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England, Theosophy in

The government of the Section is in the hands of the National Council, Executive Committee and General Secretary. The National Council consists of the General Secretary, the Treasurer, the Executive Committee, and a representative from every Lodge in the Section — plus representatives from the unattached members.

Charles Carlton Massey, an English barrister and scholar, had been active on the councils of the British National Association of Spiritualists and The London Spiritualist Alliance. His interest in occultism took him to New York to investigate the phenomena being produced by Helena Petrovna BLAVATSKY. He was convinced of her genuineness and became a valued friend and associate. He is numbered among the sixteen original founders of the Theosophical Society in New York on November 17, 1875. He came to England on July 27, 1879, and gathered around him an informal group for the study of Theosophy.

John Storer Cobb, Treasurer of the Society, was authorized to form this group into “The British Theosophical Society” with Massey as President and Emily Kislingsbury (who had also taken an active interest in the Spiritualist movement) as Secretary.

In 1883 when Dr. Anna Bonus KINGSFORD, co-editor with Edward MAITLAND of The Perfect Way (London: Watkins, 1881) and a determined crusader against vivisection and meat-eating was President, the British Theosophical Society became the London Lodge. In the following year, at the suggestion of Blavatsky, she founded the Hermetic Society for the study of religion and philosophy. In September 1883, as Mother Lodge of the British Isles, London was officially authorized to endorse charters coming from the United Kingdom. In 1885 A.P. SINNETT, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Society (who had rendered much service to Theosophy in India) became President of the London Lodge and was its mainstay for many years.

Famous names associated with the Society in those early years include Alfred Russel WALLACE, the scientist who, independently of Darwin, contributed to the philosophy of Natural Selection; William CROOKES, for many years a most original scientific investigator and inventor and Professor Stainton Moses, a classical scholar and lucid writer who was also a well-known medium.

Great impetus was given to theosophy in the British Isles with the arrival of Blavatsky, who had been engaged in writing The Secret Doctrine in Europe. Her magazine Lucifer was started in September 1887, and the Blavatsky Lodge, meeting in her house at 17 Lansdowne Road, was formed. From this time forward, the growth of the theosophical movement in England (and particularly in London) was steady. The President-Founder formally chartered the British Section on October 19, 1889, at a meeting attended by delegates from the two Lodges in London and from the Liverpool, Dublin, Cambridge and Glasgow Lodges. In October 1889, W. R. OLD became the first General Secretary.

In May of that year, Annie BESANT joined the Society in London and was instrumental in bringing theosophy to the fore through her charismatic personality, her writings and lectures. When, in July 1890, Blavatsky moved from Lansdowne Road to 19 Avenue Road, St. John’s Wood, this then became the headquarters of the European Section as well as the venue of the Blavatsky Lodge. The new hall was the first theosophical building in Europe. Under the supervision of the Countess WACHTMEISTER, lending libraries were established in various places and thousands of leaflets and pamphlets were distributed all over the country, this constituting the first theosophical propaganda in Britain.

During the next few years the work, under Besant and other leading workers, went on steadily. In 1890 Bertram KEIGHTLEY, the General Secretary, reported that the membership figure stood at 1,680.

These few years saw the output of much literature including books destined to become theosophical classics. Among these were collections of Besant’s best known Convention Addresses and Charles LEADBEATER’s Man, Visible and Invisible and The Other Side of Death.

Blavatsky died on May 8, 1891, but her many trained workers carried on the work of “theosophizing” Europe.

So many Lodges had been formed in Europe under the jurisdiction of the British Section that the latter was recharted on July 17, 1891, as “The European Section” and was so described until 1905. Bertram KEIGHTLEY had become General Secretary in 1900 and in that year the membership stood at 1680. Now, in 1905, owing to the formation of autonomous sections in Sweden, Holland, France, Italy and Germany, it again returned to the title “The British Section” and was so known until the formation of the autonomous Sections of Scotland (1910), Ireland (1919), and Wales (1922) made the name “English Section” the only logical designation.

In 1907 Annie Besant became the second President of the Theosophical Society. The English Section continued to grow in number; the Section journal at this time was entitled The Vahan.

Out of the Bureau of Theosophical Activities, of which James Wedgwood was secretary, grew the Propaganda — later the Publicity Department — and Summer Schools.

In 1911 there were 51 Lodges and 23 centers in England and Wales and the activities of the Section had so greatly increased that a Propaganda Sub-committee was formed to organize and conduct the publicity work. During this year it was hoped to take possession of the magnificent building (now the Headquarters of the British Medical Association) which was in course of erection. This dream, however, was unrealized.

In 1912 the membership exceeded 2,000 and the next year found England and Wales divided into three federated areas.

In 1915-16 George ARUNDALE was General Secretary. He rendered great service to the Section by putting the various departments — sociological, educational and so on — under expert administrators. He later left for India where he became President of the Society.

By 1917 the number of Lodges was more than double the 1911 figure; for though the war claimed its toll and conditions were naturally adverse to development, yet the interest aroused by the theosophical teaching on life after death was immense, 1918 showing the greatest net increase in membership.

During the next few years, the international aspect of the work became marked. Many General Secretaries passed through London and demands for literature were constant, particularly for use in the Balkan countries. Another feature of the Society’s work in England was the co-operation in various ways with many similar movements, religious, social and international.

These years saw an increased tendency to encourage study by the holding of more study classes, students’ weekends and study weeks in all the Federation areas. By this time also the movement had begun to interest many young people, hence a Youth Lodge and the Young Theosophists Association was formed.

An outstanding feature of these years was the annual visit of the President, Annie Besant. The Convention of 1926 was the largest ever held in England.

In 1930 for the first time in twenty-four years, Leadbeater visited England and, Besant being also there, these two figures appeared together on the platform. The various internal and external problems now confronting members resulted in a loss of membership and these years are records of the adjustments to doubts and difficulties on the part of many of those remaining.

In 1934 the Section acquired a dignified Regency house at 50 Gloucester Place, London. A hall was built at the rear of the premises, named “Besant Hall” in honor of Annie Besant. Annual conventions were held there for many years. This hall is now let to provide an income for the upkeep of Headquarters.

An outstanding event of 1936 was the Annual Convention, held at Whitsuntide, the first to be held in the new Besant Hall, which was dedicated by the President, “not to the memory, but to the ever-living presence of a great leader.” The Blavatsky Lecture was delivered by Arundale on “The Foundations of Practical Occultism.” Following this, the President and Shrimati Rukmini Devi attended the Northern Federation Conference in Manchester, stimulating all they met to a greater enthusiasm.

The Headquarters at Gloucester Place contains an enquiry room, lecture room and members’ rooms. The first floor holds the lending and reference libraries, a collection of over 14,000 books considered to be the finest library of esoteric subjects in Great Britain. Members of the English Section have automatic membership of this library. Members and Lodges are also able to borrow from a collection of over 400 audio and 21 video cassettes. The supply of leaflets for sale or free distribution has proved very valuable as an introduction to the more serious study of theosophical literature.

The General Secretary has an office and accommodation at the Headquarters building. There are also offices for the Information and Publicity Officers, the Registrar and the Accounts department. In 1921 a limited company was formed under the title of The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd. The Directors consisted of the General Secretaries of the English, Scottish and Irish Sections. Owing to many difficulties the company was dissolved up in 1927.

Annie Besant opened a shop at 68 Great Russell Street, London, and formed a company known as Besant & Co. In 1933, on the death of his mother, the company passed to Digby Besant. In the late 1940s the English Section purchased a share of this business which became reconstituted as The Theosophical Publishing House (London) Ltd. The bookshop was first at 12 Bury Street and was known as the Quest Bookshop. It is now located at Headquarters. Stands are taken at various festivals and exhibitions to promote the sale of the books.

In 1929 a small group of members of The Theosophical Society in England purchased TECKELS PARK ESTATE in the hope that it might become a theosophical center. Dormy House was erected on the foundations of the old coach house and stables, main drainage was installed and roads were made. Long leases were granted to members of the Society to build houses in the park and two blocks of flats were put up. One member provided a hall for the use of the Theosophical Society, the LIBERAL CATHOLIC CHURCH and the Order of International CO-FREEMASONRY.

In 1961 the shareholders of Tekels Park Estate generously handed it over to the Theosophical Society for a purely nominal sum in order to safeguard the future of the park as a center of theosophical activity.

In 1964 about 16 acres were compulsorily purchased by Surrey County Council for a motorway, leaving an area of about 50 acres. This allowed Dormy House to be extended. It is now known as the Guest House and is one of the finest vegetarian conference centers in the country. When it is not in use by the Theosophical Society it is let to other spiritual organizations.

In 1991 the membership of the English Section was about 1600 members who either belonged to one of the 50 or more lodges and centers or were unattached. The Section is divided into 6 regional federations who arrange seminars and study weekends at varying intervals.

But, far and away the most activity is generated by the Headquarters (HQ) in London. HQ plays host each year to about 30 Sunday lectures, 10-15 special whole day events and a core of 10 ongoing classes catering both for those new to and those well-versed in Ancient Wisdom concepts. In addition, 3 or 4 residential weekends are organized by Headquarters at Tekels Park each year. Attendance at public lectures averages about 50 but on occasion can rise to 90. About 30 people attend each of the workshops and seminars. Groups regularly meet to study The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silence and The Kabbalah. Every week people come to learn meditational techniques and every fortnight there is an Open Forum that discusses current affairs in the light of Theosophy. In addition an annual Summer School is arranged at one of the English universities at which the average attendance is 100.

The Information Department arranges publicity nationwide and produces events, programs and general information leaflets and booklets. Especially large campaigns were mounted in connection with the centenaries of The Secret Doctrine (1988) and the passing of Helena P. Blavatsky (1991). The English Section journal is issued to all members on alternate months and, in addition, a newsletter from the General Secretary is issued to all unattached members. As well as dealing with enquiries from the general public (which average 800 a year), Headquarters supplies lodges and new members with publicity and study material and helps individual lodges that wish to put on special programs. Headquarters and Summer School lectures are recorded and cassettes may be borrowed or purchased by members.


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