A VICTORIAN STIGMATIC
(Mary Ann Girling)
To study the complicated life of Mary Ann Girling (1827-1886), Methodist preacher turned Messiah, is to disappear down the rabbit hole. Girling hailed from Suffolk. The little that is known of her early life speaks of hardship: she suffered from depression, lost eight of her ten children, and had been severely ill and bedridden. In later years, she explained to journalists that it all changed in December 1858 when Christ visited her in her bedroom. He reappeared three times. Six years later Girling quickly became a sensation, emerging in the villages of Suffolk to preach the Second Coming of Christ, and displaying supernatural powers. Her gospel events, characterised by ecstatic dancing, drew large excitable crowds. She was mocked and heckled—and was the target of rotten eggs on more than one occasion—because of the liveliness and exuberance of her radically apocalyptic sermons, but also because her public appearance made many people uneasy. She seemed to embody the subversion of the boundaries that have long defined Victorian society.
To many of her contemporaries, Girling defied any attempt at categorisation altogether—a woman who had abandoned her family to preach in public? A preacher who attracted followers across class and gender divides? How she proclaimed her own divine authority? Throughout her career as mystical leader Girling was pushed to the heterodox fringe of society and framed as irrational, idiotic, insane, and to be avoided. When the animosity in Suffolk became too much, the self-styled prophet and her devotees traded the rural setting for a rented chapel under the railway arches of London. There, with the trains running above her, she encountered the same reactions as before. Most people came to see the millenarian prophet and her ‘Shakers’, so nicknamed in reference to Ann Lee’s Shakers in America because of the convulsions and ecstatic, uncontrolled dancing on stage. The crowds came to be entertained, to make fun of Girling, and to accuse her of mesmerism or witchcraft.
Simultaneously, however, Girling was frequently invited into the living rooms of the City’s middle classes for private sermons and conversions. People were repulsed by her, but also fascinated. The reporter of the supernatural and unorthodox, Charles Maurice Davies, attended two sermons and wrote of the ecstatic shaking and Girling’s commanding presence, but also of the ‘bored youth’ in the room who heckled and sang deliberately falsely. In London as well as in Suffolk, Girling remained a contested and controversial sensation.
‘Inside the meeting house’. Illustration of Girling’s gospel event under the railway arch of Walworth, London, Police News Illustrated, 1871.
Relentless harassment, combined with the fact that the owner of the space under the archway no longer wanted to see his property reduced to a scene of turmoil and violence, meant that the Girlingites were once again forced to move, this time to a lodge on the edge of the New Forest. There the charismatic mystic founded a full-fledged community with her followers: a location dedicated to shared prayer, devotion, and to preparing for Judgment Day. She remained, for many Victorians, a ‘difficult’ figure; someone who continuously, and seemingly deliberately, crossed established social boundaries. In the New Forest Girlingite community family, marriage, materialism and money became meaningless. Children were raised by the group and celibacy was rule. Worldly concerns were largely irrelevant when the millennium was imminent.
In the New Forest the Girlingites’ behaviour became, to observers, increasingly outlandish and outrageous, especially after they were evicted from the lodge and took to living in tents by the side of the road. The women of the cult wore bloomer costumes and worked the fields, while the men had long hair and often wandered around the countryside aimlessly. Girling herself wore loose white dresses and wreaths of flowers, going barefoot with her stigmata revealed, and at times emerging from her tent blindfolded, speaking in tongues. Though commentators derided the community their articles served only to enhance the spectacle, so that by the late 1870s tourist coaches in the area included Girling’s encampment on their trajectory.
‘Trips! Trips!! Trips!!!’ Advertisement for a tourist trip around the Bournemouth area, including Girling’s ‘Shakers’ Encampment’.
To study Mary Ann Girling is to jump down the rabbit hole because it is so difficult to move beyond the impressions made of her by her sceptical contemporaries. They wrote about her; Girling herself left only a four-page religious tract, and her followers were not concerned with their legacy with the apocalypse imminent. Critics persisted in portraying her message as backwards superstition and her devotees as ‘deluded’, ‘simple folk’ or ‘queer, impracticable creatures’—juxtaposed with the ideal of a rational, scientific modernity, much like literate Victorians approached the perceived primitive beliefs in the colonies. Similarly, contemporaries described her as a product of, and a reaction against, Victorian progress. But to depict the reception of Girling and her cult as a conflict between ratio and superstition or between progress and reactionary communitarianism is simplistic. One has but to look at the social diversity within her cult following: these were not all people with nothing to lose, not all victims of the industrialisation. In Girling’s tents lived labourers, craftsmen, landowners and politicians; men, woman and children; poor and rich. They abandoned their families, jobs, social status to live in Girling’s faith community, and abandoned any control over their bodies to dance in millenarian ecstasy.
No wonder Girling and her Girlingites continued to befuddle her contemporaries as well as historians until long after her death in 1886.
- 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.
Kristof Smeyers is a PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp. He has worked for the Bodleian Library and the National Bank of Belgium (publishing an economic history of the country in 2016), and is a member of the research project Between Saints and Celebrities: The Devotion and Promotion of Stigmatics in Europe.