Writer looks into city's cult leader

A BIZARRE-but-true tale of virgins, religious leaders and a sumptuous Wakefield mansion has been put together by a Wrenthorpe-born writer.

The unusual life of ‘Prophet’ John Wroe, dubbed ‘the Moses of the East Riding’, is the subject of a new book by Ed Green, who was born and bred in the north Wakefield village.

Mr Green said: “Few motorists driving to Wakefield from junction 41 of the M1 could begin to imagine the colourful life story of the character whose mansion stands just a stone’s throw away.

“The property, briefly glimpsed through the trees and now part of an office complex, was originally built as the stately residence of the founder of the Christian Israelite Church, the strange and charismatic ‘Prophet’ John Wroe.”

Mr Green, 36, said he was intrigued at how, when he was growing up in the 1980s, some elderly people were uneasy talking about him.

He said he hoped his book would pull together the facts behind the Wroe myth – which have been hidden in dusty, antique books and scattered in library vaults for more than a century – to give a fuller picture of a man who is perhaps best known for his scandalous involvement with seven of his virgin followers.

Although a native of Bradford, John Wroe (1782-1863) spent much of his life in Wakefield, living in various parts of the district including Kirkgate, Westgate, Sandal, St Johns and Wrenthorpe, where he built his opulent mansion, Melbourne House, in 1857.

The house was designed to resemble the old town hall in Melbourne, Australia, where Wroe had a strong following.

Its plush interior and ornaments were funded by his congregation, with even the poorest members being expected to cough up 10 per cent of their earnings for what was, effectively, a private house.

Wroe’s home was formally opened at day break on Whit Sunday 1857, in front of around 250 of his followers from all over the English-speaking world.

The owner had shot to public prominence during the 1820s, when he began to experience visions following a long illness and was convinced he was receiving divine communications.

In 1822 he founded the Society of Christian Israelites, who believed that the South Lancashire industrial town of Ashton-under-Lyne would be the New Jerusalem, where the 144,000 chosen ones would gather at the apocalypse.

Wroe’s popularity at Ashton lasted until the autumn of 1830, when he was tried before a jury of Christian Israelites after various allegations about his sordid relationships with seven virgins came to light.

He left Ashton for Bradford, but riots followed and so Wroe settled in Wakefield, the city in which he had lived for part of the previous year.

At Wakefield Wroe established the Christian Israelites’ printing press in Thompson’s Yard off Westgate, from which Christian Israelite literature was sent all over the world, especially to America and Australia.

By 1837 he had moved to Wrenthorpe, where he lived at Brandy Carr House, on Jerry Clay Lane. But after telling his followers that he’d received a command from heaven to build a temple he set to work on the opulent, 15,000, Melbourne House.

More than a century ago, the vicar of Filey noted that in Melbourne House: “One finds a handsome country house is the temporal reward of a man of the poorest attainments, of the craziest creed.” Mr Green adds: “Wrenthorpe was witness to the gullibility of a past generation.”

In the summer of 1862 Wroe left Melbourne House for the final time, on a voyage to Australia. He died there the following year.

According to the Wakefield Express, after Wroe’s death his faithful servants placed one of his shirts in front of the fire to air. It caught alight and was burnt to rags.

Such was their belief in him, even when in the grave, they said that ‘Prophet Wroe had called for his shirt.”

The house later became a residential home before being sold for 350,000 in 1994 to be used as offices.

Mr Green, who went to Outwood Grange school and now works in publishing, added: “I have tried to reveal the truth behind several of the many myths surrounding Wroe, and also attempted to explain why this strange phenomenon occurred at this period of English history.”

His attempts at explaining the “strange phenomenon” of Wroe will provide a more factual account to sit alongside Jane Rogers’ novel, Mr Wroe’s Virgins, which was turned into a BBC drama in 1993, transforming one of Wakefield’s most eccentric characters into a household name.

Ed Green’s Prophet John Wroe: Virgins, Scandals and Visions is published by Sutton, and costs 18.99.