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The Society was founded by Mabel Barltrop in 1919 at 12 Albany Road, Bedford. Its inspiration was the teachings of the Devonshire prophetess Joanna Southcott (1750–1814). Barltrop took the name Octavia and believed herself to be the Shiloh of Southcott's prophecies. She and 12 apostles founded the Society, originally called the Community of the Holy Ghost.
A central purpose of the Society was to persuade 24 Anglican bishops to open Southcott's sealed box of prophecies, and to this end, advertisements were placed in newspapers, both national and local. In the late 1920's and early 1930's the Society generated over 100,000 petitions for the box to be opened. The Society claimed that the box was secreted in England. Some have claimed that it was opened in 1927 and found to contain a broken horse pistol and a lottery ticket.
Despite this setback the group continued, placing adverts in newspapers calling for action from the Church of England. In the 1970's the Society rented billboards which proclaimed "War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott's box."
The Society had its headquarters on Albany Road, close to the remains of Bedford Castle. Another property, an end-of-terrace house on Albany Road named The Ark, was maintained as a residence for the Messiah after the Second Coming.
Although small in size, the Society was relatively wealthy, owning several properties in the Castle Road area of Bedford. By 2001, when the Society started to sell off some of its property in order to retain its status as a charity, it was reported have assets valued at £14m.
In the 1930s, about 70 members were said to be living in the Bedford community. In 1967, the Bedfordshire Times reported about 30 members living there. The last member of the Society, Ruth Klein, died in 2012, at which point the Society ceased to exist as a religious community.
Whilst the religious society is no longer functioning, there still exists a charity whose main remit is to sponsor academic research into the history and development of prophetic and millennarian movements, as well as provide financial assistance to support the work of registered charities and recognised groups concerned with poverty and health in the Bedford area. The charity officially changed its name to The Panacea Charitable Trust in 2012.
In late 2012, it was announced that the charitable trust would be opening a museum detailing the history of the society, at 9 Newnham Road, Bedford. The Panacea Museum is in ‘Castleside’, a beautiful Victorian house that was part of the community's headquarters. It tells the story of the Panacea Society and other similar religious groups. The museum also incorporates several other buildings, set within the gardens, that formed the original community's ‘campus’. The museum is open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday between February half term and the end of October.
- "Octavia, the founder of the Panacea Society". Panacea Charitable Trust and Museum. Retrieved 24 January 2017.
- "Panacea Society". Panacea Charitable Trust and Museum. Retrieved 24 January 2017.
- Coates, Stephen. "Delving into the mystery of Joanna Southcott's box". Londonist. Londonist Ltd. Retrieved 24 January 2017.
- "Panacea Museum". Atlas Obscura. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 24 January 2017.
- Bedfordshire on Sunday: Prepared for Jesus to make his return in a Bedford house
- The Guardian: Mystic society charitably sells off the followers' silver
- Bedfordshire Times report, October 1967
- Bedforshire on Sunday: Religious society's last member has died at 80
- Panacea Society Homepage
- "The Panacea Charitable Trust". The Panacea Charitable Trust. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
- Bedford Times and Citizen: A house of God in the heart of town
- Shaw, Jane (2011). Octavia, Daughter of God. Random House. ISBN 978-0-224-07500-8.
- Brown, Frances (2003). Joanna Southcott's Box of Sealed Prophecies. Lutterworth Press. ISBN 0718830415.
- Lockley, Philip (2012). Panacea Museum, Bedford : a souvenir guide. Panacea Charitable Trust.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Panacea Society.|
- The market town of Bedford, England was once home to a cult of women who thought they could avert Armageddon at the BBC
- The Panacea Charitable Trust – official site
- Details on the Charity Commission website
- Report on Channel 4's 2003 documentary
- Review of Jane Shaw: Octavia, Daughter of God. The Guardian, 02.07.11
- Review of Jane Shaw: Octavia, Daughter of God. The Times Higher, 25.08.11