The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

What’s in a building?

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This is Castleside, a grand late-Victorian building on Newnham Road in Bedford.

For the three decades of the twentieth century Castleside was part of Bedford School, home to a handful of the boys whose wealthy families sent them away to be educated from Britain and beyond. In January 1911 Netley Lucas arrived at Bedford. The census taken later that year listed him among 23 boys living in Castleside, the house then run by Alfred Tearle and his wife Josephine. Lucas never said much about his period, but it must have been a daunting experience. Most of his housemates were twelve or thirteen, while he was only seven. Many were children of Empire, returning from Shanghai, Calcutta, Smyrna, or Johannesburg, to be educated in Britain, while Lucas was there for different reasons: he was an orphan.

Netley Lucas did not live in Castleside for long. He left in 1911, but then vanished for several years until he reappeared as one of the most notorious international confidence tricksters of the 1920s and 1930s. I have spent much of the past ten years writing a book about him.

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While Lucas crossed the world, Castleside remained part of Bedford School. In 1930, however, the school sold the building to the Panacea Society. In her wonderful recent book, Octavia, Daughter of God, the historian Jane Shaw explores the lives and beliefs of this extraordinary millenarian sect. Interweaving the letters, diaries, and published material produced by the Panaceans, she takes seriously a group who believed the Garden of Eden was in the back garden of an Edwardian villa, that the vicar’s widow Mabel Barltrop (the eponymous Octavia) was the daughter of God, and who outlined a new theology in which God was both Father and Mother. Confronted by the upheaval of the Great War and its aftermath, the prospect of imminent Bolshevik Revolution and the General Strike, the Society prepared for the end of the world by leaving small pieces of linen soaked in blessed water at key buildings and bridges in London.

The Panacea Society bought Castleside for a very particular reason. As latter-day followers of the eighteenth century mystic Joanna Southcott, they believed that only the prophecies contained within her sealed box could save the world from damnation. In the 1920s that threat seemed very real. Using characteristically modern modes of communication – newspaper adverts and posters on London’s underground – they campaigned for the only thing that could avert the doom they saw heralded by economic crisis and political instability: opening Southcott’s box. If the box should only be opened at a time of national danger, however, the task had to be undertaken by twenty-four bishops from the Church of England. The Panacea Society bought and renovated Castleside to provide accommodation for those bishops when the time came. Conveniently it had twenty-eight rooms.

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From the Prince of Tricksters to the Daughter of God – it seems like a bit of a stretch, doesn’t it? Looking at Castleside, however, that question of what’s in a building (or what’s in a coincidence, perhaps), brings into relief the surprising connections between cynical criminal deceptions and millennial hopes. Castleside contains a way of thinking about the 1920s and 1930s.

Jane Shaw’s book about the Panacea Society is so great because of the imagination and humanity with which it teases out the dynamics of everyday life in a closed community, and explores the religious beliefs and practices through which members of the society prepared for immortal life. There is one section that sticks with me – a pair of sentences that I wish I had written myself: ‘The Panacea Society is a period piece, very much of the 1920s and ‘30s. Its history is a window into the broader history of the interwar years in Britain and beyond, and people’s lives, hopes and fears.’

While many people would dismiss them as cranky and marginal, Jane shows how the Panaceans were something of their time, and of their place. The rhythms of their everyday lives reflected the bourgeois Victorian worlds into which so many of the older female residents of the Society were born, for example. Their sense of the end of days was braced by the trauma of the Great War and the uncertainties of its aftermath. In the nervous times of the 1920s, confidence tricksters found like Netley Lucas found new opportunities as relations of class or gender seemed to have been thrown into turmoil. In so doing they dramatized the uncertainties of the postwar world, and fueled the sense of crisis which the Panaceans confronted in their inimitable way.

I have often thought that the trickster was a characteristic figure of the 1920s. When we shared a roundtable in Berkeley this spring, Jane Shaw suggested that we might think of the seeker in similar ways. Within the Panacea Society, the practice of ‘overcoming’ allowed members to address their sins through confession and self-control. It reflected a wider quest for spiritual certainty after the disruptions of war, and the forms of reflexive selfhood associated with interwar psychoanalysis and the emerging group movement in the 1920s and 1930s. In very different ways, perhaps, Netley Lucas and Mabel Barltrop were looking for something to hang onto in a restless modern world.

What’s in a building? A great deal, if you look closely enough. Castleside remains a ‘period piece’ today: decorated and furnished much as it was in 1930, it is now home to the Panacea Museum.

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