Monday, 15 December 2008

Somerset and the Abode of Love


Near Bridgwater is the quiet and apparently respectable Quantock village of Spaxton. There is little today to suggest that for over eighty years it was home to a controversial sect, the Agapemonites, and their Abode of Love.

The Rev H J Prince had already been thrown out of several parishes for his inappropriate behaviour, and declared himself the son of god in Weymouth, before he settled in Spaxton. He and his followers built Agapemone, the Abode of Love: a secretive building surrounded by high walls and patrolled by dogs. Within its perimeter, the followers were mainly female - and those women tended to be rich or beautiful. He proved adept at getting his hands on their money, either directly or by arranging their marriages to male followers. Prince claimed that he was the Holy Ghost, whose duty was to bring heavenly love to earth and to 'purify' virgins. However, when he had sex with 16-year-old virgin Zoe Patterson on the altar in front of his followers, some left the cult and scandal arose. The child of this rape was called Eve, and condemned by Prince as a devil child rather than his own progeny.

Prince had already weathered one scandal: having married off three of the wealthy Nottidge sisters, he planned to do the same for a fourth, Louisa. Her two brothers broke into the Agapemone to 'rescue' her - by removing her to a lunatic asylum. It took Prince 18 months to find her, but when he did he got her released by having the Commissioners of Lunacy declare her sane. At that point she returned to Spaxton and turned her inheritance over to Prince.

When Prince died in 1899 (so much for his supposed immortality!), the Rev John Hugh Smyth-Piggott took over. He showed a similar enthusiasm for women, recruiting 50 to the sect and taking one as his 'spiritual wife' and having three children with her. Eve, Prince's daughter, was by now also a senior member of the Agapemone. Even after its second leader's death in 1927, the sect managed to continue under Smyth-Piggott's wife, Ruth Anne Preece. She lived until she was 90; only after her death in 1956 did the Agapemone finally close.


Postcard image from the Somerset Record Office website.

10 comments:

ChrisP said...

The Agapemonites fascinate and repel in equal measure. Smyth-Piggott had a house in St John's Wood that Betjeman visited in his great Metroland TV documentary, and found it incredibly creepy, which it is. A picture is here http://flickr.com/photos/wickers_poet/1420249181/in/set-72157601423744397/.

CarolineLD said...

Thank you for that link - and what a very strange house. Creepy indeed!
Smyth-Piggott also built an Agapemonite church in Upper Clapton, London before coming to Spaxton to lead the cult: photo. There's a little more info on Wikipedia here, although it wrongly suggests that the Agapemonites moved from Spaxton to Clapton when in fact Smyth-Piggott moved in the other direction.

Christina said...

Gosh!!! It's worse than the Midsomer (with its excessive number of murders!). It is always the quietest villages which hide the most secrets. I had never heard this story and it is fascinating. What is that makes people believe in these self-proclaimed Messiahs? Thank you for a very interesting story!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Extraordinary. I'd heard of this group but had no idea that they continued for so long. Thanks for a compelling post.

(The spookiest thing, though, is that the word verification code for this comment is 'cultio'...)

Peter Ashley said...

There's a film to be made of this lot. With a voice over the opening scenes of rolling countryside under heavy cloud, quoting Betjeman's classic lines on the sect from 'Metroland', finishing with "And many were called to be Brides of Christ..."

CarolineLD said...

I can just picture that! It could make quite an epic... told in flashback by Sister Eve, perhaps.

Rehan Qayoom said...

Thanks for this superb blog. I also have interests in the Agapemonites and have posted 2 blogs on them myself, here: http://rehanqayoompoet.blogspot.com/2010/03/agapemonites-hazrat-khalifatul-masih-v_8064.html

And Here: http://rehanqayoompoet.blogspot.com/2010/01/agapemonites-2-interviews-with-kate.html

I also have a Youtube playlist of related videos here: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=38B4731DEE91891B

James Miller said...

I am writing the first biography of Louisa Nottidge. Her story inspired Wilkie Collins' novel of 1861, called "The Woman In White" ...

CarolineLD said...

That sounds really interesting - it's an extraordinary story.

James Miller said...

James Miller has completed the first full-length biography of Louisa Nottidge, called - Bring Me My Chariot Of Fire : The Life Of Louisa Nottidge 1802-1858.

Did Louisa's experiences at the Agapemone inspire Carroll's novel Alice In Wonderland? (see Skeffington Lutwidge, etc)