Mounting a campaign of correspondence with bishops from a lunatic asylum in Northampton may not sound a promising way of founding a new movement, but Mabel Barltrop was not to be dissuaded. The 48-year-old widow of a Church of England clergyman, she became convinced in 1914 of the truth of the prophecies of Joanna Southcott (1750-1814).
Some of these were locked in a box to be opened only by 24 bishops at a time of national danger. The First World War surely qualified as that, but the bishops were not easily moved.
Despite her initial failure, Mrs Barltrop, released from the asylum, discussed with fellow Southcottians when and how Joanna Southcott's spiritual child, Shiloh, would be made incarnate. They settled first upon Helen Shepstone as a candidate, but she died in September 1918. Helen having been seventh in the line of spiritual children, Mabel Barltrop, when her turn came to be recognised, was the eighth, and so she changed her name to Octavia.
Her claims were not small, for the Trinitarian God of Christianity was now declared to be a "foursquare" God: the Father, the Mother (the Holy Spirit), Jesus the Son, and Octavia the Daughter. Having appointed 12 female apostles, whose feet she washed, Octavia celebrated a Eucharist in the Upper Room – a bedroom of her house in Bedford.
Every afternoon at half past five, Octavia received a message from God through automatic writing, which she then relayed to members of her new community of the Holy Ghost. These messages eventually amounted to 16 volumes. The community changed its name in 1926, to the Panacea Society, became a charity and began to undertake healing.
Healing came through plain water in which an inch square of linen was placed, having been breathed over by Octavia. The linen squares could easily be posted to those who had read press advertisements. In the first two years these numbered 4,339 (recorded in files, pictured).
For all its striking heterodoxy, the Panacea Society insisted upon using the 1662 Prayer Book in its services, and opposed its revision in 1928. Baptism in the Church of England was also required of anyone who wanted to join the society.
Men did figure among the 60 or so "sealed" members, although one, Edgar Peissart, tried to establish a homosexual subculture at one of its houses, and was banished. After Emily Goodwin, a resident at the Bedford headquarters, predicted that Peissart would die in New York, and he promptly did so, her claim to be an instrument of the Divine Mother gained greater credence.
Octavia Barltrop died in 1934 and Emily Goodwin in 1943. Last year a biography called Octavia, Daughter of God came out, by Jane Shaw, who has now potted her life for that amiable behemoth of British scholarship, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Octavia Barltrop is among 60 figures relating to 20th-century churches added to the dictionary yesterday, bringing the number of lives recounted to 58,326.
Notable new women include Minnie Haskins (1875-1957), who wrote the poem beginning, "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year" (Sacred Mysteries, August 16 2008), and Constance Smith (1878-1934), who devoted her days to promoting Mothering Sunday in rivalry to the American Mothers' Day.
As for the Panacea Society, it has two surviving members. In 2001 it was hijacked by the Charity Commission, and its charitable aims changed. Octavia Barltrop did not allow members to give to other charities, but the Panacea Society now does so. It has stopped admitting members and discontinued its healing ministry. Among the grants it makes from its modest millions in assets are those for research projects, such as that which enabled Jane Shaw to write her biography.