14 November 2015

'King Solomon's' Abode at Portslade


Judy Middleton 2003 (revised 2015)

 copyright © J.Middleton
The block of flats on the corner of Carlton Terrace and Old Shoreham Road was built on the site of a house once occupied by ‘King Solomon’.

Sussex Born

The man later known as ‘King Solomon’ was in reality James William Wood who was born at Maresfield, East Sussex on 20 September 1830. Even as a child he was full of religious zeal and exhorted people to repent of their sins. Although he was baptised as a baby at Maresfield Church into the Church of England, he insisted on a public baptism in Piltdown Pond at the age of fourteen. Theologically, one baptism is sufficient but Wood referred to his experience at Piltdown Pond as his equivalent of being immersed in the River Jordan.

In 1849 James William Wood aged nineteen sailed for Adelaide in Australia. But he was not alone in this venture because he accompanied his elder sister Ann and her husband Alfred, the men being described as agricultural labourers. It seems they went on an assisted passage and perhaps there was a grant of land awaiting for them to work. It is interesting to note that in later life Wood was described as a mining agent, stockbroker and evangelist. 

Down Under

Launceston, Tasmania in 1889.

On 27 May 1862 at Launceston, Tasmania, Wood married Phillis who hailed from Aberdeenshire. The couple were extraordinarily prolific and produced 13 children but sadly most of them did not survive to adulthood; indeed it seems that just four of them lived to maturity.

Whatever Wood’s expectations about a new life in Australia had been, his business affairs did not prosper; in fact he was insolvent in 1866 and again in 1875.

The Woods lived in Melbourne while his business interests were around Ballarat. It seems his wife’s death in 1882 must have had a profound effect on him. In 1883 he was at the end of his tether after suffering from what he describes as ‘continuous indisposition’ for some 25 years and he called upon God for healing. His prayers were answered and in 1884 at Adelaide he embarked on a ministry of healing. He was already a powerful preacher and although he was described as not well educated, he certainly knew his Bible. Today he would most probably fit the description of being charismatic.

A Return to Europe

If things seemed to be going well with him at last, why then did he abandon Australia and return to Europe? It seems a strange decision after 36 years in Australia. But in 1885 he set sail for the northern hemisphere.

In 1886 he visited the Holy Land accompanied by four companions with some notion of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. The following year five of his chief followers (three men and two women) went to Palestine in quest of the Ark of the Covenant that they believed was buried at the foot of Mount Carmel. But they returned disappointed. Wood also undertook healing missions to Ireland and Prussia, both east and west.

At first Wood settled in London where he soon gathered a large number of followers. Indeed, there were so many that he appointed twelve elders bearing the name of the twelve tribes of Israel to exert some discipline. But this arrangement soon fell apart because Wood became increasingly authoritative in his behaviour besides antagonising local people. Chaos descended and water and gas supplies were turned off. Then bailiffs moved in and private possessions were sold off; followers were ejected onto the street and with a flourish of trumpets the Salvation Army moved in.

The next retreat was a house at Upton Park that Wood named Arretecasah. But this house was also besieged by the mob and he was forced to move once more.

There is a story told about the decoration of the sanctuary but which location that might be is not clear. Wood’s ‘man of business’ was told some ornament was needed to go on top of the pillars in the Sanctuary. He went for a walk to ponder the matter and noticed a beautiful model of an acorn and thought that would be perfect. Just to make sure he asked the prophetess in the Holy of Holies for her views. But the prophetess was seized with uncontrollable laughter, exclaiming ‘I see in a vision pigs’ feet, pigs’ feet all over the place. The Lord says, “Do you think my Sanctuary is a place for pigs? It is not to be acorns, it is to be pomegranates.” ’

Back to Sussex

After his fraught experiences in London, Wood moved to Brighton in 1886. He held his first service in the private residence of the celebrated Dr Moon in Queen’s Road. He attracted a loyal following of at least 300 people and later services were held in the YMCA building at the Old Steine.

 copyright © J.Middleton
The YMCA building in the Old Steine.

 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Photograph from the Brighton Graphic - 2 March 1916
‘King Solomon’ (James William Wood)
  Then a certain Miss Webb purchased a single storey building in Edward Street, which was known as the Assembly Hall but was formerly a riding school; Wood named it the Sanctuary of Love. Wood began to identify himself as ‘King Solomon’ and dressed in gorgeous robes while his disciples wore red flannel jerseys.

A certain lady told the reporter of the Brighton Graphic about her experiences inside the Sanctuary of Love while emphasizing that she herself had not been beguiled by the ceremonies. The first thing you saw on entering the large room was a giant eye looking at you, which represented the Eye of God and was surrounded by scarlet drapery. ‘King Solomon’ wearing a robe of white and gold sat on a throne before which were painted three circles. The outer black circle represented sin, the middle one was red to signify blood and the inner circle was gold. Red-clad disciples led visitors, consisting mostly of women and girls, to the circles and after singing There Angels Hovering Round they began to dance. The dancing continued until they were exhausted and collapsed at the feet of ‘King Solomon’ who graciously accepted their gifts of jewels. Apparently, there was a stack of gold and silver watches in one part of the building. 

Wood’s sect included a ‘King David’ a ‘Queen Esther’ and a ‘Queen of Sheba’. The latter was known as Sister Grace as a child and she was gifted with healing powers. Some members of the sect were able to speak in tongues and there was a great deal of dancing inside the golden circle. Indeed some children spent such a lot of time dancing that they began to reel about like people under the influence of drink.

Army of the Lord

Wood called his followers the Army of the Lord and in case that reminded anybody of another organisation, it was said he could not stand the Salvation Army although he was glad enough of their assistance when he was in Australia. There were branches of the Army of the Lord at Worthing, Maidstone and other towns.

Wood was given to prophecies that did not come true. For instance, he predicted the devil would be chained by 1888. Another prophecy concerned a child expected to be born in 1889 as King of Israel but instead turned out to be a stillborn girl.

The Ravillous Case

In March and April 1889 several articles appeared in Sussex Daily News about ‘King Solomon’ when he was obliged to appear at Brighton Police Court. The case involved an unfortunate tailor of Wandsworth called James Ravillous who apparently received a message that he must sell up his business and lay the proceeds at the foot of Caleb, treasurer to the sect, (in reality a Mr Threadgold). The sum of money was between £300 and £400. Then Mr Ravillous, his wife and seven children came to live at the Sanctuary of Love in Edward Street. Ravillous became disillusioned with the sect because he had to live on nothing but vegetable soup for twelve months while ‘King Solomon’ treated himself to delicacies. Even worse was the fact his children were sent to school without being given anything to eat, not even a crust of bread.

‘King Solomon’ sent Ravillous a letter asking him to leave but Ravillous had no money and nowhere else to go and so he had to remain. ‘Solomon’ took matters in hand literally by throwing him downstairs at 11 p.m. and throttling him until he lost consciousness. Not surprisingly, Ravillour vacated the premises the next day. ‘Solomon’ was fined the maximum penalty of £5 plus costs. But the bad publicity enraged local people; there were riots outside the Sanctuary of Love and windows were smashed.

A Move to Portslade

  copyright © J.Middleton
Another view of and Carlton Terrace and Carlton Court photographed on 26 September 2015.

Wood then decided it might be wise to move away from Brighton and he set up a new sanctuary at 35 Carlton Terrace, Portslade (formerly number 27). It is claimed that the building was erected to serve as a public house, which seems a little strange with the Victoria and Railway Tavern at no great distance. But the premises did have the advantage of a having a hall at the back large enough to contain around 300 people. It had also been in use as a dance hall. This hall was turned into a lavishly embellished sanctuary with all manner of symbols painted in gaudy colours. The lavish standard of the Army of the Lord was housed there too.
 copyright © D.Sharp
'King Solomon' gave his Portslade house the 
extraordinary name of Arregosabah.

It was here that ‘King Solomon’ sat on his throne in rich robes wearing an embroidered cap and holding a sceptre; his long white beard rendered him even more impressive. He must have been pleased with his appearance because he was quite happy to pose for photographs. 

Religious dances took place and his devotees could not understand why people complained about it because the place used to be a ballroom. The locals would make fun of the proceedings by sneaking inside and rolling turnips across the floor. Rumour had it that ‘Solomon’ had five wives – four rich and one beautiful.

In the 1904 Directory the house was identified as Portslade Art Studio Arregosabah. Perhaps the ‘Art Studio’ had something to do with photography because he was known in some quarters as a photographer. It is amusing to note that before Wood and his followers moved in, the house served as the headquarters of Portslade Conservative Club.  

There is another fascinating detail about ‘King Solomon’s time at Portslade. Around three miles from Portslade on the Downs, there stood an old boundary stone. Apparently, this stone was ‘given’ to King Solomon’ in the same way as the Biblical Jacob was given a pillar. This ordinary stone thus became a pillar of witness between Jehovah and ‘King Solomon’ and hundreds of pilgrimages were made to it by night or day and in all seasons.

copyright © D.Sharp
View of Foredown Hill and Mount Zion (beyond telegraph poles), which is almost 3 miles from Carlton Terrace by road and track, could this be the original location of  "King Solomon's" pillar ?

‘King Solomon’s’ Funeral

  copyright © J.Middleton
Portslade Cemetery has some impressive monuments 
but none marks the place where ‘King Solomon’ 
was buried; he lies in an unmarked grave.
James William Wood ‘King Solomon’ died on 17 February 1916 at Portslade. In his old age he had become increasingly incoherent and built up a fantasy that one day he would take over the Royal Pavilion and turn it into a new Sanctuary of Love.

By the time of his death, his followers were either dead or scattered. The reporter stated wryly that had his death occurred at the height of his powers, his funeral would have been a major event. Instead just two funeral coaches were needed for family members to accompany the coffin to Portslade Cemetery.

But his funeral was treated to several columns in the Sussex Daily News. Moreover, a man who knew ‘King Solomon’ personally and was well acquainted with some of his disciples wrote the piece. He included several fascinating anecdotes about the life of ‘King Solomon’ not to be found elsewhere and included in this article.  

Perhaps ‘King Solomon’ would have relished the fact that the dreadful weather made his funeral one to remember. There was a biting north-east wind while from the moment his coffin, covered in floral tributes, left Arregosabah in Carlton Terrace snowflakes poured down from a bleak sky.

Revd V. Howard, curate of Portslade, took the funeral service although ‘King Solomon’ had had nothing to do with the Church of England for decades.

The weeping widow dropped a handful of Madonna lilies into the grave. Another memorable figure was the tearful young man dressed in khaki who was his son Sergeant Wood.

Others attending the funeral were noted as follows:

Miss Deborah Wood, daughter
Mrs Arthur Perriman, daughter
Mrs Wood, daughter-in-law
Mrs Florence Taylor, daughter
Augustus P. Wood, son
Mrs Alice Wood, daughter-in-law
Miss Rene Wood, grand-daughter
An unnamed grandson

Wreaths were sent by:

Grandchildren Violet and Arthur
Great Grandchild Eileen
Jack Earl West
Daughter Winnie, and Gus and Alice

Afterwards

Wood left 35 Carlton Terrace to his favourite wife Ruth but there were no other assets to go with it; instead there were debts. Ruth and their daughter Deborah continued to live in the house in great poverty. It was said they existed in just one small room with no means of heating.

The house at Carlton Terrace was an object of curiosity to local people who had no doubt heard lurid stories of went on there. On 13 November 1933 a fire broke out at the house.

The garden became completely overgrown. During the Second World War Portslade Civil Defence occupied the house and there was a blizzard. The weight of the snow proved too much for the overgrown bushes and trees and the whole lot collapsed onto Old Shoreham Road, bringing all traffic to a grinding halt.

In January 1955 Portslade Council announced plans to demolish the house and build a block of flats on the site instead. In 1959 it was suggested that there should be a three-storey block with eleven flats but in 1960 this was altered to seven flats.

Religious Revival

 copyright © J.Middleton
This wall is probably the only part of his property that ‘King Solomon’ might recognise today but there is nothing regal about it and it can only be described as utilitarian.

It might be helpful to put ‘King Solomon’ in the context of his times. The 19th century was a period of great religious fervour and James Wood was by no means an isolated preacher because there were many charismatic figures. The revival covered all branches of Christianity from unorthodox chapel to high church Anglican.

St Nicolas Church, Portslade was so crammed with worshippers that a new north aisle had to be built in 1859. The Salvation Army established operations at Portslade in 1882, it being the 290th corps in the first 300 and also in North Street the Baptist Church was packed.

At Hove, where once there was only St Andrew’s Old Church and St Andrew’s Chapel in Waterloo Street, there was a rash of church building culminating in the magnificent All Saints. St John’s Church, near Palmeira Square, was so popular that officials kept a sign handy to place outside before services when the church was full up and no more people could be admitted.

Brighton became a centre of the Anglo-Catholic Movement, which revived the style of early Catholic practices in place of austere Protestantism. The Wagner priests were responsible for several remarkable church buildings including St Paul’s, West Street and St Bartholomew’s.

There was nothing lukewarm about Christianity in those days. Some priests, such as the celebrated Father Richard Enraght of St Andrew's Church Portslade, were prepared to go to prison for upholding their cherished beliefs, which might not be in strict accordance with the then current laws of the land.

Sources

My thanks to Kay Kebby-Jones for additional information

Australasian Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements
Brighton Graphic & South Coast Illustrated News (2 March 1916)
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Portslade
Master Detective (July 1974)
Sussex Daily News (March and April 1889)
Sussex Daily News (24 February 1916)

Copyright © J.Middleton 2015
page layout by D.Sharp