Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Girling, Mary Anne

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GIRLING, MARY ANNE (1827–1886), founder of the sect called ‘The People of God,’ daughter of Mr. Clouting, a small farmer, was born in the parish of Little Glemham, Suffolk, on 27 April 1827. She received little instruction when young, but afterwards managed to acquire a fair amount of knowledge. At first she was in communion with a methodist connexion, but left it when the congregation refused to listen to her inspirations. In the meantime she had become the wife of George Stanton Girling, first a seaman, then a fitter in an iron foundry, and afterwards a general dealer at Ipswich. About Christmas 1864 she began to believe that she was a new incarnation of the Deity. One sign of this was in the stigmata which appeared on her hands, feet, and side. She was wont to describe with minute details the extraordinary emotion which overwhelmed her at the moment when she experienced the divine call. From that period she went about proclaiming the new revelation and speaking as with absolute knowledge of hidden mysteries. She gathered around her a small company of men and women, belonging for the most part to the labouring classes. Their first meeting-place for public worship was at 107 Bridge Road, Battersea, London, where in August 1870 they attracted much attention. They were generally called shakers, but they themselves never accepted that name, but always spoke of their community as the children of God. On 2 Jan. 1872 they removed from London and settled in the New Forest, Hampshire, where Miss Wood, a wealthy lady, had purchased for them a residence and a farm, known as New Forest Lodge. She gave 2,250l. for the property, on which there remained a mortgage of 1,000l. Here the community increased to 160 persons, who learnt to regard Mrs. Girling, ‘their mother,’ with tenderness, love, and reverence. She owed her authority over her people to her belief in herself and to her great force of will. Their faith in her endured through cold, hunger, and suffering, and many and repeated misfortunes. It was believed that they would all live for ever, and that sooner or later everybody would acknowledge the divinity of Mrs. Girling, who would then rule over a peaceful world. She was a tall, lean woman, with an upright carriage, a strong, intelligent countenance, bright eyes, a very good expression, and a rather winning voice. She had scruples against going to law, which afterwards made her an easy prey to her enemies. Although the community was industrious and lived in a state of celibacy, it got into debt and was ejected in a somewhat arbitrary manner from New Forest Lodge in December 1873. This ejection took place in very severe weather, and the pitiable condition of the people excited much commiseration. They encamped on the roadside for two days, when they had notice to leave, and part of the community returned to their homes in various parts of the country. A Mr. Beasley then offered them the use of a shed, where they remained for three weeks, but the place was not large enough for them all to sit down at one time. They next found a friend in the Hon. Auberon E. M. Herbert, who gave them the use of a barn on the Ashley Arnewood farm, Lymington. After staying in this barn five weeks, they removed to a field which they formerly had on lease with New Forest Lodge; when this lease expired they were again turned into the roadway, and there they lived night and day for five weeks. In 1879 Mrs. Girling rented a small farm of two acres called Tiptoe Farm, near Hordle, Lymington. Here they erected a number of wooden huts with canvas roofs, with a larger and superior hut as a place of public worship. The only publication issued by Mrs. Girling is a small four-page tract entitled ‘The Close of the Dispensation: the Last Message to the Church and the World.’ It is signed ‘Jesus First and Last (Mary Ann Girling), Tiptoe, Hordle, near Lymington, Hants, 1883.’ In it she says: ‘I now close this letter with the true and loving declaration that I am the second appearing of Jesus, the Christ of God, the Bride, the Lamb's Wife, the God-mother and Saviour, life from heaven, and that there will not be another.’ Latterly the children of God escaped public notice, except from excursionists visiting the place. The cold and exposure at last told on Mrs. Girling, and she fell ill. During her illness she did not lose faith in what she had preached, and believed that she would never die, but would live until the second coming of Christ. She died of cancer at Tiptoe, Hordle, on 18 Sept. 1886, aged 59, and was buried in Hordle churchyard 22 Sept. After the funeral those of the community who had friends returned to them, and only six persons were left to occupy the camp at Tiptoe. Mrs. Girling left children, among them a younger son, William Girling.

[Irish Monthly, October 1878, pp. 555–64; Times, 20 Sept. 1886, p. 9; Standard, 20 Sept. 1886, p. 3; Pall Mall Gaz. 18 Sept. 1886, p. 8, and 27 Sept. p. 3; Lymington Chronicle, 23 Sept. 1886, p. 3, and 30 Sept. p. 3; Vanity Fair, 25 Sept. 1886, p. 181; information from Brother H. Osborne of Tiptoe, Hordle.]

G. C. B.