicentre for operations, but the hallowed ground on which their headquarters stood on Albany Road was also so alluring that the houses surrounding it were snapped up by society members. A house at the end of the street was named ‘The Ark’ and was reserved for the messiah when he made his appearance – a terraced house for Jesus! There was also a chapel for the congregation to gather. Rooms were furnished in readiness for the 24 bishops to stay in.
At some point, it’s difficult to pin down exactly when, so idyllic was this Bedford commune considered to be that through divination, numerology and readings of the prophecies, it was determined that Albany Road was built on the site of the Garden of Eden. To clarify, in case that sounds absurd, the Garden of Eden, the site of the snake and apple incident, was situated just off the A4280 on the way to Newport Pagnell. Perhaps this preposterous belief came about precisely because the community was so closely-knit.
With the major players living in each other’s pockets, they simply became convinced of their own rhetoric, even when it became laughable – though a starting point of a virgin pensioner giving birth to the messiah is not the most level of playing fields. The society regularly reached out to the general public, whether it was to advertise their holy wares or to reignite the appeal for bishops to open the fabled box, but there was no suggestion that they took the slightest notice of a modernising world. The houses on Albany Road were largely still decorated in the manner of Barltrop’s home, even up to the turn of the millennium.
By 1967, only 21 members remained, though they fought with even greater urgency – Southcott had predicted that the world would end in 2004 and the need to open the box grew ever more pressing. Discover the secrets of the prophecies or face to apocalypse unarmed. The authorities became aware that the society had accrued eye-popping wealth over the years and was told that it could not hold on to such huge amounts of money and property with no specific date or use for it. Despite their protestations that the money would be distributed to those who would be saved when the time of reckoning came, they found themselves electing trustees to look after their assets when the ageing membership died and ended the acceptance of new members.
Rents were raised to prevent people from continuing to live on peppercorn rates and measures were introduced to ensure that the money was spent appropriately. ‘Appropriately’ in this instance meant releasing funds to allow for the historical nature of the society being taught for generations to come and to help local causes in Bedford.
With ten years to go, the Panacea Society members living in the Albany Road area numbered less than ten. In 2017, the apocalypse clearly postponed, the final member, Ruth Klein, died. The organisation renamed itself as The Panacea Charitable Trust and exists still today. A replica box is on display at the museum housed in the original headquarters but, perhaps inevitably, the real box is hidden at an unknown location, still sealed.