Towards the end of the First World War, a fifty-something vicar’s widow living in Bedford declared herself to be the Daughter of God. Her name was Mabel Barltrop, but thenceforth she took the name Octavia, and became the charismatic leader of a new religion. From her leafy Edwardian villa, Octavia dedicated herself singlemindedly to the task of building a community, composed mainly of respectable middle-class women like herself. They called themselves the Panacea Society, and soon Octavia had recruited twelve female apostles and many more resident members, establishing a religion with its very own Garden of Eden in the streets of Bedford.
There’s something oddly comic about these ladies, who never freed themselves of their class attitudes. Octavia insisted, for example, that members of the Society should use the word napkin, never serviette, and she held strong views on cake making (plenty of sugar). She suffered from mental illness, diagnosed