Book of the Week: The Mysterium

30 Oct|David Bramwell & Jo Keeling

The Panacea Charitable Trust, Piccadilly Circus, 1932

This week, we’re sharing an extract from The Mysterium: Unexplained and Extraordinary Stories for a Post-Nessie Generation by David Bramwell and Jo Keeling

From the 1920s to the 1980s, strange adverts were spotted on billboards and the sides of British buses, which read: ‘Crime, banditry, distress and perplexity will increase until the bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box.’

Those in the know understood that Joanna Southcott’s box – the antithesis of Pandora’s – contained the secrets of humanity’s future happiness; once opened, the problems of the world would dissolve. Two hundred years since its creation, however, the box remains unopened, begging the question – why has no one opened the flipping thing?

To unravel the mystery, we need to go back to the 18th century when Britain was enjoying a fashion for prophesying. Across the land, folk were trying their hand at predicting the future. The cream of the crop became known as the Seven Divine Prophets. One of whom, Joanna Southcott, had been a domestic servant in Devon, dabbling in rhyming prophecies, until a friend encouraged her to move to London in 1792 to pursue her calling.

Having correctly predicted the Napoleonic War and two famines, Southcott amassed a loyal following and came to believe she was ‘the woman of the apocalypse’ as described in Revelations. Such was her confidence that Southcott would occasionally send her prophecies in sealed containers to different holy men and ask if they could be opened in a few months’ time, effectively goading them to give her marks out of ten for accuracy.

At the age of 64, Southcott made the surprise announcement that she was carrying the new messiah Shiloh who, the Bible claimed, would be sent from God before Jesus made his return. Southcott’s pregnancy became the news story of 1814. On the day she was due to give birth, however, the new messiah failed to materialise. While her most loyal supporters, by now numbering 100,000, believed that Shiloh had bypassed Earth and shot straight to heaven, the ‘phantom pregnancy’ lost Southcott many devotees. Two months later, she was dead.

Southcott’s name would have faded into obscurity were it not for the legacy of her box. Before her death, Southcott had presented a large wooden box to her followers. Not only did the mysterious locked box contain important prophecies, but the act of opening it would herald the return of Christ and a thousand years of peace. The opening of the box, however, came with a caveat – it required the presence of 24 Church of England bishops who needed to pray for the box for three days solid.

Bishops, being busy fellows and sceptical of Southcott’s claim, were not forthcoming. The box passed down through generations and might have ended up as jumble sale fodder were it not for the arrival of Mrs Mabel Barltrop.

Messages from god and the perfect baked potato
Barltrop was born in 1866 and married young to an Anglican priest. By 1906, she was widowed, melancholic and – worse still – living in Bedford. During the First World War, Barltrop read about Southcott’s box and her legacy as ‘the woman of the apocalypse’, and she began a campaign to have the box opened. She attracted a group of like-minded women and a community began to form, creating a ‘campus’ around Barltrop’s house in Albany Road and leading to the establishment of The Panacea Society in 1919.

It wasn’t long before one of the society’s members, Ellen Oliver, had a vision that Barltrop was the eighth (and final) Divine Prophet and a reincarnation of Southcott’s phantom child and messiah, Shiloh. While Barltrop was more than receptive to the idea, it was decided that she might not be able to pull off being a male messiah and so Shiloh was renamed Octavia. The group had developed a ‘fourfold’ approach to their faith, seeing God as the father, Jesus the son, the Holy Ghost as mother and Octavia as daughter; a more gender-balanced normal family, a bit like the Addams Family.

Barltrop was soon receiving direct messages from God every day, promptly at 5.30pm. The messages were a mixture of prophecies and table manners; on one occasion, God gave clear instructions on how best to tackle a baked potato.

As well as campaigning for the opening of the box, the Panacea Society prepared for a visit from God. Bedford was, after all, ‘the new Jerusalem’, and the real Garden of Eden was located in a nearby allotment. The Panacea Society acquired several houses: one included a room with 24 empty chairs, awaiting the bishops. Another – the Ark – was established for Jesus, the group reasoning that when he returned to Earth his first stop would naturally be Bedford. They gave the Ark a makeover, agonising over what colour curtains Jesus might prefer, and rented it out to bring in extra income. Tenants were housed on the strict understanding that if the messiah were to show up, the usual four weeks’ notice would not apply and they’d have to push off sharpish to make way for His Radiant Being.

Although Octavia predicted her own immortality, she passed away in 1934. Twenty years later, the Panacea Society finally came into possession of Joanna Southcott’s box and continued its campaign for the bishops’ visit, but to no avail. When its last member died in 2012, a Trust took over and turned two of the houses into museums. A replica of Southcott’s box remains, surrounded by 24 empty chairs. To this day, no one seems entirely sure if the real box was ever opened or, for that matter, where it is now. The Trust claim that it’s stored under lock and key in a secret place, but can the Trust be trusted? It’s doubtful we’ll ever know. Like all good mysteries, it’s probably best kept that way.

David Bramwell and Jo Keeling’s book The Mysterium: Unexplained and Extraordinary Stories for a Post-Nessie generation (Chambers, Oct 2017) is on sale now. Buy a copy here.