The mid-1800s sex cult in the heart of Spaxton

Bridgewater Mercury, UK/July 29, 22022

It was a little awkward in January 1899 when the Son of God died near Bridgwater, considering he was supposed to be immortal. Several soul brides and his daughter, the Child of the Devil, succeeded him.

And he was buried standing up just so he was ready for action when the resurrection occurred - but if you believe the rumours, he’d had more than enough action during his lifetime.

This is the story of the Agapemonites, a mid-1800s sex cult centred in the heart of, of all places, Spaxton, that scandalised Victorian Society.

The Reverend Henry Prince was the youngest child of a West Indian plantation owner, born in Bath in 1811. He underwent a religious conversion in 1834, and the following year, he gave up a career in medicine for his spiritual calling.

In March 1836, he entered St David's College, Lampeter, but soon got himself something of a reputation for his beliefs. His first curacy was at Charlinch, where he proved himself to be a charismatic and popular preacher - although one with some unorthodox views about sex.

When he began flinging himself around the room and prophesying, word reached The Bishop of Bath and Wells, who asked the Rector to reign in his curate. This didn’t go according to plan - instead, the rector converted and became Prince’s follower, prompting the Bishop to revoke both men’s licence to preach.

In 1842 Prince obtained a temporary curacy in Suffolk — but with the words “in me you see Christ in the flesh”, he proclaimed himself to be The Messiah, and The Church of England promptly defrocked him.

Undeterred, Prince continued to gain followers, especially in Brighton and Weymouth. His gospel also attracted many young unmarried women and older widows. One day, Prince gathered them all in a large house in Weymouth and solemnly informed them the end of the world was nigh.

They were told that all possessions - including money - would be meaningless in the face of oblivion, so they should share them for the common good.

And just like that, The Agapeomone - abode of love - became a reality. Using the money, the group bought a 200-acre estate in Spaxton, complete with a great house with some eighteen bedrooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms and servants' quarters.

Spacious grounds and gardens, known as ‘Eden‘, were dotted with outhouses, stables, conservatories, gazebos and cottages. It had its own chapel in one corner with easy chairs, settees and a billiard table. And the estate was surrounded by a high brick wall to keep prying eyes out and ‘the faithful‘ in. Enormous bloodhounds guarded the gates.

But it was his practise of keeping ‘spiritual wives’ - and accusations of theft, kidnapping and brainwashing - that finally brought the cult to the attention of the newspapers.

In 1845 three of the Nottidge sisters travelled to Somerset - along with Prince - to reside in the new community. During the journey, Prince persuaded Harriet, Agnes and Clara Nottidge to marry three leading clergymen from the Agapemone.

Harriet married Rev. Lewis Price, Agnes married Rev George Thomas, and Clara married Rev. William Cobbe. They all wed in Swansea on 9th July 1845. Clara and Harriet would live happily in the Abode of Love with their spiritual husbands for many years. But after becoming with no right to remove her cash  - after angering Prince a pregnant, Agnes was later banished from the church and branded a “fallen woman”.

When Agnes realised Prince had set his sights on another sister, Louisa,  she wrote to her, telling her not to come to Spaxton.

So, Louisa came to Agapemone to live. Alarmed, her ‘outside’ family decided to free her.

Late one night, drinkers at the Lamb Inn, next door to the Agapemone, heard frantic screaming. They rushed out to see a young woman being bundled into a coach, which clattered noisily off into the night.

Louisa remained utterly convinced that Henry Prince was God, and her mother had her committed to a lunatic asylum. She managed to escape, only to be recaptured and recommitted, but her friends in the sect alerted the Commissioners in Lunacy, who investigated and released her in May 1848.

After her release, Louisa sued her family for abduction and false imprisonment and won, remaining at the Agapemone for the rest of her life

The case of Louisa Nottige was the first time that the general public, via the newspapers, had heard of the Agapemonists, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The incident which would forever fix them in the imagination as an evil sex cult came in 1856 when Prince announced something he called the Divine Purification.

Prince said he would carry out the sacrificial deflowering of a young girl to prove that he was the Son of God. Before long, a selection of suitable girls was made available in the chapel so he could choose the one to be 'favoured”.

In front of a large congregation of his followers, dressed in flowing red velvet, he had full sexual intercourse with a 16-year-old follower on a billiard table. The girl was violated to the sound of the chapel organ and the singing of hymns. He assured his followers the girl would not become physically pregnant but who would give birth to the spirit of the new Messiah.

So eyebrows were raised among even the most devout followers when it became apparent the girl was pregnant.  The resulting child that was born nine months later was called Eve.

She was condemned and denied by Prince as a “devil child” and was not recognised by him as his flesh and blood.

Their blinkers were finally removed, many of the congregation left and at the same time, the walls were built higher, and no one allowed in – obviously, this just meant gossip and speculation went into overload.

Rumours escalated, tales became taller and more and more journalists dropped in, using the Lamb Inn as a base to gather gossip and buzz from the locals.

A favourite tale was how Mr Prince would choose his next female companion by sitting on a revolving stage and seeing who was in front of him when it stopped turning. The young ladies were said to have then stripped naked to bathe him.

Prince outlived many of his 'followers, ' giving further credence to his claim that he was immortal. In 1896 aged 85, he emerged from behind the walls of Spaxton to initiate the building of an ornate church in Clapton in North London, complete with a 155ft tower of Portland stone, oak hammer-beam roof and stained glass windows depicting the submission of womankind to man.

The church was dedicated to the Ark of the Covenant, and one of the first preachers appointed was the Reverend John Hugh Smyth-Pigott.

In 1899, Prince finally died at the age of 88. His followers were confused and hurriedly buried him in the grounds of the chapel, with his coffin positioned vertically so that he would be standing on the day of his resurrection.

Rev John Hugh Smyth-Pigott succeeded him as leader of the sect, and he immediately recruited 50 more girls.  Rev Smyth-Pigott died in 1927, and two years later, Agapemone had dwindled to 37 members.

The Spaxton property was finally sold off in 1958. The complex of buildings became known as Barford Gables, and the chapel where Prince is said to have selected his sex slaves was later used as a studio for the production of BBC animated children's television programmes in the 1960s - including the classic Trumpton and Camberwick Green.

Who would have guessed that the grand building, which still stands today, has been home to the Son of God, the spawn of the devil and Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb?

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