Mabel Barltrop and the Panacea Society Graves
by Adrian Bean
Buried at Foster Hill Road Cemetery is someone who many people believed was the Daughter of God. Yes, the Daughter of God lived in Bedford, at least as far as the members of the Panacea Society were concerned.
Mabel Barltrop founded a religious group centred around her home in Albany Road, and for generations some Bedfordians looked on them with suspicion. As they kept themselves to themselves, rumours grew about what they were doing in their closed community. In reality they were probably harmless eccentrics, but perhaps it’s Human Nature to think the worst of eccentric people. She and about a hundred of her followers are buried in the cemetery.
Mabel Andrews was born in 1866, into a conventional middle-class Victorian family from Croydon, but one with some connections in the literary world. She was very much steeped in the Anglicanism of the day. Her father died when she was only 9, her mother was a semi-invalid, and when her brother died abroad in 1891 she had few close relations left. Her aunt, Fanny Waldron, helped her financially and educationally by introducing her to the world of Literature and the Intelligentsia. She kept an autograph book with signatures of famous men of the day and had a small-scale correspondence with John Ruskin. She was intelligent, well-read, and especially interested in theological discussions. A cousin, Eliza (“Sili”) Orme, qualified as the first female barrister in England, although she was not allowed to practise.
Bearing in mind her religious bent it wasn’t surprising that she married a lowly Anglican curate, Arthur Barltrop. After moving about the country they came to Bedford in 1904 with their four young children. Arthur’s sister Helena (“Lennie”) was married to Thomas Bull the Bedford Jeweller; she had advised them to move here for the good quality schools. Arthur died shortly after the move and Mabel was sectioned in the Three Counties Asylum, suffering from depression. After she came out she was again helped financially by her invalid aunt Fanny Waldron, who moved in at Mabel’s 12 Albany Road home. Mabel made a living by reviewing theological books. She was well respected in this area but wrote under a male pseudonym, Mark Procter, as otherwise she would not have been taken seriously.
After the Great War she corresponded with similar-minded women about the writings of a self-styled female prophet, Joanna Southcott, who had died in 1814 leaving a sealed box of prophecies that should only be opened under certain conditions. The main condition was that 24 Bishops of the Church of England had to be present. She and other groups campaigned for the box to be opened.
Very soon the small group which at this point was only women, including several Suffragists and an active Suffragette Ellen Oliver, decided that Mabel was in fact Shiloh, a prophet who according to the Bible will appear on earth to prepare it for the Second Coming of Christ, just as John the Baptist had the first time. They were convinced she was the Daughter of God. She soon set up a Millenarian community in the Albany Road area, with mainly well-to-do ladies buying and living in Community Houses. At one time about two thirds of the houses in the road were Panacea houses, with followers living together – normally with a servant as well. After all, some people are more equal than others. There were men as well, but fewer of them. They prepared themselves for the Day of Judgement by confessing their faults, to become worthy of Heaven on Earth. Mabel was very much the respected charismatic leader of the group, initially called the Community of the Holy Ghost. Later, it became the Panacea Society.
Her followers decided that Mabel was the eighth great prophet of modern times, and renamed her Octavia. She appointed Apostles, just as her brother Jesus had done, but strangely, each one had a different sign of the Zodiac. She had messages from God each day at 5.30, and they were recorded as the Daily Scripts. Followers had to confess their faults and inadequacies, and purify themselves so as to be worthy of being saved when the Day of Revelation arrived. They gave part of their income to the Society, as Jesus would surely need money when he returned.
They were known internationally for their campaigns to open Joanna Southcott’s Box of Prophecies. They handed out over a million leaflets, raised petitions, had posters in prime sites in London and had full page advertisements in newspapers. Although their high-water mark was in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the adverts carried on until the 1990’s. They bought 9 Newnham Road Bedford (a former Boarding House for Bedford School) and converted it to house 24 Bishops and a grand room for the opening of the Box. But the Bishops never came, and the Box is still unopened, safe at an undisclosed location in Bedford.
As well as campaigning for the Box to be opened, she had a Healing Mission. About 130,000 people from all over the world applied for her Healing, a system whereby she would breathe on pieces of linen which the applicant could put in water and drink or wash with, and they would gradually be cured of their illnesses. Thousands claimed they had been cured in this way…for which there was no charge.
Mabel died in October 1934. Her followers didn’t call the undertaker for three days, as they thought that as she was God’s daughter, she might rise again, as her brother had. The inscriptions on her grave do not include her name, but would be clear to any believer:
“M.B” -“ I am the Resurrection and the Life”, (meaning that SHE was).
“O S-J”- refers to the names by which she was known: Octavia and Shiloh-Jerusalem. They believed in the female aspect of God, and that there was a “God the Mother” as well as a Father, Son and Daughter (ie Mabel).
About 70 members are buried in section I near the Scots Soldiers’ memorial, including her most fervent follower Peter Rasmussen and Emily Goodwin, who took over after Mabel died. Mabel and Dilys are nearby, grave refs J434 and J438 respectively. The graves of Ellen Oliver and Fanny Waldron are just in front of the chapel.
Most of the inscriptions on the Panacea headstones are little different from those you might find all over the cemetery, but those of Oliver, Mabel and Goodwin were carefully chosen. 26 have some kind of stone memorial; none of them mention the Panacea Society. The last member, Ruth Klein, died in 2012 and is buried in Norse Road cemetery, in the Woodland section.
It’s fair to say that the members were eccentric, strange, or misguided, but they were also sincere, committed and fascinating. They did little harm. Mabel may not have been the Daughter of God, and more likely just a charismatic leader of perhaps willingly gullible followers, but if she was a great prophet, then she was Bedford’s great prophet! And you can see her grave in Bedford cemetery.
“Octavia, Daughter of God” by Jane Shaw (standard reference book for information on the Society)
“Imagining Eden” by Adrian Bean
“Maidens of the Lost Ark” documentary
Extensive research into original documents held in the Panacea Society Archives
October 01, 2018
September 02, 2018
August 27, 2018