The goddess-worshipping women’s cult that once lived in Yorkshire’s trendiest valley

Bear with me because this story is bizarre from the start – and it gets stranger.

It centres around a person best known as ‘Marianne Martindale’ who ran a series of small societies set in psuedo-historic eras. There were several of these societies between the 1970s and 1990s but the one we’re concerned with is the ‘Madrian Order’ which took place in a quiet Yorkshire valley in the early 1980s.

The Order began in Oxford in the mid-1970s but moved to the Calder Valley. The all-female order worshipped a female god and shunned the modern world. Rather than the de facto male-dominated society, it believed in a civilisation run by women, although men were allowed to join. They believed the real world, which they called ‘The Pit’ was a miserable, loveless place and believed their world offered sanctuary.

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Information about the Order’s brief time in the valley is hard to find but Martindale has said the society moved from Oxford to Hebden Bridge. The Order produced a periodical called ‘The Coming Age’ which was advertised for sale in the now-defunct feminist magazine Spare Rib. For a copy, buyers were asked to post 45p to a house on Industrial Street in the centre of Todmorden.

The Order stayed in the Calder Valley for around 18 months between 1981 and 1982 before moving to Ireland in September 1982. The group had left Yorkshire but it’s important to relate its time in Ireland because this is when it gained fame and notoriety.

The group moved into a large detached house called An Droichead Beo (‘The Bridge of Life’ in Irish) in the remote fishing village of Burtonport, Donegal. The house had previously been occupied by a noisy, countercultural group known as ‘The Screamers’ for their use of primal screaming therapy.

The Madrian Order, now calling itself ‘The Silver Sisterhood’, rejected the modern world. They lived without electricity, dressed in medieval peasant clothes, including whimples and made instruments, textiles, jewellery and ornaments. The group, which also called itself the ‘Rhennish Community’ spoke in a psuedo-medieval English and chanted and sang as they worked.

The group was captured on film by the Irish TV channel RTE in 1982. When RTE returned in 1983 the style of dress had turned early Victorian and Martindale – then calling herself ‘Sister Breca’ – talked of opening a tearoom, cafe and craft shop from the house.

When RTE returned again in 1984 things got even weirder. The society had transformed into St Bride’s, a Victorian-style boarding school – for adult women.

Martindale – then calling herself ‘Brighe Dachcolwyn’ – was the headmistress. As well as ‘teaching’ a traditional curriculum, the house used corporal punishment when pupils stepped out of line. The school paid for adverts in some of the British broadsheets.

For an income, the school began programming computer games. The programmer was ‘Priscilla Langridge’, although the person’s true name – and even their sex – remains a mystery.

The school programmed several text adventure games for the Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. These early home computers weren’t capable of spectacular graphics and so the games primarily comprised text – you’d type in what you wanted your character to do – and the odd illustration.

The games, which received relatively favourable reviews, included the saucy Secret of St Bride’s and the gory Jack the Ripper which was the first video game to receive an 18 certificate. Martindale, calling herself ‘Catherine Tyrell’, and another St Bride’s resident called ‘Miss Reiner’ were interviewed by Gay Byrne on RTE’s Late Late Show in 1988.

The school continued until 1992. The following year Martindale was convicted of assault for caning one of the ‘girls’ – alleged to be an older woman – at the school.

Martindale, who had also used the pseudonyms ‘Mari de Colwyn’ and ‘Mary Scarlet’, returned to England and ran a society called ‘Aristasia’ from a house on a middle-class street near Epping Forest, London. The society was a pseudo-1950s-style school where ‘girls’ – also adults – could stay. Students who ‘offended’ would be spanked or caned by Miss Martindale although she denied it was sexual.

She wrote as Miss Martindale for The Chap, a humorous quarterly men’s lifestyle museum. Martindale would later re-emerge as the wife of Hollywood film director John Guillermin, whose credits include The Towering Inferno (1974) and King Kong (1976).

Today she calls herself Mary Guillermin. She lives in Los Angeles and works as a marriage and family therapist.

Credits: Conor McKay, BBC Assume Nothing; RTE Archives, Madrian Deanic Resources

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