Table of Contents

Previous Chapter

Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 
A Biographical Study
by Gregory John Tillett
Table of Contents

Next Chapter

--- 75 ---

Chapter 2: The Early Years

            In 1930, A.J. Hamerster(1883-1951), a respected member of the Theosophical Society, was asked to deliver a lecture on the life of Charles Webster Leadbeater, and to prepare his lecture for publication in the annual of the Order of the Round Table, a small chivalric association for young people.  Hamerster met Leadbeater in Australia in 1926, and had corresponded with him.  Anxious that his biographical material should be as accurate as possible, Hamerster submitted the draft of his lecture to Leadbeater, who "enriched the original manuscript with notes, corrections and suggestions", and wrote to Hamerster on April 15, 1931, approving the text as an accurate biography. [1]  The lecture was subsequently published in the Round Table Annual for 1932, and then all but disappeared.

            But Hamerster, a careful historian whose work from the archives of the Theosophical Society's headquarters at Adyar, in Madras, India, had revealed all manner of interesting information, had all his writings collated and bound, some of them with additional handwritten notes, and deposited in the Adyar library. [2]  His account of Leadbeater's life was not unusual:  it simply presented the facts previously published by other Theosophical authorities, and subsequently repeated up to the present

--- 76 ---

 day. [3]  Its uniqueness lay in the fact that it had been declared by Leadbeater himself to be an accurate account of his life.

            The Leadbeater family derived, so the article ran, from old Norman stock, and came to England at the time of William the Conqueror in the 11th century.  The name was adapted from the French le Batre (the builder). [4]   Charles Webster Leadbeater was born in February 17, 1847, and at the age of twelve went with his father, his mother and his younger brother, Gerald, to South America, where his father was the director of a railway company.   The years in Brazil were full of adventures, including a train chase in which Charles drove a locomotive at great speed to capture a cashier defaulting from his father's company.  The younger brother was "atrociously butchered" by Red Indians [sic] and "renegade insurgents".  When the family returned to London, the father contracted tuberculosis and died.  "The life in South America", concluded Hamerster, "had made of the boy Charles a man."

            The years between returning to London and being ordained into the Church of England in 1878 are left blank by Hamerster, and big article concludes with an account of Leadbeater's developing interest in spiritualism and

theosophy.  Mention is made of the fact that the "atrociously

--- 77 ---

butchered" brother, Gerald, reincarnated fifteen years after his untimely death into C. Jinarajadasa, a boy born in Ceylon in 1875.  Leadbeater's occult interests were said to have been stimulated when, as a child, he saw the famous Bulwer Lytton (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, 1803-1873) perform a psychic demonstration at the Leadbeater home in London to convince Leadbeater's father of the reality of such things. [5]

            This, in general, is the account of his life which accompanied Charles Webster Leadbeater throughout his Theosophical career.  It was elaborated upon with additional details by other writers.   Mrs Annie Besant, then President of the Theosophical Society, noted in an article in The Theosophist in 1911 that he had entered Oxford University but was obliged to give up his studies when the family fortune was lost in the "crash" of Overend, Gurney and Company's bank on the "historic 'Black Monday'" of 1866. [6]

            In the same year a story by Leadbeater, entitled "Saved By A Ghost", appeared in The Theosophist:  it had the subtitle, "A True Record of An Adventure in Brazil, Near Bahia, 1861-2".  The story was offprinted, and also published, with some changes, in a volume of Leadbeater's short stories. [7]  It detailed the adventures in Brazil, and included a detailed account of the death of brother Gerald.

--- 78 ---

            According to the story, Leadbeater's father was "the leading director of a certain railway then in the course of construction." [8]  On one of his trips to the interior of Brazil he was accompanied by Charles, junior, and Gerald.  They were attacked by Indians, and although they survived, the danger was sufficient to inspire their father to make a long speech about the meaning of life, concluding "... remember, we are in God's hands, and nothing can happen to us without His knowledge, and whatever is His will for us, somehow or other that is [?] for us, and if we die bravely, as Englishmen should, you may be sure we are serving Him in doing it."  However, they escaped the Indians but were captured by "rebels".  The leader of the rebel army, General Martinez, demanded that they join his army or be executed. [9]  Leadbeater's father "indignantly refused, asserting over and over again that as an Englishman he declined to take part in such affairs."

            Martinez was unimpressed with typically Leadbeaterian display of patriotism, and prepared to administer an oath of allegiance to his unwilling recruits.  Part of the oath (for reasons never explained) involved trampling on a crucifix.

            "I need hardly say that we had not the slightest

--- 79 ---

intention of doing anything of the kind.  We were members of the Church of England, and not of that of Rome, but nevertheless my mother was a devoted follower of Dr Pusey [10] with whom she was intimately acquainted, and I myself habitually wore a tiny ebony and silver crucifix around my neck underneath my clothes, which the Red Indians [sic] had left me, because, I suppose, they recognized it as a magical symbol of the Christians and may have feared its power." [11]

            Leadbeater's father, having managed to free himself from the ropes with which he had been tied, made a sudden dash into the jungle and disappeared, much to the annoyance of the rebels, and much to the amusement, oddly enough, of his two sons.  Martinez ordered Gerald to trample on the crucifix, but Charles exhorted him not to do so.

            "'Don't do it, Gerald,' I shouted back to him as I was dragged off, 'remember St Agnes.'" [12]

            And Gerald, doubtless recalling the courageous thirteen year old Roman maiden, refused to obey and told Martinez, he was "a wicked man", whereupon the rebel leader, killed the child with his sword.  Charles was dragged into the jungle, tied in

--- 80 ---

an ingenious manner between two trees by way of a rack, and then pelted with broken bottles and struck with sticks.  Eventually the Indians lit a fire beneath his feet, "which were soon most horribly burnt."

            Fainting from pain, he recovered to find himself tied to yet another tree, in great pain and full of depressing thoughts and the desire for death.  Suddenly he saw his dead brother Gerald standing in front of him -

            " brother Gerald, whom I had seen only a few hours before cut down by the sword of Martinez.  Indeed, the mark of that cruel blow still lay across his skull - a great ghastly wound cleaving the skull asunder." [13]

            Gerald, however, looked peaceful and happy, and his presence totally transformed his brother's despair and desire for death into a peaceful certainty that he would be rescued.  And, as he anticipated, in the middle of the night his father returned, assisted by a faithful Negro servant, and carried Charles, junior, off into the Jungle.

            A lengthy chase followed, involving the rebel soldiers, blood-hounds and hiding in tree-tops.  Eventually the Leadbeaters and their servant, arrived at a friendly

--- 81 ---

hacienda, and set out on their return to the city (never named) where they were reunited with Mrs Leadbeater. [14]  A band of volunteers set out to fight the rebels, and Leadbeater's father immediately joined - "principally, I think because he was an Englishman" - and, doubtless for the same reason was given command of the company.  Charles, junior, having recovered from the worst effects of his torture, was given permission to ride with the men.  He hoped that this would give him the opportunity to gain his revenge for the death of his brother, and looked forward to a chance to kill Martinez.

            Eventually, the company engaged in action aginst the rebels, and Leadbeater found himself attacking Martinez with a sword:  he recalled that Martinez was the best swordsman in South America, but was undeterred.  A fierce fight ensued, Martinez stumbled and lost his sword;  Leadbeater leapt on top of him and held the point of his sword at the General's throat, putting his foot on the man's breast.  Martinez begged for mercy.

            "'Mercy' I said jerkily perhaps, for I was panting from the terrible exertion of the fight;  'what mercy did you show my brother'" [15]

            At the height of this dramatic confrontation, the silver and

--- 82 ---

ebony crucifix around Leadbeater's neck fell out from his shirt, and the rebel leader, seeing it, cried again for mercy "for the sake of the Christ whose image you wear."  Unimpressed, Leadbeater was about to plunge the sword into his victim's neck when he felt his arm being held back and, turning, saw his brother Gerald.  Martinez saw him too, and was terrified.  Unable now to carry out his long anticipated revenge, Leadbeater left Martinez lying on the ground and walked away.  The rebel leader leapt up, attacked Leadbeater with a dagger, and was shot by a government soldier, while Leadbeater was shot in the right arm by a rebel soldier.  But he was able to fire back, killing the soldier, before falling to the ground.

            Carried back home by his father, he was nursed to health, and shared with his father in the praise and decorations of a grateful government.  A month later he watched the execution of Martinez by a firing squad, but felt no antagonis6m, "for I had looked into my brother's eyes, and I knew he lived and loved me still."  The story, as told by Leadbeater, ended with an enigmatic foreshadowing of events to come, when Leadbeater and his brother were to be reunited, the brother in a different incarnation:

            "And so I was content, though I knew nothing of the beautiful fate which would bring my brother

--- 83 ---

back to life fifteen years later in a country far away, which would bring him in that new body into my life again, which would enable us both to recognize one another, and to realize that death can never part those souls that truly love." [16]

            The story of the Brazilian adventure is significant more for what it reveals about the personality of the man who wrote it than for its biographical value.  His vivid imagination in presenting historical events, his ability to give a convincing account of happenings which would otherwise appear inherently improbable, and his skill in interweaving the supernatural with the historical were all qualities which characterized all his writings.  Leadbeater was known for the ability he possessed and the pleasure he gained in telling fantastic stories to his young disciples.  He merged the sort of rugged adventure characteristic of popular books for boys (for example, the "Boy's Own" series) with elements typical of the Gothic novel or the classical horror story into an exciting tale in which natural and supernatural fused to create a thrilling atmosphere.

            Additional material on the adventures in Brazil was given to his pupils.  Clara Codd, who lived in

--- 84 ---

Leadbeater's community in Sydney for two years, recalled that he told exciting stories of his travels in South America, and claimed to have been shown the lost treasures of the Incas by Indian boys while in Peru.  He was also shown the secret rituals of the Incas' contemporary descendants (whoever they were), and, in later years recognized the signs and symbols he had been shown as similar to those used in Freemasonry. [17]

            Jinarajadasa, who published a considerable amount of biographical material on his brother of a former life, left a Memo for a Biography of C.W.L. in the archives of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society at Adyar. [18]  Jinarajadasa noted that Leadbeater had been born in Lea Green Hall, at Stockport, in Cheshire, on February 17, 1847, but the family moved to London when Charles was quite young.  In 1858 they travelled to Brazil, where his father was the chairman of a railway company owning concessions on the Bahia and San Francisco railway, and also in south Brazil.  The family returned to London in 1861, and Leadbeater, senior, died in 1862.  According to Jinarajadasa, Charles Leadbeater, junior, entered Queen's College, Oxford, in 1865 or 1866, but was obliged to leave after the family fortune was lost in the collapse of Overend, Gurney and Company.  Leadbeater worked for a time at a shipbroker's, then at a railway contractor's, then in Williams, Deacon and Company's

--- 85 ---

bank as a clerk. [19]  This was followed by ordination in the Church of England, for which Jinarajadasa gives the date 1876.

            Jinarajadasa also referred to a meeting with "General Morgan" [presumably Major General Henry Rhodes Morgan (1822-1910), an eminent early Theosophist] in 1866, when Leadbeater told the General of meeting a werewolf in Scotland.  The werewolf story is told in detail by Clara Codd. [20]  She says that at the time Leadbeater was a pupil at St John's College, Cambridge, and had travelled to the Orkneys or Shetlands with some other students;  whilst staying in a hotel they set out on a walk.  Leadbeater was separated from his companions, became lost and was given shelter by an old woman and her daughter.  In the middle of the night he awoke to find a large grey wolf attacking him.  He seized a knife and stabbed it;  the wolf left the house and Leadbeater barricaded the door.  The following morning he saw that the old woman's daughter had blood stains on her dress.  Returning to his hotel he was again attacked by the wolf, lost consciousness and was finally found by his companions of the previous day.  He was weak with fever for some weeks, and on recovering took his companions back to the cottage, but found it empty.  This story, like that of the adventure in South America, mixes the "Boy's Own" and horror genres, and is typical both of the sort of story

--- 86 ---

Leadbeater used to tell his pupils, and of werewolf tales of

the time.

            Leadbeater also claimed to have a family motto:  Toufours pret, "always ready". [21]

            Biographical accounts of Leadbeater appeared in various Theosophical publications throughout his lifetime;  the same stories were repeated in articles by Theosophists who worked and lived with him, and a "definitive" article was published after his death by J.L. Davidge, who entitled it "Authentic Biographical Details on Bishop Leadbeater". [22]   This repeated the stories of Brazil and the abruptly terminated career at Oxford, as did the obituary in the official journal of the Theosophical Society in England. [23]  In two editions of Who's Who in Australia (1927-8 and 1933-4) the standard biographical details are included in entries for Leadbeater, presumably supplied by him, or at his direction. [24]  More recently, the Theosophical Society in America repeated the popular account in its study course on the history of Theosophy [25], as did the Presiding Bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church in his notes on the history of the Church for its clergy training course. [26]  Both these courses, especially the Liberal Catholic Church Institute of Studies program, were intended to be basically scholarly approaches to their subjects.

--- 87 ---

            Given this impressive weight of material, and the fact that Leadbeater never contradicted or corrected any of the stories published in his lifetime, one might assume the standard account of Leadbeater's "mysterious beginnings" to be undoubtedly true.  It is not.  Whilst it is difficult to locate evidence about his early years, it is comparatively easy to dispose of the main claims of the popular version.

            From the General Register Office in London some of the facts can be ascertained from records of births, deaths and marriages.  Charles Webster Leadbeater was born on February 16, 1854, in Thompson Street, Stockport.  His father was Charles Leadbeater, who gave his occupation as bookkeeper, and his mother was Emma Leadbeater, formerly Morgan.  His parents had been married in St Jude's Church in the parish of West Derby in Lancaster on May 26, 1853.   Charles, senior, was 28 at the time of his marriage, and gave his profession as bookkeeper or clerk, and his address as Stockport.   Emma Morgan, spinster, was born in 1822, and was therefore 31 at the time of her marriage;  her address was given as Edge Hill.  Her father, Webster Morgan, was an accountant, and Charles Leadbeater's father was a builder. [27]

            Thompson Street, Stockport, where Leadbeater was

--- 88 ---

born, was a relatively new area of the town.  It did not exist in 1851 when a census revealed the town's population to be 53,835, but appears to have been built as part of a development to provide additional housing.  Of Lea Green Hall no trace appears in records relating to Thompson Street.   Stockport was one of the largest towns in the County of Chester, lying on the River Mersey, and by the middle of the nineteenth century it had established itself as a considerable industrial town, with cotton mills, hat-making and engineering works.  It was also an important market centre, and possessed five Anglican churches, six almshouses and three weekly newspapers.  It lay five and a half miles from the major industrial centre of Manchester, and 192 miles north-west of London.  Its population began to decline in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, dropping from 30,746 in 1861 to 29,923 in 1871. [28]

            The Leadbeater family seems to have been fairly mobile, for they do not appear in the census records for Stockport in 1851 or 1861.  Charles Leadbeater died in 1862 in Rutland Cottage, John Street, Hampstead in London, but the census of April, 1861, does not show them at that address.  At the time of his death, Charles, senior, was 36, and his son only 8.  The occupation given on the death certificate is bookkeeper to a railway company.  The cause of death was pythisis pulmonalis, in lay terms tuberculosis,

--- 89 ---

from which he had suffered for three years. [29]

            Of brother Gerald, the registers of births and deaths contain no record from 1850 to 1870.  Nor do the records of deaths of British subjects overseas.

            What is the true story of Charles Webster Leadbeater's early life?    And why did he persist in concealing it?   Where was he and what was he doing from the time of his birth in 1854 until he appears as an ordinand in the Church of England in 1878?   And how was he educated after his father's death?

            It seems unlikely that, given the actual date of his birth, Leadbeater was driving locomotives or engaging in sword fights with rebel generals in Brazil in 1860 (when he was 6) even if the family did go to South America.  Equally improbable is the brother Gerald of whom no official record seems to exist.  C. Jinarajadasa did not know he was Gerald reincarnated until some time after he had been "discovered" in Ceylon and taken from his homeland to London;  it was a story told in later years by Leadbeater, although he claimed he had been sent to Ceylon by his spiritual Master for the purpose of finding Gerald reborn. [30]

            The claim that Leadbeater attended Queen's College, Oxford, is refuted both by the College and by

--- 90 ---

published records of those who matriculated to attend that University. [31]  The University has no record of Charles Webster Leadbeater as a student in any of its colleges at any time, nor of him matriculating to become a student. [32]  Cambridge likewise has no record of him. [33]  That he did not attend any university is further indicated by the records of the Diocese of Winchester, within which he was ordained:  he is entered in the list of ordinands as a "Literate", that is, someone who is not a graduate but was admitted on special examination. [34]

            The story of Bulwer Lytton seems unlikely, given the family circumstances.  Even less likely is the story Leadbeater told in his book The Masters and the Path of seeing "Master M" in London in 1851 - three years before he was born. [35]

            The bank of Overend, Gurney and Company did indeed "crash" (although it was on a "Black Friday" and not on a "Black Monday") on May 11, 1866.  What was "for forty years the greatest discounting house in the world", suspended payment with liabilities in excess of eleven million pounds Sterling. [36]  Since Leadbeater was only 12 at the time, it seems unlikely that it terminated his studies at University.  The family fortune may have been lost, although from what records there are, it seems

--- 91 ---

unlikely that such a fortune existed.

            According to Jinarajadasa, Leadbeater's early working years were occupied in various clerical positions, and included eighteen months in the Parish of Bramshott as a lay reader prior to his ordination.  Although there is no record of this in the parish archives records, it is not improbable.  Jinarajadasa also suggested that Leadbeater was involved in the Church of All Saints, Margaret Street, London, a centre of Anglo-Catholic activity. [37]  Leadbeater himself said that his mother was a follower of Dr Edward Pusey (1800-1882), the English theologian and leader of the Oxford Movement, and that it was her influence that led him to find a vocation in the Anglican ministry. [38]

            But the "mysterious beginnings" remain. Why did he lie about the date of his birth and his early years?  Why did he allow false accounts of his life up to the age of twenty-four (when he was ordained) to be repeated regularly in publications with which he was associated?

            The answers derive from the complex personality of Charles Leadbeater and must be seen in the context of the highly romanticized "life of manifold adventures", as he called it, which he revealed to his friends and disciples.  Leadbeater's ability as a story-teller, and his enthusiasm

--- 92 ---

for romantic, fantasy and horror fiction provides some explanation.  In the final chapter of this work in which the "mysteries" and the myths associated with him will be examined some additional explanations will be considered.  The answers are less "mysterious" than some suggested by contemporary disciples of his, one of whom claimed that Leadbeater has occultly altered records to prevent an outsider writing his biography.  Another suggested simply that there were two Charles Webster Leadbeaters, born in different years but with parents of the same names;  for the "real" Charles Webster Leadbeater (that is, the subject of this study) there were no records.

            Throughout his life Leadbeater was not averse to re-writing history to suit his own requirements, be it the evolutionary past of man on this planet, the past lives of friends and enemies, or the humbler history of his own family.  Whether he did this deliberately and consciously with intent to deceive and defraud, or whether it was unconscious compensation for personal inadequacies and the subconscious creation of a fiction which translated into fact, and was sincerely believed to be true, remains a matter of opinion.

            In reaching any conclusion about the man, the claims he made for himself, and the claims that were made

--- 93 ---

about him, one must consider the extraordinary career which carried Leadbeater from obscurity in the Church of England to international acclaim and notoriety.  As an eminent investigator of criminal mysteries has said of human actions:

            " ...not one of them happens by pure chance unconnected with other happenings, none is incapable of explanation;  they are the fruits which must of necessity develop under the influence of nature and individual culture, fruits whose formation is explained by the organism producing them.   They are attached to the individual as surely as fruit emanates from the tree.  We do not look to gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles." [39]

Table of Contents

Previous Chapter

Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 
A Biographical Study
by Gregory John Tillett
Table of Contents

Next Chapter