New Zealand, Theosophy in

History of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand: Originally part of the Australasia Section (founded in 1894), the New Zealand Lodges then comprised Auckland, chartered in 1892; Christchurch, chartered in 1894; Wellington, chartered in 1888; and Dunedin, chartered in 1893.

Early members and Lodges of the Australasian Section: Augustine Les Edgar King became the first New Zealand member, having joined while visiting London. His diploma was dated April 3, 1879. On his return to New Zealand, he became the first member of the Society in the southern hemisphere.

E. T. Sturdy, whom Colonel OLCOTT referred to as the “Father of Theosophy in New Zealand,” joined the Society in 1885 while living at Woodville in Hawkes Bay. After traveling overseas and meeting Col. Olcott, H. P. BLAVATSKY, and W. Q. JUDGE, he returned to New Zealand and settled in Wellington. Gathering a group of students around himself, he started the Wellington Lodge, which was chartered in 1888. Among its members were Sir Harry Albert ATKINSON, Prime Minister of New Zealand; his wife Anne E. Atkinson; their son, E. Tudor Atkinson; M. van Staveren, a Jewish rabbi; H. M. Stowell (Hare Hongi), a Maori tohunga (priest); and Edward Tregear, a poet and Maori scholar, who wrote a book about the similarities of the Hindu and Maori languages. The Wellington Lodge ceased to exist when Sturdy returned to England, where he became a student in HPB’s “inner group”; however they regrouped in 1894 and continue to the present.

A group of 16 enthusiastic members formed the Auckland Lodge (1892-1924). Among them were W. H. Draffin, Samuel Stuart, Margaret Lilian EDGER, and Charles W. Sanders. All were destined to play important roles in the future work of the Society. Margaret Edger was one of the first women in the British Empire to gain a university degree (an honorary M.A.). Four years later she became the first General Secretary of the N. Z. Section; but enticed by Col. Olcott, who recognized her outstanding ability as a lecturer, she soon departed overseas.

The Hemus family home on Ponsonby Road was a center of Theosophical activity for about 35 years. When the HPB Lodge was formed in 1903, it took rooms first on the Strand Arcade and then on His Majesty's Arcade. The Section moved in early 1906 to the City Chambers, where a fire occurred in June, causing the loss of many records. After that, the Section and HPB Lodge both moved to 351 Queen Street, where they occupied the whole building, even setting up a printing press in the basement. To improve the slum conditions around 351 Queen Street, the members used meditation and concentrated thought. This appears to have had some effect because shortly afterwards Myers Park was developed. Both HPB Lodge and the Section headquarters remained there until they moved in 1923 into 371 Queen Street. The HPB Lodge moved into its new building at 4 Warborough Avenue when it was consecrated in 1996. The Section headquarters had moved earlier to 10 Belvedere Street in 1948 then to its current location at Vasanta House in 1978.

The Dunedin Lodge was formed in 1893, when its charter was signed by the first international president, Col. Olcott, on 23 May. The Inglis and Pollard families were the most influential in the Dunedin Lodge the twentieth century. Sarah Rosetta Pollard, their mother, was president; and her daughters Cecilia and Truda Burrell also filled that role. Rose Pollard was a long-term secretary and treasurer. The most noted member of the Inglis family was Agnes, who was the acknowledged mystic of the Lodge. She lived into the 1980s and wrote an unpublished history of the Dunedin Lodge that emphasized the influence of the Masters who formed the Theosophical Society in 1875. Her mother and sister were also members. Agnes Inglis epitomizes the various threads that have been part of the Dunedin Lodge history. She was an avid reader, psychic, occultist, and the daughter of John Inglis, who joined the Lodge in 1901. Agnes was a long-term secretary and librarian with sparkling eyes and a deep spiritual understanding. She was a member of the Lotus Circle, a Sunday school for children that met weekly in Liverpool Street. Agnes Inglis knew that the Theosophical Society had to continually adapt and was never meant to stay in the Victorian era.

The New Zealand Section: The Australasia Section was split into the Australian and New Zealand Sections. The NZ Section received its charter on April 7, 1896; and its Section headquarters were established at 317 Queen Street, Auckland. In 1991 the offices formerly known as General Secretary and Assistant General Secretary were changed to that of National President and National Vice-President.

Theosophical Headquarters, New Zealand
Theosophical Headquarters, New Zealand

People today may wonder, as they read about Theosophical activities in the early years, how large crowds seemed to turn up to public lectures (in Auckland it is reported that a thousand people came to hear Annie BESANT). One must remember that without easy transport, TV, radio, or movies, people who were hungry for knowledge found public lectures ideal opportunities. This may help to explain why attendances before World War I were much the same as those we have now with a vastly greater population. In addition, Theosophy had answers for those that had exploring minds. Another influence at the time was ministers of various churches who, by branding Theosophy “anti-Christian,” gave it publicity; and many of the public came to meetings to hear what it was all about.

Enthusiasm can be seen from the Auckland Lodge’s regular Sunday lectures in a large barn-like hall on Lower Symonds Street, in which the 500 available seats were usually filled. There was no transport available on Sundays; and as nearly all the members of the Lodge lived two or three miles from the hall, attendance at these meetings meant about an hour’s walk each way up and down several long hills.

New Zealand Theosophical Lodges, by their founding dates, have been as follows:

1888 Wellington, regrouped 1894-still active

1893 Dunedin-still active

1895 Woodville (1895-1914), Pahiatua (1895-1900)

1903 Waitemata (Auckland) (1896-1897), Wanganui-still active

1903 Napier - currently active, changed its name to Hawkes Bay Branch (2012) to include members from the closed Hastings Lodge, and HPB (Auckland) - currently active

1904 Onehunga (Auckland) (1904-1920) 

1905 Kashmir Lodge (Christchurch), currently meeting as the Canterbury Study Group

1906 Invercargill (currently a Study Center) and Gisborne (1951 new charter, now disbanded)

1907 Nelson (1907-1924) and Motueka; Nelson was reformed in 1922 (1955-2011)

1908 Cambridge (1908-1924), Dannevirke (1908-1914, now a Study Center), Hamilton-active

1910 Northcote (Auckland) (1910-1914)

1911 Hawera and Palmerston North (currently active) 

1912 Timaru

1913 Hastings

1916 Stratford (1916-1942), New Plymouth (currently active)

1918 Whangarei (currently active) and Oamaru (disbanded, reformed 2002, currently active)

1919 Waipukurau (1919-1933)

1920 Vasanta (Auckland) (1920-1922)

1947 Tauranga (Mt. Maunganui) inaugurated by Geoffrey Hodson

1949 Rotorua

1954 Kerikeri (recommenced as a Theosophical Study Center, 2012)

1957 Arundale (name changed to Tauranga Lodge during the presidency of Pauline Bailey) 

1963 Suva Lodge, Fiji

1964 Orewan (reformed 2002)

Overseas visiting speakers: Many speakers from abroad have impacted on the New Zealand Society and continue to do so. It may amaze us today that so many distinguished visitors braved the stormy seas and the rigors of travel in this young country to visit the newly formed Lodges. Isabel COOPER-OAKLEY came in 1893 and Annie Besant the following year. Geraldine Hemus, an Auckland member at that time, is said to have reported that Besant was at the heyday of her oratorical power and gave some wonderful lectures to packed audiences in the old Albert Street Hall. Countess WACHMEISTER came in 1895-6; and in 1897 Colonel Olcott visited. When Colonel Olcott spoke on Healing and Spiritualism, 1000 people crowded into the hall; and in the press report of the meeting, he was called a “genial, well-educated and cultured gentleman”! The “anti-Christian” publicity being given by the mainstream churches against Theosophy and the Theosophical Society seemed to act in our favor, as many came to see what it was all about. The number of those interested grew yearly.

In the early 1900s, other overseas orators came to promote Theosophy. C. W. LEADBEATER visited in 1905 and again in 1914 and 1915; his public lectures attracted audiences of more than 100 people. Clara CODD and Ernest WOOD lectured, and C. JINARAJADASA visited in 1925 and again in 1951. G. S. ARUNDALE and RUKMINI came in 1930, and L. W. Rogers came from America in 1932 and in 1934. J. KRISHNAMURTI, N. SRI RAM when he was president and later presidents John COATS and Radha BURNIER along with two international lecturers, Joy Mills and Ianthe HOSKINS, not only lectured but held instructive seminars sharing Theosophy. The New Zealand Section has had several exciting and educational visits from John Algeo over the years. Since the year 2000, we have been visited by many international Theosophical speakers including Ravi Ravindra, Betty Bland (America), Tim Boyd (America). Linda Oliveira (Australia), and Dorothy Bell (Australia).

Those we call our own: A great impetus to Theosophical work in New Zealand and especially in Auckland, was given by Geoffrey Hodson, who arrived in December 1940 to be guest speaker at the Christchurch Convention. He made Auckland his headquarters and stayed in New Zealand for an unbroken ten years. As National Lecturer, he visited all the Lodges but gave the largest share of his time to HPB Lodge. His lectures, even when extended to a series over several weeks, attracted at least 100 members and public. He still helped HPB Lodge when he returned from overseas to his New Zealand home at 17 Belvedere Street, but in later years the frequency of his lectures was reduced. His last lecture to an audience which filled the hall was given at HPB Lodge on May 4, 1982, on the subject “Kundalini-Shanti – its use in Occult Research. This is a very remarkable achievement for one who at the time was 96 years of age. He died in Auckland early in the next year.

Vasanta Garden School: In 1918 a small band of enthusiastic Auckland members purchased an estate near Mt. St. John, Epsom, with a view to founding a school based on Theosophical ideals in education. The school opened in 1919 using the present Vasanta House. Later two open-air classrooms and an assembly hall were built. In 1923 Bertha Darroch became principal, and under her guidance Vasanta Garden School flourished, with a roll of nearly 100 pupils. Unfortunately, after she retired, the difficulty of finding capable teachers with an understanding of Theosophical ideas caused the school to close in 1959. The property reverted to the New Zealand Section; part of it was sold, and part of it was subdivided into residential sections on leasehold tenure. This brought more members into the area, which has always been a Theosophical center. Over the years, J. R. Thomson, the Crawfords, and Geoffrey and Sandra Hodson have lived here and have left their influence on the area. Today Vasanta House, in a garden setting, is the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand.

Gatherings that have kept the flame alive: Various communal gatherings of Theosophists have helped to keep the flame alive. Easter gatherings at Orewa House, a gathering of small Lodges at Tauhara, which brought together members of all the central North Island Lodges, family camps run by the Vinks and Pollocks, and two Marae (Maori sacred meeting place) visits to Gisborne in the 1980s all added vitality to local activities. In 1935 Miss Adrienne Orr organized a self-catering Easter camp at “Whykickuparow” (a name of unknown origin) camp at Mount Maunganui. The many young people present enjoyed the camp greatly. Many more Easter camps were held there and others at Karikari, North of Auckland. Unfortunately the war put an end to them. In 2003, Janine Sullenberger ran another successful family camp at 2009 near Wanganui. As well as annual conventions, meeting alternately in both islands, the NZ Section has run schools of Theosophy since 2004 and currently cohosts biennial Science and Spirituality seminars with the Australian science group. These give members an opportunity to reconnect with others and reignite the passion of theosophy in our day to day living.

Theosophical Order of Service

The Theosophical Order of Service was first founded in NZ in 1908 and has had several incarnations since that time. In the 1950s and 1960s, the NZ Theosophical Order of Service was revivified by Brian Dunningham and under the inspiration of Geoffrey Hodson worked mainly in the field of animal welfare. Hodson was successful in having a more humane method of slaughtering animals accepted, and Adrienne Orr instituted competitions open to school-children for the best posters depicting animal welfare. These proved very popular, with the posters being displayed in the town hall. The current incarnation of the TOS is under the guidance of Renée Sell. Its members are actively engaged in humanitarian assistance, working alongside other TOS groups in places such as India, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

Other closely linked groups: Members have often been involved in one or more of the closely linked groups, for example, the Vegetarian Society, the Co-Masons, the Esoteric Section, the Egyptian Rite, the Order of the Star of the East, the Round Table (which began in the 1920s for younger people), the New Zealand and India League, and the Liberal Catholic Church (LCC).

There has always been, and still is, an active Theosophical Youth Group in Auckland; before World War II, they produced a magazine called the Torch. Many other TS members, when splits occurred internationally, followed J. Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, or Alice A. BAILEY; however, as the years have passed, many are returning to the Theosophical Society where all can share their respective wisdom without disharmony.

Membership: In the early years with so much strength and inspiration flowing into the Lodges, membership continued to grow. HPB Lodge experienced a leap from 70 in 1905 to 400 by 1918. By 1949 the membership had increased, exceeding 500, making it at that time one of the largest Theosophical Lodges in the world.

Trials and tribulations as reported in the Dunedin Lodge archives: The Masters Kuthumi and Morya and their assistants have influenced key decisions taken by the Dunedin Lodge over the last 116 years. This influence is highlighted in the University of Otago history thesis by A. Y. Atkinson on the Dunedin Theosophical Society 1892 to 1900, which was published in 1978: "One day travelling on the train from Sawyers Bay to Dunedin, Augustus William Maurais noticed that the elderly gentleman seated across from him was reading a Theosophical magazine. Introductions were quickly made and the stranger proved to be Grant Farquhar, wealthy partner in the tannery factory at Sawyers Bay and a keen enthusiast on all matters Theosophical.

Maurais called a meeting to discuss the formation of the Dunedin Lodge in December 1892. It ended in disagreement between advocates of spiritualism and Maurais, who considered the Wisdom Tradition the most important aspect of the society. The spiritualists were not invited to the meeting in February 1893, which started the Dunedin Lodge of the Theosophical Society in New Zealand. Maurais, who had read deeply into the Wisdom Tradition, became the first secretary. His knowledge was necessary during the first decade when Theosophy was viciously attacked from the pulpit by the famous Dunedin Presbyterian minister the Rev. Rutherford Waddell. Atkinson wrote: “Scarcely a day went by when the morning or evening newspapers did not print a letter written by a Theosophist or one of Theosophy’s critics.” (A large part of the correspondence centered on the scandals and frauds associated with Theosophy.) “Maurais, writing in the Evening Star in 1894, pointed out that the body of knowledge itself was more important to Theosophists than the beings, human or spiritual, who had conveyed it.” However, on reading these old records, one comes to the conclusion that a great deal of what Jung calls synchronicity was taking place at the time. You could call it “the touch of the Master's hand.”

Hamilton: The Hamilton Lodge received its charter from Annie Besant in 1908. Meetings were initially scheduled for Sunday afternoons with a study circle on Wednesdays, though within a year the Sunday lectures were changed to the evening. This pattern of weekly Sunday evening lectures has remained ever since — a remarkable record. Subscriptions were set at three shillings and sixpence each month, an enormous sum compared with today (about NZ$300 at today’s value). Indeed this was not all, as members were expected to pay into the ‘Penny-a-Day’ fund (at 2s 6d per month) to help maintain the Section and the international headquarters at Adyar.

Road travel was particularly hazardous and it normally took three days to go by coach and horses from Auckland. Consequently, organizing visiting speakers was a major exercise and they would stay several days, taking in the Cambridge Lodge as part of their tour. Stalwarts like Beatie Kaber (president 1920-1937 with occasional breaks) and F. E. Hewlett (secretary) held the Lodge together in often difficult times as various other groups vied for people’s loyalties, such as those of Rudolf Steiner and J. Krishnamurti. Other groups also needed support: the Vegetarian Society, the Co-Masons, the Order of the Star of the East, the Round Table (for younger people), the Liberal Catholic Church and the New Zealand and Indian League.

At first the group met in rented rooms; however in 1911 a wealthy benefactor, Mrs Parr, arranged a purpose-built Theosophical Hall. Crippling re-rating and maintenance changes saw the Lodge move to its current premises in 1971. Membership has been between 30 and 60 over its lifetime, with steady attendances between 10 and 25.

Orewa: In 1971 the Arundel Center Orewa House and the surrounding property including the Iona flats, Orewa, offered by way of a gift the land and buildings, including all assets and liabilities, to the NZ Section of the Theosophical Society at its 75th anniversary convention. By 1978 Orewa House was sold because of the continued high cost of maintenance, and a new Lodge hall was built where Geoffrey Hodson on his 92nd birthday delivered the first lecture. In 1987 the building was extended to make space for the growing library, and by 1990 a peace pole was placed in the garden at the front. Activities that include public and members talks, study sessions, and associated regular events continue to bring Theosophy to the people of Orewa and its surrounding districts.

Bold textPalmerston North: The Palmerston North Lodge charter was signed on Christmas day in 1911 by Annie Besant. Meetings were held every Tuesday at 7:30 pm, followed by a study class at 8:00 pm; the annual subscription was sixpence per week. Fundraising began for their own building in 1921 after a fire in the Lodge. It was noted in the minutes, “The chief cause for which we exist is to form a center for the spreading of the Divine Wisdom. To build a hall of our own to form a permanent center or channel for the spreading of Truth, through which the Masters’ work can be better accomplished. Therefore without attachment, constantly perform action which is duty, for by performing action without attachment men reach the Supreme.” Today in 2012 the building still stands, having undergone extensive restructuring to meet earthquake building standards, and having had its ceiling, now classified as of "the highest historic value," completely restored. Members continue to enthusiastically promote Theosophy and with gratitude to remember the vision and efforts of those before them.

Currently New Zealand has 13 branches, 5 Study Centers and 824 members.

Sandy Ravelli