- Religion and Philosophy
Surreal Jezreel's Tower and the prophet Joanna Southcott
In an area known as New Brompton, a district of Gillingham in Kent a rather strange and imposing structure overlooked the Medway valley and the towns of Strood, Chatham and Rochester. It started to be built in 1885 at the top of Chatham Hill in a surrealist modern style with eight turrets and decorated externally with large inscribed panels and was known locally as Jezreel’s Tower, Jezreel’s Temple or in its latter stages Jezreel’s Folly.
We need to step back about 173 years to examine the life of its creator one James Roland White born in 1840 (not 1851 as is popularly recorded) later known as James Jershom Jezreel (or The Stranger). Little was known of his early life other than he was almost certainly an American orphan who had been adopted by a family named White. There is some uncorroborated evidence of his American birth, which was betrayed by his speech and spelling. He had once casually commented that he had been employed in an American bank and worked his passage to Britain as a stoker on an eastbound ship. His marriage certificate in 1881 declared that he was a “merchant’s cleric, son of a warehouse superintendent and of bachelor status”, but a birth certificate has never been seen. This was in accordance with Christian Israelite doctrine where no images or material evidence of the person is to be left behind in this world and therefore no photograph or portrait exists of him.
On 27th July 1875, White enlisted as a Private in the British army and joined the second battalion of the 16th Regiment of Foot (the Bedfordshire Regiment), based at Chatham, Kent and in February 1876 was posted to Secunderabad in India for 5 years.
Soon afterwards, he became interested in the apocalyptic teachings of Joanna Southcott (1750–1814). In 1881 he adopted the name James Jershom Jezreel. "Jershom" was a misspelling of "Gershom," the name of the first child of Moses. "Jezreel came from Hosea, which read, "Then shall the children of Israel and the children of Judah be gathered together and appoint themselves one Head, for great shall be the day of Jezreel."
Before we continue with the life of James White aka Jezreel, we should take a look into the strange world of Joanna Southcott and how she and her followers influenced him in the formation of .the “New and Latter House of Israel”, otherwise known as the Jezreelites.
Born on 25th April 1750 in Taleford, near Ottery St Mary, Devon, she was raised in the village of Gittisham, 16 miles from Exeter. Joanna Southcott was the fourth daughter of William and Hannah Southcott and showed no sign during her unremarkable early childhood of her eventual destiny. Although originally her family had once been very prosperous, changing circumstances meant that Joanna grew up on a small farm and received very little education. Her father was quite often ill and Joanna had to run the farm, which she did quite successfully. Her frugal life meant that, like many girls in her circumstances, she had little choice but to go into domestic service, although she had a period as an upholsterer. Her employers would later describe her as being a quiet and honest individual but prone to fits of depression.
She kept scrupulous journals and in her own written prophesies, she would declare that the "Spirit of Truth" first descended on her when she was eighteen but her true mission in life didn't really begin until mid-life when Joanna was forty-two. In 1794 she declared herself as “The Bride of the Lamb” but at the time this seemed to have no special significance.
Due to her lack of education her hand-writing was poor and difficult to decipher and her language was vulgar and coarse. She experienced the phenomena of “automatic hand-writing” and her internal “voice” began to make prophecies, some of which proved to be correct and such was the volume many of these have never been published or read and probably form the basis of the papers contained in the infamous “box”.
In February 1801, she published, at her own expense, 1000 copies of “The Strange Effects of Faith” which appeared as a 48-page, nine-penny pamphlet describing how the messages had come to Southcott and how she had sought to get clerical recognition of them. The following month she published the Second Part.
Her name continues to be associated with religion and mysticism and there is still a small but enthusiastic following today. Southcott’s followers claim she really was a prophet and her powerful sealed writings are claimed to reveal answers to the world problems. The seal that she used was found in a shop she was cleaning and comprised the letters I S with a star above and below. In addition to “sealing” writings that she sold, she “sealed” people, using small squares of paper inscribed with a circle and the person’s name above and Joanna’s name below, then folded and sealed. This protected them against harm and confirmed their place among the 144,000 who would be taken up to Heaven to be with Christ on “The Day of Doom”. This “sealing” was extremely lucrative as she sold up to twenty thousand at a cost of between 10 shilling and 6 pence and 21 shillings each. However, this seemingly innocent but cynical action caused her movement great harm when one of her followers, Mary Bateman, who was a thief and abortionist, whom she had sealed, murdered Rebecca Perigo and was hanged in 1809 in York. Joanna stopped sealing people as she could not be sure of the person’s true motives and their subsequent actions.
Apparently her ultimate prediction was the imminent coming of a second Christ (Shiloh) to whom, after an immaculate conception, she would give birth. During October 1813, Joanna, having reached the age of 64 withdrew from public life in preparation for the birth, attended only by followers of her own sex. In August 1814 with no birth imminent, matters had reached a stage where no fewer than 9 doctors had been called. Six of the Doctors said in their opinion Joanna was displaying symptoms which, in a younger woman, would be indicative of pregnancy. Southcott realised that she must make an earthly marriage so that Shiloh would have a foster father, as with Joseph and the child Jesus. Accordingly on 12th November 1813 she was married, in her bedroom, to John Smith, steward of the earl of Darnley (1758-1829).
The situation became critical and on 19th November 1814 Joanna had a premonition of her death and by the 16th December all indications of pregnancy had disappeared and on 27th December Joanna finally died. She left instructions that in case she was only in a trance, her body should be wrapped in flannel, kept warm and remain undisturbed for four days. Finally on 31st December an autopsy took place at 38 Manchester Street, London at which were a number of her followers and several doctors, including James Sims, Joseph Adams, and Richard Reece. However, the condition of her body during the so called pregnancy continued to cause conflicting and confusing interpretations. Dr Mathias, who was also present at the autopsy, tried to give a physical explanation for the symptoms exhibited.
When the time expired, after four days, the body was already livid and putrid; and he found “four inches of fat on the abdomen, and glandular enlargement of the breasts”. He blamed the supposed “quickness” (heartbeat or movement of the foetus) originally felt in her abdomen on extreme intestinal gas. On dissecting the uterus, no trace of a foetus was found and apart from gallstones, they found no evidence of medical problems or other abnormalities. In a signed statement, the doctors concluded that "We the undersigned, present at the dissection of Mrs. Joanna Southcott, do certify that no unnatural appearances were visible, and no part exhibited any appearance of disease sufficient to have occasioned her death, nor was there any appearance of her ever having been pregnant". As a result of this her followers or believers agreed that Shiloh had simply mysteriously disappeared, on or around 16th December, in due course, to reappear on earth to carry out his mission of redemption.
Just before her death Joanna had made a will in which she sadly claimed that she had been deceived by Satan and directed that all the sumptuous gifts intended for the coming Shiloh be returned to their donors.
A verdict of “dropsy” (swelling of soft tissue) was entered on her death certificate and she was buried in Marylebone Cemetery, London, on 2ndJanuary 1815, and her tombstone predicted that great wonders were yet to come. The damage to the tombstone has obliterated some of the wording and originally it read as follows:
In Memory of Joanna Southcott,
who departed this life December 27, 1814, aged 60 years.
While through all my wondrous days,
Heaven and earth enraptured gaze,
While vain sages think they know
Secrets thou alone canst show,
Time alone will tell what hour
Thou'lt appear in greater power!
Strangely the stone inaccurately stating her age as 60 instead of 64. The tombstone was shattered in an explosion at Regent's Park Canal in 1874 when five tons of gunpowder blew up on the barge “Tilbury” killing three crewmen and a horse at Macclesfield Bridge or ‘Blow up Bridge’, as it became known.
After Joanna Southcott's death the movement splintered and prophets of Shiloh proliferated, among which John Ward's Shilohites and John Wroe's Christian Israelites were the most prominent. Her original inner circle kept the faith quietly, remaining loyal to all of Southcott's work, typified by their protection of her sealed wooden box of prophecies, known simply as “Joanna Southcott's Box”, with the strict instruction that it be opened “only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all 24 bishops of the Church of England”.
The special box had been made by William Sharp in 1801 to contain Southcott's prophecies and letters. The box was described as being of water stained walnut construction measuring just over 12”x9”x6” weighing around 11lbs. There were two rusty steel bands and several silk tapes securing the box with wax seals. The lid had an inlaid mother of pearl plate with the initials “I S” (which could be J S for Joanna Southgate), but matched the seal that she used.
In 1816 the box was passed into the care of Jane Townley, and when she died in 1825 to Thomas Philip Foley, and finally in 1835 to Foley's son, the Revd. Richard Foley, who died in 1861. In 1839, in an attempt to gain control of Southcott's teachings and legacy, Lavinia Taylor Jones (niece of Lucy Taylor, Southcott's Exeter employer) disguised herself as a man and entered Richard Foley's rectory, where she tried to steal the ‘great box’. She was unsuccessful but such was its notoriety sometime after that, various rival “boxes” began to proliferate. After attempts by Southcott’s followers to have the Church open the Box during the crisis of the Crimean War and The Great War a box was finally opened in 1927 (only one bishop agreeing to attend). All that was found in this Box were some "oddments and unimportant papers" including a lottery ticket (which proved to be dated 1796). That didn't deter some of the followers though, as they insisted it was just trickery using a fake box. This fake box was x-rayed (see photo) prior to opening on 11th July 1927 and some items that can be discerned are a flint-lock pistol, a dice box, a fob purse with coins in it (Maundy money), a bone puzzle with rings, some blocks (one with metal clasps), a framed painting or miniature, a pair of earrings, and a cameo or engraved pebble. This was roughly what was found, a total of 56 items in all - but all fake ! For those who are interested various Southcott’s published prophesies are available on line at http://archive.org/search.php?query=joanna%20southcott
As recently as 1977, the Panacea Society, a twentieth-century millenarian group dedicated to renew Southcott's reputation, claimed to know the secret whereabouts of the one true box. (This should not difficult as the real box is claimed to be in the possession of the Panacea Society in Bedford, England.) The original box has still not been opened or the contents examined by any committee or even x-rayed, despite many false boxes over the years having proven to be fakes.
In 1966 interest of a different and scholarly sort came to the fore, when E. P. Thompson (British historian), in full appreciation of Southcott's working-class origins and enduring appeal, called her England's ‘greatest prophetess of all’.
It did not take long before, a further six "would-be" prophets made themselves known, each of whom claimed to be the successors of Joanna and interpreters of her word and teachings. These “prophets”, including Jane Lead, Richard Brothers, George Turner, William Shaw, John Wroe, James Jezreel and Helen Exeter & Mabel (Octavia) Barltrop, the latter two having founded the Panacea Society.
Her death and shattering statement regarding Satan’s trickery left her thousands of followers in great confusion. A large number refused to believe that her mission and work had all been a mockery and delusion but others slipped away to form splinter groups.
Jane Lead - Her work, although historically much earlier influenced a great deal of John Wroe’s thinking. She was very much ahead of her time, laying a foundation on which John Wroe built further, nearly 100 years later.
Her name appeared in documents authored by both John Wroe and Joanna Southcott and her original writings are still regarded as important by the Shaker movement in the USA and the Israelite House of Mary at Benton Harbour, Michigan in particular.
During her lifetime, from 1623 to 1704, she wrote numerous papers, many of which were published and eagerly read and are still available. (Copies can be obtained from http://www.janelead.org/writings.html)
She was the founder the Philadelphian Society in 1652 and in her Sixty Propositions written in 1699 Jane Lead presents some amazing similarities to many of the Christian Israelite beliefs held today.
Richard Brothers In the late 18th century the turmoil of the impending French Revolution heralded, to many, the start of the millennium and major changes to society as they knew it. In consequence some people became very concerned about the future of civilisation and their spiritual fate in particular.
At this time Richard Brothers made himself known, bringing with him his unconventional style of teachings. Details of his early life are patchy but it is known that he was born at Placentia, Newfoundland on 25th December 1757 (this date would become important to him later).
He joined Her Majesty’s Navy and retired around 1784 as a lieutenant on half pay, marrying in 1786, but it was short lived owing to his adulterous wife carrying on with another and even bearing the others children, while he was away. Faced with an intolerable situation, Brothers disowned her completely. In 1790, the “Spirit of God began to enlighten his understanding” and he adopted some of the Quaker doctrine. This was unintentionally to be his undoing and he ran up considerable debts in 1790 refusing to draw his pension due to his new found conscience making him unrealistically honest. Unable to pay even his rent, let alone his debts, he was committed to the Workhouse. In 1792 he left the workhouse but with his situation unchanged he quickly fell back into debt and the courts sentenced him to a period in Newgate Prison. By November 1792 he had signed Letters of Attorney finally authorising his pay to be drawn from the Navy and he was released.
It was during this period, of 1792-1793 that Richard Brothers convinced himself that he was the “Prince of the Hebrews and Nephew of the Almighty”. The London Times dubbed him mockingly the “Great Prophet of Paddington Street” after the area of London in which he lived. His fame, charisma and notoriety spread and over the next two years his following grew immensely .This ultimately led to his arrest on 4th March, 1795 as the authorities became increasingly concerned about his writings because they ‘have for several months alarmed and agitated the minds of the people”. He was found insane partially because he refused to swear the court oath and he was sentenced to be detained at Fisher House, Islington, which at that time was a private mental asylum. He stayed in the asylum for 11 years during which time he continued with his deliberations and writing. In 1806 a handful of his remaining supporters gained his release and he then lived with friends until his death on 25th January 1824.
Richard Brothers seems to have been the first person to claim that the English are descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes; and his views are still respected by the adherents of Anglo-Israelism. He was buried at St. John Wood where Joanna Southcott is also buried in 1814.
Another of the group of six was one led by George Turner, "Herald of Shiloh," from Leeds, who claimed to be Southcott's true successor. He explained that Shiloh had been taken from Southcott's womb into Paradise to wait for the appointed time
Turner's outrageous "Proclamation of the Final Days" was to be delivered in Palace Yard, London. It denounced "the Treasury, Horse Guards, Carlton House, the Playhouses, Churches and Chapels, the Tower, Somerset House, and other public places. The Angel of the Lord shall sink all by earthquake." His radical manifesto dictated, "The whole United Kingdom is to be divided to the People on the Roll. Those who are not worth a penny now must be lords of the land. No rents must be paid. No postage for letters. No turnpikes. No taxes. Porter a gallon for one half-penny. Ale the same. The dead must be carried in carts three miles from the city and put into deep pits covered with pigs' flesh."
Even though he was confined for two years to a Quaker asylum for the insane, in York, Turner still continued with outrageous and fantastic directions for his faithful followers. “Shiloh's palace must have walls of pure gold adorned with precious stones. There must be in attendance 70,000 men that play musical instruments and 70,000 singing women. He must have 500,000 servants, and his carriages must be of pure gold." Turner himself was to have no less than 300,000 servants and his palace similar to that envisaged for Shiloh.
In 1820 Turner, amazingly, was declared cured of his insanity, and his followers petitioned the Lord Chancellor for his release, which was granted a few months later. After an extravagant "marriage supper," Turner promised that Shiloh would appear in London on 14th October, being born as a boy “that had already attained six years of age”. On that date nothing happened but the faithful merely took it as a divine test of their love. Turner's own "voice" ordered him to marry, so that Shiloh might have a foster mother. Accordingly Turner chose a wife, and a new date of 10th April, 1821, was pronounced for the appearance of Shiloh. When again nothing happened, some followers were seriously disillusioned while others quietly switched their allegiance to rival leaders. George Turner died in September 1821 and John Wroe claimed the succession to Turner's leadership.
William Shaw - While little was known about George Turner, even less is known about William Shaw. He claimed to receive celestial communications from 1819 to 1822 which were never printed into book form but achieved a wide circulation in manuscript form. Like Turner he also spoke of London suffering at the hands of a great earthquake as retribution for the city’s sinfulness.
His writings would remain in manuscript form until into the early 20th century when they would be printed in San Diego, California, and given their respective place as the Message of the Fourth in the Lineage of Seven (the seven prophets).
William Shaw died in 1822 and he was recognised by the Southcottians as a prophet.
John Wroe, a wool comber born in Bradford on 19th September 1782 was claimed to be a visionary following a period of temporary blindness in 1819 and was another Southcott follower, who came into prominence when he challenged Turner's original prophecy of 14th October 1820, as the date of birth of Shiloh. Wroe now took control of Turner's group, and his followers proclaimed themselves Christian Israelites.
Wroe dictated new laws and actions for the Final Days. Males were to be circumcised, and everyone was to eat only kosher meat. Men had to wear dark, broad-brimmed hats and special clothing; even the sober dress for women was stipulated in great detail. Men were also to give up shaving and wear beards. Everyone was to give up snuff, tobacco, and alcohol. Those who broke these laws were to be severely beaten. Women accused of a lack of chastity sat through a fierce services. After the service they were taken to a cleansing room beneath the pulpit where they were stripped naked and beaten by Wroe with a birch rod.
In 1823 he showed his true maniacal side by announcing he could walk on water. He tried it twice, failing miserably on both occasions. He swiftly wrote this off by claiming it was a public baptism.
A child, Daniel Grimshaw, died after a botched circumcision with Henry Lees, performing the operation. Lees was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted after Jewish leaders pressured the government, fearing that their own legitimate religious rite would be outlawed.
Wroe attracted a strong following in Ashton-under-Lyne (now in Greater Manchester) and groups of supporters appeared in the south, including the Chatham area. Eventually the movement renounced Wroe after persistent debaucheries on his part, and he emigrated to the United States and then to Australia, where his mission continued to have followers.
In 1856 he swindled his own followers by insisting they wore a gold ring they had to purchase from him at the full price of gold. The ring turned out to be made from base metal and was pretty much worthless. A final twist to the story is apparent in the event of John Wroe's death. In 1862 while on board a ship bound for Australia, he fell and injured his shoulder. Complications caused his health to continue to decline and on 5th February 1863 he died in Collingwood, Melbourne. On 7th February he was buried in a public grave in Melbourne General Cemetery in the section for "other denominations".
The Christian Israelite Church continues in Australia (in Lake Macquarie, Singleton, Sydney, Terrigal, Windsor and Melbourne), one in Poland and there is one congregation in Indianapolis USA all of which still proclaim Wroe as their founder.
In the meantime another large group of Southcott believers had followed John (Zion) Ward, a poor Irish shipwright and shoemaker born in 1781. He had been a follower of George Turner's before his faith in Southcott was shaken when he read of an attack on the New Testament account of Christ by the freethinking publisher Richard Carlile. Eventually he decided that the Scriptures were not historical documents but prophecies, foretelling future events, and that the accounts of the birth of Jesus were allegorical.
He claimed that Southcott told him in visions, "Thou art Shiloh." Ward eventually convinced himself that he was indeed the second coming of Jesus the son of God, as foretold in the Gospels, primarily because he had been born on Christmas Day and his mother's name was Mary.
Even more fantastic was Ward's belief that in addition he was, in fact, Satan before becoming Christ, and that the Devil was now the Son of God. All the Scriptures implicated him in a multiplicity of roles. He was Adam, Judah, and Elijah. He claimed, "There is no name in Scripture which I may not with propriety apply to myself." Because of the many texts using the name Zion, he chose this designation for himself, changing his name to become known as "Zion Ward."
Ward had been previously confined in the poorhouse and escaped talking followers into supporting his mission by publishing various literature and handbills. He roamed the country preaching his unique variety of messianism, which included attacks on landlords, the government, and the established Church.
He was a remarkably charismatic orator and obtained considerable support for his mission (estimated at one time to be as many as 100,000). Eventually his health failed, and he died of a stroke on 12th March 1837. Faithful followers continued to support him long after his death, and as late as 1921 one supporter published his book “The Shilohites' Bible”. By then there was no public mission, and a handful of the faithful simply read his books and meditated on his message.
The Panacea Society. The final phase of the Southcott movement commenced in 1907 and involved four ladies who became skilful propagandists for the movement. They were Alice Seymour, who edited editions of Southcott's books; Rachel Fox, a Quaker; her friend Helen Exeter, who received Spiritualistic messages about Joanna Southcott's sealed box; and Mabel (Octavia) Barltrop, widow of an Anglican curate, who was a godchild of the poet Coventry Pat-more.
Mabel Barltrop pestered innumerable clergymen and bishops, demanding that they must open Southcott's box. She joined forces with Helen Exeter, who claimed to receive spirit messages through automatic writing informed her that she would be the mother of Shiloh. Barltrop, who was to be the eighth prophet, adopted the name Octavia. Octavia established a settlement at Bedford, and many supporters of the emerging suffragette movement joined her. She continued to petition the bishops to open Southcott's box and study the writings and prophecies it contained. For 20 years she propagandised with handbills, posters, and petitions. Eventually in 1918 the bishop of Lambeth stated that he had the consent of 24 bishops to receive the box and open it on the 7th or 8th March. However, Octavia's followers were not satisfied unless all the bishops were prepared to spend a whole week studying the contents. Not surprisingly, Bishop Carpenter could not agree, and the matter was dropped. It was the nearest the famous box ever came to being officially examined as Southcott had always desired.
By this time Octavia had been declared to be Shiloh by her followers. By 1920 she had a team of 36 residents at Bedford and a large following in Britain, Australia, and America. In 1923 the movement took a new direction, owing to a minor mishap. It seems that one night Octavia tried to swallow a pill, but it slipped away and rolled under a cupboard. Nonetheless she took the glass of water and prayed that it would serve the purpose of the pill. When it did, her inner voice proclaimed that God had given her healing powers. Thereafter the community prepared small linen squares "containing the breath of prayer." These were to be dipped in water, which when drunk or poured onto wounds would bring about a cure. The community adopted the name The Panacea Society, convinced that because of this they had a universal remedy for all ills. Octavia herself died in 1934, despite her universal remedy, but nevertheless her movement continues.
Having set the scene we can now return to James White (Jezreel) and the fantastic story of Jezreel’s Tower, built, it is claimed after a revelation from God.
White had published a book, entitled “The Flying Roll” (derived from the book of Zechariah), outlining his new creed. In Rev. 8:2, seven angels are given seven trumpets to sound before the Day of Doom. According to White, these angels were seven prophets. The first five were Richard Brothers, Joanna Southcott, George Turner, William Shaw, and John Wroe. James White (Jezreel) was the sixth angel. One more prophet needed to be found and only then Shiloh would appear on earth.
While Private White had been away in India he regularly wrote to Clarrisa Rogers, one of his most enthusiastic disciples. It seems that their relationship had grown very close, for only a few weeks after he had returned to England Private White married Clarrisa at Medway Registry Office in Chatham on 17thDecember 1881. Clarissa, who now became Mrs Jezreel, changed her Christian name to Esther. The address the pair gave for both the bride and groom was 2 Copenhagen Road, Gillingham and here they both lived for a short time. From there they planned their grand campaign which was to bring converts and cash steadily trickling in for the "New and Latter House of Israel".
At first Jezreel had considered continuing John Wroe's work in Ashton-under-Lyne. He travelled to Wrenthorpe in Yorkshire after his return to England and handed the trustees of the "Christian Israelites" a copy of the “Flying Roll” to read, but to his amazement they not only rejected it but burned it as a sign of their disgust.
After the failure in Yorkshire, Jezreel returned to Gillingham, which he was now determined to make his UK Headquarters. He badly needed additional converts to swell numbers and he made a bold decision to go to America on a Missionary tour. In fact while Jezreel had been in India Clarissa had herself gone to America, a country where John Wroe's Christian Israelites had obtained a footing, particularly in Michigan and other areas adjacent to the Great Lakes. Mr and Mrs Jezreel arranged to meet up with Noah Drew, a Michigan farmer who Clarrisa had previously met in the US. They planned an Evangelistic tour; with six wagons, a large tent, and a hundred benches however this was also unsuccessful and they met with much hostility and even fell out with Noah Drew so, disheartened, they returned to England. Jezreel spent much time in 1882 and 1883 traveling and visiting towns in England and Scotland in a search for converts, but this also wasn’t too successful.
In May 1883 Jezreel departed for Australia, another country in which John Wroe had established a number of Christian Israelite communities. This time he was more successful and gained a number of converts. However he soon returned to England determined to establish a central Headquarters for the sect.
A Meeting Hall was opened at the junction of Nelson and Napier Roads in Gillingham and services were held there every Sunday evening and in the afternoons for members of the general public. The Open services became very popular and they had music accompaniment of Harps, Violins, Piccolo's and a Harmonium. He used to appear at the services in a red cap wearing a large sash adorned with golden keys, swords and stars. In one hand he held a rod of iron and in the other the keys of St Peter. The young virgin girls wore their hair up with white caps.
On the 15th October, White joined a small branch of a Southcottian sect of Christian Israelites at Chatham, led by a Mr and Mrs Head and calling itself the New House of Israel. Shortly afterwards White wrote a version of the manuscript to become known as the “Flying Roll” and took over the church. White adopted the name of James Jershom Jezreel and persuaded worshippers that he was the Messenger of the Lord. His military service finally complete in 1881, he set about building a headquarters for his church.
In his plans and to provide employment for his followers and income for his church, in the surrounding area there were plans for shops, plus accommodation for Israel’s International College which was a school he had already set up at his new home in Woodlands Road, Gillingham. Many of his followers, known as Jezreelites were tradespeople and shopkeepers and having originally given their money and assets to the cause, still had to make a living and the shops around the new tower were for that purpose. The community prospered and ran a good quality German bakery, specialist tea merchants, with another branch in London, carpenter, joiner and wheelwrights, dairy products and delivery service, jewellers, boot and shoe manufacturer, lithographic and letterpress printing firm and a shoeing & blacksmith. They also opened up a Dairy farm close to Woodlands and a fruiter and greengrocer in Marylebone Street Portland Place London.
This significant change in fortune encouraged Jezreel to give instructions to his 1400 followers to build a fantastic temple, refuge, sanctuary, assembly hall and headquarters for the New and Latter House of Israel, as the church was now called. The plans were according to specifications laid down in the book of Revelations xxi, 16: “And the city lieth foursquare, and the length thereof is as great as the breadth ... the length and the breadth and the height thereof are equal.” This would produce an absolutely immense cuboid structure, and in consequence they were forced to re-think the project and were persuaded by the architects that it would be sensible to reduce the scale of the building from 144 feet cubed to 124 feet square by 120 feet tall. Jezreel bought six and a quarter acres of land from the Rock Freehold Land Society. (Hence the street name Rock Avenue) He paid £2,700 for it and engaged Messrs, Margetts of Chatham, a well-known firm of architects to draw up plans for the tower. To produce an immensely strong structure it was to be built using steel beams and concrete clad with cosmetic small yellow brick and eight castellated towers. The trumpet and flying roll, crossed swords of the spirit and the Prince of Wales feathers, were to be engraved in panels on the outer walls.
In the foundations an enormous underground room had to be constructed for general storage, lift machinery (almost certainly Evans Lifts Ltd of Leicester) a coal-fired heating system and, unexpectedly a bakery business utilising the waste heat. On the floor above, they were to install twelve all-important high speed steam-powered lithographic and letterpress printing presses (It’s not confirmed but it’s likely they were Koenig's).These were required to turn out thousands of copies of the Flying Roll and other literature essential to the working of the sect. Above, the basement was a circular assembly room, a vast amphitheatre, in several tiers said to be capable of accommodating up to 5,000 people. A 25ft diameter circular platform in the centre of the assembly room floor was designed to rise under hydraulic pressure to a height of 30 ft. On it, the choir and preachers would rotate slowly so they could address all parts of the amphitheatre.
However you approach it the drama of a single voice would be lost in such a vast room. To overcome this, strong voiced followers, situated strategically around the amphitheatre, would simultaneously repeat the sermons giving a chilling ethereal sound. In the roof would be a glass dome, 94ft in diameter and invisible from outside of the building. The dome, supported by 12 steel ribs, would be 100ft above the floor, and illuminated by a revolving electric lantern 45ft in diameter. This was to be the only source of light, as the room had no external windows. Under the dome there were to be three circular galleries or balconies. The curved space between the dome and the outer walls was to be used for offices, reading rooms and other non-specific rooms and they were lit by both gas and electricity.
From the outside of the building the Assembly room was to be approached by eight flights of steps, each pair leading to a main door in the centre of each side of the building. The whole building was carefully constructed using non-combustible materials intended to protect the Jezreelites when the Last Trumpet was sounded and fire rained down destroying the rest of mankind. The foundation stone was laid on 19 September 1885, with a glass container of documents embedded within.
Jezreel planned to turn the land surrounding the tower into beautiful restful gardens and construct two stately tree lined avenues from the tower to Nelson Road and another to the junction of Canterbury Street and Watling Street making it a focal point for the area. The estimate for all these plans was £25,000 and completion was planned for 1st January 1885.
Many stories circulated about the Jezreelites, mostly unsubstantiated as they were genial, honest and peaceful people. There were some incidents of rioting but this was instigated by the more thuggish local elements. The possible principle behind the Jezreelites’ temple having no living rooms was that it was to form a huge ladder from which, on the “Latter Day”, (claimed to be coming in 1895) they would be drawn up to heaven by their hair (which like their nails was said remain uncut)”. None of this is documented by the sect and is a pretty standard “Rapture” scenario, although it is known they ceased to cut their hair which was coiled and wrapped under a purple velvet cap.
Unexpectedly, before the tower foundations were even completed, James Jezreel fell ill and died of an aneurysm (probably from an alcohol related illness, although he forbade his sect from drinking). The Jezreelites, it seems, didn’t publically mourn his passing: as they expected resurrection within a fairly short time (It was predicted within 3-5 days). His coffin bore the simple inscription “James Jershom Jezreel, aged 45 years” and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Grange Road cemetery near his home in Gillingham and here he remains joined by his wife some years later. He must have had an exceptional accountant as his total estate, declared at probate, was just 44 pounds.
Much of the tower’s foundations were completed by early 1886 and some of the peripheral buildings were occupied. As building costs soared, Clarissa reduced the sect’s outgoings and made significant economies in the budget for feeding and sustaining followers. She found the cost of feeding Jezreelites was particularly high despite their food businesses and declared the sect would become vegetarian, living off a cheap diet of bread and vegetables. This economy drive apparently did not apply to her and she continued to live very comfortably. From her printing-presses in 1887 she commenced issuing a monthly publication called “The Messenger of Wisdom and Israel's Guide.” She continued to develop the movement effectively, opening Jezreel chapels in many areas and employing hawkers to carry the movement's literature all over the country. Queen Esther, as she had renamed herself, was often to be seen in the area riding in a coach and pair or on horseback and dressed in expensive fashionable clothing. Inevitably, this led to dissent and the number of followers – at one point as high as 1,400 – began to dwindle. After a legal case involving Noah Drew, an American farmer who had previously given all his money and assets to the cause, a mere 160 Jezreelites remained.
On 30th June 1888, Esther Jezreel, aged just 28, fell ill and was attended by a Dr. Lamb who could do nothing for her. She died quickly from kidney disease (peritonitis) and was buried in her husband’s grave. Her coffin was a very substantial affair made from 1½ inch thick oak with a 1 inch elm shell and heavy brass fittings. An inscribed plate read “Esther Jezreel died 30th June 1888 aged 28 years” and the coffin was covered with a purple pall. In her will all that remained of the Jezreel fortune totalled just £33.
An American member of the sect Michael Keyfort Mills, from Detroit, Michigan, who called himself Prince Michael, tried to take over as the new leader but failed. Eventually he founded his own group called "The New Eveites" He was described as being of striking appearance with a long white beard and moustache, long flowing shining hair and dressed in suits made from bright blue material. He claimed to be “Messenger of the Lord”.
At this stage over £30,000 had been spent on the land and building and it was estimated another £30,000 needed to be spent to complete it. A huge amount of money was owed to various contractors who could not be paid. What was left of the sect fragmented and work on the tower was suspended forever. The tower and peripheral buildings in an unfinished state were put up for sale in 1897 but the bidding failed to reach the asking price and it was six years before a buyer was found. The flock of Jezreelites was by then barely 70 and some of the sect had rented parts of the building.
Wrangling still continued amongst lesser followers and in 1903 Benjamin Purnell, (“King Ben”) who had been previously expelled from the Detroit community, founded his own, which was called, “The House of David”, in Benton Harbour, Michigan. The commune thrived for several years, and their orchestra and baseball team became famous with their successful heavily bearded players. The House of David was most well-known for its amusement park, “The Springs of Eden”, which attracted around 500,000 visitors per year at its peak. There was also a world-famous aviary and a zoo, with lions, tigers and bears and they built the narrow gauge railway, on which visitors could take a tour through the facilities.
However, problems began in earnest during 1926, when, at the time, the community had nine hundred followers. Strangely four years earlier, Purnell had stopped appearing in public and disappeared from sight, (it is said into secret chambers under the commune) but in 1926, following a tip-off from a Bessie Daniels, he was arrested during a police raid on the community headquarters and accused of sexual relations with underage female minors, but he died in 1927 before the trial concluded. (The rules of the community forbade sex even between husband and wife but allowed “King Ben” sex with virgins and brides from age 14 onwards.) A lengthy investigation into the colony’s affairs and protracted court proceedings followed. In 1927 the colony was declared a public nuisance and moved into receivership. Purnell and his wife, Mary, were banned from further association with the colony and Benjamin Purnell died, a multi-millionaire, on 16th December 1927. It is said his body was mummified and is in a glass coffin hidden by the sect, awaiting his resurrection. There is however, reason to suspect that King Ben, worth tens of millions and facing a long prison term, contrived his death and moved into obscurity.
Mary Purnell began a lengthy legal battle for the return of the colony's property, and in 1930 a settlement was reached. The assets were divided between her and Judge H.T. Dewhist, who had assumed control and renamed it the “Old House of David” following Purnell's arrest. The House of David continues on its original land and Mary Purnell (died 19th August 1953) and her followers established a second community “The Israelite House of David”, later known as “Mary’s City of David” a short distance away. Both continue to the present time. An Australian branch of the House of David also survives as the Christian Israelite Church with a headquarters in Sydney. (See John Wroe).
Back in Gillingham by 1905, the Jezreelites could no longer afford to pay their rent and the tower’s owners repossessed the building and began its demolition. The tower was found to be so well designed and built that demolition work was painfully slow and expensive, with only the extensive steel work worth any money in scrap. Possibly because of this the contractors went bankrupt and the tower remained reduced in height and derelict until its complete demolition in 1961.
When the demolition of the tower was complete, the sealed vessel containing papers relating to the religious sect was retrieved from under the foundation stone. The documents belonging to The New and Latter House of Israel, founded in 1875, are now part of the collection at Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre. firstname.lastname@example.org
Throughout its existence, the tower was a dramatic landmark and religious symbol to anyone who lived in the area. As well as being the subject of numerous photographic postcards, it was painted by Tristram Hillier in 1937 as part of a series of posters for Royal Dutch Shell. A copy is held in Tate Britain, London. Although in my opinion, the painting is hardly an accurate representation of the building and conveys none of its mystique.
The whole of the land and remaining buildings were purchased in 1920 by the Gillingham Co-operative Society who converted the low level structures in Canterbury Street partly into shops and used the remaining buildings as a shoe repairing factory.
The tower itself could not be put to any useful purpose and continued to stand idle. During WW2 it was used as fire plotting point (for anti-aircraft fire) and as a local radio broadcasting station (Group H" Transmitter broadcasting the BBC Home Service, using 1474 kHz (203.5 m), 0.05-10kW. Opened 5th July 1941, closed 14th August 1943)
The tower was eventually demolished in 1961 and tragically, during demolition a worker was killed, when 100 tons of concrete fell on him. Only a few easily recognisable associated buildings in Canterbury Street remained and a road named after the sect is still to be found. Part of the site became an electro-plating works and was owned by Smiths Signs, until it was bought by L. Robinson & Co (Gillingham) Ltd in 1967/68 as part of their group known for their product, Jubilee Clips. This became the site of L. Robinson & Co. (Plating) Ltd, incorporated on 31st July 1968. Any remaining buildings, associated with the tower were demolished in 2008.
Copyright September 2013
Rosherville Victorian Pleasure Gardens and the tragic sinking of the paddle steamer "Princess Alice"
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The Biddenden Maids - Siamese Twins from the early Middle Ages
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Location of Jezreel's Tower before demolition
This is the high point of Chatham Hill and site of Jezreel's Tower which overlooks the Medway Towns. This was open land in 1885
© 2013 Peter Geekie