Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945
The Abode of Love
In the quiet Somerset Village of Spaxton four miles from the busy little river port of Bridgewater during the second half of the 19th century lived the 'Holy Ghost' surrounded by his 'soul brides' and accompanied by a 'Devil child'. They lived at the Abode of Love, a collection of houses & cottages with its own chapel surrounded by a 12ft high wall and guarded by ferocious bloodhounds. Set up in 1846 the remarkably successful Agapemone is the prototype of the 20th century cult complete with sex scandals, accusations of brainwashing, dramatic rescues of members by their families, moral outrage from respectable society and virulent attacks in the popular press.
The 'Holy Ghost' and founding father of the community was a defrocked clergyman, the Reverend Henry Prince. Prince had stirred controversy from the start of his career in the church, organising a group of zealous students at St Davids College called the Lampeter Brethren. Hearing voices in his head that he took to be the word of God he led this small devout band attacking the college hierarchy, disrupting services and accusing them of submitting to 'the insinuations of carnal desire...' Keen to see the back of this holier-than-thou troublemaker the church authorities packed Prince off to a quiet rural parish hoping that he would fade away into obscurity. The Reverend Prince had other ideas. From his pulpit in the village of Charlich, a mere stones-throw from Spaxton, he lambasted the local population of sinners sparking a mini-revival in the area with his charismatic preaching and instructions from the Holy Ghost. Prince's identification with the voice in his head grew and he came to believe that he was the embodiment of the Holy Ghost. During his time at Charlich his first wife Martha died. She was a wealthy older friend of his mothers who he had cynically married to finance his way through college. With indecent haste he married his rectors sister, another older woman with her own income. Riding high on the crest of a wave of revival with a full church and a clutch of wealthy patrons, his licence to preach was suddenly revoked by the Bishop of Bath and Wells amid rumours of 'carnal insinuations' with the converted ladies of Charlich.
Prince decided to spread his wings. If Somerset didn't want him he would try elsewhere. Through a friend he set out his stall at Clare in Suffolk where for the next two years he proceeded to rouse the local population to a religious fervour. Eventually the tolerant Bishop of Ely 'requested' that Prince take his services elsewhere - this was the final straw for Prince, if the blind, ignorant bigots in the Church of England didn't want him then he, 'the visible manifestation of God on earth' certainly did not want them. Announcing to the faithful his separation from the Church he moved his preaching operations to the south coast resorts of Brighton & Weymouth. Here amongst the elderly spinsters and young unmarried ladies of Victorian society Prince found his true congregation. In a large house in Belfield Terrace Weymouth he set up an embryonic Agapemone (Greek for Abode of Love). The idea of the Abode of Love was not Prince's. Similar experiments, inspired by the text of the Song of Solomon, had been conceived before and roundly condemned by the church as sinful and degenerate.
The Rev Henry Prince
"The Abode of Love did not mean, as it seemed to imply, unlimited sexual freedom. Love at Belfield Terrace and later at Spaxton was to be spiritual. In the course of time Prince constructed an elaborate system of Angels and Archangels, a celestial hierarchy promoting and demoting the faithful at will according to their favour and the cash at their disposal. For this was to be a commercial as well as a spiritual venture. Not even the Holy Ghost could build an earthly paradise on faith alone." C.Mander
The Reverend Prince and his Abode of Love
Sell everything for the lord
In a carefully orchestrated revivalist campaign Prince and his little band of Agapemonites whipped the faithful up into a frenzy with talk of the day of judgement and the imminent arrival of the Lamb of God. Persuading rich and poor alike that 'in the day of wrath all property would be dirt' a sell-everything-for-the-lord programme swelled the group's bank balance - the revelation of the son of God took place at the assembly rooms in the Royal Hotel Weymouth where he turned out to be none other than the Rev Henry Prince himself. Only those who received Prince as the son of God would be saved from Armageddon. It was estimated that 500 souls were saved that day - mainly aging spinsters and children - certainly enough to finance something on a grander scale that a rented house in Weymouth. Two hundred acres of land was purchased in the Spaxton Valley and plans drawn up for a new Abode. Whenever more finances were needed to keep the construction of paradise on schedule Prince exhorted his followers to sell a little more for the Lord, or simply demanded that "The Lord had need of fifty pounds Amen," and finally hit upon marrying his followers to wealthy spinsters to secure the needed funds.
In the summer of 1846 Prince and his entourage moved to Spaxton - the new Abode of Love consisted of a great house with some eighteen bedrooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms and servants quarters. Spacious grounds were dotted with outhouses, stables, conservatories, gazebos and a series of garden cottages. And in one corner its 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 either to keep prying eyes out, or to keep the faithful in.
Interior of Agapemone Chapel
The best place to observe the comings and goings at the Abode of Love was the Lamb Inn, conveniently located next door to the main house - separated by12ft of brickwork of course - whose bar hosted many a journalist covering the numerous scandals that would surround the newly appointed son of God over the ensuing years. Hardly was the house-warming over when the first controversy broke. Prince had married three of his closest 'saints', companions from his Lampeter Brethren days, to the three Nottidge sisters each with an inheritance of £6000. The sisters were steamrollered into the spiritual unions, not allowed to contact their families and bundled with great haste off to Spaxton. Agnes the oldest, and most spirited of the three, was appalled by the whole set up especially when she discovered that on top of it all she was expected to remain celibate. When Prince (now referred to by the faithful as 'Beloved') set his sights on the fourth and youngest Nottidge sister Louisa, and a further £6000, Agnes tried to write a letter of warning to her sister. On the discovery of her betrayal of the Beloved and the further discovery that she was pregnant and not by her 'husband' she was cast out as a fallen woman. Beloved now demanded the presence of Louisa at Spaxton and lodged her in one of the cottages in the grounds whilst he searched for a suitable spouse. Late one night the locals at the Lamb Inn heard the frantic screaming of young Louisa coming from within the great wall as she resisted the attempts by her two brothers to 'rescue' her. When they got outside they saw the young woman being bundled still screaming into a coach that disappeared into the night. The family liberators promptly turned captors having their sister declared insane and incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. On Prince's orders envoys were sent out to scour the country for the unfortunate woman. After 18 months of fruitless search word reach Spaxton that Louisa had escaped from the asylum and was hiding in a London Hotel. As she waited on Paddington station with her escort from Spaxton she was picked up by asylum officials and locked up again. Prince made an immediate application to the Commissioners of Lunacy who declared Louisa to be sane - on her release she immediately transferred her inheritance to Prince's bank account and retired behind the walls at Spaxton for the rest of her life. Her inheritance was used to buy two bloodhounds to protect the faithful from further 'kidnappings'.
Despite the scandals there was no shortage of converts clamouring to pay to get into this Somerset paradise. Prince ruled in despotic style over a membership that varied between 60 and 200 over the first few years. Nobody was paid a penny for administering to his needs and whilst he lived in comfort surrounded by the most attractive women in the main house, the other 'saints' worked on the farm or in the gardens, living in the small cottages, husbands separate from wives.
from London Illustrated News
"Prince of course, enjoyed himself immensely. He ate well, drank well - he had left his total abstinence period far behind - and stocked his cellars with the best wines, Above all he exercised absolute authority over a large number of men and women who worshipped him as God. Life was pleasant, heavenly perhaps, and some of the women were most desirable."
C.Mander The Reverend Prince and his Abode of Love.
The great manifestation
Tongues wagged not just in the bar at the Lamb, but all the way to the pages of the national newspapers after the most notorious of Prince's exploits and the one that would seal the Abode of Love's reputation. Quite what possessed Prince to carry out the bizarre ritual we can only guess at. Maybe carried away by his notion that he was the son of God he believed in his own infallibility and simply assumed that he could do whatever he pleased. He would later publish convoluted theological justifications for his actions which amounted to the rape of a young virgin in front of his gathered congregation. Described as both the 'Great Manifestation' and a 'divine purification'. Prince had devised an elaborate charade to enable him to carry out one of the obsessions of Victorian men, the deflowering of a virgin. He demanded that a selection of suitable maidens be made available in the chapel for him to choose one to be 'favoured'. Then with due pomp and ceremony he chose 16-year-old Zoe Patterson and in front of the somewhat astonished, if meekly compliant, congregation he proceeded to rape his seemingly hypnotised victim to the accompanying sound of the chapel organ and the singing of hymns.
'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.' The Testimony of Brother Prince.
The fall-out from this act would shake the community to its core. Whilst some of the 'saints' saw only good in Prince's action others had severe misgivings and started talking of leaving and what was worse taking their money with them. The situation was further compounded when it became apparent that Miss Paterson was pregnant despite Princes claim that his divine union would produce no offspring - he quickly changed his tack to claiming that this was the work of the devil and nothing to do with him; an argument that cut little ice with his disenchanted followers who now left by the score.
And what of Miss Patterson? Well she seemed to have been none the worse for her ordeal. Her 'child of Satan' was born and grew up in the community, a quiet shy girl called Eve, whilst Zoe took her place at 'Beloveds' right hand as the first Bride of the Lamb. There were other 'Brides' quite how many is hard to unravel from the so obviously embroidered bacchanalian stories that started life in the Lamb Inn and the cries of moral outrage from society at large that greeted Prince's pamphlets justifying his sacred sex life. A kind of siege mentality came over the community. Locked behind the high brick wall they refused admittance to all comers - a hand would shoot out through a trap to collect goods delivered by local tradesmen. This self-imposed isolation only fuelled the exaggeration of the stories about what went on behind the closed doors.
In 1867 William Hepworth Dixon, a writer and student of religious cults, managed to get permission to enter the Abode of Love and interview Prince. He published a measured account of the community in his book Spiritual Wives. Dixon records a picture of a thriving, if somewhat depleted, 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.
Heavenly bridegroom II
The Reverend 'Beloved' Prince outlived many of his 'saints' giving credence to his claim that he was immortal and in 1896 aged 85 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, intricate 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.
Prince's death in 1899 came as a devastating shock to the community. They were thrown into complete confusion and with no funeral plans for one who many seem to have genuinely believed to have been immortal they hurriedly buried him in the front garden in the middle of the night. Reeling from the shock some members packed their bags and left whilst others tried to contact their Beloved through spiritualist séances. On hearing the news that the bereaved sisters of the Abode of Love were in need of a new heavenly bridegroom a light lit up in the eyes of the Reverend Smyth-Piggot - said by some to be a divine light.
With the help of Douglas Hamilton, Prince's faithful retainer, Smyth-Piggot was enthroned as the new Saviour of Mankind at the Church of the Ark of the Covenant in September 1902 before a not entirely friendly crowd of 6000 who booed and jeered during the inauguration and who had to be pressed back by a group of mounted police to allow the new messiah to make his exit - once again the Abode of Love was in the headlines. Smyth-Piggot moved to Spaxton with his wife and slipped into Prince's shoes with consummate ease sparking a mini-revival in the cult's fortunes. Some 50 new young 'soul brides' were chosen, all vetted by Sister Eve Patterson the now grown 'Devil child' who had come to hold a senior position in the community.
Smyth-Piggot set about his new role with great zeal; he bought a motor car and telephone, added a laundry and new cottages, introduced new stock to the run down farm and most of all busied himself in his capacity as heavenly bridegroom. He was "If not a sexual maniac at least a man obsessed with sex in his daily life"
Donald McCormick.Temple of Love.
Miss Ruth Anne Preece was chosen to be his Chief Soul Bride with whom he had three children named Glory, Power & Life. A campaign was started against the community resulting in the tarring and feathering of a man thought to be Smyth-Piggot and an undercover masseur being sent to dig the dirt. Catherine Smyth-Piggot the long suffering and scorned wife busied herself with charity in the area and was remembered with great affection by locals for years after.
Following Smyth-Piggott's death in 1927 membership declined rapidly and by 1929 only 33 women, 1 girl and 3 men were left and the community became a sort of liberal finishing school reportedly full of "disillusioned old women and frustrated and disappointed young women." 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.
The full story of the Abode of Love is told in:
The Reverend Prince and his Abode of Love.
By Charles Mander. EP Publishing 1976
And Temple of Love
By Donald McCormick Jarrolds. 1962