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Rosaleen Norton's Kings Cross Coven

by Nevill Drury

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Rosaleen Norton’s Kings Cross Coven

During the 1950s and ‘60s the Australian trance occultist and visionary artist Rosaleen Norton was well known in Sydney as ‘the Witch of Kings Cross’ and she was portrayed in the popular media as a colourful and ‘wicked’ bohemian figure from Sydney’s red-light district. In Kings Cross most people knew Rosaleen Norton simply as ‘Roie’. The Roie I remember – I met her just once, in 1977 – was slight in build, with dark and rather untidy curly hair, quick darting eyes and mysterious arched eyebrows. During the 1950s she had become famous – perhaps one should say notorious – as an eccentric and bohemian practitioner of witchcraft. She wore flamboyant blouses, puffed on an engraved cigarette holder, and produced bizarre fantasy paintings which had a distinct touch of the pagan and demonic about them. This was of course a time when a rather prudish and puritanical mentality prevailed in Australia and society in general was by no means as culturally diverse or as tolerant as it is today. The public at large was astounded by Roie’s risqué paintings and drawings which depicted naked hermaphroditic beings, phalluses transforming into serpents, and passionate encounters with black panthers.

DS. Norton sitting on the curbside in Darlinghurst Road_2.tif

Rosaleen Norton in Kings Cross in the 1950s 

Rosaleen Norton’s magical coven

For most of her adult life Roie lived in squalid, dimly lit apartments and her ritual practice often took place within a relatively confined space, in what otherwise served as her living quarters. 179 Brougham Street, Darlinghurst – close to the heart of Kings Cross – was in a very run-down condition when Roie and her lover, the poet Gavin Greenlees, lived there in the 1950s. When they first moved in, the paint on the terrace house was flaking badly, the slate roof was in a state of disrepair, and the house was occupied by an assortment of vagrants and bohemians. At the beginning of their tenancy, Norton, Greenlees and a number of pet cats shared the basement flat, which was actually a converted laundry and a sign which read The Female Vagrant was pinned to the door. At this time the attic was occupied by a one-handed man named Mick who emerged periodically amidst piles of assorted newspapers. Later Greenlees and Norton shared the attic as a living space. They also constructed their ritual altars in this room. At one end of the attic a huge painted mural of Pan served as a backdrop to one of the altars; a second, smaller, altar dedicated to Hecate was located in the opposite corner of the room. The attic also contained a long low couch as well as other items of domestic furniture.

Several journalists who visited Norton during the 1950s and 1960s have provided detailed descriptions of the Brougham Street flat and its embellishments. One of the most colourful accounts was written by Bob Walker and Richard Neville in 1962 for the University of New South Wales student newspaper, Tharunka. Walker and Neville went round to Norton’s terrace house at midnight and mischievously crept up to the front door.

They knocked at the door, and waited. They knocked again. Finally, as one went to ring a bell suddenly noticed high up on the door, it creaked open and a dark figure said ‘Yes?’

In the flickering light of a brass lamp they caught glimpses of a narrow face, prominent nose and teeth, with eyebrows angled sharply upwards. In fact, somewhat like the mask-like paintings in the coffee-shop.

They were led into a cramped basement room. The low ceiling was of bare boards, cobwebs hanging like stalactites. A red covered bed was along one wall; opposite there was an altar draped with blue cloth, on top of which were gilded antlers, porcelains of entwined snakes, panthers and a variety of lamps and candles. Masks grinned from the walls; four mirrors glinted in the half-light, and shelves of grey-old books were variously placed in what space remained.

[Roie] was dressed in black tights and a red sweater. The room was heated by a makeshift gas ring [on] the floor, illuminated by a red lamp whose shade was decorated with daemonic faces. There was no source of ventilation. [i]

Norton
 The Pan altar at 179 Brougham Street, photographed by a detective
from the
Vice Squad in October 1955

Norton
The smaller Hecate altar, also photographed in October 1955

The confined ritual working space in the Brougham Street attic suggests that the number of magical practitioners working closely with Rosaleen Norton was very restricted. When journalist D.L. Thompson visited Brougham Street to interview her and also to meet other coven practitioners he was told that Norton’s immediate magical group consisted of seven members. [ii] And yet Norton herself later gave widely varying responses to different interviewers who asked the same question about her coven membership. She told Bob Walker and Richard Neville that she had ‘roughly 300’ followers in her group and in the Channel Nine television documentary on Kings Cross, The Glittering Mile (1964), in which Norton was interviewed, Norton at first claimed ‘thousands’ of followers and then admitted to exaggerating before revising the figure down to ‘hundreds’. In 1972, when Norton was asked the same question by Sunday Telegraph journalist Kerry McGlynn, she claimed she had ‘at least 200 followers in Sydney and hundreds more throughout the country’. [iii] However the wildly varying figures may conceal a different issue. If Norton had begun to think of herself at this time as the head of all the witchcraft covens in Australia the larger numbers may be approximately correct.

Norton
Rosaleen Norton with her ritual masks, photographed in 1955

Even so, Roie’s inner circle was obviously very small. In fact her sister and confidante, Cecily Boothman, told me when I interviewed her for my 1988 book Pan’s Daughter that the coven was not only small but very informal: ‘Roie didn’t have a coven as such,’ she told me. ‘Roie had a group of “occult friends”.’

When journalists went round to visit, Roie’s inner circle were never identified by their real names. However she provided some clues regarding her rituals following her interview with D.L. Thomson in 1955:

Sorcerers or witches (the term applies to either sex, although males are generally known as warlocks, and the more advanced as wizards) are not confined to any age, class, professional or social sphere. The youngest I have encountered (apart from myself) was a male of 17, the oldest a witch of 65.

As I said, this coven has seven members. The oldest is 51 and the youngest 25. There are also several associate or honorary members of both sexes, and our last meeting was held in my own studio temple here. Other meeting places have included two North Shore suburbs and an eastern suburb. In summer we meet anywhere out of doors that is suitable.

Initiation rites differ somewhat according to the coven, but are broadly, the same. The neophyte, after a period of probation, is asked certain questions. After that he or she assumes a ceremonial posture (one hand on the crown of the head, the other under the sole of one foot) to take the oath of allegiance to the presiding deities of the covens, male and female, sometimes called Pan and Hecate. A ritual to the four Elemental Powers, either before or during the initiation, is also necessary. [iv]

After initiation comes a form of baptism, when a new name is given to the initiate. It is usual for him to be presented with a magnetised talisman and a piece of cord known as the Witches’ Garter. [v] Ceremonial attire ranges from nakedness to full regalia – robes, hood, sandals, and accessories. Different types of incense are used, according to the nature of the rites in progress, and special herbs are sometimes infused and drunk. [vi]  

So who were the early members of Norton’s magical coven? One of Norton’s long-standing ‘occult friends’, to use Cecily Boothman’s somewhat quaint expression, was Bill Turnbull – also known as Druid Alpha – to whom Norton bequeathed her athame and other magical equipment in her will. [vii] The fact that Turnbull was bequeathed personal ritual equipment that had belonged to Norton herself, including her prized ceremonial dagger, strongly suggests that he was one of her most valued occult associates and perhaps a member of her inner magical circle. [viii] Norton’s publisher, Walter Glover, claimed to know of three other individuals who were rumoured to be members of Norton’s magical group: he named them as Jack Davey, the prominent radio announcer; George Nathan, a wealthy Jewish bookmaker, and Henry Foster, an engineer who specialised in oven maintenance and who worked at a bakery in Bondi Junction. [ix] Glover understood that Foster was the ‘high priest’ in Norton’s coven and the circumstantial evidence provided earlier suggests he may have been the coven member who referred to himself first as Mr Abrahams and then as the Toad, in D.L. Thompson’s interview. [x]   More recently, in June 1999, Sydney-based crime writer Ned McCann was told by Detective Bert Trevenar that there were ‘malicious rumours’ circulating in the early 1950s claiming that Sir Charles Moses, General Manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and his assistant, A.N. (Huck) Finlay were also members of the coven, but this assertion had not been proven. [xi] Aside from these possible connections – several of which are speculative and unsubstantiated – the most important members of her coven were her lover, Gavin Greenlees – with whom she created her limited edition book The Art of Rosaleen Norton  (published in 1952) – and the musical conductor and composer Eugene Goossens (who would be knighted in 1955 for his services to music).

Goossens had arrived in Australia in 1947 to take up his position as the first permanent conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium. However, by the early 1950s, after several years of working with musicians at the Conservatorium, he had become bored by his work routines. Some time in late 1952 or early 1953 he discovered a copy of The Art of Rosaleen Norton in a gallery bookshop, and it immediately rekindled his earlier interest in paganism and magic. Goossens wrote to Norton, expressing admiration for both the book and her artistic work, and she invited him round to her Brougham Street flat for an introductory discussion over a cup of tea. [xii] The conductor was fascinated by Norton’s authentic approach to paganism and soon a close friendship began to develop. Goossens had been working regularly in rehearsal rooms just a few minutes’ walk away from Brougham Street, so it was easy for him to maintain close contact. Not surprisingly, Goossens soon became a frequent visitor to Norton’s flat and a member of the small magical group that would meet periodically to discuss magical ideas and perform rituals sacred to Pan.

Goossens’ close personal relationship with Norton soon acquired a sexual intensity that expressed itself both through magical ritual and also erotic photography. ‘We have many rituals and indulgences to undertake.’ The conductor wrote in one of his letters, ‘...and I want to take more photos.’ However Goossens did not anticipate that his passionate and erotic interests would plunge him into a career-shattering crisis on 9 March 1956, when he returned to Sydney’s Mascot Airport on a flight from London. He was now officially Sir Eugene Goossens, having received his knighthood a few months earlier, and he was apparently unaware that a group of detectives and Customs officers had already gathered at the Airport to apprehend him. Alerted by Vice Squad detective A.H. ‘Bert’ Trevenar, the Customs officials at the airport anticipated that Goossens would be carrying with him a large amount of allegedly pornographic material, and when they searched his luggage they discovered over 800 erotic photographs, a spool of film, and also some ritual masks and incense sticks. [xiii] Goossens was subsequently officially charged under Section 233 of the Customs Act, which prohibited the possession or importation of ‘blasphemous, indecent or obscene works or articles’.

When Detective Trevenar arrested Goossens at Mascot Airport he also asked him about his sex magic interests. A section of Trevenar’s record of interview reads as follows:

         ‘I said: “How is that Rite [ie. sex magic] conducted?” ’

            ‘He said: “We undressed and sat on the floor in a circle. Miss Norton

            conducted the verbal part of the Rite. I then performed the sex stimulation

on her.” ’

            ‘I said: “How did you do that?” ’

‘He said: “I placed my tongue in her sexual organ and kept moving it until I stimulated her.” ’ [xiv]

Goossens also confirmed to Trevenar that his magical name in the Norton coven was Djinn and we know from other sources that Roie used the name ‘Thorn’ in her coven. Goossens’ case was brought before Mr J.M.McCauley, SM in the Martin Place Court of Petty Sessions, and Goossens was fined the maximum penalty of £100. [xv] Four days after issuing his guilty plea Goossens submitted formal letters of resignation to the ABC and the NSW State Conservatorium, his professional career as an internationally renowned conductor effectively over. On 26 May 1956 he boarded a flight to Rome, travelling incognito as Mr E. Gray, never to return to Australia again. [xvi]

Meanwhile, an insight into what a ritual gathering at the Brougham Street coven may have been like is provided by a short section of film footage in the 1964 television documentary on Kings Cross, The Glittering Mile, and by reference to one of the drawings in The Art of Rosaleen Norton (1952) titled Rites of Baron Samedi . In The Glittering Mile, a robed Rosaleen Norton performs a banishing ritual by inscribing a pentagram in the air with her ceremonial athame, or dagger, thereby purifying and defining the ‘sacred space’ associated with the ritual. However we know that Norton was not always robed during her ceremonial performances because she confirmed in her interview with D.L. Thompson that ‘ceremonial attire ranges from nakedness to full regalia – robes, hood, sandals and accessories...’ [xvii] Norton appeared during her interview with Thompson clad only in her dark leather ‘witch’s apron’, naked from the waist up, although she later posed for a photograph wearing a cat’s mask in addition to her apron. During Norton’s interview with Thompson her fellow coven members wore ritual animal masks to disguise their identity and referred to each other by using code names like the Rat and the Toad, thereby remaining effectively anonymous. The exotic masks brought back into Australia by Sir Eugene Goossens were intended for ritual use in the coven.

Unpublished manuscript notes by Rosaleen Norton accompanying the draft manuscript for her book The Art of Rosaleen Norton, describe Rites of Baron Samedi as an ‘impression of a personal experience... a ritual invocation’ and Gavin Greenlees’ accompanying poem portrays the scene as a ‘saturnalia’. Norton acknowledges the influence of Voodoo in her magical rituals and confirms that ‘the mantelpiece, the bison’s skull, the candlelight, cats etc are part of the artist’s living quarters’. In Rites of Baron Samedi we are shown a ritual performance where an exotic dark-skinned woman is dancing naked in a state of frenzy in the centre of a small room while a small gathering of ritual devotees look on enthusiastically. Some of these onlookers are wearing masks: one of them, who may be Norton herself, sits cross-legged wearing sandals and smoking a cigarette in a long cigarette-holder. Behind her sits a young man wearing a simple unadorned mask: this figure closely resembles Gavin Greenlees. A candle has been mounted atop the bison’s skull – perhaps to honour the Basque god of doorways, Janicot, Norton’s principal servitor and familiar-spirit – and magical forces throng through the room. The winged face of Baron Samedi and a coiled snake rise up around the dancer, suggesting that the ritual combines elements from Voodoo, Tantra and sex magic. The dancer meanwhile thrusts her naked body into full view as she embodies the frenzied lust of Erzulie. Erzulie is a Voodoo goddess known for her love and passion and here the dancer has become her Priestess as she is ‘possessed’ by the Voodoo deity’s inspirational magical energies. [xviii]  

Homage.Rites 0f Baron Samedi.tif
Rosaleen Norton’s Rites of Baron Samedi – a work which reflects Norton’s keen interest in Voodoo. The figures in the lower right-hand corner are probably based on Norton and Greenlees

So how can we sum up Rosaleen Norton’s ritual practice? Roie was undoubtedly a woman who embodied potent passions and primal desires, and as a close friend of hers has confirmed to me recently, ‘she loved sex in all its various forms’. So it is hardly surprising that sex magic should have featured so prominently in her inner magical circle. However, I think it is clear that while she was strongly pagan Roie was not a Satanist – and this was a charge frequently but unfairly levelled against her in the 1950s and 1960s. When she was accused of conducting blood-sacrifice rituals during a ‘Kings Cross Black Mass’ she was deeply offended because the very notion of ritualistic, Satanic ‘blood sacrifice’ was completely abhorrent to her. [xix]  We know from the 1955 Vice Squad photographs that rituals were conducted around ceremonial altars dedicated specifically to Pan and Hecate but her ceremonial practices made no reference whatever to the Christian Devil. Roie was simply a high-spirited witch living at a time when exotic pagan rituals seemed extremely confronting to a narrow-minded and often bigoted public. It is hardly surprising that she was widely misunderstood during her life-time.

***

[1]    John Sackville-West was a traditional artist who had two works accepted by the Royal Academy in       London. As reported in the Sun Herald (25 October 1970), he specifically named Norman Lindsay            and Rosaleen Norton as ‘two of Australia’s finest artists’.

[i] B. Walker and R. Neville, ‘Deliver us to E-ville’, Tharunka, University of New South Wales, Sydney,

3 July 1962: 8. This interview was apparently conducted in the basement of the Brougham Street house.

[ii] D.L. Thompson, ‘Devil Worship Here!’, Australasian Post, Sydney, 6 October 1955: 5.

[iii] K.McGlynn, ‘Going to the Devil’, Sunday Telegraph, Sydney, 16 July 1972.

[iv] We know that Norton’s rituals featured Uriel, the Jewish archangel associated in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn with the element Earth – a photograph taken of Norton at a ritual altar in 1957 shows the name Uriel clearly written in large letters on the wall behind the altar.

[v] Norton may have derived this practice from British Wicca. Here it is considered both a ceremonial object and a badge of rank. In Wicca it is often worn only by the High Priestess of a Coven but here Norton implies that both men and women could wear it. Traditionally the Witches’ Garter is made of green leather, buckled in silver, and lined with blue silk. For Norton to make it from cord was something of a departure.

[vi] R. Norton’s text in D.L. Thompson, ‘Devil Worship Here!’, loc.cit.:37.

[vii] Personal communication to the author from Cecily Boothman, c.1986. Turnbull died in 2004.

[viii] According to Norton’s sister, Cecily Boothman, Norton’s will, which was ‘written in scratchy handwriting’ also specified that certain objects should pass to Cecily herself and to a close friend, Eve Finney. After Norton’s death in 1979 Cecily received various books and drawings – one of them from Norton’s classic 1940s period. A ‘special cat art-work’, Norton’s last painting, was bequeathed to Eve Finney (notes supplied to the author by Cecily Boothman, c.1985).

[ix] Notes by the author taken during an interview with Walter Glover, c.1986 during the writing of the first draft of Pan’s Daughter.

[x] D.L.Thompson, ‘ Devil Worship Here !’, loc.cit.

[xi] N.McCann, interview with Detective Bert Trevenar, 19 June 1999, available on-line at http://nedmccann.blogspot.com 

[xii] In a signed statement that Goossens made to Trevenar on 9 March 1956 after he was charged under Section 233 of the Customs Act with bringing a variety of prohibited items into the country, he confirmed how he had made contact with Norton: ‘I wrote to Miss Norton expressing my admiration for the book and her work. She wrote thanking me for my letter as the result of which we met in her home in Brougham Street over tea.’ Quoted in D. Salter, ‘The strange case of Sir Eugene and the witch’, Good Weekend/ Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 3 July 1999:17.

[xiii] Gavin Greenlees confirmed to Wally Glover in 1982 that the ceremonial masks were for use in their magical rituals at Brougham Street. Personal communication from Glover to the author circa 1986.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] For further details of this case see the newsclippings held by the Australian Archives, Department of the Navy, SP551, Log Books of HMC, HMS, HMA ships, 1855-1957.

[xvi] D. Salter,‘The strange case of Sir Eugene and the witch’, loc.cit.:21.

[xvii] D.L. Thompson, ‘Devil Worship Here!’ loc cit. 6 October 1955: 37.

[xviii] In Voodoo, Baron Samedi is a loa, or deity, whose role is lord and guardian of the cemetery. Baron Samedi is an aspect of Guede, ‘god of the grave’. Erzulie is the loa of love, wealth, beauty and prosperity – and the lunar wife of the sun god, Legba.

[xix] In 1956 Norton was asked by journalist Dave Barnes : ‘Have you ever attended ceremonies at which there have been blood sacrifices?’ Her response was: ‘No, and I’ve never drunk bats’ blood either.’ D.Barnes, ‘I am a Witch!’ Australasian Post, Sydney, 20 December 1956: 9.

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