South London Religious Nutbags

Book Cover: Unorthodox London

For South London oddbods, 19th century dissenters The Peculiar People of Plumstead and the Walworth Jumpers set the bar well beyond the grasp of the merely unhinged.

The Peculiar People may sound like vintage sci-fi on ITV9, but it was a devout, narrowly focused, religious sect, deeply unpopular in Plumstead and Woolwich in the 1860s. For their part, The Peculiars took local antipathy towards them as confirmation of their righteousness, as so many of us do.

The Peculiar People based their entire belief on roughly two lines of the Bible. They believed it all as literal truth, but had a single central conviction. Not even a top three, just one essential tenet: No Fucking Doctors. While they scored big on piety, their dependence on prayer to heal the sick made them a danger to public health and no fun at parties.

When they invited the radical and controversial Mary Ann Girling to preach, it looked like an inspired signing. The Peculiars were on a roll, practically shitting churches in London and Essex, while Mary Ann was wowing Suffolk with her visions, until an angry mob chased her out. And that was bound to impress a group that took stuff being thrown at them in the streets the wrong way.

They were a simple and poor people. Poorer still once one of the Elders was fired from the Royal Arsenal for refusing to be less Peculiar.

Mary Ann’s welcome soured when she surprised the Peculiars, which apparently wasn’t difficult, by announcing she was Divine, a reincarnation of Jesus, who would never die. It’s unlikely, but I’d like to think she also tried to commandeer all their wine.

The Peculiars thought they had a charismatic leader on board. She said, it’s better than that, I am the Christ. (It happens all the time at the Bernabéu.) But she had something that inspired devotion. She took many worshippers from Plumstead to help her found the Walworth Jumpers in a railway arch near Sutherland Square, SE17. Props for keeping it South, sis.

Railway Arch
Was this joint jumping? Or was it simply, another one?

Mary Ann trumped The Peculiars’ plain message with her own deft but simple platform for the Walworth mission: No sex. Follow me.

Converts would give up even marital congress to live as brother and sister, sharing everything they had, with no money, worldly goods or mucky compensations. They believed they died in their conversion convulsions and would never die again. She was signing people up to be among the 144,000 she knew would be saved and there were still plenty of tickets. Touts’ nightmare, the Apocalypse.

Her ‘Railway Arch Sessions’, as they would later never be known, were rammed out. Not everyone was there to worship, some just went for a giggle. The ‘New Cut Swells’ attended, presumably after a pub or two en route, because it was the freakiest show in town. These fashionable local dandies would ‘talk loudly and whistle with their hats on’ as well as heckle Girling, as she posed Scripture-based questions.

‘Why did Lazarus come back?’ She asked the faithful.

‘Did he have a return ticket?’ asked a Swell, to cackles.

But the Swells weren’t there for trouble. That was waiting outside, where local toughs had been known to deliver a kicking to suspected Jumpers. They didn’t want any convulsing, dancing or mesmerism on their manor. This was clearly long before The Coronet.

Walworth Road jumpers
Walworth Road jumpers

At prayer meetings, Jumpers would greet each other with a loud, warm, fulsome kiss. That was as good as it got. One writer (me) confabulated that after conversion to Jumperism you would kiss every girl in the room, full-on, but never, ever have sex again. I have to confess I was momentarily, hypothetically, tempted. The savage irony was that you’d endure an eternity as a Jumper, without ever again getting your hands up one.

While Walworth was rising to force the Jumpers off their patch, the Peculiars were under intense pressure in Plumstead. The Windsor Castle pub, once of Maxey Road, heard the inquest into the deaths of two children refused medical attention by their Peculiar parents. Journalist, C Maurice Davies, pointed out to an Elder Brother during his research for his Daily Telegraph columns that although the Peculiars would only allow prayer to treat their little ones for smallpox, they were not so sniffy about appointing a lawyer to get their Brother out of Newgate Prison.

More problems with contagion and subsequent imprisonment led to the schism of the Old Peculiars and the New Peculiars, the latter accepting the use of medicine but retaining the right to be humpy about it. The modernists prevailed and eventually the Old and New made up. The Peculiars remained a fixture in Plumstead and were even fondly remembered in Sheila Edwards‘s fascinating recollections of the 1930s, despite a typhoid outbreak that suggested old habits. She befriended them around Durham Rise, home of several fierce Baptist churches. ‘They got stricter the further you got up the hill’, she recalled.

In 1956, the Peculiar People changed their name to the Union of Evangelical Churches, for obvious, if overdue, reasons. The original name came from the Bible (1 Peter 2:9) ‘Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people’, and must have seemed a good idea at the time. They have 15 churches left, but just one in South London, at Bethwin Road, Camberwell, should you feel sufficiently impressed to join them. They have, after all, not been Peculiar for nearly 60 years now.

Camberwell Evangelical Church
Ain’t that Peculiar?

Bullied out of London, the Jumpers moved on to Hampshire, with a catchy new nickname: The New Forest Shakers. A wealthy follower bought the movement some property and land, but, curiously, left them a small mortgage to keep up. Mary Ann was preparing the believers for the Second Coming, which was going to be along in a minute, again. Converts streamed in, drawn by Mary Ann’s certainty, her magnetic eyes and the 0% death rate throughout their entire 7-year history.

The Shakers called themselves the Children of God and forbade the undertaking of business. They lived as an apocalyptic celibate commune, unable to sell their labour or wares or pay for anything, but sharing everything they had (except the good bits). Consequently, they were evicted for not keeping up the mortgage.

Homelessness proved less popular than chastity and their numbers fell away. By the time Mary Ann lay dying of cancer of the womb at the age of 59, she was down to her last 20 followers. Some claimed she rose from the dead three days after passing. Indeed there is no trace of her grave to be found in the Hordle village graveyard where she was buried, but she definitely made fewer public appearances.

All that remains as a legacy of the shaking and jumping is a static folly, built by one of her devotees, Andrew Peterson. He was visited, not by God, like Mary Ann, but by the spirit of Christopher Wren, who urged him to build a whopping great tower, made from the new cutting-edge material, concrete. It’s clearly all go in the afterlife.

Chris told me to do it

I’m as cross about mortality as I am the next man, but my feeling about apocalyptic cults is that they reveal the kind of vanity which, however many years you think we’ve been around, makes you sure the big stuff is going to happen on your watch. It’s an unwillingness to accept one’s insignificance. I believe with similar certainty that no apocalyptic event will occur in my lifetime. There, that’s better. Now will you take off your pants?

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C Maurice Davies, Unorthodox London
Philip Hoare, London’s Lost Eden

Sway Tower picture: © Copyright Peter Facey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence