At 8:23pm, the ritual began. Yellow smoke billowed into the darkness, accompanied by a cacophony of horns, drums and bells. We released the yellow balloons in our hands; they drifted up into the black sky. Someone climbed on top of a shipping container and stood, silhouetted in the fog, holding a flare. It was 23 December 2016, and in the final few days of a tumultuous year, it felt cathartic to imagine that the apocalypse really had arrived.
I was on the grounds of the Panacea Museum in Bedford, England, the perfect place to imagine the end of the world. For almost 100 years, this cluster of redbrick houses surrounding a chapel and garden housed a religious sect whose members believed they could cure all illnesses, live forever – and avert the impending apocalypse. The last member of the Panacea Society died in 2012; the campus is now a museum memorialising the movement, and is open, free of charge, to visitors three days a week during spring, summer and autumn. The grass we now stood on as the noise died out and the smoke dissipated was believed by Panacea Society members to be the original location of the Garden of Eden, the place where sin first entered the world.
Bedford, a mid-sized market town about 60 miles north of London, isn’t usually considered a day-trip destination – or a hive of mystical energy. But it does have its charms. About a minute’s walk from both the ancient Bedford Castle Mound and the picturesque River Ouse is a small cultural district encompassing The Higgins, an art gallery and museum in a former brewery, and a museum dedicated to the writer John Bunyan, who was born locally and spent 12 years in Bedford County Gaol in the 1660s and 1670s for religious nonconformism.
It’s in this district that the Panacea Museum also stands, housed in a group of genteel-looking Victorian villas. And it was here that a group of middle-class English churchwomen – living through some of the most frightening years of the 20th Century – became convinced they held the fate of the planet in their hands.
The group was led by Mabel Barltrop: a widowed former vicar’s wife who came to believe in 1919 that she was the messiah whom Shiloh prophesied in the New Testament book of Revelation. Renamed Octavia by one of her appointed ‘apostles’, her followers left their homes and moved to Bedford, creating a community that peaked at around 70 members in the 1920s and 1930s. Dominated by single women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, the group sent squares of linen that they claimed would heal any affliction to more than 120,000 believers worldwide.
They also campaigned for the Church of England to fulfil the instructions of another self-described prophet, Joanna Southcott. Southcott had died a century earlier – and had left behind a sealed wooden box full of prophetical writings, stating that it should only be opened during a time of national crisis by all 24 Church of England bishops. The Panacea Society, whose members believed that Southcott was the second prophet in a lineage that now culminated with Octavia, posted billboards across London demanding the bishops visit Bedford and open the box, and attracted enough attention to be mentioned in satirical magazines of the day. They arranged bedrooms for the bishops to stay in; in later decades, they even kept a terraced house furnished and empty for Jesus to live in when he returned to Earth.
Today, the museum’s objects seem to emanate that same strange, anxious excitement that Octavia inspired. The bedrooms and a living room that the Panacea Society had carefully decorated for the visit of the bishops are still there, with all the original furnishings intact. The museum also includes a gilded cradle and beautifully embroidered baby clothes, intended for the baby messiah that Joanna Southcott said she was carrying at the age of 64.
Joanna Southcott never actually gave birth, and the bishops never came to Bedford, so the mysterious box of prophecies remains unopened. It’s kept safe in a secret place close to the museum. But a convincing-looking replica is on display – a physical representation of the delusions, faith and optimism that humans have always required to get through times in which it feels like everything is falling apart.
The Panacea Society was founded by women who were unable or unwilling to keep up with a period of intense social change, according to museum manager Gemma Papineau. “They had the mentality of scared people trying to protect themselves,” she said. “They built high walls around their campus, locked themselves inside it and made sure that everyone living with them believed exactly the same as them.”
The Panaceans were mostly conservative, right-wing, Christian ‘spinsters’, raised in the Victorian era and excluded from positions of authority within the church and in their lives. Part of the reason they fell in love with Joanna Southcott’s story, perhaps, was because of the power it granted to an ageing, childless, single woman. They went so far as to configure the Christian Trinity as a square, with Octavia as the Daughter of God. Just as Eve had first brought sin into the world, they believed, it was up to a woman to erase it – and provide mankind’s ultimate redemption.
Today, the world is going through a period of similarly disruptive transformation, Papineau said, citing the Islamic State, environmental activism and the rise of the ‘alt-right’ in the US. In 2016, the Panacea Museum’s charitable trust set up a centre of excellence to explore apocalyptic and millenarian thinking: millenarianism is the idea that a period of great destruction will be followed by a new earthly paradise.
The museum also opened its doors for the first time in 2016 to a contemporary art project whose themes chime nicely with its own. The last stop on my tour of the Panacea campus was what Panaceans believed to be the original Garden of Eden. There, three graffiti-covered shipping containers had been recently installed on the lawn, with viewing holes drilled into the sides at head height.
Peering through, I could see a minutely detailed panorama showing wreckage of a “mythical Bedfordshire”, in the words of artist Jimmy Cauty, after some kind of major insurrection. Models of cops were clustered around wrecked motorway overpasses, destroyed McDonalds drive-throughs, and defaced billboards. In one container, they were building a ziggurat-shaped fortress, while refugees huddled outside its walls.
Cauty hadn’t heard of the Panacea Museum when his work, called the Aftermath Dislocation Principle or ADP, was first installed at Banksy’s mock-theme park Dismaland in 2015. But after a review by an Oxford theologian linked the two, he decided to make the institution the final stop on the work’s 2016 UK tour.
An appropriately mystical closing party was required, which was why I returned to the site two days before Christmas to witness a ritualistic performance symbolising the ‘end times’. As I entered, visitors were writing messages relating to this concept on cards attached to helium-filled balloons. They would be released during the ceremony that would end the party, the tour and – if the event’s promotional materials were to be believed – the world.
I saw some of the messages before they floated into the sky. Few contained any of the Panacea Society’s optimism about the apocalypse ushering in a new paradise on Earth. Most of them were closer in tone to the nihilistic vision of Cauty’s artworks, or to the grim dystopias dominating contemporary pop culture, like The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead.
“To the last Christmas ever,” read one note, signed “Shiloh”. Others proclaimed “invest in entropy” and “you had your chances”. They added to the feeling that something terrible really was going to happen when the ritual started: perhaps a chasm would open in the earth and swallow us up.
But when the noise and the chaos died down, of course, we were all still standing, dazzled and coughing from the smoke and flares. Another unfathomable new year was still just a week away, and whether we faced it with faith in a divine plan, cynical despair or some combination of hope and clear-eyed attention, there was nothing we could do to stop it coming.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that the book of Revelation was in the Old Testament; it is in the New Testament. We regret the error.
This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. See every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.