2001 ASSLH conference – Changing the face of the world: The relationship between John Dwyer’s political radicalism and his ‘occult writings’

Mark Hearn
Postgraduate candidate, Department of History, University of Sydney


John Dwyer (1856-1934) was a London docks foreman who emigrated to Australia in 1888. Dwyer embarked upon a quest for recognition—recognition of his rights as a worker and his identity as an individual. Dwyer’s search for identity was expressed through his occult writings, reflecting his interest in the intense ideological ferment—in politics, theology and science—that characterised the period 1890-1914. Dwyer embraced the new ideas that challenged the old certainties in his project to “change the face of the world.”


There exists in nature…a force more powerful than the ordinary electricity, by the help of which, a single man able to grasp and direct it, might change the face of the world.1

The late nineteenth century working class radical John Dwyer was an agitator on behalf of the Sydney unemployed and an activist within the labour movement, a public radicalism that he maintained for over twenty years in the period from 1890 until the First World War. It is this public role that understandably draws the interest of labour historians in Dwyer and his involvement in the Active Service Brigade. Dwyer’s radicalism was not solely based in his identification as a political activist. His occult writings, a collection of manuscripts and notes on theosophy and spiritualism that form part of his surviving papers, reveal Dwyer as an essentially spiritual dissident.2 The occult writings are a vital aspect of Dwyer’s experience and his interpretation of his struggles, although their significance has been overlooked by labour historians—a reflection of a wider neglect of the role of the individual in labour history.

Australian labour history has tended to marginalise the study of the individual, relegating it to standard biographies of prominent labour identities. The individual in the historical experience has often been presented as an adjunct to institutional studies.3 Subsuming the individual into broader stories has often had the effect of presenting a narrow and regulated view of the working class historical actor—a strange outcome for a project so driven by a determination to unearth the buried histories of the poor and the working class.

In The Making of the English Working Class EP Thompson criticised interpretations of working class experience that expected workers to serve as historical ciphers—as progenitors of the welfare state, the Socialist Commonwealth, or rational industrial relations.4 John Dwyer continues to suffer from similar treatment. Attention has been paid to his political radicalism while almost entirely overlooking a range of interests and attitudes that may be perceived as quaint or backward looking—interests such as theosophy, which did not appear to serve the construction of a socialist or radical future. The result is a one-dimensional interpretation of Dwyer through his participation in the Active Service Brigade, the radical group that agitated on behalf of the unemployed in the depression years 1893-4, and ran “barracks” providing the unemployed with shelter.5

Scates’ A New Australia opened up a number of ways of reflecting upon the radicals and labourites of the 1890s—the autodidactic culture of reading, the development of a radical alternative. John Dwyer was a part of those stories. His experience suggests still more complex ways of reading “the ‘political vision’ of the nineties”.6 Taking into account the diverse nature of Dwyer’s ideology develops a more intense picture of both the context and content of his politics, clarifying the external and internalised forces prompting his political agitation, and often inhibiting its effectiveness.

Through his occult writings Dwyer strove to integrate a quest for knowledge and enlightenment with his political activism, linking his interests in theosophy and temperance with the work of the Active Service Brigade, which Dwyer revived under his own control in 1895.7 Theosophy was an attempt to achieve “divine revelation”.8 Adherents hoped that the study of eastern religions and philosophies, and the investigation of “the mystic powers of life and matter”, would serve the establishment of “the brotherhood of man”.9 Temperance was also linked to working class reform, by the suppression of liquor and its often destructive influence on working class family life.10 Despite his political activism and a commitment to socialism Dwyer wrote nothing of any length or originality on socialist ideas. Yet his interest in theosophy, and his conflicts with conventional conceptions of God and religious faith, produced a burst of creativity in the 1890s. This paper explores the nature of Dwyer’s spiritual dissent, focusing on the content of his ideas—expressions not only of idealism and belief, but also how he felt about himself. Dwyer’s conception of his body and soul was an essential expression of his relationship with the world.

Dwyer’s divided inheritance

Dwyer’s spiritual radicalism flowed from the deepest instincts of his experience. He was 41 years old in 1897, when he drafted one of his most ambitious occult manuscripts, “The Book of Notes and Observations on the Occult Subjects”.11 It was a work that reflected the accumulated inheritance of experience and tradition, and the layers must be peeled back to uncover the sources of his quest. Dwyer was born in Whitechapel in 1856. His father was an Irish Catholic; the paternal family handed down lessons of colonial oppression to the young boy. His English mother had a Church of England background. The overcrowded and impoverished East End of London was torn by racial and religious tension in the mid nineteenth century, and Dwyer was born into an uncertain and conflicted Christian heritage.12 His father died in 1859, and Dwyer was not baptised as a Catholic until age 9-10, probably as a result of those East End tensions. He grew up conscious of his divided heritage—indeed he repeated the pattern, by marrying Annie Bennett, a Methodist, in 1879, and he seems to have at least nominally yielded to his new wife’s Methodism. His children were raised in the faith; none seems to have shared his interest in the occult. A family history that Dwyer compiled around 1912 records these details, reflecting the shifting identity that seems so much a feature of Dwyer’s story.13

It is easy to stress Dwyer’s radicalism, an instinct of rebelliousness. He was equally marked by the demands of work and duty. Dwyer disciplined himself to a regime of hard work as a London docks clerk and foreman, work he experienced from the age of 15 until his immigration to Australia at the age of 32. He acquired a skill for fluent and formal correspondence, carefully defined contracts, and the management of men. He cultivated the correct and respected codes of the English language through the study of elocution, and for five years he spent his spare time drilling with local East End regiments, finding in the military a sense of belonging. The appeals of duty and community were also satisfied by membership of the Independent Order of Good Templars, a temperance organisation active amongst the East End working class, and where he likely met his future wife.14 Dwyer maintained his IOGT activism in Australia, and several of the four children followed their parents’ commitment to temperance.

Dwyer grew to adulthood at a time when his troubled Christian heritage was subjected to its most fundamental external assault. Dwyer was a child of secularism and Darwinism, born just a few years after the freethinker George Holyoake coined the term secularism, and a few years before Darwin published The Origin of Species, a work that exerted a profound influence upon him. Darwin’s ideas subverted traditional Christian explanations of the origins of life on earth; the National Secular Society organised in 1866 and campaigned throughout the East End for freethought, rationalism and home rule for Ireland, laying the ground work for the rise of unionism and the Social Democratic Federation.15

Dwyer brought these influences with him when he immigrated to Australia in 1888.16 The subversive codes of secularism, Darwinism and political radicalism worked within him as he struggled with the realities of the economic depression that hit New South Wales in the 1890s. Dwyer experienced chronic unemployment and underemployment throughout the decade, trying to provide for his young children from the threadbare income he accrued from casual jobs and as a manager of boarding houses for the poor and unemployed working men of Sydney. By 1897, these ambitions and frustration’s produced in Dwyer a passionate need to change the face of the world.

The occult manuscripts

Dwyer’s papers do not indicate when his interest in theosophy developed, although he collected a number of Theosophical Society journals and tracts that document his activism and clarify his interpretation of theosophy.17 By 1896 he had organised and become President of the Isis Lodge of the Theosophical Society in Australasia. The Lodge was a small branch of a splinter group of dissidents who left the Australian Theosophical Society in 1895, and who favoured a class-based notion of theosophy, seeking to advance “the brotherhood of man” rather than aimlessly wallow in the middle class individualism of the mainstream society.18 The revived ASB also reflected this influence. Dwyer drafted “the Book of Notes and Observations on the Occult Subjects” as a basis for Theosophical Society talks given, he said, at the Temperance Hall in Pitt Street; he also delivered theosophical talks to an audience of lodgers at the barracks Dwyer ran at that time for unemployed men at Harrington Street in the Rocks.19

Of the various occult manuscripts, “The Book of Notes and Observations” provides the most coherent statement of Dwyer’s beliefs. The other long occult manuscript in the Dwyer papers, “The Aureum Scriptum [golden script] of Occultism”, appears to have been written contemporaneously to “the Book of Notes and Observations” and largely covers the same themes and issues—at times the texts are interchangeable.20 “The Book of Notes and Observations” was a study of occult interpretations of birth, life and death, designed to promote a clearer understanding of evolutionary progress and helping to realise human potential.21 Dwyer rejected a belief in a traditional Christian deity, and the constraints of “ecclesiastical authority” that had longed suppressed the exploration of occult ideas; he styled himself as “a student of occultism and a worker for the advancement of humanity.” Here was a merger of his creative instincts— the student and worker of the spiritual and the material worlds, in the vanguard of a movement that might yet bring “the enterprise of Brotherhood out of the realm of speculation into the region of possibility of actual accomplishment.”

“The Book of Notes and Observations” also reflects an intuitive, working class intellectualism. The manuscript is littered with quotations, and lists of the thinkers who had influenced him.22 Dwyer began by expressing his “deep gratitude” to over twenty individuals who aided his “pursuit of enlightenment”. A list heavily populated with Darwinists and rationalists, including the contending evolutionists Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley—Dwyer seemed untroubled by some of the disputes that divided as much as united his mentors.23 Spencer’s 1850 Social Statics argued that human society was—and should be—a competitive struggle, an interpretation apparently confirmed by the publication of The Origin of Species nine years later: social organisation mirrored nature’s survival of the fittest. Huxley’s famous 1893 lecture emphatically denied Spencer’s claim.24 Dwyer also acknowledged his debt to Dr. John Draper, author of the History of the Conflict between Religion and Science; the German anthropologist Robert Hartmann (who challenged the notion that black Africans were racially inferior to white Europeans), and the pioneer psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, a Darwinian troubled by a suspicion that humanity revealed a greater tendency to degeneration than development.25 Dwyer also acknowledged the theosophists who helped him cast-off the constraints of traditional Christianity—Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Annie Besant and William Judge. Blavatsky, a Ukrainian mystic, provided the ideological framework of theosophy in Isis Unveiled (1877), The Secret Doctrine (1889) and The Key to Theosophy (1889). Besant emerged as the most persuasive advocate of theosophy after Blavatsky’s death in 1891, much to the chagrin of Judge, her American rival for control of the movement.26

The elaborate hand-drawn cover Dwyer designed for the “The Book of Notes and Observations” indicates his desire to be included, on his own terms, amongst the company of authors and thinkers. He illustrated the cover with mystical imagery that only he could unite in meaning, although it is possible to identify some of the symbols. The five-pointed star represented God in man; The Egyptian ankh symbolised eternal life.27 Seeking the source of knowledge in ancient wisdom, he inscribed the names of ION and ISIS across the bottom of the cover—Ion, the legendary founder of the Ionian race, and Isis, the Egyptian god of fertility and nature.

Dwyer’s embrace of the occult was not the complete breach with traditional belief that it might seem at first glance. In the occult Dwyer found a way of reviving the promise of eternal life apparently extinguished with his rejection of Christianity. Dwyer’s new faith absorbed a range of sources—a pastiche of eastern mysticism and platitudes, mixed with a little Freemasonry and Darwinism, plus some fragments of popular and pseudo-science. In “The Book of Notes and Observations” Dwyer attempted, in a rather laboured and contradictory way, to weld these disparate influences into a unified theory. Explaining “the how of matter”, Dwyer claimed that “a real being called mind exists”, separate from the body; we are bodies “plus something”, capable of reincarnation. He then attempted to link evolution with reincarnation. Evolution was a process of “cause and effect”, manifesting the multifarious forms of nature and man, creating the lobster with his protective shell, or the Englishman, with “all his national peculiarities”.28 This “form”, the body, might die, but the spirit, the “astral light” endured.29 This astral light inhabited the astral plane, an invisible space “next to the human”. Clairvoyants could perceive these astral spirits, “bodies of an elastic semi-material essence” (which he also described as “spooks” or “elementals”).30 Dwyer failed to explain how the astral plane existed without the intervention of some form of deity, or other manifestation of extra-human power.

Dwyer was sensitive to the mockery of the rational disbeliever: defensively, he noted that in the eastern mysticism the existence of “higher and lower entities” was recognised, and that “only a few years ago” Röntgen and Edison “would have been regarded as madmen or fools”.31 Röntgen’s discovery of the X-Ray revealed the transparency of the human body, and by implication its transmutable nature; Edison transformed night into day with electric light.32 The pace of astonishing change and scientific revelation in the nineteenth century could, Dwyer believed, be pressing relentlessly towards a discovery of the invisible world:

Protoplasm, atomic theory, the eternal persistence of matter…the revelations of the microscope…meteorological and astronomical observations…investigations of the solar spectrum…are deep marks upon the old order of ignorance, notches cut for a higher climb by humanity up the spiral stairway of evolutionary progress.33

Dwyer was hardly alone in believing that the modern was a vehicle to an unlimited future. In the late nineteenth century there was a widespread fascination with a rapid succession of scientific and technological advances, suggesting a possible link between science and a hidden, mystical universe. Scientists were gripped by the “mysterious” power of radio—communication through the “ether”, without wires. A contemporary English science journal observed: “Wireless is the nearest approach to telepathy that has been vouched to our intelligence”.34 Dwyer agreed. “Marconi and others have proved scientifically that messages may be passed through space over great distances and without any known connections, such as wires.”

The self and the social

Joyce argues that “the self and the social always constitute one another…joined by their mutual dependence.” Driven by a need to escape his marginalisation, Dwyer had to link the imaginative freedom opened up by occult study with liberation from the prevailing social and economic order. “The Book of Notes and Observations” was part of this quest, written, he said, to clarify a trend to “social unrest”. The masses were already reacting, Dwyer claimed, against the “frightful oppression and superstitious subordination” of capitalism. As a result “human earthquakes” shook the globe:

On the one side, the red fires of social chaos in turn flicker and glare, and on the other, cold clammy materialistic cynicism reigns. Men claiming nothing nobler for themselves than mere mechanical functions, and holding to nothing but to live a brief space, reproduce and die forever.35

 Traditional prejudices, and the apparent evidence of one’s own eyes, remained significant obstacles in the path of enlightenment and freedom. The physical act of birth misled people into believing that this life was “the first and only one”. A belief reinforced by Christianity, “by the concept of an arbitrary, capricious, irresponsible and savage deity— man-like but over man, extra cosmical but belonging to the world, unnatural yet creating nature—a contradiction in terms”.36 Just as his prose was excited by an anticipation of the fires of social unrest, Dwyer was stirred to a passionate outburst by his struggle with the hard god in his head, capriciously ruling man, driving him to the unnatural fate of mechanically living and dying forever. Dwyer presents death as the perverse unification and triumph of Christianity and materialist capitalism. Death was a subject, he wrote,

painted with grisly horrors, mourning and grief, adorned with black coaches, and other ghastly and disgusting paraphanalia [sic], invented by a system to add power and importance to a class, and to blind the mind of man from getting at realities.37

A system constructing the social rituals of death as an obstacle, blocking humanity’s ascent of the spiral stairway of evolutionary progress. Dwyer may have believed that Darwinism could be brought into conjunction with eastern mysticism in order to explain the potential of the seen and unseen world, but like all human ideas it was capable of being appropriated to the service of a predatory power:

I will admit that we live in a State, and in a State where the fittest survive and get on top all the time, but the fittest today is the biggest bully, or the greatest rogue. The shark and the hypocrite sit in the high places in broadcloth. The State we live in is one of unmitigated fraud and corruption. Where women are openly sold to the Chow and the Kanaka, where white men fight with hungry dogs at the muck boxes for offal to keep miserable bodies alive.38

This quotation comes from Dwyer’s “The State or Government”—probably speech notes for the Sunday Domain rallies or evening meetings of the Active Service Brigade. Dwyer knew how to stimulate his audience’s outrage because the struggles he saw tormenting society worked within him, stirring his resentment at the success of capitalism’s “fittest”— the “chow” and the “kanaka”, rogues and bullies. Dwyer’s anger at his marginalisation was both destructive and creative, stimulating his thirst for escape and feeding his prejudices.

Dwyer plundered a wide range of material in his quest to discover the sources of personal and class transformation. Another of Dwyer’s occult notebooks includes a series of transcribed quotations from several popular novels, including works by H. Rider Haggard, Marie Corelli and Rosa Campbell Praed.39 Like Dwyer, Rosa Praed was fascinated by the occult, a theme she explored in her novel The Brother of the Shadow.40 This “mystery of to-day”, as Praed described a work “that floats upon the wave of thought which is just now swelling in so strangely on modern English society”, told the story of Doctor Lemuel Lloyd, dabbling in “psychological telepathy and the projection of the Astral double”.41 Lloyd becomes obsessed with a beautiful married patient, Antonia Vascher. Lloyd is tempted to summon occult power to kidnap Antonia and murder her husband, by Murghab, an evil Adept or magician, “the brother of the shadow”. Lloyd is ultimately defeated by the power of good, symbolised in the stubborn moral resistance of Antonia. However all the rhetoric of personal transformation, of overcoming conventional morality and realising one’s potential as a free and fulfilled individual, is expressed by the evil Murghab. The only quotations that Dwyer transcribed from the text are speeches made by Murghab.

Are you not disobeying nature, when you try to strangle your human sensibilities—your natural affections?…trample on your passions and they will burn and sting you. Let them exhaust themselves upon the universe and you have mounted many steps on the evolutionary ladder.42

Dwyer dreamt of a freedom beyond good and evil, summoning the force of nature to change the face of the world. As he transcribed from Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds, this force might become, “if its growth is fostered by a persevering, resolute WILL…a spiritual creature, glorious and supremely powerful.” Free to live an unconstrained life, free, as Dwyer copied from Crosland’s The Lords of Creation,

To speak the Truth and shame the Devil, to spend as much money as he can honestly lay hands on; to quarrel and fight with all rogues, bullies, blusterers, quacks and pretenders; to clear his mind of man worship; to indulge in proper contempts; and to be afraid of nothing that walks.43

An angry dream of escape, lashing out at the mockers and the system that held him down. It was no more than an elusive temptation copied out in his notebook. Dwyer struggled to unite the fragmented clues and construct a liberating vision from them. A promiscuous struggle with rogues that could only end in death—was that his fate? Dwyer’s sense of self, and a profound awareness of mortality, was locked into his interpretation of his social role. Only by becoming a respected identity in the world, persuading others to rally to his militant cause, could he be a fully realised identity within himself. He invested this plaintive hope in reincarnation. “Shall all the force and all the energy generated by man during a whole lifetime (if only one), all the force and energy, as represented by those experiences or impressions, be not conserved? Shall they be lost?” That he failed to fulfil this sense of self was partly due to a misplaced faith in the speculative nature of theosophy and the occult, and the escapism of popular fiction—realms in which his imagination might freely play, but which could not change his social reality. Dwyer’s dilemma was rooted in his earthly circumstances and the traditional codes of sacrifice and duty that he honoured.

Disciplining body and soul

Dwyer’s radicalism reflected a psychological instinct that preyed on the nineteenth century middle class mind: “civilised people had to take control, and the most necessary kind of control was beyond question self-control”.44 As Gay describes, the nineteenth century middle class demonstrated an exceptional skill for articulating and spreading the influence of their values.45 Like all working class autodidacts Dwyer was receptive to the infiltration of middle class values and ideas: all the writers and thinkers he acknowledges as influences upon him came from the middle class. Those influences were not only the challenging insights of Darwinism; they were also codes of duty, like the temperance Dwyer embraced. As “the ascendancy of reflection over desire”, temperance was a victory over one’s self, disciplining mind and body.46 Dwyer claimed that “indulgent practices”—drink and “illicit sex”—can upset a “wholesome body”, opening a door to “mischief”. Some of us know this, he said, from observation, if not “personal experience.” What he observed was the potential for chaos, the “terror and agony” induced by delirium tremens, opium and morphine. “How dreadfully real the torments are” for the sufferer—he imagined.47 Dwyer constructed borders, a margin of order, around his quest. Fear of losing control also restrained Dwyer’s occult interests. Despite recommending clairvoyance, hypnotism and “telepathy experiments”, Dwyer had not participated in these spiritualist experiments. Clairvoyance, he warned, needed careful handling. “Any fool can walk into a gunpowder factory with a naked light”.48 The seance room was “a potential minefield of behaviour and display”, where everyday constraints were cast aside or challenged.49 Dwyer shrank before that challenge, from opening up into a new and possibly confronting identity. Dwyer’s anxiety over the damage caused to a wholesome body by indulgent practices was a reflection of the wider neuroses at work in a colonial society under strain, a society concerned at “the loss of energy at a personal and a national level”, disturbed by the exhaustion and “unproductive expenditure of energy” that characterised modern urban life.50 Dwyer’s occult project was an extension of his desire to feel in control of his body and his life. Control, power over what was happening, was a sense of security denied to him, and denial intensified his craving. Dwyer’s imaginative construction of his body, suspended between chaos and care, was a product of his social alienation.51

In theosophy Dwyer found a strict moral code to replace the traditional faith he had abandoned. A theosophical tract Dwyer deposited in the Mitchell Library warned that only the disciplined acolyte could find the right road. Winged Seed, an extract from Blavatsky’s The Key to Theosophy that Dwyer preserved, defined theosophy as “the quintessence of duty”.

To drink to the last drop, without a murmur, whatever contents the cup of life may have in store for us; to pluck the roses of life only for the fragrance they may shed on others, and to be ourselves content but with the thorns.52

Dwyer and his family had suffered the consequences of economic depression since their arrival in Australia, sufferings worsened by a belief, as Annie expressed in 1893, that the immigrant dream had been betrayed. “I have had to beg for bread to keep life in the children”, she reminded her husband.53 There was no New World in John Dwyer’s reality, so he conceived of one in his imagination. Theosophy was a soothing reassurance that hardship had not been endured in vain, and indeed might be the source of liberation. By enduring his troubles he might prevail over them, and win through—to what outcome? Theosophy was vague about whether the reward for stoic suffering would come in this life or in another reincarnation: “the main fundamental object of the Society is to sow germs in the hearts of men which may in time sprout, and under more propitious circumstances lead to a more healthy reform conducive of more happiness to the masses than they have hitherto enjoyed”.


In “The Book of Notes and Observations” Dwyer claimed that “man has more bodies than one.” Bodies were shells that held a myriad of lives.54 Dwyer believed that

the evolution and dissolution of the forms go on unceasingly, as in a kaleidoscope, the pieces of various coloured glass do not change their substance, but only change their position and through the delusive reflection of mirrors are at each turn of the instrument made to appear in new constillations [sic] and figures…This discription [sic] seems to me to apply to the action of the mind to the body.55

Dwyer’s occult writings record not only his plans and theories, but an identity that is in Patrick Joyce’s description, “fractured, unstable, mobile”. Joyce interprets identity as “an unstable ordering of multiple possibilities whose provisional unity is managed discursively.” Dwyer’s occult narrative reflected the instability of his birthright and his experience as a marginalised worker, an intensely searching mind tied to a body with barely more resources than the unemployed he provided shelter. It seems appropriate that, in his boarding houses, Dwyer literally shared his own space with the unemployed: Dwyer did not acknowledge a gap between the public and private sphere. To change himself Dwyer had to change the face of the world. Faced with the “multiple possibilities” of his life and the ideas that clamoured before him, from socialism to science to theosophy, he was uncertain of the right path. Dwyer tried to fashion an integrated system of change, but it kept spinning into its parts, unravelled by its internal contradictions and his inability to project his agenda into the labour movement or society.

Dwyer may be aptly described as a socialist or a theosophist, but these descriptions impose a dubious certainty, implying a settled or culminating point to these acts of becoming. Dwyer’s radicalism is to be found in the active process of imaginative ferment, a mind striving to conceive of a more just and harmonious way of living. It was tormenting project, because it had no clear point of fulfilment, and there is no neat resolution in the Dwyer papers. The papers simply peter out, exhausted, mirroring the stop-start bursts of political agitation. Dwyer’s activism in the IOGT and the Theosophical Society did not survive the turn of the century. Between 1900-1914 he made several abortive attempts to mobilise the unemployed. The Active Service Brigade became little more than a forgotten name amongst the titles and structures he selected and discarded—State Labourers Union, Citizens’ Committee’s on the Unemployed, Right to Work Movement—to try to breathe life into the agitation he was determined to define and lead. His political activism reflected the idiosyncratic ambition that coloured his occult writings; he would find a new path for others to follow, but he could not overcome his lack of resources, or articulate a persuasive strategy. Dwyer walked a lonely path that reinforced his social marginalisation. After 1914 there is almost complete silence, and by 1916 he had begun to deposit his papers with the Mitchell Library. He was 60 years old, and he seemed to have exhausted his capacity for self-creation, although late in life he returned to active service, participating in the campaign for fair rents during the 1930s Depression.56

The conflicts of his inheritance never stopped running through Dwyer’s life. In 1897 Dwyer hoped that his astral light would endure beyond the death of his exhausted body.57 At his death in 1934 he was buried in the Methodist section of Rookwood Cemetery after a Methodist funeral service.58 He could not escape the religious tradition that was imposed either by his own choice or at his family’s insistence. His identity lives on in his fragmented papers and their elusive stories, but it remains unstable, sensitive to the multiple voices of his discourse.


Note: This paper was read by Stephen Garton and Greg Patmore and I thank them for their comments and suggestions. Any remaining errors or omissions are my responsibility.
1 Extract from Rosa Campbell Praed’s The Brother of the Shadow, quoted by Dwyer in John Dwyer Papers, ML MSS 2184/3, item 3, “Occult writings”.
2 Dwyer’s papers are held under the manuscript numbers ML MSS 2184 and ML MSS 290. A range of other papers deposited by Dwyer ca n also be accessed through the card index of the Mitchell collection.
3 Harry Knowles, “Biography and the writing of history: a methodological problem?” Postgraduate research paper, Department of Industrial Relations, University of Sydney, 1999, pp.27-29.
4 E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin Books Harmondsworth 1982 edition, pp.11-12.
5. Verity Burgmann, In Our Time, Allen & Unwin Sydney 1985 p.64; Bruce Scates, “Faddists and Extremists: Radicalism and the Labour Movement, South Eastern Australia, 1886-1898”, PhD thesis Monash University 1987, pp.298-302, 328-9; Bruce Scates, A New Australia, Cambridge University Press 1997, pp.49-50.
6 Scates, A New Australia, p.8.
7. For details on Dwyer and the ASB see Mark Hearn, “Hard Cash: John Dwyer and his Contemporaries, 1890-1914”, postgraduate thesis, Department of History University of Sydney 2000; for his agitation on behalf of the unemployed see Mark Hearn, “Citizen Dwyer: John Dwyer’s Campaign for the Right to Work, 1900-1914”, in Mark Hearn and Greg Patmore (eds.), Working Life and Federation, 1890-1914, Pluto Press, Sydney 2001.
8. Jill Roe, Beyond Belief, Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939, University of New South Wales Press 1986 p.xii.
9. Anne Taylor, Annie Besant, A Biography, Oxford University Press Oxford 1992 p.224.
10. Australian Temperance World and Good Templar Record, 1 July 1896.
11. John Dwyer, “The Book of Notes and Observations on the Occult Subjects”, Dwyer Papers, ML MSS 2184/3, item 1.
12. Robert Sinclair, East London, Robert Hale Ltd., London, 1950, p.313.
13. John Dwyer, “Family history of John Dwyer from about 1770-1775”, c1912, Dwyer papers ML MSS 290 box 1. For more information on Dwyer’s relationship with his family see Hearn, “Hard Cash”.
14. Hearn, “Hard Cash”, ch.1.
15. Henry Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party, Oxford University Press 1965, pp.15, 17-18, 131; Edward Royle, “Secularists and Rationalists, 1800-1940”, in Sheridan Gilley and W.J. Shiels, A History of Religion in Britain, Blackwells Oxford 1994, pp.415-16.
16 Hearn, “Hard Cash”, p.48.
17 Theosophical Society in Australasia, Tracts, Mitchell Library.
18. Australian Theosophist, 26 July 1897 p.82; Roe, Beyond Belief, pp. 109-11.
19. “The Book of Notes and Observations”, p.80; The Socialist, 22 August & 17 October 1896.
20. John Dwyer, “the Aureum Scriptum of Occultism”, Dwyer papers ML MSS 2184/3 item 2. The other occult manuscripts include “The Human Mind and its relationship to the Human Body”, Dwyer Papers ML MSS2184/3 Item 3 (this notebook also contains a series of quotations from popular authors, and speech notes entitled “The State or Government”, or “What is a State?” c1895); “Jesus, Man Myth or God”, and “The Public Schools and Religion”, both 1913 ML MSS2184/3 Item 4.
21. “The Book of Notes and Observations”, p.6.
22. For Australian working class autodidacts and the culture of reading in the late nineteenth century see Scates, A New Australia, Ch.2.
23. “The Book of Notes and Observations”, p.2.
24. Peter Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred, Fontana Press London 1995 pp.41-44, 56.
 25. For Maudsley see Mike Jay and Michael Neve (eds.), 1900: a Fin de siècle Reader, Penguin Books Harmondsworth 1999, p.8. For Draper and Hartmann see Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred, pp.38 & 90 respectively.
26.Marion Meade, Madame Blavatsky, the Woman behind the Myth, GP Putnam’s Sons, NY 1999, pp.457-458.
27. Cherry Gilchrist, Theosophy, the Wisdom of the Ages, HarperCollins NY 1996 pp.3, 11.
28. “The Book of Notes and Observations on the Occult Subjects”, pp.51-52.
29. ibid., p.39.
30. ibid., pp.66-70.
31. ibid., p.62.
32. Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places, Thames and Hudson, London 1998, p.71; Asa Briggs and Daniel Snowman (eds.), Fins de siècleHow Centuries End, 1400-2000, Yale University Press New Haven 1996 p.177.
33. “The Book of Notes and Observations on the Occult Subjects”, pp.65-66.
34. Quoted in Briggs and Snowman, Fins de siècle, How Centuries End, p.179.
35. “The Book of Notes and Observations”, p.15.
36. ibid., p.32.
37. ibid., p.40
38. John Dwyer, “The State or Government”, or “What is a State?” notes c1895 in ML MSS 2183/3, item 3.
39. Dwyer papers, ML MSS 2183/3, item 3.
40. Rosa Campbell Praed, The Brother of the Shadow, George Routledge & Sons London 1886; See also Robert Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure, Cambridge University Press Melbourne 1995 ch.6.
41 Praed, The Brother of the Shadow, p.iv.
42. Dwyer quoting Praed, ML MSS 2183/3, item 3.
43. T.W.H. Crosland, The Lords of Creation, copied in the Dwyer Papers, ibid.
44. Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred, p.494.
45 Peter Gay, The Naked Heart, Fontana Press 1998, pp.6-8.
46. Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred, p.496.
47 ibid., p.63.
48. “Aureum Scriptum of Occultism”, pp.48-61.
49. Alex Owen, The Darkened Room, quoted in Dixon, Writing the Colonial Adventure, p.102.
50 “The elaborate concern over masturbation in this period points to a cluster of anxieties about irreversible bodily decline, wastage and ineffectuality. The enervating worthlessness of so many routine occupations in the expanding commercial cities of nineteenth century Australia is a crucial starting point for a fuller elaboration of this history.” David Walker, “Continence for a Nation: Seminal Loss and National Vigour”, Labour History, No.48, May 1985, pp.13-14.
51. “Historians have never been interested in what has really happened to human bodies—what bodies have felt. Yet until we have succeeded in reconstructing the development of our bodies in history, we will remain strangers to ourselves”. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Polity Press Cambridge 1987 pp.362-3.
52. “Winged Seed”, Theosophical Society in Australasia, Tracts.
53. Annie Dwyer to John Dwyer, 3 August 1893, “family correspondence”. Dwyer papers ML MSS 290 box 2.
54. “The Book of Notes and Observations”, p.31.
55. “The Human Mind and its relationship to the Human Body”, p.2.
56. Labor Daily, 2 February 1934.
57. “The Book of Notes and Observations”, pp.40-1.
58. Death certificate for John Dwyer, 1 February 1934, NSW Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages.