The Panacea Society Graves

The Panacea Society Graves

Amongst the residents of Foster Hill Road Cemetery is someone whose followers were convinced 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 (nee Andrews) founded a secretive religious group centred around her home at 12 Albany Rd, and for generations, Bedfordians looked on them with suspicion. They were known as the Bedford Loonies, The Witches, or the Bedford Nutters, and because 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.

She was a middle-class lady, widowed in 1905 just after she moved to Bedford with her curate husband, leaving her with four children. Despite her clear intelligence and religious commitment, there was no place for such women in the Anglican Church of the time, and she made a living by reviewing theological publications. She was very well respected in this area, but had to use a male pseudonym, Mark Procter, for her opinions to be treated seriously.

After the Great War, she corresponded with similar-minded women about a self-styled prophet, Joanna Southcott, who had died in 1814. They considered that Southcott was one of the great prophets of modern times, all of whom had believed that the Day of Revelation was imminent. They believed that another prophet, Shiloh, would appear on earth to prepare for the second coming of Christ (just as John the Baptist had before Jesus the first time). The upheavals in Society at the time convinced them that surely the Day of Revelation must be soon; the effects of the Great War, the Influenza epidemic, the rise of Socialism, Communism in Russia, upstart Working Class people, and militant Suffragettes were all signs. She encouraged others to visit and eventually move to Bedford. Millenarian groups such as this tend to form closed communities of believers.

One of the most interesting was Ellen Oliver, a former Suffragette who had been in Holloway prison for her activism. She concluded that Mabel was, in fact, Shiloh, and so Mabel became the leader of the group, and did nothing to discourage this idea. Most of the early followers were well-to-do ladies, who bought properties in the Albany Road area, many living in what were called 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.

They decided that Mabel was the eighth great prophet and renamed her Octavia. She was the Daughter of God. She appointed Apostles, just as her brother 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.

Members were mostly female and intelligent, many being related to Anglican clergy, and all were sincere in their beliefs. A minority were men, some having been badly affected by service in the Great War. All genuinely wanted to find spiritual salvation. Her most devoted follower was probably Peter Rasmussen, an Australian Dane who converted the attic into a bedroom, so he could be as close as possible to her…….

Initially, the group was called the Community of the Holy Ghost but was changed to the Panacea Society in 1923. At this time, Mabel publicised her ability to heal by water and Faith. Followers all over the world applied to be cured of their illnesses, by means of small pieces of linen that she had breathed over and then put into water. About 130,000 people applied for the Healing, and judging by the letters received, many felt that it had worked. In this, as in everything else they did, they did not charge – everything was for free. They didn’t try to recruit members; if someone was interested they never pressurised them into joining.

They were also known internationally for their campaigns to open Joanna Southcott’s Box of Prophecies. Southcott had left a sealed box which must only be opened in certain circumstances, the main condition being that it must be in the presence of 24 Bishops of the Church of England. 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 30’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 closed, safe at a hidden location in Bedford.

Mabel died in 1934; 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).

Mabel’s daughter, Dilys, is buried nearby in an unmarked grave, but in the Spring, you can spot it by the daffodils and bluebells planted there.
About 70 members are buried in section I, at the S/E corner of the Soldiers’ memorial, including Rasmussen and Emily Goodwin, who took over after Mabel died. Ellen Oliver’s grave is just in front of the chapel. Mabel and Dilys are in section J.

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. 20 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 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.

(The above only scratches the surface about this fascinating group. Guided walks are carried out each Summer, covering all the Panacea graves, and there is a leaflet available showing the locations. There is also a film on the FOBC website. For more information on the Society, visit the Panacea Museum in Newnham Road).