The Priest & The Prophetess: Joanna Southcott in the West Midlands
Joanna Southcott was born in April 1750 in Taleford, and raised in the village of Gittisham in Devon, England.
She came from a poor background. Her father was a farmer and she was a domestic servant in Exeter. A pious and religious girl, she was a regular worshipper at her local church. But in 1792 she became persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote prophecies, and then announced herself as the woman spoken of in the Book of Revelation of the Bible.
The Rev. Thomas Foley was Rector of St. Mary’s Church, Oldswinford near Stourbridge then in the county of Worcestershire from 1797 to 1835. He was a rather eccentric man by all accounts. In his youth he was renowned for being the best-dressed undergraduate at Cambridge. In the 1790’s he met Joanna Southcott in London. His initial scepticism soon turned to loyal support and he became her most important supporter.
Much to the bewilderment of his parishioners, Joanna came to live in the rectory for a few months in the summer of 1803. It was here that her famous sealed box containing the predictions that she made each year on 31 December was kept safe.
In 1814, at the age of sixty four she proclaimed that she was pregnant and would give birth to the new Messiah, the Shiloh of Genesis 49:10. She was examined by various medical experts who indeed confirmed that she appeared to be pregnant.
Foley is reputed to have kept his white horse ready saddled in the rectory stables, so that he might ride to the New Jerusalem once the Divine Shiloh had been born.
The date of 19 October 1814 was that fixed for the birth, but not surprisingly, Shiloh failed to appear. Joanna died shortly afterwards. Believing that she would rise again on the third day, her followers kept the body warm, covering it with blankets and keeping the fire in her room going. They agreed to its burial only after it began to decay.
I became interested in Joanna Southcott back in 1987 while involved in some local history research at Stourbridge library and archives. While looking for some unrelated information I discovered Joanna’s 1803 visit to Oldswinford. I was hooked!
The legacy of Joanna Southcott can still be seen today, although it has to be admitted that this is greatly diminished. In the early part of the twentieth century, one branch of her followers, The Panacea Society, campainged that her box of prophecies should be opened in the presence of 24 bishops. In 1928, the psychical researcher Harry Price opened what he claimed to be Joanna’s famous box. It revealed nothing but old papers and a starting pistol! Needless to say, her followers claimed that this was not the real box.
Suggested further reading
Past Finding Out: The tragic story of Joanna Southcott and her successors by G.R. Balleine (SPK, 1956)
Satans Mistress: The Extraordinary Story of the 18th Century Fanatic Joanna Southcott and Her Lifelong Battle with the Devil by Val Lewis (Nauticalia Ltd, 1997)
A Woman to Deliver Her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an era of revolution by James Hopkins (University of Texas Press, 1982)
Visionary Religion and Radicalism in Early Industrial England: From Southcott to Socialism by Philip Locklet (OUP, 2013)
Author: David Taylor is Chair of Parasearch, an ASSAP regional group in the Midlands. He is also an author and researcher on the topics of parapsychology, archaeology, history and folklore.