English garden eccentrics

English garden eccentrics

The English do eccentricity well, so it should be no surprise that garden historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan has been able to unearth so many “characters” to grace this engaging 300-year overview of horticultural eccentricity and excess. My favourite has to be Mabel Barltrop. 

Joanna Southcott (1750 to 1814) – a self-described prophetess from Devon who believed the messiah would return to England.

Barltrop (1866-1934) – a mother of four and the widow of a Church of England curate – believed herself to be Octavia, the Divine Daughter of God, whose appearance had been foretold by the 18th century English prophetess, Joanna Southcott.

Southcott had predicted the second coming of Christ in England. Her prophesies were kept in a sealed box, which she instructed must only be opened in time of need by a gathering of all the Church of England’s bishops (there were then 24) – and only after they had spent some time studying her texts.

Mabel Barltrop (1866-1934), who called herself “Octavia”

Barltrop eagerly awaited this second coming, believing Christ would visit her red-brick Victorian semi in Bedford. She claimed that this was the site of the original Garden of Eden and destined to be “the Centre of the world’s work”. Remarkably, she managed to gather round her a community that believed this, too – the Panacea Society. 

It was 1919 and in the wake of the First World War a collapse in faith saw people turning away from the conventional church and embracing unorthodox theology. 

12 Albany Street (now Albany Road) in Bedford – home of the Panacea Society in the 1920s.

As the Society grew it expanded beyond Mabel’s semi-detached house at 12 Albany Street, with its bay windows and suburban privet hedge. Mabel’s own garden was filled with a large shed, converted in 1920, into a chapel large enough to welcome 50 worshippers. Neighbouring properties were bought – garden walls knocked down and gardens joined together – to create “The Estate of Jerusalem”.

Surviving photographs offer us only glimpses of this Eden. Most of it is given over to lawn for events, including the society’s annual summer garden parties, seen as dress rehearsals for the second coming. 

One striking picture shows women in white dresses and mop caps, men in white rustic smocks and straw hats – holding hands and performing a country dance around a large weeping ash tree. Another shows Octavia’s right-hand man, Peter Rasmussen, burning members’ confessions (a key part of the society’s rituals) on a makeshift altar of bricks alongside a toy lamb (symbolising Christ). 

By the mid-1920s the Panaceans decided the Garden of Eden extended beyond their little estate – for a 12-mile radius around their church, “The Royal Domain”. And they were no longer waiting for the second coming. Barltrop had decided her late husband had been Jesus and so now they were anticipating the third coming of Christ. 

Barltrop’s is just one of 21 stories told in Longstaffe-Gowan’s book, which treats its subjects with academic respect, often perhaps affection, and cannot help but surprise and entertain. Other gardens feature mountains in miniature, gnomes, aviaries, caves and burrowings and – at Elvaston Castle in neighbouring Derbyshire – spectacular topiary.

Sadly, none survive in their original form. They are fleeting expressions of the singular character of their makers, but perhaps – though on a much smaller scale – these traces of eccentricity can still be found in thousands of English gardens today. You only have to see a garden full of gnomes to know the spirit lives on. 

And how does Barltrop’s story end? By the time she died, in October 1934, the society had 50 members living in and around Albany Road and another 2,000 elsewhere, across the world. 

For three days her followers kept her body warm, expecting her to rise from the dead. When this did not happen, she was finally placed in a coffin and buried in Bedford’s Foster Hill Road Cemetery, where over a hundred of her supporters also found their final resting place. 

Remarkably, the community continued to grow, peaking just before WWII. It was not until 2012 that the last member died and the Panacea Society’s name was changed to the Panacea Charitable Trust. 

Today the Trust funds and supports academic research into the study of apocalyptic and millenarian movements like Barltrop’s. It operates a museum on the site of the former community and makes grants for the relief of poverty and sickness and to advance education generally, primarily in Bedford and the surrounding area. Its accounts show it has over £40m in assets.

Barltrop’s Garden of Eden may not be what it was in the 1920s, but just a glimpse of its remnants surely makes a visit to Bedford enticing.

English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Paul Mellon Centre, 392pp

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About the Storyteller Gardener

Martin Stott is an award-winning journalist who has written for most of the UK national press and reported from 21 countries for the BBC World Service and Radio 4. The storyteller garden blog combines his passion for storytelling, gardening and history.