The first Australian to join the Theosophical Society (TS) was Gilbert Elliott of Melbourne, Victoria, who joined in December 1879. One of the earliest members was William H. Terry who joined in 1880. He merits mention here because he was one of the select few who received a letter from the Master Morya (see CW 5:11 fn). Another early member (joined 1882) was Professor John SMITH, founding Chancellor of Sydney University, who also received a letter from one of the Masters. The first study group was formed in 1881 in Brisbane, Queensland. During the rest of the decade a number of small groups were formed and in 1889 a study group was formed in Hobart, Tasmania, which was chartered as a Lodge on June 7, 1889, and continues in existence to this time. By the turn of the century there were 5 Lodges in existence, all situated in State capitals.
Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Australia
In 1891 there were Lodges (branches) in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Toowoomba. When, in that year, the president, Henry S. OLCOTT, toured Australia. there was a sufficient number of lodges (including New Zealand) , 7, to form an Australasian Section.
Olcott came to Australia in March 1891 to deal with a problem that arose over a bequest by one of the early founders of Theosophy in Australia, Carl Hartmann. Hartmann died in Brisbane in 1887 of fever contracted in New Guinea and willed his entire estate worth some £5,000 to the Theosophical Society. The Hartmann family was appalled and protested. Olcott decided in favor of the family and ruled that all of the bequest should be transferred to the Hartmanns, other than £1,000 plus the expenses incurred. The Hartmann family joined the Theosophical Society, and with their support a lodge was formed at Toowoomba.
Moving from Brisbane to Sydney in early May 1891, Olcott presented a number of public lectures which were well received and resulted in the chartering of Sydney Lodge with 23 members. Founding members of the Sydney Lodge included Alan Carroll, anthropologist, and Thomas Hammond MARTYN, the latter destined to play a significant role in the Theosophical Society in Australia.
Olcott was forced to cut short his Australian tour because of the death of the co-founder Helena P. BLAVATSKY in London on May 8, 1891, but he found time to visit Melbourne and Adelaide. His second lecture in Melbourne was chaired by Alfred DEAKIN, who later became the second Australian Prime Minister. The first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, introduced Colonel Olcott when he gave some lectures in Sydney. Olcott left for London on May 27, 1891. Before leaving, he announced, “I appoint Dr. A. Carroll, AM, MD, FTS, Sydney, pro tem General Secretary and W. T. Williams Esq, FTS, pro tem Assistant General Secretary.” On June 19, 1891, Carroll delivered the presidential address to the first general meeting of the Sydney Theosophical Society at 69 Hunter Street.
The fledgling Section never really established itself. Small in number and handicapped by poor and costly communications over great distances, its authorization was canceled in 1892, when the number of Lodges fell to 4.
In 1893 Isabel COOPER-OAKLEY arrived in Australia, and during her stay of some 6 months she did a great deal to advance Theosophy. Her afternoon soirées attracted as many as 300 persons. Possibly Cooper-Oakley’s most significant contribution to the Theosophical scene was the Austral Theosophist, which evolved into the current periodical Theosophy in Australia.
The next notable event in Australian Theosophy was the arrival of Annie BESANT on September 3, 1894, in Melbourne. Although her itinerary did not extend beyond Sydney and Melbourne in the east of the country, it might be claimed that her lectures served to put Theosophy on a firm footing in Australia. Reporting from Dunedin, New Zealand, to Adyar headquarters in October 1894, Besant advised President Olcott that she had been successful in reforming the Theosophical Society in Australasia.
The Section was chartered on January 1, 1895, consisting of 5 lodges in Australia and 4 in New Zealand. The Australasian Section as such was to exist for only a short time since New Zealand, by 1896, was able to report the necessary 7 lodges and thus was chartered as a separate Section. The first General Secretary of the new Australian Section was the English theosophist John C. Staples.
The first major division among Australian members took place in 1894, following the so-called Judge-Besant controversy (see THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, HISTORY OF). About two-thirds of the members voted to support Besant’s position. Those supporting JUDGE resigned from the Adyar Theosophical Society and joined the newly formed Theosophical Society in America. Judge died in early 1896 and was succeeded by Katherine TINGLEY, who toured eastern Australia, arriving in January 1897. Her visit, although it heartened the Judge supporters, did not result in a significant increase in their membership.
In March 1895, the first Australian convention was held at 42 Margaret Street, Sydney, at which time the first issue of Theosophy in Australasia was published. By 1896, 10 Lodges were in existence and membership stood at 267. Queensland was able to boast the largest State membership of 80 in 3 Lodges.
Until 1897 little Theosophical presence was to be noted in Western Australia. The State’s remoteness from the populous east was the reason; in 1897, however, a number of Theosophists emigrated from the east, and a beginning was made. James Patterson and his wife, Montague Miller, and Wilhelm Siebenhaar are noted in the records. By 1913 the west had 2 Lodges, one at Perth and the other at Fremantle, with a total membership of nearly 100. In 1929 the Perth Lodge took possession of a building designed for Theosophical purposes.
At the turn of the century the Theosophical movement in Australia recorded a membership of about 400 and a total of 14 Lodges, but there was little further growth for a number of years until W. G. John assumed the role of General Secretary in 1902. John’s energetic leadership resulted in a steady growth in numbers until in 1914 the figure stood at about 1,400. The increase in work at Section headquarters resulted in John’s wife Isabelle being appointed Assistant General Secretary in 1905. Isabelle John (1882-1939) remained in office for 20 years and is one of the few Theosophists to have an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (under her later married name of Bean). 1905 was the year of the first visit to Australia of Charles Webster LEADBEATER. Besant returned again in 1908, when her visit boosted membership substantially. The Prime Minister of Australia, Alfred Deakin, attended her public talk in Melbourne. Inspired by Besant’s program of social reform, the Sydney Lodge set in place 7 heads of departments which were concerned with: (1) the promotion of religious and moral education in the schools; (2) the union of Christianity in Australia; (3) visitation of hospitals, asylums and jails; (4) stamping out of gambling and intemperance; (5) prison reform and the abolition of capital punishment; (6) cremation; and (7) the establishment of a chair of comparative religion at Sydney University.
The years of the Great War, 1914-1918, brought difficulties and upheaval, but the presence of Leadbeater, who had considerable charisma, tended to offset the effects and at the end of the war the number of Lodges was 22. As soon as the war was over, Australian membership rose markedly and in 1921 stood at 2,309.
In 1916 a building at 69 Hunter Street, Sydney, jointly owned by the Sydney Lodge and the Australian Section, was dedicated by C. W. Leadbeater. It had 8 stories and included an auditorium with a seating capacity of 700.
In spite of conflicts generated by the reactions of a cross-section of the membership to the Old Catholic Church (later called the LIBERAL CATHOLIC CHURCH), CO-FREEMASONRY and the KRISHNAMURTI movement, the Theosophical Society in Australia continued to grow both in membership and influence so that by 1921 there were 2168 members and 25 Lodges.
In 1922 a milestone was reached when a 55-room building was bought for the purpose of establishing a Theosophical community focused around Charles Leadbeater. This is privately owned, has been occupied by Theosophists up to this time and is known as the MANOR; it is situated on a hill overlooking Sydney harbor. In the same year the TS Building Company was formed and by 1925 sufficient funds were available to allow building operations to commence in Bligh Street. The Bligh Street property remained the focus of Theosophical work for many years, but eventually had to be sold as it became financially unviable. After an ill-starred venture with a large building at Walker Street, North Sydney, in 1987 both the Section and Blavatsky Lodge were housed at Theosophy House, 484 Kent Street, Sydney, which is jointly owned by the Australian Section and Blavatsky Lodge, Sydney.
In 1922 and 1923 the Theosophical Society in Australia was disturbed by allegations of sexual misconduct by Leadbeater. Sydney Lodge, then the biggest in the world, launched a very strong campaign against Leadbeater, the Liberal Catholic Church and Annie Besant. There was an extensive police investigation into the allegations against Leadbeater regarding his contacts with boys. The police authorities concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him, so the case was closed. In view of the continuous attacks by the Sydney Lodge members against Leadbeater and his associates, the Lodge’s charter was withdrawn in June 1923. On October 28 some 600 members of the Sydney Lodge formed the Independent Theosophical Society with T.H. Martyn as president. In January 1925 the ITS published The Path, a short-lived bi-monthly magazine.
Following the division in Sydney, the so-called loyalist members, that is, those loyal to the Theosophical Society at Adyar, reorganized and established a building company to build a new headquarters center. A location was secured at 29 Bligh Street, Sydney, and a 9-story building was erected to house the Section and the Lodge.
In 1922 Annie Besant toured Australia and was received everywhere with great cordiality. A highlight of the tour was a visit to the Australian Prime Minister on June 3, 1922. The first visit to Australia by Krishnamurti took place in this year, but the visit was marred by controversy over Leadbeater and the deplorably racist taunts he encountered in public. In spite of these setbacks, enthusiasm among Theosophists for the Krishnamurti ideal increased, and a large amphitheater was constructed as a venue by members of the Order of the Star in the East at Sydney’s Balmoral Beach through the initiative of Dr. Mary Rocke, who largely funded the project.
In 1926 George ARUNDALE arrived in Australia with his wife Rukmini and immediately took office as General Secretary. Arundale’s period in office was marked by an upsurge of Theosophical work including the licensing of the first radio station wholly owned by the Theosophical Society: RADIO STATION 2GB). Arundale was responsible, in July 1926, for a new periodical, Advance Australia, subtitled “A Monthly Magazine of Australian Citizenship and Ideals in Religion, Education, Literature, Science, Art, Music, Social Life, Politics, etc.” It ceased publication in June 1929, possibly a victim of the economic depression.
During the second decade of the nineteenth century, Australian Theosophists became increasingly active politically as a result of their concern about social conditions. Douglas Social Credit found favor with many as it promised a remedy for the dismal cycle of boom and depression. Numerous articles appeared in the journals Advance Australia and Theosophy in Australia advocating the Douglas system. Prominent Theosophists joined the League of Nations Union and many agitated about the treatment of indigenous Australians. The Who’s for Australia League, a nonpolitical movement intended to improve the lot of the workers and encourage Australian manufacturers, was given support by Theosophists with much publicity given by Radio Station 2GB.
By 1930 the economic depression was having an effect on the finances of the Theosophical Society in Australia. Fund-raising efforts served to keep the Society financially stable, but not all Theosophists were happy regarding the way in which the money was spent. Theosophical work was not helped during the early 1930s by a number of events. The Order of the Star in the East, which was very active in Australia, was disbanded by Krishnamurti, both Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater died, unemployment had risen dramatically, and since it cost nearly a week’s wage of a tradesman to be a member of the Blavatsky Lodge in Sydney, an increasing number of potential members simply could not afford to join. Australia reflected a world trend; in 1929 world membership stood at 43,600 but in 1933 it had fallen to fewer than 31,000. In 1936 the Theosophical Society lost control of radio station 2GB. A. E. Bennett, who was managing director and vice-chairman of the 2GB board, gained control of the Society’s interest by means that have not come to light. Although the board’s accountant challenged the operation and Arundale fought the issue in court, the Theosophical Society emerged with merely £6250 and an allocation of air-time until 1980.
Although, for various reasons, during the early years, Sydney was the main focus of Theosophical work in Australia, other centers made a substantial contribution. By 1933 there were 33 lodges and the Society had a strong presence in all states. All the lodges in state capitals owned valuable property.
In March 1, 1934, Charles Leadbeater died in Perth, Western Australia. He had been taken ill on board ship en route to Sydney.
In May 1936 the final installment owing on the Manor at Mosman was paid following a large donation from P. W. van den Broek of Singapore.
The year 1937 saw the opening of the new Theosophical building in Melbourne, and in the same year the Star amphitheater was sold, ironically, to the Roman Catholic Church. In the 1930s, apart from the Adyar-based Theosophical Society, there were the Independent Theosophical Society (ITS), and the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society with its headquarters at Point Loma in California. Later the UNITED LODGE OF THEOSOPHISTS established a presence, but its policy of minimum organization tended to limit its influence in Australia.
World War II, from 1939 to 1945, considerably slowed Theosophical work in Australia. In Perth, in 1941, the Lodge building was requisitioned by the authorities. After the war the Theosophical work entered a period of reclamation of lost ground. In Australia the old order was changing with the influx of migrants of many nationalities. Material prosperity surged with the world needing such products as wool, wheat, and minerals, which Australia has in abundance. By 1950 the number of lodges stood at 10 and membership slowly increased. The Theosophical Society was very active in Victoria. Its first building in Melbourne appears to have been in Flinders Street about which little is known, but the second was in Collins Street and was known as Queen’s Hall. A single-story building, it was demolished to permit the erection in 1936 of a building designed for Theosophical purposes. Theosophical work was carried on at Collins Street until the 1970s when the City Council, after a long and sometimes acrimonious debate, forced a sale for the purpose of redevelopment. With the proceeds of the sale, a new building was erected on Russell Street and opened on March 18, 1975, which the Melbourne Lodge still occupies.
Since its chartering, the Australian Section had been administered by a General Secretary, but latterly it became apparent that the existing administrative structure was having difficulty in coping with the increased expectations of the members. After canvassing the Lodges for suggestions it was decided to restructure the Section administration. The position of General Secretary was abolished and in 1993 those of National President and National Secretary were created. Responsibilities were divided, the President being responsible for public relations, Lodge liaison and Theosophical lecturing, and the National Secretary for general administration.
During the latter half of the twentieth century both the membership and the number of Lodges remained fairly static. The Adelaide (South Australia) Lodge, long established in the city center at King William Street, moved to a new location at 310 South Terrace. Perth Lodge (Western Australia), now known as Perth Branch, was formerly located at Museum Street near the city center, but after the City Council took back its property, it moved to its present location at 21 Glendower Street, Perth.
In 2012 the number of Lodges/Branches stood at 11 and certified groups at 5. There are retreat properties at Springbrook (Queensland), Canyonleigh (New South Wales) and Mt. Helena, Western Australia.
Theosophy and education has been a concern in Australia. From the earliest years Theosophists worldwide had taken an active interest in education, and Australian members have been no exception. For example, prominent Theosophist Mabel Mackay was a councilor of the New South Wales Kindergarten Union. In 1913 the Theosophical members of the Order of the Star in the East distributed 7000 copies of a brochure Education as Service. Lily Arnold and Jessie Macdonald were principals of a Theosophically orientated school known as Apsley House Girls School, Stanmore, established in 1913. In 1915 a private Theosophical school was started in Devonport, Tasmania. On April 9, 1918, Morven Garden School was opened at Gore Hill, Sydney, with funds provided by the Theosophical Society; and by 1920, 112 students were enrolled; it closed in 1923. In 1924 Misses Arnold and MacDonald started the Garden School at Mosman, Sydney. This school was relocated to the nearby suburb of Seaforth in 1936, where it was active until after the war.
General Secretaries of the Theosophical Society in Australia have been as follows:
1895-1897 John Staples
1896-1897 Thomas Hammond Martyn (Acting General Secretary)
1897-1898 James Scott
1898-1899 Thomas Hammond Martyn
1899-1901 Dr. A. Marques
1901-1902 H. Arthur Wilson
1902-1916 William G. John
1916-1919 Thomas Hammond Martyn
1919-1924 Dr. Jack Bean
1924-1926 Josephine Ransom
1926-1928 George S. Arundale
1928-1934 Harold Morton
1934-1936 Clara Codd
1936-1947 Ray G. Litchfield
1947-1957 James L. Davidge
1957-1965 Helen Zahara
1965-1973 Ruth Beringer
1973-1981 Elaine Murdoch
1981-1983 Jack Patterson
1983-1991 Dianne Kynaston
1991-1993 Patricia Witts
1993-1996 Joy Mills (National President)
1996-2002 Beverley Champion (National President)
2002-2009 Linda Oliveira (National President)
2009-2012 Dr Dara Tatray (National President)
2012- Linda Oliveira (National President)
The Golden Book of the Theosophical Society (1925)
A Short History of the Theosophical Society, by J. Ransom, 1938
Theosophy in Australasia (various issues)
Theosophy in Australia (various issues)
Beyond Belief, by J. Roe (1986)
The Seventy-fifth Anniversary Book, by J. Ransom (1950).
Philip Sydney Harris