Leadbeater’s account of his life up until he joined the Theosophical Society in 1884 – as he wrote about it, and as he told Besant, Jinarajadasa and Hamerster about it – contained many mysteries, all of them the consequences of the fantasies that he confected or, to be less charitable, the lies that he told, for his own aggrandisement. Thus, his father who was a cashier for a railway company living in a Stockport slum, became the Chairman of the railway company who, having mixed with the social, literary and artistic elite of London, retired to a country estate, Lea Green Hall, where his son was born. Most of the mysteries of his early life have been unveiled.
However, more mysteries remain regarding his family background. Research in this area is complicated by the fact that Leadbeater gave very little information about that background, and that what he disclosed was (probably inevitably) essentially untrue. Presumably, having fabricated a fraudulent version of his early years, he could hardly disclose too much of the truth about his family lest further inquiries brought the whole house of cards down.
Leadbeater’s grandfather, John Leadbeater (1795-1860) and his wife, Mary, had ten children, of whom four died in infancy or childhood.
One Leadbeater family mystery relates to the marriages of two of Leadbeater’s aunts: Jane Livesay Leadbeater (1836-1904) and Mary Anne Leadbeater (1837-1908). They both married eminent Anglican clergyman, much removed from the family backgrounds and social class of their father, John Leadbeater (1795-1860) – a man who described himself as a “sweep” in his marriage bans and had to mark the document with an “X” because he was illiterate. Leadbeater’s father, also named Charles, was a cashier for a railway company living in a Stockport slum. How did his sisters rise so rapidly and so far in the social scheme of things?
The mystery is at least partly explained by the intervention of a remarkable woman educator, Margaret Alexis Bell (1818-1889). Miss Bell was born in Glasgow on 17 June 1818, the daughter of the Reverend Alexander Bell (1789-1851), a Wesleyan preacher, and his wife, Margaret, and was baptized in on 15 September 1818 in the Wesleyan Church in Glasgow.
In 1851 Miss Bell was the principal of a school, Victoria Hall, Rusholme, Lancashire, at which both Jane and Mary Leadbeater were pupils. It seems unlikely, given the family circumstances, that their father could have afforded a private education for his daughters.
By 1861, Miss Bell had adopted Mary as her child, and took her on as a teacher at the school, Winnington Hall, run by Miss Bell, her sister, Mary Anne, and her friend Miss Mary Jane Hall. The school opened on 27 July 1851. Also described as a teacher at the school was Mary’s sister, Emily. Another sister, Annie (1842-?) was described as a scholar at Winnington Hall in 1861.
Miss Bell had been raised in the tradition of northern Methodism, but had become a liberal Anglican, and cultivated exceptional contacts in the world of art and literature. Winnington Hall was a “finishing school” for girls, and attracted the support of and visits from some of the leading figures of the literary, artistic and musical world of the time.
“Girls at Winngton Hall”, artist unknown
Sir Charles Halle (1819-1895), Anglo-German pianist and conductor, and founder of The Hallé orchestra in 1858, used to visit to give recitals. John Ruskin (1819-1900), the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, as well as an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist, gave lectures, supervised the girls’ musical studies and gave instruction on the Bible, geology and art. Ruskin helped the school financially, and had his own room in the house, which became for him a “semi-permanent residence”. Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898), the British artist and designer closely associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who worked closely with William Morris, designed a series of wall hangings to be embroidered by the girls.
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Ruskin engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Miss Bell, some of it about the girls at the school, and also wrote often to the Leadbeater sisters, complaining at times to Miss Bell about their failure to reply to his letters.
In the late 1870s the school went into bankruptcy and closed.
In 1859 Jane Leadbeater married the eminent and upper-class clergyman, the Reverend Robert Henniker (1833-1880), son of Aldborough Brydges John Henniker (1797-1880), son of Lt.-Gen. Sir Brydges Trecothic Henniker, 1st Baronet, who became a Lieutenant-General in the Army and was created a Baronet in 1813. Robert Henniker was the Rector of Alnwick, Northumberland; Chaplain to the Duke of Northumberland; and Headmaster of Rossall School at Fletwood, Lancashire from 1869-1875.
In 1870 Mary had married the Rev William Wolfe Capes (1834-1913), Fellow of Queens College, Oxford, and Rector of Bramshott. Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, as well as bursar, fellow, tutor and reader of The Queen’s College, Oxford. Capes was the author of a significant number of scholarly works, including: The Roman Empire of the Second Century; or, The age of the Antonines (1876); University Life in Ancient Athens (1877); Livy: An Account of His Life and Works (1879); Stoicism (1880); and The English Church in the 14th and 15th Centuries (1900).
It was through the patronage of Canon Capes that Charles Webster Leadbeater was accepted for ordination in the Church of England in 1978, and appointed a Curate in Capes’ Parish of Bramshott. He was thus able to move out of a period of short-lived jobs as a commercial clerk, and he and his mother relocated from a poor working class area of London to the comfort of a cottage in rural Hampshire.
By 1871 Emily had become a Governess and was working for the family of the Reverend (1827-1917) M.A. Trinity College, Cambridge, Rector of Bolton-by-Bolland, Yorkshire, and Honorary Canon of Ripon, his three daughters and two sons.
How was the link between the Leadbeater sisters and Miss Bell established? It was probably a result of an association between Miss Bell’s father, the Reverend Alexander Bell, and John Leadbeater who had been involved in the Wesleyan Methodist mission in Manchester.
Charles Leadbeater remained in the industrial slums of Stockport and in poor, working class tenancies in London, and in menial jobs, while his aunts, Mary, Jane and Emily, received an exceptional private education, and were introduced into the company of some of the leading figures in the world of art, music and literature of the time before “marrying well” (Mary and Jane) or taking on a respectable profession (Emily).
The story of Mary, Jane and Emily Leadbeater is an intriguing one, and may offer at least part of the explanation for Leadbeater’s imaginative recreation of his family history and early life. If only an eccentric benefactor had given the attention to his father that his three aunts had received, the fictional life Leadbeater created might have been the fact.
see: Van Akin Burd (ed) The Winnington Letters. John Ruskin’s Correspondence with Margaret Alexis Bell and the Children at Winnington Hall Belknap Press, 1969
[Winnington Hall]...a former country house in Winnington, now a suburb of Northwich, Cheshire.
For some years the hall was used as a girls’ finishing school under Miss Margaret Alexis Bell and Miss Mary Jane Bell, where Sir Charles Hallé visited to give recitals and John Ruskin gave lectures. Ruskin helped the school financially, and had his own room in the house, which became for him a “semi-permanent residence”. He instructed the 35 girls on subjects such as the Bible, geology and art, supervised their music, and watched them play cricket. In 1863 Ruskin invited Edward Burne-Jones to the school, and together they devised a project to create a set of wall hangings based on characters from Chaucer’s poem The Legend of Good Women. The figures were to be designed by Burne-Jones and embroidered by the girls in the school under the supervision of Georgiana, Burne-Jones’ wife. Embroidery frames and wool were purchased, and work began on one of the figures. However the work proved to be too ambitious, and the project was abandoned. Later, during the 1870s, the school became bankrupt, and closed.