BOOK REVIEW by Bob Ricketts
By Jane Shaw
398 pages. Published by Jonathan Cape in 2011. Hardback. Price £18.99. ISBN 978-0-224-07500-8

Apologies for the late review of this volume. Although published in 2011, I only acquired a copy recently, following recommendations from several members of BAALHS. It represents an impressive piece of research by historian Jane Shaw, drawing on primary sources, particularly the extensive archives of the Panacea Society, as well as a wide range of published works. Using these, she tells the fascinating story of a unique religious community founded in 1919 in Bedford - the Panacea Society – which attracted former suffragists, middle-class Christian women and passionate spiritual seekers to Bedford where they followed rigorous religious practices, part of a utopian community which numbered over 70 residents, had thousands of followers and ran an international healing network.

The movement’s founder and leader was Mabel Barltrop. Her followers called her Octavia and believed that she was the daughter of God, sent to build the New Jerusalem in Bedford. The roots of the movement lay much earlier, in the beliefs of another equally charismatic and determined woman, Joanna Southcott, who founded a 10,000-strong religious movement based on her claim that she would give birth to ‘Shiloh’, a messiah figure, a precursor to Christ’s second coming. Southcott published a number of prophecies, but also sealed up several of them in a large wooden box in the early nineteenth century, leaving instructions that it was to be opened at a time of grave national emergency by twenty-four Bishops of the Church of England. The Panacea Society became the custodians of this legacy. Mabel Barltrop believed that after the opening of Southcott’s Box of Prophecies, England would become the new Israel and the biblical promises would materialise.

After a short preface, Part One of the book describes Mabel’s origins and early history. She was born in 1866 in Peckham, south London, to a strongly religious middle class family. Educated at a small private school, Mabel was well-read. She became engaged to Arthur Barltrop, a trainee priest, in 1884 and married him in 1889, following Arthur to churches in Dover, Maidstone and Croydon. In 1896 Arthur became ill, forcing him to take a leave of absence. Arthur, Mabel and their four children moved to Bedford because of the good schools and to be near Arthur’s sister, Lennie, who was married to Thomas Bull, the jeweller. Arthur died in 1906, leaving her struggling financially. Suffering continued setbacks in trying to raise clerical awareness of Southcott’s work, and exhausted, she was admitted as a voluntary patient to St. Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton, in April 1915, and was subsequently sectioned, being deemed “delusional”. She was discharged in October 1916 and returned to her home in Bedford. Her three sons were away fighting. Mabel began to pick up the threads of her search for Shiloh, experimenting with automatic writing, communicating with supporters and the Bishops and laying the foundations of the Panacea Society.

Part Two, the core of the book, tells the detailed story of the community’s life during the 1920s and 1930s, also providing fascinating insights into their beliefs and also Bedford’s inter-war cultural and social life.

Chaper headings include “The Female Apostles”, “How to Live For Ever”, “Trouble in Paradise”, “Going Global”, “Sex Difficulties” (the Society allowed members to have sex as long as they were married and observed the laws of Leviticus, though


Illustration of book cover

there was the implicit notion that those who were perfect would not have sex and through the practice of Overcoming would lose desire), “Don’t Fall in Love” and “Family Problems”.

Part Three deals with the challenges faced by the Society in its dealings with the Church of England and growing frustration at repeated failed attempts to persuade the Bishops to “Open the Box”. Chapter Thirteen, “Defeating the Bolshevik Menance”, presents an intriguing account of the Society’s attitudes towards trade unionism and socialism. Members saw the General Strike as a potential doomsday moment. The final chapter relates “Octavia”’s death in October 1934, which was initially met with disbelief and sad attempts to revive her with blankets, hot water bottles, brandy and blessed water.

The book has been comprehensively researched and referenced, and has a detailed index and has numerous illustrations. A “good read”, as well as providing an informed insight into the development and life of this religious community.