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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 writings, and to this end, advertisements were placed in national newspapers. 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.
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.
- 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.
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