Pilgrims have been drawn to the other-worldly auras of hallowed sites, both natural and man-made, all around the globe since antiquity. One such sanctuary sits right in the heart of Sydney and, although it has slipped from prominence today, it played a significant role in Australia’s spiritual and esoteric history.
While its narrative has primarily been expressed through the descriptions of the characters who have occupied it, the magnetism of the building and the ground it stands on are worthy of examination in their own right. Today it has become less visibly conspicuous, surrounded as it is by so many other grand dwellings. However, a century ago the world was a different place and it was quite the topic of conversation in Sydney society.
The late nineteenth century saw a surge of spiritual and metaphysical pursuits in the Western world, springing from Europe and Britain and streaming into the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While the British Victorian era is generally associated with industrial and scientific advances, not to mention Darwinism, many Victorians (including the Queen herself) embraced Spiritualism, séances and other forms of mysticism. At what is now considered the birth of the New Age movement, independent thinkers in England freed themselves from centuries of religious dogma and placed their faith in the powers of ESP, experimenting in telepathy and clairvoyance. Many enthusiastically explored new branches of knowledge with exotic names like mesmerism, electro-biology and crystal-gazing.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans felt no sense of conflict in having a Ouija board on their desk alongside the Bible. Spiritualism seemed quite compatible with Christianity inasmuch as it provided reassurance on the existence of souls and the afterlife. Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB) was the daughter of a White Russian princess and had been involved in the Spiritualist movement early on.1 On moving to the USA she befriended Henry Steel Olcott and together they founded the Theosophical Society (TS) in 1875. In the early twentieth century, as Americans were becoming fascinated with psychic phenomena, Harvey Spencer Lewis was initiated into a Rosicrucian order during a visit to France, thereby enabling him to establish the order known as AMORC on his return to the USA.
Australia was not impervious to the ground-swell of New Age beliefs and Sydney became a focal point for their proponents – some of them more colourful than saintly – along with their mystical doctrines, which concocted a curious blend of Christianity with the occult. The popularity of Spiritualism soared, counting among its adherents such notables as Prime Minister Alfred Deakin and the newly arrived American architect Walter Burley Griffin. A hundred years ago, while James Wedgwood was founding the Liberal Catholic Church (LCC) back in Britain, his friend Charles Webster Leadbeater had already decided to settle in Sydney and would, in the succeeding years, establish the Australian headquarters of both the LCC and Theosophy, together with various other societies, at Mosman in Sydney. A number of theosophists first rented, then purchased under trust deed, the capacious 55-room mansion and its grounds at Clifton Gardens that was to be known as The Manor.
Gateway to Heaven or Simply a Grand Old Mansion?
While The Manor became the focal point for Theosophy and associated societies almost a century ago, it had originally been built by wealthy businessman William Bakewell and was known to the locals as ‘Bakewell’s Folly’. He purchased six building blocks of what is now prime real estate at Clifton Gardens. The entire district of Mosman is rich with Aboriginal heritage, with over a hundred known sites found across the municipality, particularly along the foreshore area. After the North Shore population of several thousand original inhabitants witnessed the arrival of the first British colonisers, their numbers were decimated by the smallpox epidemic of 1789.
Was this grand and mysterious building at Mosman, which had been described by a TS member almost eight decades ago as a “specially selected Centre of the power of the Masters of the Wisdom,”2 really a kind of cosmic portal and, if so, should it be revered as a sacred site today? Perhaps we should consider the possibility that an other-worldly force guided even William Bakewell from the outset when he selected the location for his construction. Quoting Nicholas Van Gelder:
He began with a simple purpose: to build an eight-room house. What passed through his mind over the next 8 years is not known. Suffice that by 1913 the house had become a rambling 55-room mansion with many rooms lined with copper. Perhaps he foresaw the days when the Australian security service could listen in on conversations by using laser or microwave devices.3
The fact that most rooms have pressed metal ceilings, as well as copper lined walls, is claimed by some occultists to serve the purpose of conserving magnetism. Following his death in 1917, William’s family declined to live there and the house stood vacant for five years, until it was acquired by TS members.
In 1922 the imposing building would become home to a commune of fifty-plus people. As explained by Theosophy Forward on their website:
It was Theosophist Lucius Van Gelder who had the idea for an experimental community to make life more “reasonable, cheaper, and more useful” for the families and individuals concerned.… Leadbeater, who became the focus for the community, invited Van Gelder to assume the task of managing it; and the residence became known as “The Manor”…. A trust was formed, whose purposes were “the formation of a spiritual centre where people may be trained in religious matters and the formation of a community based on Theosophical ideals.” The appointment of trustees was placed in the hands of Annie Besant, then the International President of the Theosophical Society, and her successors.4
According to the authoritative booklet The Manor: A Short History5, The Manor became an important centre for the Society and was regarded as a great “occult forcing-house.” Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa (known simply as Raja), the Theosophical Society’s international vice-president, asserted that Leadbeater was directed to the house by command of the King of Shamballa, and promptly settled in it, declaring, “In June 1922, the Great White Brotherhood established in the City of Sydney an occult Centre, charged directly from Shamballa.” “Thus was born the notion that The Manor was the occult nexus for the Southern Hemisphere.” And writer C.V. Williams added: “In 1922 Theosophist families began to move in with him (Leadbeater), feeling secure in the idea that they were close to heaven.”
What marks The Manor as a keystone in Australia’s alternative spiritual heritage is that it served as a passageway, like the neck of an hourglass, by which so many doctrines and societies were funnelled into this country, before being disseminated throughout the land. The sheer number of activities including Theosophy, Co-Freemasonry, the LCC and other less well-known societal offshoots anchored to this geographical location at Mosman, poses the question: was it, and is it still, an occult centre of power? Had it always been, as the commune’s founders believed, a kind of heavenly gateway, or did it really derive its power from the “égrégore”6 of its human participants?
The following are some of the principal known organisations, alongside their commonly used acronyms:
TS The Theosophical Society
OSE Order of the Star in the East
LCC The Liberal Catholic Church
ES The Esoteric Section; also The Eastern School
According to a biographical study of Charles Webster Leadbeater (CWL) by Gregory Tillett:
The arrangement of a weekly schedule posed no small difficulty, since it involved regular meetings of the TS, both those for members only and those open to the public, and of the OSE, together with the ES and Co-Masonry, and now the Liberal-Catholic Church. The considerable overlap between the TS, the LCC and Co-Masonry can be seen from examining lists of Co-Masonic Lodge officers around this time: the officers of Sydney Lodge No.404 in 1918 included Mr and Mrs Kollerstrom, Leadbeater, Hazel, and L.W. Burt, all of them (as they were by then being described) TS, ES, OSE, LCC and Co-M.7
Gregory Tillett adds, in a book co-written with Nevill Drury:
Another ceremonial movement which he (CWL) established, the Egyptian Rite of Ancient Freemasonry, also meets there (The Manor); in this rite Leadbeater hoped to bring together the angels of Freemasonry and of the Church, and it was regarded as “the most powerful occult rite in the world.”8
One newspaper article reports that, in the 1920s,
The Manor had its own theatre company performing Shakespearean plays on the gently sloping lawns. Painters, writers and poets congregated in its meeting rooms to discuss modernism, materialism and the importance of patriotism in nation building. There were Greek garden fetes, fairy dances, light operas and musicals.9
In keeping with the times, TS launched radio station 2GB in 1926, using The Manor and two outlying cottages on the property. The initials GB stood for sixteenth century philosopher Giordano Bruno, whom they believed was a former incarnation of Annie Besant. The station is still a household name in Sydney radio ninety years on. Alfred Edward ‘A.E.’ Bennett (not to be confused with Frank Bennett) was appointed general manager and the first broadcast took place on Armistice Day, 1926. Bennett wrote, “The intention is to conduct the station on ideal principles and solely with the object of uplifting our Australian people.”10 Raja, however, was concerned this sacred ground was being disturbed by the psychically enervating signals emanating from the antennae.
A Hidden Fraternity
What unseen guiding hand drew this array of key personalities together and why at this particular location? Was the torch being lit for an ‘Antipodean Utopia’ and, if so, did the flame fizzle out, or does it continue to flicker away from the public eye in preparation of a new Golden Age? Those confraternities we dub ‘secret societies’ always have twin facets: the overt aspect, consisting of their beliefs and philosophies, which these days can be readily researched in books and online; then their practical agenda which forms the basis of their secrecy – the initiation rites, rituals and techniques that are intended to raise consciousness, quicken one’s psychic abilities and ultimately allow communion with higher intelligence, sometimes including ‘invisible Masters’.
Who are these ‘Masters’ that are said to have appeared to, and spoken with, the likes of Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Alice Bailey and Charles Leadbeater? They are called by various names, including The Ascended Masters, The Great White Brotherhood, The Elder Brothers or The Secret College. They form a Hierarchy, which Phillip Lindsay defines as a “Group of spiritual beings on the inner planes of the solar system who are the intelligent forces of nature and who control the evolutionary processes. Divided into twelve hierarchies. The Occult Hierarchy or Masters of Wisdom, of which disciples and initiates are a reflection.”11 They exist on subtle planes known as the Etheric or the Astral, transparent to normal physical sight. In addition to Masters there are angelic, devic and elemental entities.
Also known as Mahatmas, the Masters of Ancient Wisdom are those who once lived as human beings. The enlightened ones who most often imparted their teachings to Theosophists and other occultists from the late nineteenth century are identified as Morya, Kuthumi (or Koot Hoomi), Djwal Kul (usually just known by the initials DK), and Count Saint Germain – although there are many more. While many of these Masters dwell on a non-physical plane, some do take corporeal form and they often attach themselves to specific earthly retreats, the most well-known being in and around the Himalayas.
Author Edmund Harold states:
There are momentous periods in our evolution, times when we recommence the age-old search for self-purpose. At such times we re-acquire awareness of the existence of a spiritual hierarchy, one that is represented by highly evolved beings. These are known as The Great White Brotherhood, or the Brotherhood of the Light.12
The voices of the masters have been silent at The Manor for a long time, but perhaps another one of these ‘times’ approaches again.
The Pioneering Spirit
The modern Theosophical movement first reached Australia in 1879 when Gilbert Elliot of Melbourne joined the TS. By 1891 when Henry Steel Olcott, as the Society’s international president, came for a brief tour, there were enough branches to form what was called “a Section.” While in Sydney, Olcott also chartered the Sydney Lodge. The Australian Section was given a further boost in 1894 when Annie Besant, a persuasive orator, arrived to give a series of lectures on Theosophical topics. In 1905 Charles Leadbeater toured the country to wide acclaim and then, three years later, membership skyrocketed on Besant’s return.
The LCC and the Co-Freemasonry movement that developed alongside the TS in Sydney can be traced to one man: James Ingall Wedgwood (JIW). In 1915 Wedgwood, who first met Leadbeater in 1906, arrived in Sydney. As a gay clergyman, JIW suffered an ongoing inner turmoil between “the angel and the beast within” – a dilemma that haunts some clerics to this day. He swung between alternating extremes of spiritual fervour and the temptations of the flesh. Eminent British Theosophist E.L. Gardner said of him privately, “JIW was a ‘dual’ – at times skilled, able and impressive. Then, a bout of sensualism of the worst grade, sexual perversion.”13
In 1909 Leadbeater identified the 14 year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti as a vehicle for the coming World Teacher, the Bodhisattva Maitreya, by way of clairvoyant perception of his aura. From then on Krishnamurti was groomed by both CWL and Annie Besant, eventually coming to Sydney in 1925. He did not stay at The Manor, but lived at a nearby house in Mosman with his brother, Nitya, with whom he was very close. The OSE’s raison d’être was to prepare the way for the arrival of this new messiah. With this advent in mind, CWL and Besant guided the construction of the ambitiously conceived Star Amphitheatre at nearby Balmoral Beach.14
Built in ancient Greek style and completed in 1924, the Amphitheatre had seating accommodation for 2,500 people and was intended as a venue for lectures by the expected World Teacher, embodied by Krishnamurti. Just as The Manor earned the reputation of being a folly, surely the Amphitheatre is to be remembered as an extravagance – perhaps even an eccentric one at that. Stories circulated that it was located for the best view of the expected ‘second coming’ that would see “Jesus Christ come through the Heads of Sydney Harbour.”15 Clearly this never eventuated and, a quarter of a century later, the Star Amphitheatre was demolished. These days a rather ordinary looking apartment block stands on the site.
In the same year The Manor was first occupied by TS members, Krishnamurti and Nitya travelled from Sydney to Ojai in California, where they experienced a new sense of freedom accompanied by a fresh perspective on worldly matters. A big upheaval for Krishnamurti came when he was asked to attend a function in India marking the golden anniversary of TS in 1925, while his brother stayed in Ojai. Nitya had been in poor health, but George Arundale (more about him shortly) had assured Krishna that he would not die, promising that the Masters would protect him. But Nitya did die, causing Krishnamurti’s dedication to the TS to wane, until finally in 1929 he dissolved the Order of the Star in the East (OSE) and stated he was not going to be the new messiah, with the famous words, “The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth.” He did not renounce public life, however, continuing on his own path with the Krishnamurti Foundation. His mentors at the TS felt sadly let down and distanced themselves from him over the years.
The Momentum of The Arundale Years
George Sydney Arundale joined the TS in England during 1895 and, seven years later, followed Annie Besant to India where he became principal of her Central Hindu College. Life there revolved around Krishnamurti, who had become Besant’s adopted son. Arundale instituted the OSE in Europe and also took on the role as regional bishop for LCC in India. Soon after, he claimed himself to be clairvoyant and then, late in 1925, began openly expressing doubts about Krishnamurti’s intended role as the earthly vehicle for Maitreya. This caused a slight rift with Besant, after which he transferred to Sydney to join Charles Leadbeater at Mosman.
He launched himself so enthusiastically into the affairs of The Manor that the ensuing period is remembered as ‘The Arundale Years’. In quick succession he became general secretary, chairman of 2GB, editor of the Australian Theosophist, and co-editor of the Australian Star News. An able preacher and experienced publicist, he competently formulated political commentary and supported advanced causes, from a Theosophical angle. Together with his wife Shrimati Rukmini Devi, a well-known Indian dancer, he stayed at The Manor until 1931. It seems George Arundale’s assessment of Krishnamurti was correct and in fact the 1930s was the last great decade for the TS at The Manor.
The defection of Krishnamurti along with the deaths of Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater led to a period of decline for the TS in the 1930s, from which it never fully recovered. It appears the Society, like many temporal vehicles on this material plane, carried at its nucleus the elements of its own decline. Author Nicholas Van Gelder portrays the Esoteric Section as the cause of the eventual downturn in the fortunes of the TS, although today’s Manorites deny there has ever been a schism in Theosophical ranks. HPB formed the ES as an inner group back in 1888, consisting of students who were members of the Society, but separate from it and controlled solely by her. Unfortunately it came to be seen by some non-members as an elitist group. It remains a separate entity today.
Perhaps the reason that a number of the groups that put down roots at The Manor failed to endure is that Charles Webster Leadbeater held no clear vision for their future nurturing and growth. As noted by author Frank Joseph, he “departed for Australia, settling in Sydney in 1914, where he felt particularly called to fulfil some as yet ill-defined mission (italics added). His instinct was correct, judging from the profound public success he enjoyed there.”16 CWL left Australia for India in 1929, to take over the leadership of the TS from Annie Besant, whose health was failing. He returned to Sydney for short periods but died during a stopover in Perth in 1934.
James Wedgwood left Australia and in the late 1920s resumed his activities with the TS in Holland, allegedly with increasingly frequent visions and meetings with masters, angels, archangels and denizens of the higher realms. He would eventually return to England in poor health and battling dementia, dying in 1951 after a heavy fall.
George Arundale ended up returning to India where he died in 1945. The ‘Arundale Years’ had helped stabilise the TS and perhaps presented a more acceptable, scandal-free image to the Australian public.
There is a conviction held by organisations and individuals concerned with esotericism that Australia has a special role to play in the dawn of a new Golden Age. In a series of lectures delivered in Sydney in August 1915, CWL had proclaimed “Australia and New Zealand as the home of a new sub-race.” He detected in Australia “children and young people of a distinctly new type.” A new antipodean human type characterised by intuition and the powers of synthesis.17 This is consistent with the New Age concept of ‘Indigo Children’. In the last years of his life, CWL claimed to have been instructed by the ‘World Mother’ to establish a ministry for her worship, including an apostolic succession to be passed on through women and for the foundation of a feminine religion to parallel the masculine-dominated Christianity. To date this has not made any public appearance, but the tradition is said to be perpetuated within Theosophical circles privately.
Guarding its Secrets and its Grandeur, A Century On
Today, as one approaches The Manor from the road above, its sprawling grandeur first reveals itself by way of the dormers and gables of the red tiled roof, including the impressive 18-metre long studio perched atop the eastern wing. Most first-time visitors can’t resist trying to count the host of chimney pots that crown it. The very ground that The Manor stands on exudes a palpable magnetism and benign spiritual presence. One does not have to be psychic to experience the peaceful calm emanating from the mansion’s walls, and it is not hard to see why many have claimed to feel closer to the divine here.
Whether or not Australia fulfils its secret occult destiny and hosts a new Golden Age remains to be seen. So long as the Manorites maintain the high energy levels through their esoteric rites, this site will remain sacred and, should the Masters decide the time is right to publicise their messages once again and guide the populace, surely this will be the prime spot for their transmission.
This article’s graphics are viewable in the print or digital version of New Dawn 152.
- It should be noted that Madame Blavatsky (and Theosophy) rejected Spiritualism, however: “By the early 1870s, Blavatsky was involved in the Spiritualist movement; although defending the genuine existence of Spiritualist phenomena, she argued against the mainstream Spiritualist idea that the entities contacted were the spirits of the dead.” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena_Blavatsky)
- ‘The Manor Family: Australia’s oldest urban commune’ by Bill Metcalf, JRAHS Vol 100, 9
- ‘The Manor: A Short History’ by Nicolas Van Gelder, Theosophical History Occasional Papers, Vol XIV, 1
- Nicolas Van Gelder, 14-15
- An egregore is a ‘group thought form’ or ‘collective group mind.’ See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egregore
- ‘Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934: A Biographical Study’ by Gregory John Tillett, leadbeater.org/tillettcwlchap17.htm
- Other Temples Other Gods by Nevill Drury & Gregory Tillett, Hodder & Stoughton, 1982, 32-33
- ‘Age of reason’ by John Zubrzycki, Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend supplement, 29 Nov 2014
- Nicolas Van Gelder, 24
- Masters of the Seven Rays by Phillip Lindsay, Apollo Publishing, 2000, 119
- The Ascended Masters of The Great White Brotherhood by Edmund Harold, Grail Publications, 2002, 13
- “Mary Rocke, a retired doctor, member of the Theosophical Society, secretary and physician to Leadbeater, purchased three adjacent blocks of land sloping from Wyargine Street, Balmoral to the beach. With a loan of 4,000 pounds and the rest of the cost raised by selling subscription seats, the Star Amphitheatre was built on this site.” (www.mosman.nsw.gov.au/file_download/1865/The-Star-Amphitheatre-Balmoral.pdf)
- “Leadbeater, Charles” by Garry Wotherspoon, dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/leadbeater_charles
- ‘C.W. Leadbeater: Saint or Sinner?’ by Frank Joseph, New Dawn 96 (May-June 2006)
- ‘Esoteric Australia’ by Mehmet Sabeheddin, New Dawn Special Issue 3
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