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Rosaleen Norton.
Australia's Favourite Witch

Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications.

Rosaleen Norton was unique in her time, and sadly, would still be unique today. She was a born mystic and visionary artist when to be such things meant being dismissed by most people as either possessed or insane. To the deadening forces of conservatism and conformity she was the epitome of wickedness, but despite the scandals which regularly erupted around her she carried herself with terrific style and a sense of humour. If she was the face of evil, she was a remarkably nice face of evil.

Rosaleen Norton, "Roie" to her friends, made a suitably dramatic entry to this world during a thunderstorm on the night of 2 October 1917, in Dunedin, New Zealand. She was born with a sinewy strip of flesh extending from her armpit to her waist, and later took this, along with physical peculiarities such as pointed ears and two dark spots on her knee, as signs that she was destined to be a witch.

She was the youngest of three daughters in a solidly Church of England family, her father being an affable merchant seaman named Albert. When she was seven the family moved to Sydney. Rosaleen grew up a solitary child, looking down her nose at other children, preferring spiders. Night was her favourite time, when ghosts were out, and for years she slept in a tent out in the garden. She liked drawing too, ghoulish stuff that got her into trouble with her teachers. When she was 14, the headmistress of her school, Chatswood Girls Grammar, became the first in a long line of people to identify Rosaleen as a corrupting influence on others, and she was expelled.

She studied art for a while, and at the age of 15 had several horror stories accepted by Smith's Weekly, a famously irreverent and lively newspaper which seems to have kept almost all of Sydney's bohemian community in gainful employment at one time or another. She preferred to work as an artist, but during her months there she failed to produce anything conventional enough even for Smith's, , and was let go.

The Beresford you refer to is actually my father. His full name is Beresford Lionel Conroy the son of Dr Lionel Bigoe Conroy. Dad was born in Crookwell in 1914 so in 1935 he must have been 21 when he married Rosaleen Norton. As you described their marriage lasted until after the war, Beres spent two years as a Commando in the A.I.F. in Northern New Guinea. After WWII dad remarried(Patricia Roberts) and sired three children. Beres was a very private person who died in 1988, and rarely spoke of his first marriage. Unfortunately I can offer no further information re Ms Norton or her exploits!

Email to Takver from Lionel Conroy

She scraped a living doing odd jobs - kitchen hand, waitress, postal messenger- and as an artist's model for, among others, Norman Lindsay, whose work her own was often compared to. He called her "a grubby little girl with great skill who will not discipline herself." In 1935 she met and married another 17 year-old whose name is only recorded as Beresford, and the pair spent some time hitchhiking around the country from Brisbane to Melbourne. The marriage lasted until after the war.

In 1949 she scored her first major exhibition, at the Rowden-White Gallery at Melbourne University. She had been experimenting with self hypnosis and automatic drawing for years, devising rituals which would put her into a trance state in which she could explore other dimensions. Her paintings and drawings for the most part were depictions of the myriad of gods, demons and other entities with whom she communicated - and caroused - on these journeys. These beings - with god Pan being her personal favourite - were as real to her as the people around her. Rosaleen's swirling, flamboyant compositions, full of grotesque detail and writhing, interlocked forms, were at their best extremely powerful. They were certainly strong meat for 1940s Australia, and Constable Plod, turning up at the 1949 exhibition, predictably found them obscene. The police seized four works. Various academics came to Rosaleen's defence in the ensuing trial, and perhaps surprisingly, the charges were dropped and the police ordered to pay costs. Rosaleen's comment on the affair was "This figs leaf morality expresses a very unhealthy attitude."

A similar reaction greeted the publication in 1952 of The Art Of Rosaleen Norton, a collection of her illustrations accompanied by poems by her young boyfriend, Gavin Greenlees. The book's publisher, Walter Glover, was charged with obscenity and Rosaleen was back in court defending her art in terms of Jungian archetypes. Such arguments notwithstanding, the magistrate fined Glover five pounds and ordered that two pictures, including one of "Fohat", a cheeky looking demon with a snake for a penis, be obliterated from unsold copies of the book.

Rosaleen was by now firmly ensconced as one of the great characters of Kings Cross, the stamping ground of Sydney's prostitutes, criminals, artists and would-be cosmopolitans. Her paintings adorned the walls of its cafes, and visitors to Sydney, whose first trip was likely to the Cross anyway, began to seek her out. The press had by now come to label as a witch, and whilst the term never really described what Rosaleen was all about, she revelled in the attention, for a while at least. She certainly looked the part, her eyebrows plucked into high arches, her whole face, framed with jet black hair, a pattern of striking black curves which resembled nothing so much as one of her paintings. She was now being called the leader of a witch cult and whilst the "cult" never seemed to amount to much more than a few friends gathering in her small flat for occult talk and the occasional friendly ritual, this was too good a story for the tabloids to let go. Here is a typical account of a night at Roie's, from the 1965 pot-boiler Kings Cross Black Magic by "Attila Zohar".

"There were about eight or nine cult members present. They all wore hideous masks so were quite willing to be photographed, although they pointed out that there were certain rites which could not be performed before outsiders or cameras."

Later Rosaleen Norton changed into her witch's outfit. She was nude except for a black apron for and aft from her waist and a black shawl over her shoulders. A cat mask covered her face, but did not prevent her smoking from a long cigarette holder.

The reporter noticed that the witches did not seem to walk - but rather to "drift silently" on bare feet. Later Roie discarded the shawl, ;leaving herself bare from the waist up. "Miss Norton has modelled in her time, and she was as unselfconscious with the shawl off as with it on" observed the reporter.

All the witches denied a somewhat facetious suggestion that they were merely people who liked dressing up. They insisted they were serious minded practitioners of the black arts. The reporter persisted and wanted to know what they got out of the cult.

Rosaleen Norton answered for all the witches present when she said "I get a life that holds infinite possibilities and is entirely satisfactory to me on all planes of consciousness."

Little outbreaks of scandal kept the legend of "The Witch of Kings Cross" bubbling along nicely. In 1955 the police picked up a homeless adolescent girl, Anna Hoffman, who blamed her sorry state on one of Rosaleen's black masses. She later admitted that she had made all this up, but not before the newspapers had taken the story and run with it. In the same year the Sun was approached by to men offering allegedly pornographic photos of Rosaleen and Gavin Greenlees performing unnatural acts. These, it transpired, had been taken as a joke at one of Rosaleen's birthday parties. All the notoriety had proved too much for Gavin Greenlees, it seems. He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1957 and institutionalised. Juiciest of all was the sage of Sir Eugene Goosens, The British-born conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a friend of Rosaleen's and participant in her rituals. In March 1957 he was caught at Mascot Airport trying to smuggle into the country a whole swag of goodies including banned books, ritual masks and "1,166 pornographic photographs". Sir Eugene was given a hefty fine and returned to England in ignominy. This was not the sort of behaviour expected of a conductor at all.

Rosaleen Norton began to drop out of the public eye in the 1960s. Suddenly her behaviour didn't seem so strange anymore - who wasn't into the occult revival? In the June 15, 1967 issue of Australian Post, journalist Dave Barnes gives an account of a visit to the increasingly reclusive witch. He describes how he and a colleague started their search at the flat she had occupied at the height of her fame in the '50s, questioned a few less than helpful locals, and eventually located her front door through which they dropped a request for her to ring their office so an interview could be arranged. The following day they were invited into Rosaleen's dark, 10 foot by 6 foot room, adorned with "giggling masks, a Satan statue, gongs and strikers, snakes and growing creepers". They found her in an apparently cheerful mood, playing up her reputation for all it was worth. As they reported "She produced a little box and said "look, these are real bat's feet, there are not many of them about and I wear them for ear-rings, attractive aren't they?"

Politely ignoring their more flippant questions, she told them she enjoyed TV shows like The Munsters, The Addams Family and Bewitched, suggesting their makers may know a thing or two about how witches really operate. She was particularly interested in how the journalists tracked her down, and at what time. Puzzled, they told her they left their office just before 4pm and dropped the message through her door at 4.45pm. This made her laugh. Later, back in their office, they found that Rosaleen's call in answer had been logged in at 4pm the previous day - before they had actually delivered it. Game, set and match to Rosaleen.

Rosaleen Norton's health began to fail in the '70s. She was diagnosed with colon cancer and in 1979 admitted to the Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying. One of her friends during her last years was Richard Moir, who published a memoir about her in 1994. Moir draws a distinction between Roie, the private person he knew, and the Rosaleen Norton persona she created for the public, and paints a vivid picture of her final days.

"When I arrived at the hospital I was ushered into the visitors lounge room, strange I thought, as Roie couldn't walk.

I waited in the lounge room for some time patiently, suddenly Rosaleen Norton appeared physically standing on both legs, welcoming me, escorted by two sisters. The vision I beheld was, mind blowing.

Rosaleen Norton (not Roie) standing there in full garb, her hair flaming back, carefully arranged in her look. Her make-up had been very carefully applied, the face powder, the Rosaleen Norton full eye makeup and eye brows, the red lipstick. It was the Rosaleen Norton as I had always remembered he- but even more so.

She stood for only one minute... The last words Rosaleen Norton ever said to me were "Darling; I can't stay too long, I just came to say hello. Ah! I must go Darling." And with her head in a proud position Rosaleen Norton was escorted away out of my sight forever."

Rosaleen Norton died on 5 December 1979, surrounded by nuns, but needless to say, a pagan to the last.

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Last modified: April 30, 1999

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