Thinking Inside the Box: Looking Outward Whilst Turning Inward with the Panacea Society
Volunteer Thomas Vaughan on the Panacea’s newest installation…
Mabel Barltrop, taking the name Octavia and believing herself to be an immortal prophetess in direct communion with God, founded the ‘Community of the Holy Ghost’ with 12 ‘Apostles’ in 1919 at 12 Albany Road, Bedford. When Barltrop began what later came to be known as the Panacea Society, it held the express purpose of lobbying 24 Bishops from the Church of England to open Joanna Southcott’s Box of Prophecies. What lay within this box was alleged to be a Panacea-cure (universal cure) in writing to the vaguely defined ‘ills of the world’.
Whilst waging her nationwide campaign to ‘Open the Box’, Barltrop headed a growing community of dedicated Christian women at the Bedford address of the Panacea Society. This society, of which approximately 70 women lived at the Bedford address, was ran by the autocratic figure of Barltrop until her death in 1934. The Panacea Society has acquired something of a mysterious reputation, and is seen as having been a group closed off and secluded from the outside world; the society certainly drew inspiration from the Biblical passage “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Within the property and the locality the society certainly strove towards a degree of self-sufficiency; it boasted local allotments, fruit trees and a beautiful garden for meditation, all maintained by the female residents (which continues to be wonderfully maintained). Indeed, it appears the women created an exclusive spiritual Garden of Eden within their Bedford property. Contributing to this impression as well was the pre-dominance of women in the society’s membership; remembering that in 1919 women’s freedoms were only beginning to advance from domestic roles, a society of women this large would have aroused suspicions which still leave their mark today. There therefore seems to be a large paradox at the centre of the Panacea Society: a small community whose headquarters lay outside a major urban city and whose core were middle-aged middle-class women, seem to have commanded and to some extent implemented a vision of international religious implication, by using popular new medias.
This is the issue which lies at the heart of the new museum’s installation. Large poster reproductions scattered around the lower floor of the museum simultaneously recognise the modesty of the society whilst also explaining the technical ingenuity and political ferocity with which it pursued its goals. One of the first banners you see as you enter the old Edwardian House reads: “CRIME AND BANDITRY, DISTRESS AND PERPLEXITY, WILL INCREASE IN ENGLAND UNTIL THE BISHOPS OPEN JOANNA SOUTHCOTT’S BOX”. This is just one of many newspaper adverts taken out by the Panacea Society in National Newspapers throughout the 1920s and 30s. One of the most striking features of the new installation is seeing just how politically engaged this supposedly ‘closed’ society was: another poster commenting upon the threat of Soviet communism, originally positioned in a busy London tube station reads: “MOSCOW’S FATE WILL BE LONDON’S DOOM.” By showing their adeptness at manipulating a nation’s paranoia, the early Panaceans showed that they were conscious of their political environment post-Great War and that they were part of a society in the midst of staggering social change.
Great social developments were indeed occurring in the early 20th century, perhaps the most long lasting of which were technological which allowed the society to pursue its campaign to ‘Open the Box’ with greater vigour than ever before. This was not a point missed by the society, rapidly setting up its own printing press in the mid-1920s and publishing home-made leaflets and The Panacea Magazine which they distributed across the nation. The society also recognised that if they were ever to enact real social change they must head to England’s urban capital. Alice Jones writes how in the summer of 1923 she spent every Sunday afternoons courageously speaking in front of campaign banners in Hyde Park, London, about the revelations of Southcott’s box. As urban London increased in population during the 20th century the early Panaceans recognised that there was a growing potential audience for their cause. Posters, billboards, London buses and tube stations became channels through which the society advertised throughout the bustling capital. These methods were also supported by more old-fashioned letter writing. Rachel Fox, a founding apostle of the society, diligently appealed to Bishops across England to unite and ‘open the box for England’s sake as “time is waxing thin.” Such was the confidence in the young society of their in-roads into society that they looked to develop a petition in 1923 to take to the Bishops of the Church of England, and lobby harder for them to open the Box. Only a year after, this small society, founded and ran from Bedford, achieved over 10,000 signatures.
In this period of great social change in the inter-war years Britain, the Panacea Society also arguably offered new opportunities for women. During the earliest years since the conception of the Panacea Society, the Suffragette Movement gathered serious momentum, with suffrage to women being extended to all women over the age of 21 in 1928. The political consciousness of the society, exemplified through its manipulation of conservative fears in right-wing newspapers and billboards as well as their frequent use of London as a platform for their religious views, would suggest that this group was aware that it’s largely female membership partook in a historic wave of female empowerment. As mentioned earlier, at the earliest stages the society was almost entirely ran by women, populated by widows (as Barltrop was the widow of a vicar) and ex-suffragettes such as Ellen Oliver. Barltrop was of course a woman herself, claiming to be a Prophet of Christ and mediating directly with God, a position historically occupied by a male figure. Through her leadership and her society’s use of modern media, she helped to cultivate an image of God as not simply a ‘Father’ but also a ‘Mother’. Although it would be too far to suggest that the Panacea offered a transformative vision for the modern woman, (indeed, Barltrop opposed the Suffrage movement), it to some extent answered calls in post Great-War Britain for an increased role and recognition of the position held by religious women in British society.
This installation, then, is not simply the reproduction of posters and advertisements from the Panacea Society’s heyday. It also helps to challenge several myths about ‘mysterious’ and ‘closed-off’ lives lived by people in millenarian societies. Through the wonderful energy of volunteers and Panacea Staff, a walk through this house is also a walk through the methods deployed by a small religious society from a provincial town to respond to challenges and opportunities of modernity in the inter-war years. It represents a synthesis of old ideas distributed through new means.
This is The Box: Panacea Propaganda runs until 28th October and re-opens in February 2018.