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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Leadbeater, Charles Webster (1854–1934)

by W. G. McMinn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934), theosophist and Liberal Catholic 'bishop', was born on 16 February 1854 at Stockport, Cheshire, England, son of Charles Leadbeater, bookkeeper, and his wife Emma, née Morgan. With little theological training, Leadbeater was made deacon by the bishop of Winchester in December 1879 and priested by him next year. In 1882 he joined the ultra-Anglo-Catholic 'Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament', and next year joined the Theosophical Society. He soon resigned his curacy at Bramshott, Hertfordshire, spending the years 1884-89 at the society's headquarters at Adyar, India, and in Ceylon. Returning to England, he became closely associated with Annie Besant and wrote the first of his enormous output of books on theosophy and related subjects.

In the early 1900s Leadbeater became the most prominent of the society's lecturers, undertaking several tours of Europe, the United States of America and Australia. Although allegations of sexual irregularities with young boys led to a brief disgrace, and his reinstatement caused a split in the society in America, by 1909 he had become second only to Mrs Besant in the theosophist hierarchy. About this time he discovered an Indian boy, Krishnamurti, who, he claimed, would in time become the latest manifestation in the flesh of the 'World Teacher', the Lord Maitreya.

In 1914 Leadbeater moved to Australia and met 'Bishop' James Ingall Wedgwood, who on 22 July 1916 raised him to the 'episcopate' of the Old Catholic Church. In consultation with their 'spirit masters', they developed a whole new elaborate ritual and theosophical symbolism for what became in 1918 the Liberal Catholic Church. In 1922 Leadbeater succeeded Wedgwood as 'presiding bishop'. Leadbeater presided over a religious community at The Manor, a rambling mansion overlooking Taylor's Bay in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. In 1923-24, as patron of the Order of the Star in the East, he was a prime mover in the building of a huge amphitheatre on the northernmost end of Edwards Beach in preparation for the coming of the 'World Teacher'. The presence of Leadbeater and G. S. Arundale made Sydney a major theosophist centre in the 1920s.

In 1918 Leadbeater had been the subject of police inquiries when dissident theosophists in California brought to the notice of the New South Wales attorney-general the earlier allegations of sexual perversion and the fact that he now had charge of a number of children of Australian theosophists. These inquiries, and a further series which followed local complaints in 1922, were inconclusive. There were no prosecutions, but press reports of the second affair caused a public scandal.

Leadbeater left Australia in 1929 for Adyar to take over the leadership of the Theosophical Society from Mrs Besant whose health was failing. He was back in Sydney for several months in 1930 and from February to May 1932, when he consecrated a successor as 'regionary bishop' for Australia. He was again returning in 1934 when he became ill and died in Perth on 1 March. He was cremated in Sydney, his ashes being distributed among various theosophical centres.

The pseudo-mysticism, elaborate ritual and doctrinal latitudinarianism of his 'Liberal Catholic Church' had a certain appeal in the climate of the 1920s. Although it declined rapidly after his death, vestiges survive in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth half a century later. Leadbeater himself was a large man, impressive in his Roman purple cassock, with a carefully clipped beard and piercing, almost hypnotic dark eyes. Inclined to be pompous, yet occasionally displaying 'a rather loud sense of humour', he may have been, as Gandhi said, a humbug, but his activities, even the least savoury of them, were probably the product of massive self-delusion: he seems to have lived out his life in the shadowy borderlands between antinomianism and clinical megalomania.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Anson, Bishops at Large (Lond, 1964)
  • J. Roe (ed), Twentieth Century Sydney (Syd, 1980)
  • G. J. Tillett, The Elder Brother (Lond, 1982)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1921, 2 Mar 1932
  • Attorney-General and Justice special bundle, 5/7771.2 (State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Leadbeater, Charles Webster (1854–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 8 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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