It has been the backdrop to the 'Trumpton' children's series and to a scandalous seduction. Now, 'the Abode of Love' in Somerset is for sale. Ross Clark reports
Converting a chapel into a home is often an awkward task, but in the case of the Agapemone Chapel at Spaxton, Somerset, it will be especially difficult. Besides having to work out how to insert an upper floor into what is at present a single-storey building with floor-to-ceiling stained glass, the buyer will have to cope with the legacy of the two fornicating priests who once preached there.
Long before Texas cornered the market in weird sects, the Agapemonites were scandalising Somerset society. Their founder, the Rev Henry James Prince, began his religious calling as a pious student at theological college in Lampeter, Wales, where he was forever pointing out the sins of the teaching staff. After college he was packed off to be a curate in the village of Charlinch, in Somerset, where his revivalist sermons attracted worshippers from miles around - but put him into conflict with the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Eventually, he was defrocked, whereupon, with the words "in me you see Christ in the flesh", he proclaimed himself to be The Messiah.
During spells preaching in Brighton and Weymouth, Prince collected the considerable sum of £30,000, with which he set up a religious community of 200 worshippers in Spaxton, a mile from Charlinch. Most of the money came from the Nottidge sisters, five spinsters whom he befriended on learning that they had each been left £6,000. Three of them were parted from their money through arranged marriages to Prince's followers.
The community, named the Agapemone - literally "abode of love" - was housed in style. Prince and his favoured women lived in a 16-bedroom gabled house with turreted bay windows, built by a railway engineer who had been enticed into the fold too. Linked to it was a stone chapel, adorned with a rampant lion growling in the direction of Charlinch parish church. The Agapemone was surrounded by a high wall; local youths who tried to scale it were said to have returned covered in teethmarks.
Followers were expected to live chaste lives, but Prince saw no reason why his strictures should apply to him. Husbands and wives slept apart in cottages in the grounds, and one of the Nottidge sisters, Agnes, was ejected from the community, without her money, for the sin of falling pregnant by her husband. Prince, on the other hand, publicly deflowered a 16-year-old called Zoe Paterson in the chapel in 1856. Several followers left in disgust; others were placated when Prince explained that the ceremony, which he termed "the Great Manifestation", had been necessary for the "purification" of the community.
Few outsiders succeeded in visiting this secretive community. One who did was a journalist, William Hepworth Dixon, who gained an audience with Prince after writing a letter addressed to "The Lord God, Spaxton, Somerset". He discovered that the interior of the chapel was not quite in keeping with the sect's pious image: it was furnished with easy chairs, a rich red Persian carpet and a billiard table. Far from being invited to pray, Dixon was offered a sherry. Eventually, he was introduced to Prince, who received him in a black frock coat and white cravat and was surrounded by female admirers.
To the confusion of his flock, who believed him to be immortal, Prince died in 1899 and was buried beneath the front lawn - upright, to save space. In 1902 he was replaced by a second messiah, the Rev John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, who carried on in much the same fashion, and the community continued to expand. One of its cottages, North Gate, a four-bedroom gabled house built for followers in 1916, is for sale for £295,000.
After Smyth-Pigott died in 1927, the community went into gradual decline, ending with the death of the last surviving member, Sister Ruther, at the age of 90 in 1956. The following year, the Agapemone and its contents were auctioned. The chapel became a studio, used during the 1960s to film the children's programmes Camberwick Green and Trumpton. Astute children may have wondered why, in spite of boasting a rich assortment of village eminences, neither place seemed to have a priest. Perhaps the reason is that if Trumpton's vicar had followed local example the series would have had to be X-rated.
The current owner of the chapel, which is listed Grade II, has obtained planning permission to convert it into a 2,000sq ft dwelling. It is in a reasonable state of repair, having been re-roofed recently. Although one of the stained glass windows is currently missing, its parts have been stored and can be replaced. The building still has what is presumably its original woodblock floor. The only drawback is that the chapel comes with virtually no land - although, given that Prince and several of his followers are buried beneath the lawns of the main house, perhaps this is just as well.