Albany Street in Bedford, England looks like a typical British street.
For the people who lived here around 100 years ago, it was the centre of the world. A world they believed was coming to an end.
They called themselves the Panacea Society and the 50-60 Panaceans lived in a collection of houses centered on Albany Street. Their leader, Mabel Barltrop, lived here at number 12.
Towards the end of the First World War, Mabel had become convinced that the apocalypse was imminent and that God would come to live on earth among his chosen few, the Overcomers, for a thousand years.
Her followers believed she was a modern prophet, the eighth (and final) in a line which they called the Visitation and which included Joanna Southcott. To mark Mabel’s special status they called her Octavia.
The Society offered to help people ‘overcome’ sin whilst also carrying out other important preparations before God came.
One task was to open a box of prophecies that Joanna Southcote had written a hundred years earlier. The box was to be opened at a time of national emergency and would help prepare for the end of days.
Joanna Southcott had specified the box shouldn’t be opened by just anyone. It had to be opened by 24 bishops of the Church of England. So while they were petitioning the Church to come and open the box, they made meticulous preparations for the bishops’ arrival.
They bought a large house adjacent to their commune and furnished it accordingly. They created a meeting room where the bishops would convene to open the box and discuss its contents.
And as it would take time to go through the details, they needed to provide a dining room where the bishops would eat.
Kitchens would be needed to prepare the bishops’ meals
And they would need places to sleep
with furniture to allow the clergy to say prayers before bedtime
Even holy men need to make calls of nature…
but they would get the latest in modern conveniences.
The Society put a great deal of time and effort into organising petitions for the bishops to come.
The bishops never came
…which was probably fortunate for the Society as at that time they didn’t actually have the box, or know where it was. (It was hidden under a bed in Morecambe, Lancashire and is now in the care of the Panacea Trust).
But there was only so much effort they could put into preparing to receive bishops who refused to come and open a box they didn’t have.
The Society busied itself with other activities.
Octavia discovered she had healing powers after a pill she tried to take kept jumping out of her hand. She interpreted this as God telling her she did not need pills but could cure herself, and anyone else. With help from an effective press agent, they created a global healing ministry that reached 130,000 sufferers.
People could write to the society and ask for healing linen squares which had been breathed on by Octavia.
There was no charge but they were encouraged to report back on their progress. All correspondence was carefully catalogued.
The society had a printing press and ran an efficient office producing a mass of publications, pamphlets, petitions and adverts.
Members also wrote to each other, kept diaries and made confessions, much of which has been saved.
Unsurprisingly, Octavia had plenty to say and her words give an insight into the mind of a bright, frustrated and troubled soul.
Every afternoon at half past five, God would speak through her and this would be dictated into the Daily Script.
An hour later, there was the Daily Service which was mostly compiled from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer but would also include Octavia’s new insights. It could also at times be quite informal and a joke or two might be shared (to the surprise of visitors). She was good at telling funny or whimsical stories.
Octavia had a view on almost everything and gave meticulous instructions to her followers that had to be obeyed.
This included how to eat toast and make cakes. True to her time and class, she wrote a Manners Paper to make sure her followers all had good etiquette.
In a telling insight into her own insecurities, it included an instruction on not calling table napkins ‘serviettes’ – a transgression she had made herself to the embarrassment of her visiting son.
Despite her higher calling, she was not above party politics and Octavia was a fiercely loyal Conservative.
When the Labour Party won the 1929 General Election, she appointed her own ‘Spiritual Cabinet’ headed by the Conservative party leader Stanley Baldwin. When it became obvious that God wasn’t going to intervene and install her Cabinet, she changed her tune.
‘Asked if we are sorry that Labour has got into power, quite the reverse. It will give God an opportunity to show how disquieting it is to the Earth for servants to rule.’
The Panacea Society had servants like Gladys Powell.
These were Panaceans who did not have the means to pay their own way. Like many domestic servants of the previous century, the hours were long and the pay low.
One servant, Amy Smart, recounted in a letter pleading for time off that she had only had 12 days off in 4 years. She also had to learn her place and was reprimanded for not calling Octavia’s daughter Dillys, ‘Miss Dillys’.
Servants were not even given time off to attend the daily services, except at weekends. Attendance was not considered important for them as they were not as far on in ‘overcoming’.
Life for most Panaceans wasn’t that austere. Octavia said they were to ‘Use all God’s gifts abusing none’.
Good things could be enjoyed albeit in moderation, or at least Octavia’s idea of moderation and clearly she had a sweet tooth.
‘It is a huge mistake to assume that chocolate sweetens… Chocolate cakes and puddings need a lot of sugar.
‘Treacle does not sweeten… add plenty of sugar‘
Peas were served with mint, butter and a lump of sugar.
Octavia ended up diabetic and she died in 1934. Given she and the other ‘overcomers’ were meant to live with God on Earth for the next thousand years, this event should have been the end of the Society.
Although some left the Society carried on with Emily Goodwin, the ‘Divine Mother’ taking the leading role in this matriarchy. They continued their daily tasks and waited.
They tended their communal garden, which they believed was on the same spot as the original Garden of Eden.
They would entertain themselves in the evenings with games or listening to the radio.
Time passed, members of the Society grew old and died.
The Society were forced to rent out houses including the Ark which had been reserved for Jesus. However, the tenants were kept on a short lease and would have to vacate in the event of His arrival.
In 2012 the last member, Ruth Klein, died and the final consignments of healing squares were sent out with a letter to say this was the end.
But it isn’t the end.
As the Society faded away, a Trust was formed to help future generations learn about the Society.
A museum was opened using the Panacea Society’s buildings to tell their story.
As well as curious members of the public, academics have also been keen to learn more. There were more requests for access to the archives last year than in the previous 15 years put together. Why?
The Panacea Society is a good example of both a Southcottian sect and also a matriarchy. Other Southcottian (male) prophets like John Wroe needed seven virgins to ‘help’ him with his ministry. James Jezreel had to build a big tower.
But Octavia seemed to employ a less testosterone-based approach to saving the world and while the Society had male members, it was the women who were firmly in charge.
It also provides a well documented example of cognitive dissonance – how do people come to terms with their fundamental beliefs being completely undermined?
When the immortal leader died some stopped believing, others joined a different sect and some found a way to continue believing despite the obvious facts. It’s through this we learn more about ourselves and the things many or most of us do. Who hasn’t patted a calf or lamb and also eaten a burger?
The healing archive has only been partially explored, but may be here there is a big data opportunity. Who knows what some data scientist will be able to uncover, whether it be hand writing pattern shifts across the British Empire or pre-internet meme dissemination?
There are also the personal stories, like that of the Carew-Hunts. Mrs Carew-Hunt had written to the society to ask for healing, but there was something else troubling her. Her husband did not want to have sex. As she put it, he slept badly since returning from the First World War. The couple ended up joining the Society, but whatever comfort they found in Bedford, it didn’t stop her husband’s descent into fascism.
Or the forbidden love story of Rachael Fox and Leonard Tucker – the screenplay almost writes itself.
There is one final untold story. How a group of diligent and motivated women managed to create a record of their time and place which could help future academics add to the body of knowledge.
And by learning more about the human condition and understanding its shortcomings aren’t academics, in their own way, fulfilling the Panaceans’ mission to prepare for a better world?
Even if it isn’t Heaven on Earth.
with thanks to Vicki Manners, archivist at the Panacea Trust