Mabel Barltrop – Founder of the Panacea Society
by Adrian Bean
Mabel Andrews was born in 1866, into a conventional middle-class London Victorian family, but one with some connections in the literary world, and who became 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 Intelligensia. 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 was the first female barrister in England.
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. She 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 died in 1814 leaving a sealed box of prophecies that must only be opened in 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, 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. 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.
As well as campaigning for the box to be opened (by petitions, leaflets, advertisements in newspapers, on hoardings and London buses) 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 then be cured of their illnesses.
In Bedford itself, they stayed a very secretive group, with minimal contact with the outside. Mabel had firm views on Etiquette and Standards, so she set out strict rules for the resident members to live by. She was a forceful character, with absolute control over members, and views on just about everything.
She died in October 1934, after years of illness. She had a second period in a mental hospital in 1915/16 when she was delusional, claiming God spoke to her every day, at 5.30 (this was the case right until her death). In reality, she never fully recovered. For example, from 1916 to her death, she would never walk more than 77 steps from her house, because otherwise ‘Satan would get her’. When she died, her followers didn’t call the undertaker for three days, as they thought she would rise from the dead, just like her brother Jesus. They never made a concerted effort to recruit members so when the last member died, in 2012, the Society ended. Everything was taken over by the Panacea Museum Charitable Trust, which as a registered Charity, set up the Panacea Museum at 9 Newnham Road (the house where the Box was to be opened) Visitors can walk round her house as it was in the 1930’s.
Mabel’s first son, Eric, was killed in the Great War, and her second son Ivan emigrated to Canada. The third son, Adrian, emigrated to Australia, though his daughter Anna and granddaughter Elizabeth visited Mabel’s grave as recently as 2015. Mabel’s daughter Dilys, who had a very sad life as the only young female member of a claustrophobic community of older women, is buried a few yards from her mother, in an unmarked grave (though there are daffodils and bluebells in the Spring).
Mabel’s headstone refers to “M.B” and “O.S-J.” This means Octavia and Shiloh-Jerusalem. From this, believers would know immediately who was buried here, but to anyone else it would be a mystery: she was enigmatic to the end, bur certainly a remarkable and charismatic woman.
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