On an ordinary English suburban street, in an ordinary English town, there lies an extraordinary secret….
Welcome to the world of the mysterious Panacea Society…preparing the way for the second coming of Jesus in a very polite, practical and idiosyncratically British kind of way.
How an Edwardian Lady became The Female Messiah
I recently found myself in Bedford for a week and curious as to what the sights of Bedford might be, I did a little research. Suffice to say my interest was truly piqued when I discovered that only a few streets away from my hotel, just along the tree-lined river embankment, there was a very famous street. A street on which a house had been purchased and decorated almost hundred years ago, for a very special guest – the son of God himself. What’s more, there was a house a few doors away awaiting the return of the DAUGHTER of God.
Mabel Barlthrop- a name to conjure with: respectable, middle-class, stolid, genteel, church-going. Not the kind of name you would associate with a Messianic religious cult. But oh, how many secret passions lurk behind the twitching net curtains of respectable middle-class sensibility?
Mabel was born in 1866 in Surrey, and after a prim upper-middle class upbringing (involving contact with such luminaries of Victorian Society as Coventry Patmore, Millais and Ruskin) she left school to marry Arthur Henry Barltrop in 1889. Barltrop was a Church of England Clergyman and Mabel, like a dutiful wife took a keen interest in his theological studies. They had 4 children and lived happily for a time. However, their happiness was not to last as Arthur had an undiagnosed brain tumor which lead to chronic ill-health. Arthur’s fragile state of health affected Mabel and in 1906 she had a break-down and entered a nursing home – some say a lunatic asylum. She was diagnosed with Melancholia and was noted as believing she was responsible for all of the ills of the world. While she was recuperating her beloved husband had a stroke and died. This must have been a very traumatic time for her.
A widow now, Mabel took up literary criticism to make ends meet and she and her aunt raised the children in their Bedford home on Albany Road. Then came the The Great War (1914-1918) which left an indelible scar on the nation, a psychic scar that the survivors desperately looked to heal – it was a boom time for spiritualism and many felt that they were living at the ‘end of days’. Almost no family was untouched by the war: Mabel herself lost her eldest son who was killed in Action in 1917. Another tragedy that Mabel had to come to terms with and may have added to her need to come up with a solution to the suffering and tragedy she saw around her.
The Ladies of Letters and the Prophetess of the VisitationBetween 1913 -1919 Mabel engaged in a correspondence with a group of similarly minded, genteel ladies on the topic of the writings and revelations of the English prophetess Joanna Southcott (1750 – 1814).
Joanna Southcott sits within the tradition of ‘The Visitation’ – the belief that since the 17th Century divine prophecies have been revealed to English prophets. At the time of Mabel and her correspondence there were seven recognised prophets of the visitation – there would soon be an eighth.
Joanna was a farmer’s daughter born in Devon in 1750 and worked variously in domestic service, as a farm laborer, and as an upholsterer. She was firmly working class and during her lifetime often defended the rights of the poor. It was in 1792 that she became convinced of her diving mission, seeing herself as the Bride of the Revelations. She strongly identified with a female idea of the divine, her ‘voice’ spoke to her in 1804 emphasising that: “I will conquer in woman’s form.”
Joanna took her prophecies to London, and gathered quite a following, cannily charging anything from 12 Shillings to a Golden Guinea for the privilege of being ‘sealed’ into the elect 144,000. She believed that Revelation would come to pass in 2004.
Joanna attracted many followers, and made many prophecies that seemed to come true: she is credited with predicting the death of Bishop Buller of Exeter in 1796, the crop failures and famines of 1799-1800 and the Napoleonic Wars. She also had the disconcerting habit of sealing up her prophecies and posting them to churchmen so they could be tested at a future date. Her most famous sealed prophetic writings relate to the near legendary ‘Joanna Southcott’s Box’ subject of much later rumour and speculation.
Nevertheless she was not without her critics, and the eighteenth and early nineteenth century caricaturists could be savage. Especially when Joanna at the age of 64 announced that she was carrying the new Messiah, Shiloh, the child mentioned in Genesis. Frenzied preparations amongst her followers resulted in a fabulous silver gilt cradle being commissioned from Seddon’s (a rather swanky cabinet-maker at the time). However, the fatal day came and went and no baby appeared…her loyal followers claimed the child was of spirit and had been taken up to heaven, but others thought she had finally gone to far with her flummery. Heartbroken, exhausted and possibly suffering from Dropsy, Joanna died shortly after, probably about 27th December 1814 (although her followers appeared to have kept her body for a few days just in case the prophetess returned…she did not).
So it would seem that the legend of Joanna Southcott might die with her, but she had some very loyal adherents who kept her prophecies alive, and if legend is to be believed, guarded her box devotedly and handed it down generation after generation until it found it’s way into the hands of the Panacea Society.
Octavia and the Panacea Society
Swiftly deciding that she was the eighth prophet of the Visitation, Mabel Barlthrop changed her name to Octavia and from 1916 she began receiving daily divine messages at 5.30pm promptly. By 1919 she was convinced that she was in fact Shiloh the divine daughter of God and the female Messiah, and that she must begin preparing for the second coming of the Son of God.
Being a genteel Edwardian lady she set about her task with clubbable gusto – appointing 12 female apostles and obtaining the real estate to set up the New Jerusalem on Albany Road, Bedford. The enclosed gardens became the ‘Garden of Eden’ and the ‘Gathering of the Believers’ began.
The society which began as the Commune of the Holy Ghost and by 1926 had become the Panacea Society had set religious aims and tenets – one of which is of great interest. Mabel believed that god was not a trinity but fourfold. God the father and son, and God(dess) the mother and daughter. Many of her followers were women, often war-widows, but because of this female doctrine and the concept that Octavia/Mabel was the Female Messiah the Society also appealed to the suffragettes – as it seemed to be an attack on the old boys club of the Church of England. The fact that it was also a largely female commune and entirely run by women – must have been quite refreshing at that time.
One of the Society’s main goals was to try to fulfill Joanna Southcott’s wish that her fabled box be opened in the presence of 24 Bishops of the Church of England at a time of dire national peril. In the box would be the instruction manual for surviving Revelations. With this Messianic mission the ladies set about taking out small ads in newspapers such as the Sunday Express. These ads ran from into the 1960’s and even 1970’s:
“War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box.”
Church of England Bishops did not oblige and the box remained unopened.
Nevertheless the society flourished, with up to 70 mainly female members living in the commune in the 1930’s and thousands world-wide. As part of Mabel’s healing ministry she would breathe on small water-soaked linen squares and post them all over the world – the cloths were believed to have healing qualities. As the commune grew it became necessary for Mabel to set out some ground rules for polite living – the worst of her upper middle class snobbery came out here and some of her rules could seem very elitist: such as members only being allowed to use the term napkin (‘serviette’ simply would not do!).
God’s house in Bedford
One of the most notable quirks of this group was the very practical steps it took in relation to the second coming. In a very property-owning and British kind of way, the society decided that God, if/when he returns, would require a rather nice Victorian Villa in Bedford. After all, most Brits at the time were convinced that God was of course British, so of course God would want to live in Bedford – so close to London, but near enough to the countryside…close to local amenities etc.
The late Ruth Klein the last surviving member of the religious community, is quoted as saying of the Ark on Bedford Road:
“We’ve had it completely refurbished, new carpets, curtains…you may well ask does God need a shower? He will have a radiant body, so I don’t think he will, but we’ve prepared it as a normal house anyway.”
The Society also kept Mabel’s house intact, just as she left it when she died in 1934. Even as the millennium came and went, surviving members till hoped that Octavia, the female Messiah would return.
After Mabel’s death in 1934, the Panacea Society lasted but with dwindling membership until its last member, Ruth Klein died in 2012. Although it is no longer a religious community, it’s multi-million pound assets mean that it still exists as a charity – it funds local Bedford charities for the poor as well as funding research into prophecy and Millenarianism.
Overall I think that Mabel was sincere in her beliefs, although they did get decidedly odd towards the end of her life (she thought her late husband was Jesus). Her mental break-down following the loss of her beloved husband; then the outbreak of war and the loss of her eldest son; simply must have had a significant impact on her mental state. She seems to have had some of the symptoms of Messiah Complex – and at a time when people were desperate to cling to anything that made sense of the terrible events they had all recently lived through – Mabel/Octavia tried to offer them some hope. So although she may have been a little deluded, and a bit of a snob, and very much an English Eccentric, a lot of what she did had a very positive impact, especially for the many women left alone and grieving after such a catastrophic war. She also embraced the idea of the sacred feminine and a female godhead which challenged the accepted male oriented Church of England.
And what of Joanna Southcott’s Box?
In 1927 the offices of Harry Price (of Borley Rectory fame) received a mysterious parcel. The covering letter purported to be from a Devonshire gentleman who was leaving Britain for far off climes. In disposing of his possessions he came across a walnut box left to him by an aged family retainer. The Devonshire gentleman claimed that it was Joanna Southcott’s box.
Harry Price was a showman as well as a researcher and was keen to debunk the mysterious box and all things Southcottian. He engaged a number of psychometry experts to sense what secrets lay hidden within. He also wrote to a number of Bishops of the Church of England inviting them to the unveiling – and got a lot of snarky replies for his troubles! Eventually, on 11 July 1927 at Hoare Hall in Westminster the box was revealed via X-ray (apparently some of the psychometry experts got quite a good feel for what was in the box).
With massive press interest and boo’s and hisses from Southcottian’s (and possibly Panacean’s) the contents of the box was revealed. It contained 56 items including: a horse-pistol, a fob purse and coins, a dice box, ear-rings, a miniature, a selection of romantic fiction but not really anything apocalyptic. Unless of course it contained lots of things to help you pass the time waiting for the apocalypse..?
Anyway, those who were skeptical sniggered at the believers, whilst the believers hissed at the skeptics and said that the box was a fake. To this day, the Panacea Society state that the Joanna Southcott’s box is in a secret location in Bedford – awaiting the day of judgement.
Harry Price Website: http://www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/Famous%20Cases/southcottbyharryprice.htm
Mellby Julie L: http://blogs.princeton.edu/graphicarts/2012/01/joanna_southcott_or_southcote.html
Panacea Society: http://www.panacea-society.org/
The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/03/octavia-daughter-of-god-review
The Telegraph: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/03/octavia-daughter-of-god-review