Aimed at reviving ‘ancient wisdom’ as an antidote to modern materialism and promoting universal brotherhood, the Theosophical Society (TS) was founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in New York in 1875. It gained a foothold in South Australia on 26 May 1891 when, during a lecture tour, Olcott and seven ‘truth-seekers’ from the professional classes established Adelaide lodge. Interest quickened when leader Annie Besant visited in 1894. Many colourful figures followed, including CW Leadbeater in 1905, and theosophy became an option for the Edwardian intelligentsia.
Presided over by HG Olifent (father of Sir Mark Oliphant), Adelaide lodge acquired substantial premises at 334a King William Street, Adelaide, in 1914. By the 1920s, when a World Teacher was expected, adherence approached 150. Lodge life flourished, progressive causes were supported, and lodges appeared at suburban Glenelg and Woodville. But hopes of a Coming World Teacher (Krishnamurti) were disappointed and Leadbeater’s Liberal Catholic Church made priests of some men (Olifent resigned). Besant and Leadbeater both died in the early 1930s. Thanks to a loyal second generation, Adelaide lodge survived the ensuing slump. Students and ‘New Australians’ (apparently mostly Dutch) contributed to recovery in the 1950s. By the 1960s, with a newsletter (The Voice, 1961) and bookshop (1967), it was poised for the ‘Age of Aquarius’. Membership reached an all-time high (322) in 1973. Bequests include the Radcliffe Theosophical Centre, Klemzig, by Miss Constance Radcliffe, and numerous donations to a unique library. In 1997 Adelaide lodge and bookshop re‑located to 310 South Terrace; the society now has around 100 members.
Roe, Jill, Beyond belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939 (Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1986)
Webb-Jones, R, 'Snapshot of a theosophical woman: Constance Enid Radcliffe' (BA Honours, University of Adelaide, 2000)
‘The Voice’, Centenary Issue 1891–1991 (1991)