An enthusiastic group of NZWA members made their way to Bedford on 7 July to visit the museum and be enlightened about the Panacea Society, an intensely religious group of mainly women, founded by Mabel Barltrop in 1919. The Society expected the end of the world and members were convinced that God would soon act to bring about a new age – a period of peace and happiness called ‘the Millennium.’
Their inspiration was the teachings of the Devonshire prophetess Joanna Southcott and members campaigned 24 Anglican bishops in the hope of Southcott’s sealed box of prophecies to be opened. Mabel Barltrop took the name Octavia, (the eighth prophet some thought), as she believed herself to be the Shiloh of Southcott’s prophecies. She also declared herself the ‘daughter of God’ and thought she was pregnant with the messiah but died a 64 year old virgin without giving birth. Her followers waited 3 days for her to rise up, then called the undertaker.
The other main activity of the Panacea Society was to offer healing of all diseases, including cancer and people from around the world, including 660 New Zealanders, wrote to its headquarters in Bedford to receive a piece of linen blessed by Octavia. This correspondence is still to be found in the Panacea Museum and has been studied in 2019 in a book by British scholar Alastair Lockhart.
Our guide expertly led us through many rooms of the house and outdoors we visited the Chapel where they worshipped and the garden. The society believed Bedford to be the original site of the Garden of Eden!
The summer outing was followed by lunch in the beautiful garden in Biddenham of former NZWA President, Heather Marks.