Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Arnold Webbley: The Subtle Architect - A Retrospective by Jack Londinium

Above: Helena Petrovna Blavastsky
Below: Aliester Crowley (in the 
ceremonial robes of the Golden Dawn)
Originally Published in Occulted Vectors Issue VII. February 1986.


Arnold Webbley, the founder of a property development and building company now known as Webbley & Sons’ Construction, Ltd., is a criminally underappreciated figure in the occult community. Not only did he develop his own system of magick, he also managed to piss off: 1) Madame Blavatsky, whom he dismissed as a charlatan, 2) the Golden Dawn, which he dismissed as a pretentious clique and 3) Aleister Crowley, whom he dismissed as a megalomaniac. Earning the ire of so many people is no mean feat, and Webbley deserves respect just for that. Webbley used his considerable family fortune (his father was a textiles magnate) and his own enviable business acumen to amass a staggering amount of money, which he utilised to fund his occult researches at home and abroad. His life story contains an important message that all dabblers in the esoteric should remember: it’s all very well being able to pathwork your way up the Tree of Life in one sitting, but that’s not going to help you pay for the heating...
Webbley explored almost every aspect of contemporary occultism, including Theosophy, Hermeticism and the first dribbles of mystery to come from Tibet. Although he agreed with the initial premises of Theosophy, that all existing religions and mystery schools are derivative from an original root philosophy, he found Theosophy’s claim to have rediscovered that root philosophy to be laughable. The principle teaching he took from Theosophy was the notion of other planes of existence. This notion was to become the crux of his own system, which he named ‘Subtle Architecture’.
Webbley believed that a group of likeminded adepts, if they shared a common vision and poured an enormous amount of energy and focus into it, could construct permanent structures on other planes of existence that were only accessible through altered states of consciousness. He denied that the planes of existence in question where strictly speaking the same as those explored by Theosophy, but he admitted a begrudging ‘similarity of vision’. Reading his magical diaries, we learn the Webbley experimented with ‘building’ structures on these other planes of existence and then inviting others to access and explore them. He claimed that they would often describe seeing things exactly as he had designed them, without him previously telling them what they ‘looked’ like. Webbley eventually assembled a group of Subtle Architects who would work together to design and generate increasingly complicated structures. They created a vast shared-space which some occultists still claim to be able to access.
Urban Psychogeography in Art:
The Road, Relief Print
Jemma Watts 2014.
As these structures appeared to be in some sense objective, Webbley began to wonder if they might be able to affect the material world. This can be seen as an odd precursor to what is now termed ‘psychogeography’, the study of how urban environments affect the behaviour and psychic state of their human inhabitants. Webbley postulated that certain structures collated positive energies, others negative energies, and still others acted as dissipaters or conductors. Webbley’s team of Subtle Architects began building structures which were intended to focus vortices of positive energies powerful enough to come into contact with the material world. Webbley, in his more utopian moments, seemed to believe that armies of Subtle Architects could construct vast, vast complexes in other planes to blast positive energy down onto the most violent and chaotic areas of the world. Whether or not this was ever possible, we will probably never know, as since Webbley’s death in the 50s (he was approaching 100), no one has been able to replicate his success on the grand scale his diaries and the testimonies of his Architects attest to.
Sacellum XI, Ink and Watercolour.
Jemma Watts 2012
What is known, however, is that Webbley hit upon the idea of constructing a material receiver for the immaterial energies being broadcast from the Subtle plane. The small town of Newdean was to provide him with his workshop.

There are many faceless and largely characterless towns along the South Coast. These cropped up after the First World War, intended to house veterans of the conflict and to provide them with a tranquil residence on the shore. These towns are, although perhaps not not-charming, of little note and are more-or-less identical, with the exception of Newdean. The town began life in the same way as its neighbouring suburbs, with land being sold to developers after the War. During the initial planning stages of the town, Webbley purchased a large area of land in what was to become the centre of Newdean.

On the land he purchased, he began to construct a remarkable ‘people’s palace’. Containing indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a library, classrooms, meeting rooms, and a small bar and tea room, the publically claimed purpose of the ‘Newdean Palace of Self-Betterment’ was to act as a focal point for the intellectual life and leisure time of the new town. Architecturally, the building was a combination of art-deco and, one might say, ‘schools unknown’. Perhaps predictably, the name didn't catch on and the place became known just as ‘the centre’, and the pools, tea room and bar proved substantially more popular than any other feature. In particular, the pools became known for their rejuvenating qualities. It became popular legend that a half-hour swim could add a month to your life, and that regular usage could result in a general, and generous, blossoming of prolonged good health.
Brighton Pier, west of New Dean c.1914
A wealthy clientèle  echoing how the rich had once travelled from London to Newdean’s neighbour of Brighton for the supposed revivifying effects of seawater, now flocked to the centre. Here we turn again to Webbley’s diaries: the centre was intended to be a material amplifier for positive energies being projected from another plane, directed down towards Newdean by his Subtle Structures. The indoor pool in particular was intended to act as a receiver for this energy, apparently explaining the revitalising effect of using the pool. However, within a few years, rumours began to circulate that late at night the indoor pool was being used for somewhat more debauched purposes. Indeed, the word ‘sybaritic’ was used by one newspaper at the time.
This was to the great distress of Webbley. He felt that his spiritual technology was being co-opted for dubious purposes. The energising waters apparently, and not really that surprisingly, had a strong effect on the libidos of the swimmers, and soon individuals and groups influenced by the sexual magick being promoted by Crowley and his acolytes were seeking to make rather ‘unchristian’ uses of the facilities available. Webbley had imagined that the centre would generate a general feeling of positivity and wellbeing for the inhabitants of Newdean, but as the pool was frequented more-and-more by shadowy occultists, this energy appears to have been directed away from the town. The new, unsavoury reputation of the pools lead to them becoming shunned by all but the kind of guests that Webbley dearly wished would not show up.
Plan for a Garden City of Ebenezer Howard, 1902. 
An example of the Utopian principle underlying the 
New Town movement of the early 20th century.

The story of the centre and its strange pools ends hideously. Reports from the time state that very late on 30 April, 1938 (Walpurgis Night), strange lights were seen hanging over the centre, not unlike ball lightning. The lights spread over the structure, a strange yellow glow similar to aurora borealis, and bizarre noises were heard emanating from it. This included, according to several witnesses, what seemed to be chanting in an unknown language one of them described as ‘barbarous’. The good people of Newdean decided not to investigate until the morning, where the remains of three young men and four young women were found in the inner pool, murdered in a manner so gruesome that the newspapers were supposedly forbidden from reporting the details (I was denied access to the police records for the case during my research on this piece). Two of the young women were thought to be prostitutes from nearby Brighton, but the remainder where all identified as well-known members of the occult cliques that granted the centre its bad reputation. The centre was shortly permanently closed by Webbley, who never visited Newdean again.
It is, however, still there, and still strangely intact.
The building has aged almost impossibly well, and has even been given listed status. The strange curves and angles of its architecture still seem to hum with invisible force. Newdean has not aged as well. The population is, that I saw of it, old and tired for the most part; even the youth were lethargic. The park near the centre is miserable, its plant life withered. Indeed, staying just two days in the town proved exhausting for me. My theory is that whatever it was that happened that Walpurgis Night (not even a single suspect was identified, though many members of the occult community in the South of England were interviewed) reversed Webbley’s original design. The centre stopped broadcasting vital energy to the material plane, and started drawing it in instead, and perhaps broadcasting it onto the Subtle Planes Webbley explored. Perhaps there’s something there, hovering above the strange, immaterial structures he designed, drinking it all in.
-Jack L.


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