From Mabel Barltrop to Octavia
Mabel Barltrop, the founder of the Panacea Society, was born at 1 Granville Terrace, Montpelier Road, Rye Lane, Peckham, Surrey, on 11 January 1866, the only daughter of Augustus Charles Andrews (1827/8–1875), banker’s clerk, and his wife, Katherine Ann, née Buxton (1828/9–1891). She had an elder brother, Charles. After her father’s death she and her invalid mother lived in Croydon with her widowed aunt, Fanny Waldron (1825/6–1923). Mabel was educated at Miss Thurston’s school in Croydon. Her Aunt Fanny was low church and encouraged her in doing good works; her mother was Anglo-Catholic and gave her a taste for high church ceremonial that stayed with her for the rest of her life. Her paternal grandfather, Edward Andrews, had been a well-known Congregational minister, and tutor to John Ruskin.
Soon after leaving school aged eighteen Mabel Andrews became engaged to an Anglican ordinand Arthur Henry Barltrop (1856–1906), son of Henry Barltrop, blacksmith, of Ongar, Essex. He was reading for holy orders at Chichester Theological College. During the period of their betrothal Mabel became acquainted with her literary cousins, the Ormes. Eliza Orme was her father’s oldest sister, and she had run a famous literary salon at her Regent’s Park home in the mid-nineteenth century. Her daughter, the younger Eliza Orme, was a lawyer and social investigator. Another of her father’s sisters, Emily, had been married to Coventry Patmore, and was the model for his Angel in the House. Patmore was Mabel’s godfather. These literary associations were important to her self-identity, as her 1924 memoir, Octavia’s Early Years, makes clear.
Mabel and Arthur married at the Chapel Royal, Savoy, in London on 1 June 1889, the year after his ordination as deacon and priest. Her mother died shortly afterwards and her Aunt Fanny came to live with her for the rest of her life. Mabel and Arthur had four children: Eric Arthur (b. 1890), Ivan Charles (b. 1892), Adrian Bazeley (b. 1897), and Dilys Mabel (1898–1968). Their early married years were itinerant as her husband served curacies at Dover (1889–94), Maidstone (1894–8), and Croydon (1898–1902), but he failed to secure a living, and was taken ill.
The Barltrops moved to Bedford some time after 1902 to take advantage of its inexpensive day schools, and to be near Arthur’s sister. They rented 12 Albany Road (Mabel later bought it). At the time of Arthur’s death in 1906, Mabel Barltrop was a patient at the Three Counties Asylum, Stotfold, diagnosed with melancholia. Discharged and widowed, she returned to Albany Road, Bedford, where she lived with Fanny Waldron and her children, working as a literary editor. She attended St Paul’s Church in Bedford, and a prayer circle there, but increasingly felt disillusioned with conventional Christianity.
In 1914 Barltrop read a leaflet about Joanna Southcott and immediately embraced Southcottianism and its millenarian beliefs. She became convinced and ran her own one-woman campaign for the opening of Southcott’s box of sealed prophecies, which was to be opened by twenty-four bishops in a time of national emergency. Exhausted by this campaign and the dearth of episcopal responses, she admitted herself as a voluntary patient at St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton, on 29 April 1915. Two months later, her sister-in-law, Mrs Lennie Bull, who disliked her new religious beliefs, had her sectioned. Mabel’s diagnosis was melancholia and menopause. She was critical of the asylum’s conditions, and continued her work on behalf of the Southcottian cause from the asylum, later writing about both of these things in Brushes with the Bishops (1919). On 25 October 1916 she was discharged, and returned to her home in Bedford. Her son Eric, who was in the Royal Flying Corps, was killed while flying in April 1917.
While at St Andrew’s Hospital Barltrop initiated contact with Rachel Fox [see below], to whom she was related by marriage. Fox was one of the women campaigning to get the box of Southcott’s propecies opened, along with Helen Shepstone in South Africa, widowed daughter-in-law of Sir Theophilus Shepstone, and others. When Mabel returned home she began to gather a group of like-minded women around her, including some who were disillusioned followers of Alice Seymour, such as Ellen Oliver [see below]. They discussed when and how Southcott’s spiritual child, Shiloh, would be made incarnate, and read the writings of all the nineteenth-century Southcottian prophets. They decided that Helen Shepstone, who died in September 1918, was the seventh in that lineage, which stretched back to 1790.
On 14 February 1919 Ellen Oliver had a revelation that Barltrop was that female messiah, Shiloh. With ratification from other followers, Mabel Bartltrop declared herself Shiloh—the daughter of God. Rachel Fox gave her the name Octavia because she was seen as the eighth prophet in the Southcottian line. The Trinitarian God of orthodox Christianity was now reconfigured to become ‘foursquare’: God the Father, God the Mother (the Holy Spirit), Jesus the Son, and Octavia the Daughter.
Octavia appointed twelve female apostles—one from each of the signs of the zodiac—and washed their feet in imitation of Jesus. She first celebrated the eucharist on Whit Monday 1919 in the ‘upper room’—a room in her house which served as the place of worship before a chapel was built. Ellen Oliver wrote that Octavia was ‘wonderfully calm and collected as if born to it’ (letter to other members, 17 June 1919). Octavia believed that she received daily messages from God by the means of automatic writing. She sat down every afternoon at 5.30 p.m. to receive that message and then took it straight to the chapel, where it was read as one of the lessons in evening prayer, a service that was otherwise largely taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. These scripts were gathered together and published in sixteen volumes as The Writings of the Holy Ghost.
The group around Octavia was initially called the Community of the Holy Ghost, changing its name to the Panacea Society in 1926 when it became a charity (and after its healing ministry had begun). Members were ‘sealed’, just as Joanna Southcott had sealed her members. The community quickly went from a loose network of followers to a more hierarchical society. The 1920 instructions for community living emphasized the authoritarian nature of community life: members were to ‘subject themselves completely unto the Head Administrator of the Kingdom, who will be led by the Holy Ghost and through the Writings of the Holy Ghost, to administrate [sic] for their welfare in time and in eternity’ (The Community Ordinances and Doctrines, 1920). This obedience was related to the purpose of community life, which was to achieve immortality on this earth when Jesus returns through a process called ‘overcoming’ (taken from the book of Revelation). This entailed overcoming one’s faults and failings to become ‘zero’—to reduce the self, with its whims and fancies, to vanishing point. This was done by a series of rituals, called ‘acts’, to get rid of the ‘mortal mind’; monitoring one’s faults and failings; frequent confessions; consideration for others in daily living; a willingness to be reported by other members for falling short of the community’s high standards and rules; and a consent to being disciplined by Octavia.
The earliest members were mostly middle-class and female, often spinsters or widows, mostly in their fifties and sixties. Many were the wives, widows, daughters, or sisters of Church of England clergy, disillusioned with the established church because women could do so little in it. The feminine imagery of Southcott’s and Octavia’s theology was part of the appeal of the society. These women brought to the society and its beliefs a domestic religiosity. Octavia remarked that what God needed for the establishment of the kingdom on earth was a group of ‘sensible, matter-of-fact women to take on the housekeeping on earth, and to begin to give their orders by word of mouth and on His behalf, until the defeat of Satan and the Divine Jurisdiction begins’ (Octavia to Rachel Fox, 25 September 1925). Men gradually joined the community: one of the earliest was Peter Rasmussen, a Danish–Australian Southcottian who left Sydney and came to live in the community in Bedford in August 1920 when he was forty-four years old. He remained in the community for the rest of his life, and was Octavia’s right-hand man.
The society steadily grew, initially through personal and Southcottian networks. Only a minority of members were ever residential; many were non-residential, visiting Bedford when they could. By the beginning of 1923 the society had three community houses; by the middle of that year, it had 122 sealed members, and another 85 provisionally sealed, bringing the total to 207.
The year 1923 was a turning point in the society. In January Octavia and other members realized that an American resident member, Edgar Peissart, who had arrived at the society the previous year, was not only making a bid for power but had also formed a male homosexual subculture in one of the community houses. He was banished and sent back to the USA as instructed by member Emily Goodwin [see below], who had become prominent in the society and was claiming to speak as the instrument of the Divine Mother. She proclaimed that Peissart would die in New York. When the society got word in May 1923 that Peissart had indeed died there, Mrs Goodwin’s claim was validated and her authority confirmed. Thereafter she ruled the society alongside Octavia, hearing confessions and dispensing discipline. That same year also saw the beginnings of the healing ministry, when Octavia claimed she could bring healing powers to ordinary tap water. Water was blessed by the addition of a small linen square, over which Octavia had breathed, and the recitation of prayers. This blessed water was put into drinks, added to bath water, and used for illness; primarily, it was regarded as an aid in ‘overcoming’. The healing went public in February 1924, and quickly made the Panacea Society a global phenomenon. Water-takers initially reported monthly on the success of the healing, and then quarterly. By March 1926, just over two years after the healing had gone public, 4339 people had applied to take the water, responding to advertisements in regular newspapers and religious magazines all over the world. The women at the Bedford headquarters found that the volume of correspondence was increasing so rapidly that they could no longer promise a reply to all those reporting in, though they continued to serve as ‘agony aunt’ to many who wrote about their family and marriage problems, economic difficulties, and spiritual questions. In some parts of the world, ‘towers’ were set up: members who received the letters from that country’s water-takers and sent regular summaries back to the Panacea Society.
Only a small proportion of the water-takers became Panacea members, but the healing ministry provided an important avenue to new members, once the existing Southcottian and early members’ personal networks dried up. Meetings in London, speaking at Hyde Park Corner, advertisements in the newspaper and a range of publications—most of them written by Octavia—also attracted new members, as did the petitions to open the box. In the 1920s and 1930s the number of resident members ranged from fifty-four to sixty-six. By 1934 there were 1285 sealed members (resident and non-resident); and by 1943, 1978 sealed members.
The campaign to get the bishops to open the box of Southcott’s sealed prophecies was a central activity. The society put regular advertisements in national and local newspapers, and on billboards, the tube, and buses in London. In 1930 the society acquired and furnished a house, Castleside, in a street parallel with Albany Road in Bedford, to accommodate the bishops when they came—as the Panaceans believed they would—to study Southcott’s published writings and open the box. The society did not own the box until 1957.
The Panacea members had a paradoxical attitude to the Church of England. They both scorned the bishops and needed them to open the box. They believed the church was wrong but they also thought it was the true church, and insisted all members were baptized in the Church of England, whether or not they had been baptized before. They used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and were vehemently opposed to prayer book revision in 1927–8. They bombarded the church with their materials, targeting those who were dissatisfied with the Church of England with publications such as The Impatience of the People (1928), written by Octavia and published under her male pen-name Mark Proctor, as a response to Dick Sheppard’s The Impatience of a Parson (1927). The society had two notable successes in attracting clergy to their ranks. In 1923 Lawrence Iggulden (1863–1953), a vicar and rural dean in Cambridgeshire, became a member while remaining an active clergyman in the Church of England. In 1928 an honorary canon of Calcutta Cathedral, Russell Payne (1872/3–1946), picked up a copy of The Impatience of the People, and was converted. He and his wife went to live in the Bedford community in 1932, and he served as the society’s chaplain, an especially important role after Octavia’s death.
The society followed Octavia in its conservative politics, deep loyalty to the monarch, and opposition to the Labour Party and the spread of democracy. It was strongly in favour of the British empire, and supportive of the ‘buy British’ campaign in the 1930s. Octavia did not allow members to vote or give money to charities, believing that the society needed to bypass society’s inadequate solutions to the world’s challenges, and follow only divine solutions as expressed by the Panacea Society. But she followed politics keenly, was a strong supporter of Stanley Baldwin, encouraged members to oppose the general strike, and recommended the conservative Morning Post as the newspaper of choice. Octavia’s rejection of aspects of modernity—Americanization, make up, short skirts, air travel—reflected the ambivalence that many felt about the influence of modern trends. At least part of the society’s appeal lay in its capacity for a nostalgic version of Englishness combined with a radically heterodox theology, which gave full roles to women. In that sense, it was a ‘conservative modern’ phenomenon. Members also came to believe, with Octavia, that they were engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil, and that what they were doing and experiencing in Bedford had consequences far beyond their boundaries.
Octavia remained the leader of the Panacea Society until her death. She read voraciously, and wrote and published prolifically to spread her ideas. She was a spiritual adviser to hundreds, and maintained a huge correspondence. She was autocratic in her dealings with members but kindly to those who needed help. Her own family life suffered as a result of the religion she formed in her house. Her son Ivan moved to Canada, never to return. Her son Adrian served in the army in India, was agonized by his mother’s religion, and worried about his unmarried sister, Dilys, whom he regarded as trapped in the Panacea Society, and who had inherited her mother’s mental illness. Octavia died at 12 Albany Road, Bedford, on 16 October 1934, as a result of diabetes, from which she had suffered for several years. She was buried in Bedford cemetery.
Barltrop’s principal collaborators included Ellen Frederica Oliver (1870–1921), who was born in Guernsey on 16 July 1870, the third of four daughters of Samuel Pasfield Oliver, a captain in the Royal Artillery and a geographer who was an authority on Madagascar, and his wife, Clara Georgina, née Dick (1842–1899). A purity activist, she was influenced by Frances Swiney, became a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and was imprisoned during the suffragette campaign. She became a Southcottian through suffragette networks, and was initially a part of Alice Seymour’s circle until she transferred her allegiance to Mabel Barltrop. She bought the first community house, 5 Albany Road, with other members. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1921 and died at 25 Adelaide Square, Bedford, on 8 July 1921.
The first president of the Panacea Society, Rachel Juliet Fox (1858–1939), was born at Woodford, Essex, on 11 January 1858, the third daughter of Henry Fowler, timber merchant, and his wife, Ann Ford. Her family were Quakers, and in 1882 she married another Quaker, George Henry Fox (1845/6–1931), a ship agent and timber merchant in Falmouth. She became a spiritualist after the death of her son Barnard (1884–1894) at his prep school, and wrote a number of theological books, some by the process of automatic writing. She became a Southcottian and engaged in an extensive correspondence with bishops about the box, especially Boyd Carpenter, and with her cousin Beatrice Pease, met the archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, about the subject. She lived in Falmouth until 1936. She wrote and published six volumes, documenting the history of the Panacea Society. She died at 8 Rothsay Gardens, Bedford, on 13 August 1939.
An increasingly prominent figure in the Society, Emily Goodwin (1858–1943) was born at Upper Sydenham, Kent, on 4 March 1858, the daughter of William Beal, greengrocer, and his wife Elizabeth, née How. She had been introduced to Jezreel’s writings, The Flying Roll, in the late 1880s, and had worshipped at the New and Latter House Chapel. She married in 1876 Richard Frederick George Lightfoot (1854–1877). Following his death she married, second, on 25 January 1880, Henry Goodwin (1856–1918), baker, son of Robert Goodwin, grocer. As a widow with five adult children she joined the Panacea Society in July 1920 and moved to Bedford, in February 1921 to care for Mabel Barltrop’s aunt, Fanny Waldron. In 1923 she declared that she was the instrument of the Divine Mother, claiming to speak in the voice of the divine feminine. For the next twenty years she wielded great power in that role, hearing confessions and disciplining members. Her position was controversial among some members, especially after Octavia’s death in 1934. She died at 12 Albany Road, Bedford, on 22 January 1943.
Other significant members of the society included Alice Elizabeth Jones (1859/60–1945), secretary of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, who was brought into the society by Ellen Oliver. Barltrop’s closest friend, Kate Emily Firth (1865–1934), born in Dewsbury, the daughter of Charles Scholes, solicitor, and widow of Harry Firth, stockbroker, was one of the earliest members of the Panacea Society, along with her sister Henrietta Leach, but she left dramatically in 1926 when she fell in love with a new member, Leonard Squire Tucker. Records of Panacea Society members were kept by (Mary) Hilda Green (1862–1958), daughter of Thomas Green, rector of Sudbury; she was an early member of the society along with her sisters Winna Frances Green (1873–1957) and Mildred Louisa Hollingworth (1864–1952).