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24 September 2014

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Faith Features

Mary Ann Girling
Mary Ann Girling phrophesised the second

New Forest Shakers

Mary Ann Girling was both reverred and feared and at one point was almost tarred, feathered and burned as a witch. A new book by Southampton author Philip Hoare unravels the odd tale of the New Forest Shakers.

Mary Ann Girling

  • Mary Ann Girling,was a Suffolk farmer's daughter who claimed to be the female Christ.
  • Her sect, the Children of God held their Utopian home at New Forest Lodge.

Britain in the 1870's - Thomas Hardy was busy penning another classic, Alexander Graham Bell was about to dial up his first call, and a bizarre religious sect was setting up camp in the New Forest.

The sect was led by Mary Ann Girling - a self-proclaimed prophet and religious leader who, because of her public shows of religious fervour soon attracted the attention of the national media.

"They were a sensation", said Philip Hoare - author of England's Lost England - a book about Girling and her mission. "They were on the front page of every newspaper for a whole year.... the Victorians loved a story like that."

"Just imagine 164 shaking, dancing, religious nutters arriving on your doorstep! The effect must have been extraordinary. "
Philip Hoare

Originally from Suffolk, Girling was married at 16, and seemed to have a fairly routine life until a momentous event appeared to change her life for ever.

"On Christmas Day in 1858 Christ appeared to her in her bedroomin Ipswich", said Philip. "She believed she had been given this mission to lead The Children of God - as she called her sect - to the Promised Land which turned out to be the New Forest."

Girling abandoned her Suffolk home and set up camp in Hordle - at the time a tiny New Forest village with a population of no more that of 300.

"Just imagine 164 shaking, dancing, religious nutters arriving on your doorstep", said Philip. "The effect must have been extraordinary.

Philip Hoare
Philip Hoare

"No one could believe the fact that sane people believed what Mary Ann Girling was saying - which was that the second coming was imminent and that anyone who believed in her would live for ever."

Accused of witchcraft and hypnotising her followers, Girling's unauthordox message attracted support from all walks of life - perhaps most memorably from local judge Andrew Thomas Turton Peterson.

His fascination with the Victorian new age inspired him - albeit in a rather eccentric way - to build a lasting monument.

"He was inspired by Mary Ann Girding to get into mesmerism and spiritualism", said Philip. "During a seance the spirit of Sir Christopher Wren gave him the plans of this building - and he built it!"

The tower near Sway - commonly known as Peterson's Tower - still stands as a monument to the short but remarkable residence of the New Forest Shakers and their charismatic leader.

last updated: 14/04/05
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