The Panacea Society

Joanna Southcott
Joanna Southcott

On the first full day of the last big trip I’ve taken so far, my hosts planned a somewhat local outing into Bedfordshire for pub food, ice cream, and a visit to what was once the headquarters of the Panacea Society and is now a museum. I was still a bit jet-lagged and not quite in the photo-taking mindset yet, so I took just a handful of pictures, none of the exterior, and only a couple of photos of the interior that directly related to the society, but the story of it has stayed with me ever since.

Located in Bedford (UK), the Panacea Society was an end-times cult rooted in prophesies from Jane Austen’s era. Though the Society was not formed until the early 1900s, it centered around the writings of “the second prophet of the visitation,” Joanna Southcott. Once a regular Church of England (CoE) member, Southcott became convinced of her own visions and prophesies and grew a large following over the last decades of her life. When she came to believe she was pregnant with the new messiah whose coming she herself had prophesied (an interim messiah named Shiloh, preceding the Second Coming of Jesus), she and her 100K followers dismissed both her advanced age (64) and her virginity as impediments.

Mabel Barltrop
Mabel Barltrop

Tragically, Southcott died 10 months after preparations for the birth of Shiloh began, with no child ever born. It seems likely Southcott was suffering from an illness that in some way mimicked pregnancy symptoms (it’s speculated she may have had stomach cancer). Her followers held onto her body for some time after her death, expecting her resurrection.

Southcott left behind a sealed box of prophesies her followers were charged with protecting until a time of national danger when 24 CoE bishops were meant to oversee the unsealing of the box. Though her own cult faded after her death, Southcott’s sealed box became the centerpiece around which the Panacea Society initially came together in an effort to convince enough CoE bishops to agree to open the box.

The Panacea Society centered around a new prophetess called Octavia (Mabel Barltrop, nee Andrews) who was believed to be the spiritual daughter of Southcott and therefore the prophesied Shiloh. When Octavia died in 1934 at the age of 68, her followers (again) expected her resurrection and delayed funeral arrangements for several days. Her death came as an even greater shock than Southcott’s as Octavia’s followers believed she would live forever as the messiah of the new Millennium.

As cults go, it is also refreshingly free of mass-suicides and sex crimes.

There is a LOT more around this unique women-led cult, and I encourage everyone to read more about it (selected links below) and visit if you’re in Bedford.

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