Men’s Group Chairman Howard Whisker, Tony Leach and myself travelled to Bedford for a very enjoyable and educative day visiting the houses originally owned jointly by the founder and members of the ‘Panacea Society’. The Panacea Museum is in ‘Castleside’ a beautiful Victorian house, where one can learn the story of the Panacea Society. The museum also incorporates several other buildings, set within the grounds, which formed the original ‘campus’, including the ‘Founder’s House’.
The Society was founded by Mabel Barltrop, a 53-year old widow in 1919 at 12 Albany Road, Bedford. Its inspiration was the teachings of the Devonshire prophetess Joanna Southcott(1750–1814). Barltrop took the nameOctaviaand believed herself to be the Shiloh of Southcott's prophecies. She and 12 apostles founded the Society, originally called theCommunity of the Holy Ghost. For 90 years members of the Society quietly lived, worked and worshipped God in their community. Although they took care to reveal little about themselves to outsiders, the Society’s name became familiar to many through the national advertising campaign to open Joanna Southcott’s Box, a curious cultural icon.
A central purpose of the Society was to persuade 24Anglicanbishops to open Southcott's sealed box of prophesies, and to this end, advertisements were placed in newspapers, both national and local. In the late 1920's and early 1930's the Society generated over 100,000 petitions for the box to be opened.The group continued placing adverts in newspapers calling for action from the Church of England. In the 1970's the Society rented billboards and bus-sides, which proclaimed, "War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box."
Ready for the great day when the 24 Bishops were due to turn up, requiring dinner, bed and breakfast, an adjacent house was bought and equipped with bedrooms, bathrooms and a dining room. Since there were two bedrooms and two bathrooms on display and six places laid for dinner it was to be hoped that their Right Reverence’s arrivals were to be staggered! The optimism of the society was alas (for them) never to be fulfilled and as members slowly faded away the society faded with them.
The Museum and gardens however remain for us all to enjoy, open from February to the end of October, Thursday to Saturday, and the gardens alone are absolutely worth a visit.The members claimed Bedford to be the original site of theGarden of Eden. Over 130,000 people applied to receive the Society’s method of healing through water-its ‘Panacea’ to cure all illnesses!
Our day at the Panacea Museum began with a briefing from a very knowledgeable guide (who also caught up with us a few times as we went around to ‘expand’). In time-honoured Whisker trip fashion we started by feeding the inner man with coffee and homemade cake. I then read every single display board in the Museum, so the tour advertised at 1½ hours took me an hour longer! Particular areas of interest were the sitting room, where evenings were spent, in which those living in this unique religious community, gathered and where the conversation would doubtless have been fascinating, the wireless room equipped with Monopoly and other games where many would sit post-chapel. The founder would, at each evening chapel service, read a treatise she had received from God that very hour and apparently after she died the community waited for three days to see if she was to be resurrected and only then arranged her burial. After she died ‘repeats’ were read each evening of previous messages from God, to the remaining faithful.
As to Joanne’s Southcott’s box it has long been removed to a place of safety and in the room with the (not especially grand) 24 chairs ready for the Bishops, who never came, a reproduction stands instead in pride of place.
Time afforded us (by a 4 hour parking time allowance) only a brief visit to the Higgins art gallery over the road and we felt that on a return visit to Bedford that gallery and the John Bunyan Church & Museum housing the personal effects of John Bunyan (1628-1688) and copies of Bunyan's works including The Pilgrim's Progress in 200 languages, together with items relating to over 350 years of church history would merit a detailed visit. The church apparently contains bronze entrance doors and stained-glass windows depicting scenes from The Pilgrim's Progress. Visitors can now walk through the life and times of the famous 17thC preacher, pastor and author. This would command more of our attention as well as a re-visit to the Panacea Museum, for coffee, cakes and also to see a new exhibition of another aspect of the quite incredible story of the Panacea Society.