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  1. ITV Report

Followers believed Edwardian widow was Daughter of God

Mabel Barltrop Photo: Panacea Museum

Behind the front door of number 12 Albany Road in Bedford everything is exactly as it was almost a century ago. It is furnished with the tasteful trappings of middle class Edwardian England, the table is set for tea, a novel is left open on the sideboard. Judging by appearances the owner, Mabel Barltrop was the very model of respectability. But Mabel was very far from ordinary. She believed she was Octavia, the daughter of God and became the leader of a religious sect with thousands of followers across the world.

"Mabel Barltrop was the founder of the Panacea Society, a predominantly middle class, middle aged group of spinsters who enjoyed taking tea on the lawn. In reality they were expecting Jesus Christ to return to Bedford. They believed Bedford was the centre of England and that England was the centre of the world."

– Gemma Papineau, Manager, The Panacea Museum, Bedford

Mabel convinced her followers that her back garden was the site of the original Garden of Eden. Two thousand members signed up to her society. Some, like the Barclays heiresses, bought large neighbouring properties to be near to Octavia and would gather in chapel for Octavia's daily service. Every evening at 5.30pm she would sit at her desk, go into a trance and let God's words flow through her handwriting. But Octavia's daily sermons were not limited to matters of the soul, she would preach to her followers about etiquette and manners - the correct way to eat a jacket potato or how to eat toast quietly.

One of the garden parties in full swing Credit: Panacea Museum

The Panacea Society's greatest mission was to protect a mysterious box, said to contain the sealed writings of the prophetess Joanna Southcott, who had lived 100 years before. The society believed if they could persuade the bishops of the Church of England to open the box it would signal the end of the powers of darkness.

“They bought a really, really large house that could sleep 24 bishops and they furnished it with the best of everything."

– Gemma Papineau, Manager, The Panacea Museum
The "secret" box Credit: ITV News Anglia

Their slogan "Open the Box" adorned billboards and the sides of buses and the society began to advertise free healing. Mabel believed she had divine powers and as demand for her services grew she came up with a way of delivering her spiritual gift by post. Dr Alistair Lockhart from Cambridge University Mabel showed me rolls of linen, which Mabel would breathe on then cut up into squares.

"There was certainly a prayer and she used some mystical words. The squares would be sent out to people and they would dip them in water and drink it."

– Dr Alistair Lockhart, University of Cambridge

Octavia died in 1941 but the society continued into the 21st Century when the last surviving member, Ruth Klein, prepared lodgings for Christ himself in Bedford. Believing Christ would be "of radiant body" a bathroom wasn't necessary but an en-suite was installed so the house could be rented out in the meantime. The tenants were told only they may have to vacate the property at very short notice.

When Ruth Klein died two years ago the society came to an end. Its assets, amounting to approximately 25 million pounds, are now looked after by the Panacea Charitable Trust, which awards grants for research into education, poverty and sickness. The Panacea Museum has been opened to tell the story of Octavia and her followers but they are keeping a lid on the biggest mystery.

For now the box Mabel Barltrop spent her life protecting is staying firmly shut.

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