Two centuries ago, a 64-year-old woman called Joanna Southcott announced she was pregnant with the Messiah. She died in December 1814, months after making this bold claim. Inevitably, a post-mortem examination revealed there was no child.
But how did the prophecies of a Devon farmer’s daughter inspire a 20th Century religious movement whose last believer only died in 2012 and that today still has funds of about £34m?
Tucked away in a road less than a mile away from Bedford town centre is the former base of a religious organisation that was founded in 1919 by Mabel Barltrop.
The Community of the Holy Ghost – in 1926 renamed the Panacea Society – was a group of mostly women who believed Barltrop was a prophet and the daughter of God, and whose aim was to set up their own Garden of Eden in Bedford. They believed the town, about 50 miles north of London, was a new Glastonbury and the sacred centre of Britain.
They bought a property in Albany Road in the town and created their paradise on earth – to which they believed Jesus would one day return. In its heyday, the movement had 66 members in Bedford and about 2,000 worldwide. Those in Bedford lived mostly in houses in and around Albany Road, with several still owned by the Panacea Charitable Trust today.