Monday, 14 October 2019

Granddaughter of man who ran Victorian religious sect seeks share of £1m legacy

Granddaughter of man who ran Victorian religious sect seeks share of £1m legacy

A WOMAN from Stonor whose grandfather ran a Victorian religious sect is fighting for a share of the £1million proceeds from the sale of its church.

Margaret Campbell, 79, is one of six granddaughters of John Smyth-Piggott, who took charge of the Agapemonites following the death of the movement’s founder Henry Prince in 1902.

The group, also known as the Community of the Son of Man, believed Jesus Christ’s return was imminent and it is claimed that Mr Smyth-
Piggott declared himself the Messiah when he became leader, although relatives say this has been misinterpreted.

He was known simply as “Beloved” by his mostly female followers and took a number of “soul brides” while styling himself as the “heavenly bridegroom”.

The sect was based at a residential community in Spaxton, Somerset, but also built the Grade II* listed Church of the Good Shepherd in Clapton in the late 1890s.

The Gothic building was designed by Joseph Morris and has a series of stained glass windows, created by children’s illustrator Walter Crane, depicting the “true station of womankind” as subservient to men.

Mr Smyth-Piggott’s descendants remained the building’s owners and trustees until it was sold to the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2010.

However, according to a trust deed drawn up in 1892, the proceeds must be used to “promote Agapemonite objectives in such a manner as [the trustees] see fit.”

The family is now seeking a High Court ruling on what should be done with the money as the sect dwindled in popularity following Smyth-Piggott’s death in 1927 and the last practising member died in 1956.

Mrs Campbell and her sisters are descended from Smyth-Piggott and his principal “soul bride” Ruth Preece. They believe they should be allowed to share the money equally to spend as they see fit.

In a statement to judge Andrew Simmonds QC, thewomen’s barrister Andrew Cosedge said: “The trust deed does not appear to contemplate for the personal benefit of individuals after the cessation of any body identifiable as the Agapemonites.”

Judge Simmons reserved his judgement following the two-day hearing and will give his ruling at a later date. If he cannot decide who should receive the money, it will pass to the Crown.

Mrs Campbell, who grew up at the Spaxton community from the age of two and is now a practising Catholic, did not attend the hearing.

She said: “Even the ownership of the church was unclear because my grandfather never wrote anything down. However, I think we have a right to what is due to us.”

Mrs Campbell said many of the claims about her grandfather’s life were “ridiculous”. She said: “There was a new way of thinking sweeping across the country in the 19th century and laws were repealed, allowing people to worship the way they wanted.

“It was a time of great reform and change in lots of areas.

“Many claims about my grandfather are exaggeration — he married my grandmother, his second wife, with his own form of marriage rather than a legally recognised one but that seemed to happen a lot back then. 

“People in Spaxton loved him because he made so many positive contributions to the community like paying for people’s schooling.

“It was a wonderful place and I don’t have a bad word to say about him.”

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