Once the base of a strange cult who followed the writing of a mysterious 18th-century prophetess called Joanna Southcott, the Panacea Society was British eccentricity at its most brilliant. It was founded in 1919 by a woman called Mabel Barltrop, who believed she was a disciple of God and that the second coming of the Messiah was imminent; she rented a house in Bedford and persuaded her followers to buy property in the same road. By the 1930s she had more than 70 devotees and when she died in 1934, the cult limped along for decades, before finally dying out with the death of the last member in 2012.
Today the Panacea Museum is run in two of the society’s properties. Barltrop’s house shines a light on her family life and is decorated in typical 1930s style; many of her personal possessions are on display. A second house showcases the rather bizarre beliefs of the Panacea Society and gives an insight into their money-spinning schemes – some barely legal. Also in the complex is a small chapel with a lovely stained-glass window over the altar, a clock tower and a wireless room, where the cult members would sit and listen to the radio in the evening; all this is surrounded by tranquil lawned gardens.
9 Newnham Road, Bedford MK40 3NX. Open Feb 19–Oct 31 Thur–Sat 10am–4pm; Nov–Feb 13 Thur 11am–3pm. Admission free. Accessible by public transport from London.