Theosophical Encyclopedia

Historical Photos from the Surendra Narayan Archives (Adyar Archives) – CHARLES WEBSTER LEADBEATER


The archives at sunset ...

[Note from the editor: With great pleasure I dedicate this photo series to a man who might have caused some controversies in the Theosophical world, but who was most definitely a part of the early history of the movement. Notably outside the TS Adyar, theosophists who are affiliated with other streams maintain a certain opinion about him,  caused by and based on hearsay, misinformation and prejudice. Opinions, ideas, convictions and ultimately beliefs even, ought to be based on thorough and impartial research. This series is not put together to “convert” those Leadbeater critics to followers of his works, but it is set up to encourage them to  acquire objective, well-written, and well-documented information about this eminent theosophist, in order to look at his life and what he left us from at least another perspective. In this context I especially want to point at Pedro Oliveira’s  book Leadbeater Speaks, of which the PDF version is attached to this unique series of photos.]  


Charles Webster Leadbeater was an English Theosophist associated with the Theosophical Society based in Adyar, Chennai, India. He was best known for his extensive writings, his clairvoyant observations, and his involvement in "discovering" and raising Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Charles Webster Leadbeater was born in Stockport, Cheshire, England to Charles Leadbeater, a railway contractor's clerk, and his wife Emma. The date of his birth was February 16, 1854, and his christening took place on March 19, 1854. The England Censuses of 1861 and 1881 confirm that year. However, in the early 1880s, Leadbeater gave his birth date as February 17, 1847. That date appears in the 1891 census, in his passport, and is also reflected in passenger lists and other records. The earlier year, 1847, is the same year that Leadbeater's close associate Annie Besant was born.

According to C. Jinarajadasa, the Leadbeater family was Norman French in origin, with name Le Batre (the builder), later Englished to Leadbeater. One branch of the family followed "Prince Charlie" of the Stuart dynasty, and adopted the custom to christen the eldest son "Charles".

In 1858 the family went to Brazil, and his father died a few years later, in 1862. When a bank collapse reduced his mother to poverty, Leadbeater went to work as a bank clerk at Williams Deacons & Co. to support their household.

On December 21, 1879, following the footsteps of his uncle, Mr. Leadbeater was ordained a priest in the Church of England. He was assigned as "a curate in a parish in Hampshire called Bramshott, and lived with this mother at a cottage called 'Hartford'... The Rector of the parish was the Rev. W. W. Capes... his wife Mrs. Capes was C. W. L.'s aunt."] While working as a curate, he established organizations to occupy the local boys and girls, including the "Union Jack Field Club" for natural history studies; the Church Society for wholesome entertainment with songs and stories; and the Church of England Temperance Society. One of the boys, James W. Matley, wrote vividly of those activities, and of field trips to London theaters and the seaside; stargazing with CWL's large telescope; and all sorts of games, boating, cricket, and tennis. Mr. Leadbeater tutored young Matley in French, trigonometry, and navigation, and helped him find employment at sea.

Despite his connection to the Church of England, Mr. Leadbeater always kept an open mind for things that did not fall within orthodox Christianity, such as psychic and Spiritualistic phenomena. Whenever he heard of ghosts or haunted houses he conducted his own investigations. He also attended the lectures given by Annie Besant (then an atheist) at the Hall of Science.

Introduction to Theosophy, Blavatsky, and the Masters

In 1883, Mr Leadbeater read a copy of A. P. Sinnett’s book The Occult World and became very interested in Theosophy. He met the author, who was at the time receiving letters from two of the Masters of Wisdom, and joined the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society, in November 1883. He was immediately attracted to the ideal of the Masters and felt that each "should set before himself the definite intention of becoming a pupil of one of the great Adept Masters."

One day, while investigating Spiritualistic phenomena with renowned medium and Theosophist William Eglinton, one of the latter's Spirit-guides named "Ernest" assured he could transmit a letter from Mr. Leadbeater to the Masters. On March 3, 1884, he wrote a letter to Master K.H. offering himself as a chela so that he could "learn more of the truth". He sent the letter to Mr. Eglinton, who placed it in a box he had for Ernest's use, and from which it eventually disappeared. Several months passed and he did not receive any reply.

In the meantime, he met Mme. Blavatsky (HPB), who arrived at London in April and unexpectedly attended a rather troubled meeting of the London Lodge where new officers were being elected. He described the "truly tremendous impression" that Mme. Blavatsky had on him. Her plan was to stay in Europe until November 1st of that year, when she was to sail for India. On October 30, two days before her departure, Mr. Leadbeater traveled to London to say good-bye to HPB. He stayed the night with the Sinnetts. That evening HPB informed him that "D.K." had said that the Master had sent a reply to his letter of March 3rd. On the next day, Mr. Leadbeater returned to his house and found the Master's letter, which opened as follows:

Last spring – March the 3rd – you wrote a letter to me and entrusted it to "Ernest". Tho' the paper itself never reached me – nor was it ever likely to, considering the nature of the messenger – its contents have.

In the letter the Master said that a member should "force" the Master to accept him as a chela by doing good works for humanity, working on self-purification, and making sacrifices for the Theosophical cause. He also warned CWL that he would have to atone for the collective karma of the Christian clergy to which he belonged. Finally, the Master suggested that he could go to Adyar to work for a few months. The letter closes with the following words:

So now choose and grasp your own destiny, and may our Lord's the Tathagata's memory aid you to decide for the best. K. H.

TE CWL 421 b KH Letters Jinarajadasa

He decided to follow the Master's suggestion. However, he found out he could not take a leave of absence from his position in the local Church school, of which he was manager – he would have to resign to it. He decided to go back to London to talk to Mme. Blavatsky (who was leaving London the next morning) and, through her agency, ask the Master whether he wanted him to take this more drastic action. Late that night, in a gathering of some Theosophists that had come to say farewell to HPB, the answer was precipitated on her open hand, witnessed by several people. It said:

Since your intuition led you in the right direction and made you understand that it was my desire you should go to Adyar immediately – I may say more. The sooner you go the better. Do not lose one day more than you can help. Sail on the 5th if possible. Join Upasika at Alexandria. Let no one know you are going and may the blessing of our Lord, and my poor blessing shield you from every evil in your new life.

Greeting to you my new chela. K.H. Show my notes to no one.

Early Theosophical work

In 1886 Leadbeater was a member of the small headquarters staff at Adyar, along with President-Founder Colonel Olcott, A. J. Cooper-Oakley, and a few Indian workers. Very little money was coming into Adyar in those days apart from small incomes made selling books and coconuts. "When the [carriage] horses died one after another, for several months Mr. Leadbeater, as acting editor of The Theosophist had to walk the seven miles to Madras with proofs, etc."

Sri Lanka

During 1886, Leadbeater was assigned to work in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka]. At that time he received a note from Master K. H. precipitated across the last page of a letter to CWL from Madame Blavatsky, who was then in Elberfeld, Germany. The brief message said, "Take courage. I am pleased with you. Keep your own counsel, and believe in your better intuitions. The little man has failed and will reap his reward. Silence meanwhile."

When Olcott founded Ananda College in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on November 1, 1886, he installed Leadbeater as the first principal. Leadbeater also served as General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Ceylon from 1888-1889.

Tutoring in London

In 1890, A. P. Sinnett asked Mr. Leadbeater to return from India to England to tutor his son Denny and George Arundale, Leadbeater brought with him Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, known as "Raja." The three boys were close in age: Raja was born in 1875, Denny in 1877, and George in 1878. For two years, Leadbeater and Raja lived in the Sinnett household, but after that they moved into tiny quarters meagerly supported by Leadbeater's work giving English languages to foreigners while Raja attended classes to prepare for university.

Leadbeater was Secretary of the London Lodge, and with Raja participated in its Inner Group. They were present at the "intimate and informal gatherings of the Group which were held on most Sunday mornings in Mr. Sinnett's library for discussion."

Accusations, resignation and return to the Society

In early 1900, some adolescents were put under Leadbeater's education to be trained in occultism. Some of them, who felt the pressure of sexual thoughts, were advised to masturbate to ease the urge. This advice was controversial at a time when even doctors held the opinion that masturbation could lead to insanity. Leadbeater argued that this view was mistaken, and that the accepted alternative of having encounters with the prostitutes was degrading to the women, and created bad karmic and moral consequences for those involved in illegitimate sex.

He also maintained that, when masturbation was dealt with as a purely physiological act, it was less problematic from an occult point of view than indulging in sexual thoughts. This view finds precedent in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky. When asked about the "sexual force" she answered:

This force is vital, creative, and a sort of reservoir. It may be lost by mental action as well as by physical. In fact its finer part is dissipated by mental imaginings, while physical acts only draw off the gross part, that which is the (upadhi) for the finer. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky,  (Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 108).

In 1906, when the parents learned about these practices, some became very upset. A commission of the American branch of the Society was appointed to investigate the facts causing great controversy. Leadbeater offered his resignation to "save society from shame," and Henry Steel Olcott accepted it. Later, in 1909, CWL was reinstated in the Theosophical Society, under the presidency of Annie Besant.

Gregory Tillet's biography

Some people have attacked Leadbeater's morality based on this case, while others later added accusations of homosexuality and child abuse, which were never part of the original accusations and remain unsubstantiated. Among his modern prominent critics was the late Gregory Tillett, who wrote an influential biography titled, The Elder Brother (1982).

In 2018, Pedro Oliveira published the book CWL Speaks. This book gathers a large amount of documentation about the case, a substantial part of which was little known or previously unpublished. Some of the documents included the testimony of some of the boys involved, which was not accepted at the time in the case against Leadbeater.  (CWL Speaks: C.W. Leadbeater’s Correspondence concerning the 1906 Crisis in the Theosophical Society, (NSW, Australia: Olive Tree, 2018), 316 pp)

TE CWL 421 c Leadbeater C.W.L. Speaks lr


In a review of the CWL Speaks, Prof. Garry Trompf stated the following:

In his biography of Leadbeater, the late Gregory Tillett (my former colleague at the University of Sydney) put the case that the man who ‘had established himself as the greatest Theosophical authority of the time’ (in the 1900s) did teach a secret doctrine to a select few that ordinarily the closest anyone ‘can come to a sublime spiritual experience is orgasm’ (quotations from Tillett, The Elder Brother, 75, 281). But the compiler of the relevant Correspondence we now review will have none of this, and is well aware that, as a resentfully exiting Theosophist, Tillett had his agenda to bring Leadbeater right down from his pedestal. And probably the suspicions of bias have good reason, because when Tillett wrote extensively on Leadbeater’s esoteric sexology, the footnoted documentation suddenly gets empty (314–315).

For a more detailed overview about the life and works of C.W.L,  including many interesting links go to Theosophy Wiki, click:

Some of the historical photos compiled below are rare and have seldom or never been published. Like always I thank Jaishree Kannan in Adyar and Janet Kerschner at Olcott in Wheaton for their kind cooperation and support. (JNK)


TE CWL 421 d

CWL as a young boy with his mother, Emma North Cumberland

TE CWL 421 e

CWL as a teenager

TE CWl 421 f

In Cambridge, unclear what precisely CWL is doing, but probably he is on a boat during an annual boat race there

TE CWL 421 g

CWL in 1905, location not known, Charles ..the thinker 

TE CWL 421 h

Great shot, Fritz Kunz, Basil Hodgson and CWL sitting in front of the East Otagonal (River Bungalow) in Adyar  

TE CWL 421 i

Here, CWl is with officers of the Melbourne TS, 1905

TE CWL 421 j  

The year 1910, at Arundale House in Adyar, the Yellow Shawl Group 

TE CWL 421 k

CWL doing resaerch for one of his publications, among his researchers is R. Balfour Clarke (around 1911)   

TE CWL 421 l

Miost likely the year is 1911, CWL with Dr. Anna Weller, and Hubert-and Dr, van Hook 

 TE CWL 421 m

In Italy, Palermo., 1912

TE CWL 421 n

The caption for this photo says: Nitya, JK, Annie Besant, GSA and CJ at Hotel Naumachie, Taormina

TE CWL 421 o

Easter 1922, "Malahide" at the home of the Mackays in Sydney

 TE CWL 421 p

Procession  during the 1925 International Convention in Adyar 

TE CWL 421 q

CWL present during the annual gathering of the Order of the Star in Ommen , the Netherlands , 1930

TE CWL 421 r

Annie Besant and CWL in Ommen, 1930

TE CWL 421 s

Annie Besant, CWL, CJ and  Wedgewood (and others) in Ommen,1930

TE CWL 421 t

Th year: 1930, CJ, CWL, the well-kown Dutch Theosophist J. J. van der Leeuw , Rajagopal and Rosalind

 TE CWL 421 u

Charles Webster Leadeater as a Mason

TE CWL 421 v

Charles Webster Leadbeater in his impressive library loated at the MANOR, Sydney - Australia ... what a marvellous place .,..!!! 




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