On this day in History January 10th 1899- the Death of the Reverend Henry James Prince

Kim Newman in the role of Henry Prince from the stage Production of the Charles Mander play at the Bridgwater Art Centre premiered on 10th january 1981

On January 10th 1899 the Son of God died in Bridgwater and was buried standing up in a garden in Spaxton. Whilst this could have been bad news for religion generally, in fact it was merely the last breath of a real live mortal, the Reverend Henry James Prince, who had built up a religious cult following based on the idea of ‘saving peoples souls’ (exclusively young women) by, basically, having sex with them.

If you lived in Bridgwater in the 19th century your weekends would have been regularly interrupted by a presence in the town centre by a bunch of cults. In this case from Spaxton. The Agapemonites were a cult in thrall to one all powerful leader. They weren’t all ordered to commit mass suicide like Jim Jones gang did in Guyana and they weren’t stormed by the Fed as happened to David Koresh and his followers at Waco, they managed to last for 100 years – despite losing 2 ‘immortal’ leaders in the process.

Henry James Prince would appear on the Cornhill with a bevy of Agapemonites whipping the faithful up into a frenzy with talk of the day of judgement and the imminent arrival of the Lamb of God (him basically) .Then they would dissapear back to their HQ – in this case the aptly named ‘Abode of Love‘ , where , behind high walls, often guarded by fierce dogs, they spent the time ‘saving each other‘.

All this was funded by persuading people – rich and poor alike (but mainly rich) that ‘in the day of wrath all property would be dirt’ . Ie-you can’t take it with you so you might as well give it to us and save your soul in the process.

Henry James Prince

Henry James Prince. Self declared 'Son of God.
Henry James Prince. Self declared ‘Son of God.

Henry James Prince was born in Bath in 1811 and studied medicine at Guys, gaining a qualification in 1832 and initially working in his home town before ill health prompted a career change. He opted for the religious life and went off to St David’s College Lampeter where he was seen as a bit of a hellraiser – or the heavenly equivalent, and gathered around him a bunch of co-conspirators ‘the Lampeter Brethren‘ for his masterplan to reboot the church of England. In 1846 the Dean alerted the Bishop of Bath and Wells who promptly packed him off to a quiet corner of Somerset where he could do no harm. Thus he descended on Spaxton.

Prince and his entourage arrived to take up the Charlinch Church job in the summer of 1846. Attendances were small and the locals were a bit ‘conservative‘ and didn’t expect too much out of life. All that changed when suddenly during one service Prince went stark staring bonkers as if possessed and threw himself around the church –promptly gaining the attention of the now curious congregation-which suddenly increased each Sunday for ‘the show‘. Having won over the locals with his lively theatrical charisma he immediatly formed a possee of the faithful which scoured the nearby towns for converts dividing the people he came into contact with into ‘sinners‘ and ‘the righteous‘.With the words “in me you see Christ in the flesh”, he proclaimed himself to be The Messiah. The Church of England promptly defrocked him. The last thing they wanted was an actual Son of God turning up.

However, this was just asking for trouble. Prince set up a ‘Free Church of Charlinch‘ and , taking the Righteous with him, moved into the Agapemone.

Liberation of the Flesh

The Agapemone in Spaxton
The Agapemone in Spaxton

Known modestly as ‘Beloved” or “The Lamb” , Prince instructed his new disciples to divest themselves of their possessions and throw them into the common stock. That’s his cupboard basically. This was no problem as everyone was now convinced of the iminent and speedy end of the current world order and so were content, for the short remainder of the planet, to live in common, and, while not repudiating earthly ties, to treat them as purely spiritual. Prince declared that he would “establish a Kingdom of Heaven right here on Earth“ and that this might have to involve a fair bit of ‘liberation of the flesh‘.

They set up their Agapemone – the so called Abode of Love, which consisted of 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 a series of cottages. In one corner it had it‘s own chapel furnished incongruously with easy chairs, settees and a billiard table alongside the hassocks and hymnboards. All surrounded by a high brick wall designed to keep prying eyes out, and ‘the faithful‘ in.

Next door to the Agapemone was (and is) the Lamb Inn. This hostelry immediatly became a focus not only for the gossipping tongues of (possibly jealous, but certainly outraged) locals and a regular watering hole for visiting journalists trying to keep up with the numerous scandals that emanated from the knocking shop next door.

The Nottidge Sisters case

The first major controversy involved 3 of Princes ‘mates‘ who had travelled with him through his days training at Lampeter and were now his right hand men. Or ‚ possibly, disciples –but which he modestly chose to call ‘saints‘. Prince had married these off to 3 wealthy sisters with a combined inheritance of £6,000. The Nottidge sisters were steamrollered into these so called spiritual unions, not allowed to contact their families and moved in to the ‘Abode of Love‘. Realising he‘d missed a 4th sister, Louisa, Prince promptly grabbed her as well but in the process alientating the older sister Agnes who by this stage was having doubts about what was going on and attempted to warn her away. A night of screaming and the hasty bundling of the young woman by would-be rescuers (her brother and cousin -both called Ed and their mate, er, Fred) into a coach outside the Agapemone was witnessed by drinkers at the Lamb and for a further 18 months the youngest sister was effectively ‘on the run‘ from the cult around the country until she was eventually caught up with on Paddington station, and following a court battle where Prince convinced the ‘Commissioners of Lunacy‘ that Louisa was in fact sane and really wanted to be with him, she was returned to the Agapemone. Along with her inheritence. Some of which paid for 2 giant bloodhounds to ‘put off would be kidnappers‘ (or escapees).

The Great Manifestation

The 'Great Manifestation' as recreated for the Sheep Worrying stage play 1981
The ‘Great Manifestation’ as recreated for the Sheep Worrying stage play 1981

By 1856 Prince was living a life of luxury. He ate well, drank well – he had left any notion of total abstinence far behind him – and stocked his cellars with the best wines, Above all he exercised absolute authority over the large number of men and women who worshipped him as God. Some 200 it seems. At the start of religious services in the Agapemone chapel, also used as a drawing room and billiards hall, followers had to greet Brother Prince with the shout ‘All hail thou king of glory!’, listen to sermons by him, attend readings from his writings and sing various hymns he‘d composed.

With this growing sense of power and a belief that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted, as is common with the usual developing story of Messiahs (and we’ve had a few of them) he decided it was time that he better save one particular 16 year old girl in the congregation at a public event which he called ‘the Great Manifestation‘ . This basically involved him having sex with a teenage girl on his billiard table.

Demanding that a selection of suitable maidens be made available for ‘divine purification‘ in the chapel for him to choose one to be ‘favoured’ he picked out 16-year-old Zoe Patterson and in front of the somewhat astonished, if meekly compliant, congregation he proceeded to basically rape his seemingly hypnotised victim on the billiard table whilst dressed in flowing red robes to the accompanying sound of the chapel organ and the singing of hymns. In his own account he simply said ‘Thus the Holy Ghost took flesh in the presence of those whom he had called as flesh. He took this flesh absolutely in his sovereign will, and with the power and authority of God.’

At this point many people started to think something wasn’t quite right…..Despite Prince assuring the congregation that this act of ‘purification‘ would have no physical consequences, young Zoe became pregnant. Prince attempted to explain this by now deciding it wasn’t his fault it was ‘the work of the devil‘. People nevertheless started to leave in droves. Zoe, unphased it seems, remained as a ‘bride of the beloved‘ for the rest of her life, along with several others, and named her ‘devil child’, Eve.

Who let the dogs out?

The 'chapel' inside the Abode of Love.
The ‘chapel’ inside the Abode of Love where the ‘saving’ was done.

However, this was a turning point at the Agapemone. 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 .A favourite tale apparently 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.

Those that remained were given even grander titles to reward their loyalty such as “The Anointed Ones” and the “Angel of the Last Trumpet”. Freud would have had a field day.

In 1867 William Hepworth Dixon, a respected student of religious cults, gained permission to enter the Abode of Love and interview Prince after writing a letter addressed to “The Lord God, Spaxton, Somerset”. He discovered that the interior of the chapel was not quite in keeping with the sect’s pious image: it was furnished with easy chairs, a rich red Persian carpet and a billiard table. Instead of being invited to pray, Dixon was instead offered a sherry. Eventually, he was introduced to Prince, in his black frock coat and white cravat and surrounded by female admirers. His article about the Agapemone community was subsequently published in his book Spiritual Wives. In it Dixon records a picture of a thriving community with a middle-aged Prince at the centre surrounded by doting billiard-playing beauties. And it seems that things pretty much remained like that for the following 30 years.

Son of God drops dead

A view into Eden.....
A view into Eden…..

Prince’s death on January 10th 1899 obviously came as a big shock to the community- not least because he was meant to live for ever.

Confusion reigned and, as there weren’t even any funeral plans, the Agapemonites decided to quickly bury their leader in the front garden – standing up so that he could immediatly walk back into the world. He didn’t, of course, and many congregation members simply left.

For those who didn‘t leave and who remained on site ‘awaiting developments‘ there was a bit of a void. This was filled in 1902 when along came a new Son of God –in this case the Reverend John Hugh Smyth-Piggot –who basically picked up from where Prince had left off simply replaceing the bereaved sisters of the Abode of Love with a new heavenly bridegroom . He found some 50 new young ‘soul brides’ – all vetted by Sister Eve Patterson ( the now fully grown ‘Devil child’) who had come to hold a senior,albeit clerical, position in the community. Smyth-Piggot‘s chat up line went “There is no need to search for God in the heavens, for he is present amongst you”. When he’d tried this line in London there were riots.

A ‘new’ saviour steps in. John Hugh Smyth-Piggot.

Smyth-Piggot chose Ruth Anne Preece to be his Chief Soul Bride and promptly had 3 children who he named Glory, Power & Life. Presumably so they weren‘t bullied at school…

This latest Son of God destined to live forever, dropped dead in 1927 leaving 33 women, 1 girl and 3 men to live out their remaining years there. As the old guard died Sister Ruth became the leader and when she died aged 90 in 1956 the community closed and the property was finally sold off in 1958. It is now a series of private houses and flats and still somewhere under the front garden lie the remains of the two heavenly bridegrooms, because obviously Smyth-Piggot was also buried there standing up. Come judgement day when they both step out onto the lawn there will doubtless be some kind of arm-wrestling event to decide which one of them actually was the son of God.

The Agapemone today

In the 1960’s the chapel became a studio, used to film the children’s programmes Camberwick Green and Trumpton (oddly scripted by an Alison Prince)

Charles Mander's book
Charles Mander’s book

In 1976 Bridgwater Author Charles Mander wrote a book on the subject ‘The Reverend Prince and his Abode of Love‘ and subsequently turned this into a play for the Bridgwater Youth Theatre to put on. This was immediatly banned as being blasphemous by the principle of Bridgwater College J.C. Miles.

Sheep Worrying brings the story back to life

And so it came to pass that on January 10th 1981, exactly 82 years after the death of the Son of God in Spaxton, the Bridgwater based Sheep Worrying Theatre Group put on the banned play. Scripted by Charles Mander with music by Brian Smedley, the play featured present day horror writer Kim Newman as Prince, 16 year old Lucy Knowles as Zoe Patterson, a large cast and a capacity audience with people being turned away at the door. The theatre group had been formed by members of the Youth Theatre that had been axed in the first wave of Tory cuts in 1980 and now, independent, found that they could put on what they wanted.

Scene from 10th January 1981 as 2 'investigative journlists (Brian Smedley and Eugene Byrne) are met at the Abode of Love by a 'disciple' (Liz Hickling)
Scene from 10th January 1981 as 2 ‘investigative journlists (Brian Smedley and Eugene Byrne) are met at the Abode of Love by a ‘disciple’ (Liz Hickling)

The 1980’s were about to herald Mrs Thatcher’s espousal of ‘Victorian values‘ and so Charles Mander declared in the programme notes “The story of Henry James Prince is a joyful outrage against the Victorian establishment, Victorian morals and Victorian hypocrisy“ describing it as a “supreme confidence trick“ and aptly quoted from Alduos Huxley’s essay about Prince “There is no dogma so queer, no behaviour so eccentric or even outrageous but a group of people can be found to think it divinely inspired.“

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