This post was written by Richard Espley, Head of Modern Collections at Senate House Library. It is part of a series of blog posts on the theme of Hope and Fear in library and archive collections, as part of the Being Human festival and History Day 2016.
Joanna Southcott (1750-1814) was a prophetess, believing herself to be Biblically foretold in Revelation chapter 12 as the woman appearing clothed with the sun, wearing a crown of stars and with her feet resting on the moon as she gives birth to a new Messiah. At the height of her influence, her followers numbered in the thousands, and many of them waited patiently for their sexagenarian leader to give birth in the weeks before her death. As part of her legacy, Southcott left a sealed box of prophecies which she decreed was only to be opened at a moment of national crisis, and even then only with the attendance of all Church of England Bishops. In the decades after her death, the idea of the box acted for many as a talisman of hope against any and every fearful prospect. The box pictured was acquired by prominent paranormal investigator Harry Price in 1927, authenticated by him and then opened; it contained an assortment of uncharismatic objects including a large pistol, ear rings and coins. However, to the surviving cadre of Southcottians in the Panacea Society, based in Bedford, the box in Senate House Library was and is a fraud, while they acquired the true artefact from successive generations of guardians in 1957. Still unopened, the Society has repeatedly petitioned Bishops to assemble to allow them to break the seals, and still retains a room furnished especially for this ceremony.