ANGELS, a virgin birth, prophecies fulfilled, and the arrival of
the Messiah - it is all very Advent and Christmas. But this was 200
years ago, in England, and the figure at the centre of this
narrative was a farmer's daughter from Devon.
Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) and her fabled box - which
contained secret prophecies witheld for revelation in a future time
of national crisis - were a familiar part of the British landscape
for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. She features in an early
paragraph of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, and appears in
the writings of Southey and Macaulay.
Similarly, the mysterious contents of her box captured the
popular imagination during the First World War, and were
subsequently referred to in political cartoons of the 1920s.
Southcott's box was even given a name-check in a Monty Python's
Flying Circus sketch - not surprising, perhaps, seeing that
she and her coterie have often been seen as something of a
Her life and times, together with her prophecies and beliefs,
however, gained a considerable contemporary following, and left a
These were apocalyptic times. Before the label the "Great War"
was given to the conflict of 1914-18, the term referred to the
almost continuous war between Britain and France from 1793 to
For many, the French Revolution of 1789 - following on from the
successful overthrow of British rule in America - constituted "the
wars and rumours of wars" mentioned in St Matthew's Gospel. This,
many believed, presaged the Last Days.
Southcott was part of this atmosphere of expectation, and also a
tradition known as "The Visita-tion". The idea rose to prominence,
particularly in the late 18th century, that certain individuals in
England had been inspired by God to prophesy, and prepare the way
for, the end of the world.
From 1792, Southcott became increasingly aware of her divine
mission as a prophetess with messianic connections. Initially, she
sent her utterances to clergy for later verification, but she also
filled a "Box of Sealed Prophecies" that could only be opened under
certain conditions. The box survives, hidden away, because the
conditions have yet to be met.
SOUTHCOTT was uncertain of her exact date of birth (normally
said to be 25 April 1750), but she did claim that, just as when
Jesus was born, "Angels rejoiced at my birth."
This took place at Taleford farm, near Ottery St Mary, in
Devonshire. She was the daughter of a tenant farmer, the fourth of
six children. The family later moved to Gittisham, about 16 miles
She was raised in the Church of England, and remained,
essentially, an Anglican, although she periodically supported other
traditions - notably the newly established Methodists. She did not
set out to establish her own denomination, even though one was
formed in her own lifetime, and she continued to attract support
until the late 20th century.
Southcott was thoroughly grounded in the scriptures by her
mother, and interpreted contem-porary events through this biblical
filter. She initially had various jobs in the Exeter area, as a
farm labourer, servant, and upholsterer. Her writings drew on these
She began experiencing the millenarian voices and visions in
1792, warning her of the imminence of war with France, and the
consequent food shortages. She prophesied accordingly, and gathered
support, not least because it appeared that a great deal happened
exactly as she had foretold.
To reinforce the accuracy of her utterances she wrote them down,
sealed them, and sent them to clergy, or other leading figures.
Many of her prophecies seemed to come true, notably those about
the nature of harvests, together with the correct prediction of the
(unexpected) death of the Bishop of Exeter. Some, however, disputed
their accuracy, as her writing was so difficult to decipher, and
she alone could read them. She was often accused, when reading them
aloud, of adapting their contents to agree with the facts.
BETWEEN 1792 and 1814, Southcott produced some 65 pamphlets. A
number of Anglican clergy and William Blake's engraver-friend
William Sharp were attracted to her ideas.
It was in the 1790s that Southcott identified herself as "the
woman clothed with the sun", as foretold in the Revelation to St
John. She believed, too, that she had been instructed to seal those
who would be among the 144,000 believers guaranteed a heavenly
destination, also referred to in St John's apocalyptic vision.
She began to undertake this from 1802 onwards. She charged
between 12 shillings and one guinea. In return, her customers
received a "seal", comprising a piece of cardboard with a verse
composed by Southcott, and a circle drawn in the middle signed by
the believer at the top, and by Southcott below, which was folded
and sealed with Southcott's design on the back. The seals were
often buried with the dead, with a view to their claiming the
promise of salvation on Judgement Day.
Urged on by her followers, she visited London in 1802 at the age
of 52, and settled there permanently two years later. By 1807,
several congregations of "Southcottians" had been established,
meeting in what were known as Millennium Chapels, in London, the
north, and west of England. By then, about 14,000 seals had been
The practice was effectively aban-doned in 1809, after the
execution of the murderer Mary Bateman. She was believed to have
had links with the movement in Yorkshire, and had been sealed,
although this was denied by Southcott.
SOUTHCOTT's brand of theology appealed strongly to women, who
made up the majority of her followers. In particular, she argued
that a female would play a key part in bringing about the
Millennium. She believed that, although the Fall was wrongly
attributed to a woman in Genesis 3, verse 15 of the same chapter
promised that a woman would also be central to humanity's
redemption. Her crushing victory over Satan would make woman once
more man's perfect helpmate.
It was only in March 1814, however, that Southcott first fully
realised her part in this. She concluded that she was the destined
seed of Eve who had been visited by the Spirit of God.
Although she was a virgin, she announced that she was pregnant
with Shiloh, a figure referred to in Genesis, and understood by her
to mean the Messiah - referred to in Revelation as the "man child
who was to rule all nations".
Now 64 years old, Southcott was examined by nine doctors, six of
whom believed her to be pregnant. By November, she was said to be
well overdue, and married John Smith, who saw himself as the new
Joseph. Smith was a former steward to the Earl of Darnley, and page
to the Prince Regent - later George IV - who may have visited
Southcott and part-funded her.
News of the pregnancy generated a mixture of ridicule,
commercial opportunity (with ballads and toy cots for sale), and
Southcott's health declined in late 1814, and she died in London
on 27 December. Some followers thought she was in a trance; so, as
she had stipulated, her body was kept warm for four days with
hot-water bottles, in the hope that she could be resuscitated, and
give birth to Shiloh.
An autopsy took place on 31 December, in the presence of
sympathisers. There was no evidence of a pregnancy. Some argued
that Shiloh had disappeared, fulfilling a 16th-century prophecy
that "an old woman shall conceive and bare a conqueror, but he
shall not stay with you. . ." This was linked with the idea of
Southcott's being (only) temporarily in heaven, and her child being
snatched by a dragon, as referred to in Revelation.
Because crowds had gathered, the body was transported to the
undertakers at midnight, and buried under a false name in St John's
Wood Burial Ground, London, on 1 January 1815.
ALTHOUGH the movement then splintered, some remained loyal to
Southcott and all that she stood for. This included custody of the
box of prophecies, weighing 156 lb, which she had been "told" to
close in 1804. She said it was only to be opened at a time of
national danger, and in the presence of all the bishops of the
Church of England (who then numbered 24).
The box passed through various hands over the course of the 19th
and early 20th centuries. In late 1914, as war raged in Europe, the
Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, was lobbied to sanction
the opening of the box. He declined.
The box was presented to the Panacea Society in 1957 (Features,
29 July 2011). The Society - founded in Bedford in 1919 by Mabel
Barltrop, who, as "Octavia", declared herself a prophetess in the
tradition of "The Visitation" - sought to bring Southcott to wider
attention, and to prepare for the box's opening, as and when
The society was dissolved in 2012, and its headquarters is now
the Panacea Museum. The box remains in a secret location.
Archbishop Davidson described Southcott as "a good woman".
Others have seen her as more: a proto-feminist, to be seen
alongside her more famous contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft.
Joanna Southcott challenged the Church: "Is it a new thing for a
woman to deliver her people? Did not Esther do it? Did not Judith
do it?" We have yet to discover whether, with the pending
appointment of women to the episcopate, there will be a more
sympathetic response to calls for bishops to open the box.