A man hides under a bed, terrified. He has escaped, but is not yet safe. When asked from what exactly he is hiding, he cries out: ‘Mother is looking to take me back!’.
At various intervals throughout the late 1870s and early 1880s, stories of rescue missions and wild escapes appeared in the newspapers of Hampshire. What was the man under the bed so afraid of? From what were people being rescued, or trying to escape? And, most of all, who was this ‘Mother’ who instilled such fear in the people of Hampshire? Her name was Mary Ann Girling. She was born in Suffolk in 1827. By the 1870s she had gathered a cult following in Hordle on the edge of the New Forest that believed her to be a prophet of the imminent second coming of Christ and the Millennium. Here, among the egalitarian and apocalyptic ‘New Forest Shakers’, Girling ruled absolute: family relationships, marriages, and money were void; children were raised by the community; and celibacy was the rule. All kinds of rumours circulated about Mother Girling and her ‘Girlingites’ – from assumed orgies under the woodland canopy to child abuse and witchcraft.
But most rumours concerned the Mother directly. She wore long, black dresses, had ‘piercing grey eyes’, and a ‘stern, tough face’: every part the enigmatic cult leader. Her visions of the Second Coming went hand-in-hand with ecstasies and frantic dancing that resembled jumping. People were curious, but cautious. Though Girling is now largely forgotten, when she is remembered it is in this particular incarnation: the mysterious, terrifying prophetess. In his Hampshire and Isle of Wight Folk Stories (2011), Michael O’Leary tells the tale of a few teenagers in the New Forest in the 1990s. They had stolen money, panicked upon hearing police sirens and had thrown the cash in the local graveyard to pick it up the day after: ‘It was as he [the leader of the gang] turned back towards his car that he saw something terrible at the churchyard gates. There was the tall, gaunt, angular figure of a woman, wearing a long, black Victorian dress and a large, black bonnet […] and she was jumping – up and down – up and down […] The young man panicked and fled blindly in the opposite direction, but every time he looked behind him there she was, always the same distance away […] always jumping – up and down’.
O’Leary’s story ends the morning after: ‘The police found him the next day, crouching in a foetal position, rocking backwards and forwards, laughing and crying at the same time.’ It is indeed not hard to see Girling as a character from Gothic horror, described almost ad verbatim as the wicked Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘tall and gaunt, dressed in black’. But it is not the whole story.
Only one photograph of Mary Ann survives. It is a portrait showing a Mona Lisa-like pose and smile – enigmatic, impossible to read, staring into the mid-distance. In many ways she was a classic example of nineteenth-century charisma: elusive, with a commanding presence, and supernatural abilities. While still in her home village in Suffolk, Girling was visited twice by Christ, in 1858 and 1864. ‘Grace came upon me,’ she would later say, by which she meant her visions of the Second Coming, but also trances and ecstasies, the ability to speak in tongues, the gift of the stigmata on her hands and feet, and what can best be described as a magnetic personality. She quickly became a local sensation, drawing increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds. In articles serving as eyewitness accounts of the ‘Girling sensation’, journalists went to some length to describe the excitement surrounding her.
Not everyone in the crowd came for Girling’s prophetic, millenarian message. Once the rumour mill started to turn and stories emerged of her sermons being accompanied by ecstatic dancing, sensual kissing, and charismatic conversions, curious onlookers attended for ‘an entertaining night out’. They hooted, cheered, and hurled insults at Girling: ‘Are you going to mesmerise us?’, or ‘Go back to your husband!’. Inevitably, things got out of hand. A sermon in Woodbridge, Suffolk, escalated into chaotic violence: more than a hundred people were banging the doors trying to get into the overcrowded hall, while those inside tried in vain to escape because of the tumultuous atmosphere. A brick came through one of the windows, rotten eggs were thrown at Girling, and her entourage switched off the lights so that their prophet could flee the scene through the back door.
Girling’s performances left no one unmoved. The kinds of commotions described above continued alongside other, more serene tableaus. During the period Girling and her cult lived in tents on the edge of the New Forest, coaches leaving from Bournemouth on Sunday afternoons would stop at local attractions like Corfe Castle and Bindon Abbey, but also at the Girlingite encampment. ‘Hordle on a Sunday used to be like a fair with the conveyances, wagonettes, and carts from Southampton and the countryside’, one commentator reminisced, while another was less happy: ‘The quietness of the Sabbath has departed, and the Saturnalia of a fair has taken its place’. Tourists could get a guided tour and, if they were lucky, even a glimpse of the fabled Mother Girling herself.
On the coldest day of December 1874, Girling and her followers were evicted from their community lodge in the New Forest after they defaulted on their mortgage payments. According to the Hampshire Chronicle, ‘hundreds of people’ lined up to watch the eviction, ‘hissing, and singing songs’. They were not hissing at Girling, but at the police. The harshness with which the Girlingites were ‘banished from their Garden of Eden’ – as a few of them described it – sparked an emotional response quite different from the fear and loathing to which Girling and her followers had become accustomed. William Cowper-Temple, the later Baron Mount Temple, launched a plea in the newspapers to set up a relief fund at the Hampshire Bank. The illustration below shows the cult by the roadside outside their dismantled utopia: a group of dishevelled Adams and Eves, their possessions strewn carelessly in ditches.
Readers’ letters published in newspapers in the winter of 1874-5 expressed indignation at the way the eviction had been handled, and at its consequences: children spending the night in frozen mud, the Girlingites’ possessions rotting in the rain. Compassion and indignation turned into charity: a baker’s wife from a nearby town came with bread, for example, while the libertarian politician Auberon Herbert offered his outhouses in nearby Ashley Arnewood as temporary accommodation. ‘It seems monstrous,’ so concluded the article in The Graphic at the time of the eviction, ‘that, for the sake of getting back money, [one] should be lawfully able to imperil the lives of a number of unoffending persons’.
Mary Ann’s self-proclaimed divinity, her prophecies, her stigmata, and the cult community she cultivated evoked a wide range of emotions: fear and loathing, mockery and violence, but also pity, happiness, and ecstasy. Everyone felt something when confronted with her, as shown in the excited behaviour of the crowds that she drew, and also in the accusations that followed her throughout her life: branded a fraud, a lunatic, a mesmerist, and a witch, people would call respectively for her internment in a mental asylum or for her consumption by fire.
But how do these anecdotes move beyond the narrative of an eccentric cult? Girling is one nineteenth-century mystic with an exceptional story – a story of ‘the most extraordinary revivalist movement of Victorian days’, according to the journal Ashleon in 1966 – but she is far from alone. At the University of Antwerp, the research project Between Saints and Celebrities: The Devotion and Promotion of Stigmatics in Europe is exploring and mapping the many people across Europe who, like Girling, were allegedly suffering from stigmata in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and were loved, rejected, and feared by their communities. In their company, Mother Girling still stands out, but when appreciated in this broader context she becomes so much more than a Gothic cliché in a local morality tale. To find out more, check out our project website!
- Philip Hoare, England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia (London, 2005).
- Mary Heimann, ‘Mary Ann Girling’, ODNB.
- Lawrence Popplewell (ed.), Moving the Shakers (Southbourne, 1993).
- Charles Maurice Davies, Unorthodox London: Or, Phases of Religious Life in the Metropolis (London, 1873).
- Herbert Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism (London, 1952).
- Tine Van Osselaer, ‘Stigmatic Women in Modern Europe: An Exploratory Note on Gender, Corporeality and Catholic Culture’, in M. Mazoyer (ed.), Evolutions et transformations du mariage dans le christianisme (Paris, 2016), pp. 269-289.