The witch of Kings Cross

Sydney’s Kings Cross, much like the London neighbourhood for which it was named, is a focus for the oft-twinned pursuits of drug-taking and prostitution. In the early 20th century it was the centre of the city’s bohemian life, attracting artists, writers and night-crawlers to its apartment buildings, a novelty in Sydney for the era.

The sex trade was boosted significantly after the influx of horny American soldiers during the Second World War, but it existed alongside a flourishing café culture which refused to die. No figure was more notorious in this milieu than artist, clairvoyant and Pan-worshipping witch Rosaleen Norton, who died on this day in 1979.

Norton first worked as a pavement artist, then as a model for the Australian artist Norman Lindsay, finally concentrating on her own works. Her working method was to go into a hashish-induced trance to summon the deities which writhe lasciviously across her canvasses. While Pan is the most frequent subject, Norton operated an open-door policy for mischief-making deities of all stripes.

While apparently a pussycat in person, as “the witch of Kings Cross”, Norton was harassed by the city’s drearier Christians who condemned her black masses and sulphur-scented artworks. Her works and reproductions thereof were not infrequently confiscated as obscene (or on one occasion as “decadent and obscene, and likely to arouse unhealthy sexual appetites in those who saw them”). Norton played up to the ensuing publicity, on one occasion turning up to court in leopard-skin shoes. She was most notoriously linked to the respected conductor Sir Eugene Goossens, who evidently took part in occult sex ceremonies with Norton and was arrested with a cache of pornography on trying to leave the country. Based on photographs found of their rites, Norton was charged with “the abominable crime of buggery”.

This fascinating clip from a 1960s Australian current affairs programme delves into Kings Cross, “where life comes out of an espresso machine, and you can have it any way you like it.” It also offers a rare glimpse of Norton speaking. What audiences at home would have thought, tucking into their dinner while watching this vision with her demonically arched eyebrows, elfin ears, widow’s peaks and fugitive teeth chatting amiably about witchcraft, is anybody’s guess.

There’s a longer version of the interview here, but be warned there are synch problems.


  1. Pingback: Pan’s people « Strange Flowers

  2. Sounds like my kind of gal!

  3. Great article. I came across the Goossens case a few years back: My wife – a violist – played in a performance of his orchestration of Händel’s Messiah – a very eclectic rearrangement, part purgatorial dance, part celestial ascension. The piece was commissioned by Thomas Beecham not long after Goossens’ public fall from grace and indeed seems to have provided him with some sort of artistic redemption at the time. Händel authenticists hate it, and it is somewhat pompous and kitschy, but I rather enjoyed it and think it’s worth a listen (not least because of the occult context).

    • Thanks for the comment. It’s funny, isn’t it – recordings of Baroque music from 40-50 years ago, with more modern instrumentation, sound old-fashioned now that period instruments are standard for that repertoire.

  4. Leonie Darlington

    Did Roie have any children ? I have a man who states he is her son born 4 December 1943, Kenneth Stuart Norton.
    Is there any truth, possible to this, he states he was given to a friend of Roie when he was 2 yr old approx, and they raised him, at 14 he went to visit her and lived in Sydney kings cross until he joined the army in 1963, at 20 yrs. He has known and was protected by Abe Saffron in those yrs. He has travelled all over Australia and stayed in recluse for 33 yrs until now. He was there in her coven when he was 17 yrs. He does not know who his father was /is.
    if you know any truth to this. I care for this man, 68 yrs now and his name is different now so, you tell me 1988 he legally changed his name. If there is any relations of Rosaleen Norton, I would love to talk to them

    • Hi,
      I’m afraid I don’t know any more than is on the public record. Nevill Drury’s biography of Rosaleen, Pan’s Daughter, certainly doesn’t mention anything of the sort. Perhaps someone else reading this may have some insight.

  5. Great blog James, and some great pictures of Norton. I like the pocket sized trident. Particularly demonic! Norton’s featured in a post of mine about photographer Rennie Ellis a while back and someone was asking me if I knew where to find any other decent images of her for a documentary. I’d say that one would be a keeper.

    • Hi Geoff, and thanks for the comment. After being dimly aware of Rennie Ellis’s photos for ages I saw an exhibition of them in Melbourne a few years ago. They’re amazing, so striking and evocative. I lived in Kings Cross for a while and it really hadn’t changed much from the time he was snapping it.

  6. Pingback: Rosaleen Norton | artworks « Strange Flowers

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