If you were standing in Bradford in the neighbourhood of Tyrrel Street or Bridge Street, on a Sunday afternoon in the early 1820s, you might well have witnessed a remarkable spectacle. William Scruton, in his Pen & Pencil Pictures of Old Bradford, described a man with a long, flowing, beard and a brown hat who had walked from Dudley Hill accompanied by twelve women dressed in white. This figure was John Wroe, also known as ‘Prophet’ Wroe, who would have been intending to worship at the Southcottian Church in Bradford.
In the above paragraph I have written ‘might’ advisedly since it has been quite difficult to establish certain facts about this highly controversial figure. There is general agreement that Wroe had been born at Bowling in 1782. I have no reason to dispute this but as a matter of fact I cannot confirm his birth from the on-line resources available at Ancestry. His father is variously described as a wool-comber, a worsted manufacturer, a coal proprietor and a farmer. All, or any combination, of these callings are perfectly possible in 18th century Bradford. It is also widely stated that John Wroe was dark and had a hunched back. As a result perhaps he had not been not well treated by his father and was possessed of little formal education.
I can conform that Wroe married a Mary Appleby in 1816 at the Parish Church, when his occupation is given as wool-stapler. The couple both made their ‘mark’ which confirms their lack of education. Assuming that this couple are the only John & Mary Wroe having children in early 19th century Bradford I can trace four who were baptised at the Parish Church between 1816-23: Joseph, Benjamin, John and Mary. The family move from Bowling to Tong and Wroe’s occupation is variously recorded as spinner & manufacturer, or farmer. In it probable that he lived at Street House Farm.
Non-conformity of religion was common in northern English industrial towns. In addition to Anglican and Catholic churches all such places would at least have Methodist, Primitive Methodist, Baptist and Congregational Chapels, together with Quaker meeting houses. At a later date each would have a Salvation Army citadel. In addition to these well-known denominations there were several more that are now largely forgotten. John Wroe became involved with the followers of a highly controversial religious figure, a prophetess from Devon called Johanna Southcott, who had died in 1814. She believed that she would give birth to a new messiah or ‘Shiloh’ and many people subscribed to her beliefs although no childbirth ever took place. She bombarded MPs with her messages and after her death left a sealed box with instructions that the Archbishop of Canterbury must open it. Johanna aroused immense opposition among her contemporaries but is now widely considered to be sincere and upright, if mistaken.
The crucial episode in John Wroe’s life came at Bradford in the year 1819, a few years after his marriage. Wroe contracted a fever and his unexpected, but slow, recovery was associated with fits, attacks of blindness, visions and dreams. Angels appeared to him who informed Wroe that God had singled him out for a great mission. As a result he struggled to learn to read the Bible and became an itinerant preacher. There is a story that he held a meeting at the River Aire, the waters of which he promised to part in imitation of Moses. The waters of the Aire were more resistant than those of the Red Sea and the miracle did not occur. Wroe was pelted with mud by a disappointed crowd.
It seems certain that Wroe attended the Bradford Southcottian Church and there is a press report that he preached about ‘the days of Pentecost’ there. It also seems likely that soon after this John Wroe contemplated forming his own church and may have considered himself to be the ‘true Shiloh’. Eventually his followers were to erect a mansion for him where, after 1850, he lived with selected individuals. Scruton says that this was ‘near Wakefield’; I assume he means Melbourne House, near Wrenthorpe. But Scruton omits Ashton under Lyne in Lancashire entirely, the place that is most associated with Wroe, and where he originally planned to build his ‘New Jerusalem’.
The earliest press report I can find is from June 1825 when Wroe’s followers were called ‘True Israelites’. It seems most plausible that he arrived in Ashton from Bradford as early as 1822. It is not clear when he moved his whole family and certainly his daughter Mary was baptised from an address at Tong, Bradford the following year. Some of his female virgin attendants lived with Wroe and his wife in Bradford. In Ashton there was a large Southcottian Church which had several affluent members. It seems that Wroe sought a new baptism in the River Medlock and allowed himself to be circumcised in public. Surely to undertake this procedure he must have been very confident of his beliefs indeed.
It is difficult for a rationalist like myself to pass any judgement on Wroe’s religious convictions; in fact it is not easy to know exactly what John Wroe actually believed, aside from the fact that the Lost Tribes of Israel had been scattered throughout the world. Church members were expected to obey Mosaic Law and learn ‘God’s language’ of Hebrew. He clearly expected that Ashton would be a new Jerusalem and hoped that Jewish people would emigrate to England and join him there. This may sound unlikely but William Blake also expressed to build this city ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’. Wroe considered that, meanwhile, his followers should follow Judaic dietary laws. He was opposed to tobacco, and religious paintings. He expected that his followers would not wear garments woven of linen and wool. Like many evangelical protestants he believed that the end of the world was rapidly approaching and that God would only ‘save’ 144,000 chosen people. A description of him preaching in 1827 includes a long flowing beard, shabby blue coat, drab pantaloons and a slouch hat. Some of his early prophecies seemed to have been fulfilled and in consequence many people believed in his supernatural powers. He is said to have predicted the outbreak of cholera in Ashton and, more prosaically, the erection of a gasworks.
In 1830 Wroe’s reputation was made somewhat scandalous when he announced that God wished him to live with seven virgins to comfort him and care for his needs. Then the following year real disaster struck. Three of his female supporters accused him of acts of indecency, immorality and perjury. I cannot yet find out exactly what he was supposed to have done. He had evidently aroused considerable opposition but accounts written by his vituperative enemies often merely talk vaguely of ‘things too awful to be spoken of’. Clearly these actions were of a sexual nature but Wroe always vehemently denied any impropriety. In fact he was not convicted by a trial by church elders, but neither was he acquitted. At least one of his subsequent meetings was broken up by angry citizens.
I assume that it was at this stage that Wroe’s supporters felt he should leave Ashton and that it was probably unsafe for him to return to Bradford. Remarkably Wroe then preached his beliefs throughout England and later travelled to Europe, Australia and the US. In 1850 supporters built the house at Wrenthorpe for him at a cost of £2000, and based on the design of Melbourne town hall. From this time, if not before, his new group was called the Christian Israelite Church. Wroe finally died, in Melbourne, Australia, in 1863. His successor, Zion Ward, went much further in heterodox views advocating Free Love and announcing himself to be the second Christ. He was imprisoned for blasphemy.
In 1991 interest in Wroe was stimulated by Jane Rogers’s book Mr Wroe’s Virgins. This was made into a highly successful TV series which starred Jonathan Pryce, Minnie Driver and Kathy Burke. Naturally the virgins aroused public curiosity but in the book the author, very honestly, admits to wholly inventing their individual characters. John Wroe: Virgins, Scandals and Visions by Edward Green (2005) attempts a more historically based account.
If John Wroe obtained sexual favours from his followers he was not unique in this respect. In the 1840s the Rev. Harry Price created a sect called the ‘Agapemonites’ based at Spaxton, Somerset. He had a billiard table, a well-stocked cellar and, despite having a wife, wanted also to take a ‘bride of the lamb’. Frankly I have no idea what happened to Mr Wroe’s virgins after 1831 nor do I know whether his opinions were honestly held or not. G K Chesterton famously observed that ‘when men stop believing in God they don’t start believing in nothing they start believing in everything’. In a frequently reported comment an 18th century Neapolitan traveller, Francesco Caracciolo, wrote ‘in England there are sixty different religions and only one sauce’. It is hard to disagree with this. Sadly various complexities in Neapolitan war and politics resulted in Caracciolo being hanged for treason by England’s hero, Horatio Nelson, in 1799. But that is another story……