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23 July 2018

8. 'PROPHET' JOHN WROE AND MELBOURNE HOUSE

Wakefield briefly twinned with Jonestown...

Melbourne House in Carr Gate was, for a time in the nineteenth century, the home of the Christian Israelites, a church or cult (depending on your point of view) that was founded by Victorian oddball John Wroe.

As I turn off Brandy Carr Lane and pull into the premises of what is now a telecommunications company called KCOM, hoping for a look around and the opportunity to take a few photos, I try to imagine that it’s 1857 and there are 250 people parading around in white robes on the manicured lawns. That was the scene painted by the Wakefield Express when they visited that year to witness the official opening of the sect’s headquarters at this grand house.

Members of the church came together ‘from the principal towns in this country, America, Germany and Australia, for the purpose of attending the annual conference, and on Sunday morning the ceremony of formally opening the temple was commenced by the entire number; attired in white robes, marching in procession around the grounds in which the edifice is built. They then entered the temple, followed by the prophet.’

But cults with such a following and means at their disposal do not, of course, spring up overnight. It was a long and rocky road that ‘Prophet’ John Wroe travelled to get to this point. So how did he and his followers come to reside in Wakefield? One must first examine his tumultuous life before he came here.

Melbourne House, Carr Gate, known locally as 'Prophet' Wroe's mansion



John Wroe was born in the village of Bowling near Bradford in 1782. He did badly at school (he attended one in Bretton for a year) and could barely read his whole life. Upon reaching adulthood, our future prophet seemed set for a deeply unremarkable life.

He got married and had seven children, but in 1819 he fell gravely ill and it looked very likely that his mundane existence would come to an end. Against all apparent evidence, however, he got better and, like many people who have had a near death experience, he was a changed person.

His recovery was slow and he had periods of blindness, while at the same time experiencing visions – an interesting combination. He was convinced that the visions were telling him he should start a new religion. Thus, he decided to give up his job and travel the country, recounting the important things he had foreseen.

Wroe cobbled together different bits of the Bible and told anyone who would listen that a new Jerusalem was on its way and it was going to be in Britain. Reports from the time describe him as being short and ugly, with a haggard face, shaggy hair and a slight hunchback. He also literally carried a rod of iron, apparently.

He sounds like the type of person who, if he were preaching outside Wakefield Cathedral on a Saturday afternoon , you would happily give a very wide berth to, but the rod of iron hints at something he had in his favour – a gift for showmanship and publicity. He also, presumably, had a measure of charisma and some skill in oratory.


People of the time were trying to make sense of the new climate in which they lived, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, and Wroe’s ideas began to garner some support in the 1820s.

That is not to say there weren’t some detractors and hiccups along the way. In 1824, he was publicly baptised in front of a reported 30,000 people. The event was well publicised in the Bradford area, but this still suggests an over-enthusiastic biographer to me – I’ve been at football matches with attendances of 30,000 and that would be an awful lot of people trying to catch a glimpse of someone being dunked in a river without so much as one big screen to help them out – but still, it sounds like he’d pulled in a big crowd.

It seems, however, that most folk had shown up to mock this idiot who wanted to take a dip in the River Aire in February. Musicians and singers performed on the banks as part of the show, but much of the crowd were entertaining themselves by shouting, ‘Drown him!’ It didn’t help when it appeared that Wroe, when faced with the reality of it all, was a bit apprehensive about getting into the water on such a freezing cold day. With such a large audience taunting him, though, he had little choice in the end but to wade in.

Many of the people had no doubt been attracted to the scene by the promise that he would follow the baptism by parting the waters of the River Aire and walking across the dry riverbed. This he did easily and everyone said, ‘Oh, how marvellous’. Or, he failed miserably and was pelted with mud and stones before rapidly exiting stage left. What do you think is most likely?




Undeterred, he pulled off his next big publicity stunt the same year. As well as working towards building a new Jerusalem and sticking to Jewish dietary law, the church believed that members should be circumcised. To prove how vital to entering the kingdom of heaven it was not to have any skin covering the end of one’s penis, Wroe underwent the procedure himself - in public - when he was in his 40s. This was either the act of a holy man who wanted to prove he practised what he preached or that of a mentally ill fellow who was desperate to expose himself. Either way, it no doubt did wonders for publicising his movement.

Most impressed by his decision to chop a portion of his penis off were the people of Ashton-under-Lyne, so this was clearly the place where the New Jerusalem was meant to be. Wroe and his followers opened their first church appropriately enough on Church Street in Ashton on Christmas Day 1825. Reports suggest that the first gathering there lasted for 36 hours. Of course, another tactic of the cult leader is sleep deprivation, so this seems entirely possible.

Wroe told his followers he was going to build a wall around the town, but it was never built. He did manage to build four Holy gateways to the town, however. This was no doubt due to his talent for ingratiating himself with people who had money. Ashton was, of course, one of the towns experiencing the Industrial Revolution first hand and there were many well-off industrialists who were, perhaps surprisingly, willing to believe Wroe’s ramblings.



One of the Christian Israelites rules was that you never cut your hair. This led to them acquiring the nickname 'Beardies’.


With rich and influential friends, Wroe was able to build his first big house over in Lancashire, and when he went on his preaching tours, one of his followers always had to be ready to pay any expenses, as whenever the bill came round Wroe apologised for having mislaid his wallet.

The influence of their leader meant that the Christian Israelites were not a sect that really bothered with the poor. Members tended to be the better off, or at least they started that way. Associating with Wroe reportedly led to some members ending up in the poor house, while Wroe enjoyed the good life.

His fondness for gathering cash and spending other people’s soon led to trouble, though. To quote a rather favourable account of Wroe and the history of the Christian Israelites (cichurchhistory.com), a ‘disagreement arose surrounding some credit that had been given to John Wroe, when it should not have been given’. One can’t help thinking of Father Ted and the trouble he had when money from a fundraising event was found to be ‘resting in his account’.

Worse was to come when his weakness for the flesh became apparent. In 1830, Wroe obviously thought he was untouchable because he told everyone that he had ‘had a command from heaven to take seven virgins to cherish and comfort him’. Priceless. Three local families were more than happy to oblige with what his Holiness said he needed to carry out the Lord’s work. These were the virgin daughters of prosperous local families, one of whom at least was under 16. Maybe he was untouchable at this time. 
He took them off on one of his preaching tours and, lo and behold, when he came back one of them was pregnant. Who would ever have thought it?
Melbourne House Entrance
When other members found out about this all hell broke loose with some other members thinking this situation was a bit off. Wroe had a great answer, though: the baby was going to be the new Messiah. There were a few shrugs and some of the members said, ‘Oh, reet. Well we better make preparations then, Mr Wroe, and they made a very expensive cot (that was later displayed for a time in Peel Park Museum in Salford).
Unfortunately, when the New Messiah was born, something was very wrong with it - it was a girl. Wroe was clearly lying. A girl indeed!
A trial was held by cult members in their headquarters, which they called the Sanctuary, on Church Street. A report of the trial published in The Voice of the People in 1831 points to rather a lot of evidence against Wroe. Accounts by Mr Wroe’s virgins all seemed to marry up with one another with regards to his modus operandi – he’d tried it on with at least three of them – and his wife, with presumably pent up fury, let it be known that he’d had a bit of trouble in Bradford too with a girl who was only 12 or 13. Things looked bleak for Wroe.
However, the ‘trial’ ended in a chaotic and riotous manner and it’s unclear whether Wroe was found not guilty or if no sentence was ever reached. The Voice of the People alluded to the fact that Wroe had the means to buy off some of those who sat in judgement upon him, so maybe he was found not guilty and the watching audience went crazy with the injustice of it.
All that is clear from the episode is that the church hemorrhaged members as a result of the trial and Wroe’s time in Ashton-under-Lyne was up.

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Mr Wroe’s Virgins was a BBC drama, shown in 1993 and directed by none other than Danny Boyle, before he’d even got around to doing Shallow Grave, never mind Trainspotting. It starred Jonathan Price as Mr Wroe, along with Minnie Driver and Kathy Burke.

The series was based on the novel by Jane Rogers, who hails from Ashton-under-Lyne. Rogers was inspired to write her work of fiction by the strange events that took place in her home town.

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It was now that Wroe really began to travel, with trips to America, Australia and New Zealand appearing on his itinerary. Maybe he thought the angry mob might still be chasing him. Australia was a place where he managed to drum up considerable support and he was able to exploit this goodwill to help build his place in Wakefield.
Wroe had been living in various locations around Wakefield since 1837. Perhaps these places were a bit pokey for him because, in 1853, he announced that he had had a dream where the Lord had told him to build a mansion where the Messiah could live, along with a virgin or two. ‘Well, if you say the Lord told you…’ his followers replied.
The dream had been very specific, but like most of us, he forgot the majority of the details when he woke up. He definitely remembered the virgin bit, but blueprints for the design of the house were a bit vague now. He decided he would have to base his designs on an existing property. ‘How about that cute little cottage up the road, John?’ ‘No, I think in my dream it was more like Melbourne Town Hall. You know, kind of big’.

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On my visit to Melbourne House, the receptionist told me that she had made a point of visiting Melbourne Town Hall on a trip to Australia, so that she could compare the two buildings. She was disappointed to find that Melbourne Town Hall was little like Melbourne House.
I did some digging and found that the original town hall, completed in 1854, was demolished in the mid-1860s. The present, much larger building was completed in 1870. Maybe the original building looked more like Melbourne House, but I’ve so far not been able to find a photograph or drawing of it.

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Cash from Wroe’s supporters started to flow in, particularly from Australia. For a couple of years, he apparently received so many postal orders that he was on first name terms with the staff down at the post office. With £2000 raised he was able to buy the 100 acre site in Carr Gate.

Melbourne House is so called, presumably, because its design is based on the original Melbourne Town Hall and perhaps in honour of John Wroe’s supporters Down Under who helped to finance its building.
He was able to add another £2000 to his coffers from money raised and set aside to fund the publishing of the prophecies of Joanna Southcott*. Wroe decided in the end that this money would be better spent helping him build a big house in Wakefield.
*Wroe was influenced by the musings of Joanna Southcott. If Wroe was a bit nuts, Southcott was nuttier. A whole other post could be written about her, but it has nothing to do with Wakefield, so I will merely encourage you to Google ‘Joanna Southcott’s box’ (stop sniggering at the back). It’s a fascinating story of Georgian absurdity.
So, Wroe’s life was back on the up. The heat from the Ashton-under-Lyne episode had died down, he still had followers who believed his message and he had a very fine house to live in on the outskirts of the Merrie City.

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The whole project to build Melbourne House is supposed to have cost £9000. The only thing certain about where all this money came from is that it wasn’t from Wroe’s own hard work, unless you call conning other people out of their cash hard work.
Wroe put other people’s money to good use, however. The house is obviously large and sits within a very nice plot, but on my visit I was able to get a glipse of its handsomeness within. A great deal of cedar was imported from Australia in order to provide wood panelling for many of the walls, panelling which is still very much in evidence, and reports from the time also mention the fine wooden staircase.
The receptionist, Maureen, kindly allowed me to take some photos of this staircase that one imagines hasn’t changed in over 150 years. It’s certainly impressive and sports the grandest of grandfather clocks halfway up. She told me that she believed a follower in Australia, who happened to be a joiner, had built the stairs as his way of contributing money to the Melbourne House project, as he couldn’t afford to give 10% of his income to the church as Wroe’s rules dictated.

In 1874, the Free Press gave this description of ‘Prophet Wroe’s Mansion’ : 'It stands on a fine commanding eminence which slopes gently to the south from which a view of the whole country for many miles round can be obtained. The grounds, consisting of several acres, are well ordered, and abundantly stocked with beautiful trees, and at each of the four corners there is a porter's lodge, and a carriage drive sweeping round to the south front of the hall. The forcing-houses are extensive and full of vines and various fruits from many lands. The stables furnish abundant accommodation for a numerous stud. The house itself is a fine mansion-like structure with south, east and west fronts; and the principal rooms are said to be paneled with cedar.’
Clearly what a holy man needs most of all is a country manor to rival Thornes House (post 7), complete with stud farm.

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In the Victorian book by William Stott Banks Walks Around Yorkshire: Wakefield and its Neighbourhood, he tells of a burglary that took place in 1842 at the Wroe residence. This would have been well before Melbourne House was built, but it seems Wroe had a farm in the same area at this time.

When John Wroe was away on his travels the women of the house were awoken by a number of men breaking in and stealing, among other things, a gold watch. Alerted by the commotion, John’s son and a groom, who had been sleeping in an outhouse, hotfooted it to the main house armed with a loaded shotgun. The burglars ran away with shots following them in the night.

On the statements mainly of John Wroe’s son and daughter, seven men were arrested. Some were released but Benjamin Pickersgill, the landlord of a pub near Bragg Lane End, Wrenthorpe, his son, John, and James Ramsden, a coal miner from Lawns, near Outwood, were found guilty.

They all protested their innocence, pointing out they were respectable men with jobs and families, but no matter, they were ‘transported’, which presumably means to Australia.

Two years later, according to Banks, the ringleader of the real culprits – a career criminal called James Hudson – confessed to the break-in. Applications were made to return the innocent men to Blighty, but things didn’t move quickly. It was in fact five years before they made it back, by which time they found their old life in tatters.

To quote Banks and his brilliant Victorian turn of phrase, ‘the mother of one had worn herself out with grief and wandering; the wife of another had gone wrong; the wife of the third had died, and his house had been broken up and his goods sold.’

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‘Prophet’ Wroe’s life may have taken an upswing in 1857 with the inauguration of his mansion in Wakefield, but it took a distinct downturn just six years later, when he died. One of his wilder claims had been that he would never die, but in 1863, when on a trip to Australia, he finally expired. He’d given it a good go, though, living into his 80s.

Some of his Aussie followers were a bit miffed by his death and asked if they could have the money back that they had ploughed into Melbourne House. They clearly didn’t get anywhere, as ownership of the house, unbelievably, ended up solely in the hands of the Wroe family.

At this point, an American, Daniel Milton, enters the story. Milton was a rather sad character who was under the impression that he was in fact the Messiah. His wife and daughters left him and he had a run-in with Wroe shortly before Wroe’s death, trying to gain entry to Melbourne House. Wroe was unimpressed by this charlatan claiming to be the Messiah – ‘I’m the true charlatan, I mean Messiah’ – and sent him on his way.

After Wroe’s death, Milton continued to fixate on Melbourne House, saying that the Christian Israelites should have the place, as it was built as a temple for them and not just as a big house for John Wroe to swan about in. However, despite running a campaign of protest that included pasting notices to the walls of the property, presumably containing a list of grievances, he got as far as the Australian contingent.

John Milton's view of Melbourne House

According to a report in an Australian newspaper, he even managed to take possession of the property at one point and began a siege which lasted for a whole month. Even after he was turfed out, he never gave up hope of gaining entrance and even took a step ladder to the walls to look over at what he called his Mecca.


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The house remained in the hands of the Wroe family till the 1930s. Supposedly, a room contained some of John’s clothes and slippers ready for him should he ever come back as the Shiloh (a Hebrew term for the Messiah).

In 1956 it became an old people’s home - the Melbourne House Pentecostal Eventide Home. Nice to see they retained the old name. I don’t suppose there were too many virgins knocking about, though.

From 1997, Prophet Wroe’s house became a temple to the worship of telecommunications when it became the offices of Torch Telecom, now called KCOM.

See if you can spot which is the old house and which is the extension that was put on in the 1990s.

The religion that John Wroe began does still live on, however, in such faraway places as Poland, Russia, Indianapolis and, of course, Australia.

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If you’re still trying to decide if John Wroe was a truly prophetic man or just a conman trying to eke out a living with his limited intellectual assets, I offer one more story about his life. This came from the information sheet that KCOM hand out to visitors like me who turn up at Melbourne House because of an interest in the site’s original usage. I’ve no idea what their source was, but the details seem to point to some truth.

Wroe, of course, claimed to go into trances in which he had visions and received divine inspiration. Such trances could last for ages and be a powerful tool in his quest to convince people of his message.

One such vision lasted for a week and seemed set to continue for as long as visitors showed up at the house and handed his wife a few pennies for the opportunity to gawp at Wroe. Suspicions arose, however, over the fact that sometimes his room would be locked. Why did a man in a trance care for his privacy?

Then his wife went out one day and forgot to lock the house. A neighbour snuck in and went into the bedroom to find Wroe sitting up in bed eating a nice lunch of beef, pickled cabbage and oatcake.

‘Ah…’ began John, ‘I can explain…’. 



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