Secrets of the censors: Obscenity in the Archives

Paper presented by Dr Nicole Moore at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 2 May 2005.

Forever Amber

In 1944, the Australian Literature Censorship Board banned one of the world’s best loved, blockbuster bodice rippers, Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. The best-selling book of the decade, it was a sensation in sixteen countries and sold more than two million copies, just in its hardback edition. It was made into a lavish Hollywood period film in 1947, starring Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde, and it has been so loved around the world that fan sites on the internet are still full of testimonies to its page-turning, seductive appeal, even as it weighs in at 972 pages. Republished in a Penguin edition in 2002, the publicity blurb declares it a ‘timeless masterpiece’, with glowing endorsements from respectable British newspapers. ‘Preposterously long and sumptuously naughty’ declares the Observer. ‘The bodice-ripper of the year …’ says the Guardian. ‘Swords at the hip, hair to the shoulders, boots to the knee, Winsor’s cavaliers haven’t lost their rakish appeal’. The queen of commercial fiction, Barbara Taylor Bradford, declares it ‘compulsive reading … a genuine page turner … The book remains a smashing read’.

I found my copy in a London bookshop in January and wiped out a week of my stay: reading, reading, reading, every day and all night, in the bus, in the queue for the bus, forgetting to get off the bus, getting more lost than I already was. I was stuck, in the glorious Restoration saga of Amber and her swashbuckling lovers, her plotting schemes and the drama of the Plague, the fire of London, the theatres and decadent salons of Charles II and, above all, loving the extended, excessive description of Amber’s sumptuous frocks. I stopped talking and answering my phone. I lost track of meal times, appointments, day and night. As a literary academic, it had been longer than I could remember that a book had been able to do that to me. When I finally finished, I felt like a fugitive from bleak, winter London, desperate to get back into Amber’s technicolour world. Winsor’s book had done what popular fiction perhaps does best: immerse a reader in a wholly realised world, in a tale with the best hooks of suspense and narrative desire, gratifying fantasies, acknowledging wants and wickedness, offering an escape from the terms through which we ordinarily understand our mediated, compromised relation to culture, power, relationships, truth, money, love.

Forever Amber was banned in Australia from 1944 until, I think, 1958. Dr LH Allen, chair of the Literature Censorship Board that banned it, acknowledged the huge popularity of Winsor’s blockbuster, already a hit in the United States in 1944, but noted sternly in his report on the book: ‘popularity is no sure guarantee of worth. The source of its notoriety is more properly to be found in a crude and obvious appeal to the sex instinct’. [1] The ‘swooning sentimentality’ of the love scenes is condemned as ‘spiced with salacity’, and the ‘unremitting repetition’ of ‘coarse and licentious terms’, declared the Board, ‘merely stimulates salacious interest’. [2] The appeal of Forever Amber to me now, more than 60 years later, is suddenly suspect, under Allen’s censure, as was its appeal for the millions who read it around the world in the 1940s. Why exactly is it so pleasurable? Is it really salacious?

What is this pleasure? Is it the pleasure found in the addictive, plot-driven compulsion of popular fiction, glueing us to a book until we finish it, or the purpose-built pleasure of a story told without apparent moral seriousness? Is the pleasure in its ability, as theorists of women’s romance reading told us in the 1980s, to alleviate boredom and to soften the grip of social conditions not of our choosing? Is it its satisfaction of fantasies drawn from an escalating commodification of human relations and an accompanying atomisation of the social world into individual, reading parts? Not according to the Board. These aspects of the book’s appeal are ignored. Instead, the pleasure of reading Forever Amber, and sexy commercial fiction like it, is characterised as prurience. The book’s function becomes instead, or only, the excitation of sexual pleasure and it becomes then obscene, even pornographic. What was I reading? Was I lucky not to be thrown off the bus?

The history of Australian literary censorship

I’ll come back to the banning of Forever Amber. I wanted to use its story as an introduction, because of the way the book’s banning throws the nature of reading itself into question. Is the pleasure of reading itself obscene? Reading, of course, is exactly what you do in an archive. And when the object of your research is (as my title today suggests) obscenity in the archives, the question of prurience is a real one. When I explain to people that I’m working on a new history of literary obscenity in Australia, they generally laugh. ‘A history of rude books?’ they ask. And it is a history of rude books. There’s a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek moment in Forever Amber, when our heroine finds, in the library of her hated but wealthy husband, a connoisseur’s, leather-bound edition of some classic Italian Renaissance porn, showing ‘a young man and woman, both of them naked, straining in an ecstasy’. [3] Stung by ‘her own strong interest in whatever was sensational or prurient’, says the narrator, Amber can’t leave the book alone and takes it out of the room, despite feeling somehow that, in that act, her husband has compromised her. Amber, a peasant-class, illiterate woman risen to the heights of the king’s mistress, is very far from the reader for which 16th-century Italian pornography was designed. And this is the book’s wink at the censors and at a knowing reading public, celebrating the access of a new class of readers in 1944, and after the war, to books for pleasure and, indeed, celebrating the very idea of pleasurable culture with a mass appeal.

While I’m defensive about accusations of prurience, I’m not ashamed of wanting to know something about what Australian censors banned as obscene in the 20th century. Australia was arguably one of the worst censors in the Western world through most of the century, comparable to Ireland and South Africa. Australian censors were proud to ban what was acceptable in London, Paris and New York, and while the rest of the British Empire was apparently degenerating, they described their role as a ‘bulwark for Anglo-Saxon standards’. [4] Australia would be the Empire’s moral core. [5] My research is attempting to establish for the first time the principles on which the practices of the censors were based – what did obscenity mean for them? – and to eventually identify and collect the title of every book banned in Australia until the present time. It is a democratic project, opening up the archives to show us now what was kept from us, and why.

The project I’ve embarked on is quite large, of course, since the history of Australian censorship itself is rich and long. That history is of governmental surveillance, stolen libraries and police raids, authorial scandals and vociferous public debates, famous court cases, libel and defamation, suitcase searches and prison terms, sedition and conspiracy. Writers are lauded as heroes and censors damned as philistines, or publishers damned as perverts and readers couched as moral ciphers. The history of censorship practice itself is a layered and detailed history of secretive institutional decision making, various, complex and sometimes indeterminate regulative regimes, sometimes conflicted common law and statutory legal decisions, covert and unrecorded resistance, and covert and unrecorded censorship. Estimates of the numbers of books banned through the early decades of the century are now hotly contested by historians – claims that as many as 5000 books were banned are now being questioned, as we search through the complex traces left by the multiple agents, departments and legal bodies that were responsible for censorship administration.

No new, comprehensive history of literary censorship in Australia has been released since Peter Coleman’s Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition was published in 1962. [6] In 2000, publishers Duffy and Snellgrove re-released that book unrevised. Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition is a rightly famous account of what Coleman then termed ‘the rise and fall of literary censorship in Australia’. The new edition’s back cover declares that it remains the definitive book on the subject. It is surely opportune to ask how this could be. What sense does Coleman’s history make now, beyond its place in history? Have new accounts replaced its ‘rise and fall’ story? Has there been a rise and fall? Coleman has had the most access of any researcher to the extensive files on censorship kept by the Australian Department of Trade and Customs through the middle years of the 20th century, and now of course available here in the Archives. His book’s acknowledgements thank the 1962 Minister for Customs (the Hon. Denham Henty) and the officers of the department, who, he says, ‘allowed me to examine without restriction the relevant Customs Department archives in the Australian National Library’. The broad range of examples and instances his account provides have not been chronicled elsewhere, and researchers like me spend many hours searching for the evidence of his assertions in the files now held at the National Archives, often without success.

Things have changed markedly since 1962, however. In a small postscript to the new edition, Peter Coleman inserts himself back into his old book, only to repudiate it and its liberal anti-censorship argument from the wisdom of old age. He says,

[t]his is a young man’s book written some forty years ago on the cusp of the 1960s. In those distant days I was convinced that any restriction on any publication of any kind was an intolerable infringement of our freedom. I later lost this certainty.

New generations after Coleman, however, need a different kind of certainty if they are to understand how censorship impacts on what Coleman calls freedom. We need to know how, why, when and what things were banned, and we need to go back and understand in contemporary terms what was at stake for those censors, for whom obscenity, blasphemy and sedition were such threats to the maintenance of national order, and for whom books like Forever Amber should be kept from the readers of Australia for their own sakes.

Most accounts date the beginnings of concerted Australian censorship from the 1880s, although some begin with the pronouncements of colonial governors from the 1840s and earlier. Historian Deana Heath describes the rampant growth of highly complex and multiply implemented regimes that varied from state to state, supplemented by an overarching federal regime that grew in strength after its introduction soon after Federation. [7] Federal censorship of publications was sustained by three (and, after 1921, four) bodies: the Commonwealth Department of Trade and Customs, the Postmaster-General's Department, the police, and then the Attorney-General’s Department. Customs was by far the most dominant and ‘most autocratic’ of these, [8] able to classify goods and publications as prohibited imports under the Trade and Customs Act 1901 (S.52(c)) without reference to public opinion or legal and expert advice.

The power of Customs was ostensibly tempered by the establishment of the Book Censorship Board in 1933, to which problematic titles or titles with claims to literary merit should be referred, but the Minister retained the right to overrule the Board. Beyond import restrictions, domestic censorship operated through police action, vice squads, postal regulation, and civil and criminal prosecution under the proliferating censorship and obscenity Acts, which differed across state borders. Heath argues that ‘acts incorporating some aspect of censorship have been so prolific in Australia that some attention needs to be devoted to them in their own right’, declaring a ‘superabundance’ of them. [9]

In general, the effect of this censorship apparatus has been traced in vague outline only or via the famous, publicly fought instances. The archived files relating to censorship at the National Archives are so complex and so extensive as to scare away many researchers made of sterner stuff than I am – my estimates currently stand at more than 14 governmental agencies and more than 67 file series, some of which measure 162 metres or more. Police and post office involvement was extensive but is not systematically traceable, and the extent and nature of public debate and media coverage is difficult to systematically reconstruct. The history of the role of libraries in censorship practice, especially in controlling access to restricted publications such as the work of sexologist Havelock Ellis, has yet to be researched. Biographical histories of the individuals involved, including the censors, have not been recorded and anecdotal evidence is available only as part of more general histories of reading, authorship and publishing. Legal accounts are useful but usually only explain legal definitions and the various standing decisions, rather than really examine the effects of those decisions. [10] Nevertheless, new work on the archive is effecting a significant shift in understanding, emphasising the sheer size and severity of Australian regimes. Deana Heath emphasises the role of censorship as an arm of the White Australia Policy, and Richard Nile demonstrates the importance of monopoly British interests in the book trade when thinking about the impact of Customs’ control of imports. [11]

The process of making stories secret

So a project on literary obscenity faces some large historiographical problems, merely in sketching out the terrain. Not only is the project large, its object is highly unstable – an almost impossible story, perhaps one that is not really there. And what is of interest, of course, is that the story of literary censorship is a narrative about narrative – one of the most exact examples of stories about the circulation of stories. In this context, Australian literary censorship is thus a secret story about the practice of rendering stories secret. How do we think about that? How do we understand its motivations and effects? What has been the nature of the process and what does this reveal about my questions, about what was at stake for literary obscenity? What mattered enough to be banned?

The organisational systems through which Customs handled banned publications when they arrived into the country have remained opaque to most historians of censorship, and were certainly deliberately kept from the public. The literary critic Nettie Palmer famously described this system as 'the fog on the wharves' in 1930, [12] and we can imagine something of what occurred from accounts by travellers, booksellers and writers themselves, whose suitcases were routinely examined for banned material on their arrival home from travel overseas. The New Zealand novelist Jean Devanny had her own author's copies of her book The Virtuous Courtesan removed from her bags in 1935, on the suspicion of obscenity, and indeed her book was banned after referral to the Book Censorship Board. [13] The board termed it 'pernicious tripe' and banned it until 1958. Customs officials retained the right to examine and ban material right there in its crates from the ship or aeroplane, and researchers have had little success in finding good records of these decisions. However, closer examination of the Trade and Customs files is allowing partial reconstruction of the censorship apparatus.The censor's ledger has been found, held in a closed file that had not been seen, and this may be the elusive 'banned list' itself.

Through most of the years of the 20th century, we can say that three pieces of legislation mattered for the banning of publications as prohibited imports. Trade and Customs divided the publications coming into Australia into three groups, according to the ways in which they offended against that legislation, as:

  1. blasphemous, indecent or obscene works or articles (under section 52(c) of the Customs Act)
  2. literature unduly emphasising matters of sex or of crime or calculated to encourage depravity (this was according to item 14(a) of the Second Schedule of Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations, legislation introduced in 1938 to target the increasing numbers of cheap editions of popular novels, especially crime and horror fiction)
  3. seditious publications (item 14, Second Schedule of Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations). [14]

Publications arriving into Australia were dealt with differently according to which category they fell into.

Figure 1 is a document from the Customs files.

It is part of a collection of diagrams demonstrating to the head of Customs in the mid-1950s the procedures undertaken by each state office in collecting banned publications at the point of entry – nicely drawn by a clerk as shipping, air and parcel post. [15] These procedures relate to the control of booksellers' importation of publications to sell, which were examined via their invoice lists against guarantees from the sellers not to import banned material. This example, from the New South Wales office of Trade and Customs, shows how elaborate the procedures were, and at only one point in this whole series were the books actually read – in NSW by a single 'Investigation officer', whose job was a decidedly onerous one. The diagram traces the steps through which publications could be referred all the way from the wharves of each state to the Comptroller-General of Customs in Canberra (the director of the department), depending on which category they fell into. When and if they reached the Comptroller-General, publications were then subject to a whole set of further procedures.

Of the three categories, publications falling into the last one – those that could be termed seditious – were dealt with according to the regulations introduced by Billy Hughes in 1921. This was dragnet legislation that proved controversial enough to be revoked by the Lyons government in 1929 and then reintroduced in 1932, to be significantly watered down through a policy rewording in 1937. This legislation was administered by the Attorney-General's Department rather than Customs, so books turning up on the wharves that looked suspiciously likely to be advocating the 'overthrow of civilised government' had to be sent to Canberra to be forwarded. [16] Index card files held in the Sydney office of the National Archives document the many publications banned on political grounds through this period. These were mostly Soviet and Communist publications, including Marx and Engels' Manifesto of the Communist Party, and the works of Lenin and Stalin, but also fiction like the books of American novelist Agnes Smedley, writing about China, and Robert Westerley's novel of the down-and-out, Wide Boys Never Work. [17]

Publications falling into the first two categories were initially treated together, examined by investigations officers for obscenity, blasphemy, indecency and tendencies to over-emphasise sex and crime. If a publication was deemed to fall into the second category, it could be dealt with by officials on the spot. That is, according to Customs policy, if it was 'of a most undesirable type featuring crime and criminal activities and giving undue emphasis to matters of sex'. [18] According to Customs, these publications 'possess no literary or intellectual value and are obviously published to cater to those seeking to satisfy depraved tastes for morbidity, sadism, sensuality, etc'. [19] Under this category, Customs officials banned books with titles like Special Detective, Revealing Detective Cases, Best True Fact Detective, Dime Mystery Magazine, Horror Stories, Fighting Western and Law Breakers Always Lose (all banned in 1950). [20] If this legislation was active in the same way today, we’d have no CSI, no psychic forensics, no Law and Order on our TVs. As the decades passed, this category became increasingly crowded, as you can imagine, particularly as it was used to target comics. One of the ways in which Australian censorship legislation exceeded British precedents in severity, in fact, was in its codification of horror and violence within the practical definition of obscenity, introduced under legislation in 1954 in order to ban imported horror comics directly. [21]

If books were found to be obscene, indecent, inciting to crime and violence, or excessively focused on sex, and had no claim to literary merit, they were banned on the spot. There are copies of the lists of banned books made for the public, gazetted in parliament for the first time in 1958. The lists give us some idea of the kind of books they were banning. [22]

If the books were found to be obscene, indecent, inciting to crime and violence, or excessively focused on sex but also had a claim to literary merit or to a controversial reception, they had to go to Canberra. Customs inspectors were required to forward them to the Comtroller-General of Customs who, under the powers of the Minister, could in turn forward them to the Literature Censorship Board for a decision. This is where my story gets a little more detailed.

After public pressure about the secrecy and arbitrary nature of censorship practice, in 1933 the Lyons government established the Book Censorship Board, which became the Literary Censorship Board in 1937. [23] Appointed under the auspices of the Department of Trade and Customs, the Board was a separate agency with a membership of literary experts. Its role was to arbitrate on the many books, according to the cynical policies of Sir Thomas White, the Minister for Trade and Customs in 1933, ‘that hover round the border line where the author endeavours with fine writing to get as close to obscenity and indecency as public opinion will allow’. [24] The Board was first chaired by Sir Robert Garran, Secretary for the Attorney-General’s Department, and who had been active in drafting the Australian Constitution.

The Board was renamed the Literature Censorship Board in 1937 and new members were appointed after Garran retired from the Chair to take up the new position of Appeals Censor. Fellow founding member, Dr Leslie Holdsworth Allen, then took up the Chair, with Professor JF Meurisse Haydon remaining as a Board member and French expert. A classics and literary scholar, poet and lawn bowls enthusiast, Dr Allen remained in the Chair until a review of censorship operations in 1957–58.

For the purpose of tracing obscenity bannings, the most important holding of the papers relating to the Board is the comprehensive, sequential collection of reports filed by the members that record their decisions on titles. The three or four expert members of the panel provided opinions on every title given to them to review for classification by the Department of Trade and Customs for all the years of the Board’s existence from 1933 to 1967. Those reports were assiduously collected, copied and preserved as a centralised record by Dr LH Allen in his role as chair until 1957. After 1957, Professor ER Bryan from Duntroon University College took over as chair and, unfortunately, the archival record from that period is much more dispersed. Some reports are recoverable, especially on the controversial titles of the period to 1967, but there appears to have been no systematic file kept. In 1967, the Literature Censorship Board was abolished and replaced by the National Literature Board of Review, through which the control of Customs over censorship was mitigated. Then began a period of overhauls and changes resulting in the current, so-called classification regime.

I have used the files collected by Dr Allen to do some preliminary quantitative analysis of the Board's decisions through the period 1933 to 1967. I have counted and recorded every decision held in the Board's files for every year from 1933 to 1957. Reflecting the Board's practice, this analysis categorises decisions as 'banned', 'passed' and 'restricted circulation'. (Restricted circulation was a classification first used in 1935, allowing the importation of any copy of Oscar Wilde’s translation of the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter ordered by a university or public library, but for no other purpose. [25] This classification aimed to restrict access to books on the basis of scholarly or professional expertise.) I chart these decisions comparatively over the period of extant files and record the numbers of each decision and the total number of books examined by the Board in each year. In the first year and a half of its operation, for example, from August 1933 to December 1934, the Book Censorship Board examined 96 publications forwarded to it for consideration by the Federal Department of Trade and Customs. Of those 96 publications, the Board banned 35 as prohibited imports, approximately 36 per cent of titles.

The process of reading and recording decisions was not always timely or orderly, of course. A spike at the beginning of the records shows the work the Board members had to do to get through the list of titles initially forwarded by Customs: reading 96 books in a year and a half could constitute a full-time job, and Board membership certainly was not supposed to be one. I have included decisions made at the end and beginning of each year in the year last examined or the year in which a final decision is recorded. Some books are grouped in the records as single decisions, if the books were from a single publisher or in a single series, for example. My analysis has separated these out and treated titles individually. Re-examined books – books referred back to the Board for review of their banned status – are noted as such and are counted with the ‘passed’ titles where the decision was to release, or are counted separately when the decision was to maintain the prohibition, since they do not add to the number of books on the banned list. The list of banned titles was cumulative, of course, and an estimate of the number of literary titles added to it each year of the Board’s regime is an important figure that can be extrapolated from the lists.

The figures reveal a slump in activity through the war years, explained explicitly by Allen as being due to the limits on available shipping space through the last years of the war and immediately after. [26] Fewer books arriving into the country apparently meant fewer books referred to the Board. A spike in 1954 is partly explained by the beginnings of a review of the banned list. The Board was asked to review five titles in 1953 and eleven in 1954 and furnish new decisions about their status. These titles included Richard Aldington's All Men Are Enemies, first banned in April 1933 before the formal constitution of the Book Censorship Board and thus prohibited for 20 years. In 1953, it was released by the Board as an 'outstandingly brilliant study of the psychological and social effects of war and postwar conditions', [27] Allen finding that its 'sexual passages [were] handled with the utmost refinement'. [28] Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was finally released in 1953 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying in 1954, both banned since 1936 and in fact only re-examined at the request of publisher William Heinemann, on the strength of new editions. [29] Also of interest in 1954, DW Cory’s The Homosexual Outlook was passed for 'restricted circulation' only. The novel, in the voice of a gay man, argues against the possibility or desirability of a 'cure' for this 'aberration', and it was to this argument that the Board most objected. [30]

Domestic publications were not directly subject to the decisions of the Board, of course, since Customs could inspect imported publications only. British monopoly control over the Australian book market, however, did mean that a great many Australian writers were first published in the United Kingdom. So, especially in the first two decades of the Board’s operations, it was asked to arbitrate on some quite significant Australian titles. The first Australian book on which a report was filed under the auspices of the Board was Norman Lindsay's Redheap in 1930, actually prior to the Board’s formal constitution. [31] It was banned, amidst a storm of controversy, because of complaints in federal parliament from the member in whose electorate the fictional town of Redheap appeared to lie. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that:

The Acting Minister for Customs (Mr Forde) announced in the House of Representatives this afternoon that the entry into Australia of the novel 'Redheap' by Norman Lindsay, is to be prohibited, on the ground that it contains passages which are indecent or obscene. Mr Forde was replying to Mr Keane (V.) who claimed that the novel contained serious reflections on the morality of a certain country community in Victoria. [32]

As the first Australian book to be banned, Redheap’s treatment occasioned reports and debate in the east coast newspapers and longer debates in the Bulletin, Cecil Mann titling his 'Red Page' discussion: 'Australia Remains a Joke'. [33] In 1934, the controversy was still so alive as to draw a defence from Robert Garran as chair of the Board, published in the Sydney Morning Herald. This was one of the few occasions when any member of the Board spoke or wrote publicly about the principles guiding censorship practice through the decades of its operation. [34] The Redheap controversy connected with increasing opposition to more directly political censorship, as the Book Censorship Abolition League grew more active, and culminated in a public debate held at the Melbourne Town Hall in February 1935, debating the proposition 'That Political Censorship should be Abolishe'. Mr Norman O'Brien of the United Australia organisation concluded the negative case, declaring 'I have never seen a healthy-minded character in any book of Norman Lindsay, about whom there is so much clamour'. [35]

 As well as forming a compact but comprehensive record, the reports of the Literature Censorship Board constitute an archive of meaning-making: a set of readings that bring to light and make sense of books that very often had no other presence in Australia at all. The conceptual classifications through which the titles were defined as obscene or not, indecent or permissible, become visible through these reports. Similarly, the readings themselves are significant instances in the reception and histories of sometimes very broadly read banned titles, from Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Portnoy’s Complaint and Kathleen Winsor’s bodice-ripper blockbuster, Forever Amber. [36]

Literature Censorship Board reports

I want to finish with some of the filed reports. The collection of material on Forever Amber includes correspondence and reports from the Literature Censorship Board files of 1944 and 1945.

The file also includes some extensive research on the sales and reception of the novel in the United States, provided by Kenneth Binns, an early member of the Board and then the Parliamentary Librarian, and now, of course, recognised for his role as chief librarian at the National Library of Australia. Binns took over as chair of the Board during the 1960s. Of particular note is the expostulatory comment from the Minister, Senator Keane, quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, from the press reports clipped and included in the file: 'The Almighty did not give people eyes to read that rubbish'. [37]

Other reports on banned titles are also revealing. Risqué movie star Mae West’s comic novel She Done Him Wrong was banned summarily by the Board in its early days, and was described by Garran and Allen as 'filth' and 'pure pornography', and required no other comment from other Board members beyond 'I should ban'. [38]

UK journalist and novelist Margaret Leonora Eyles' birth control and sexology book Commonsense About Sex was the second book about birth control examined by the Board and the first banned, in 1934, and I have discussed elsewhere Garran’s comment that compared its content to 'public nudity'. [39]

The immediate postwar years were a lively time for the censors, as wartime press censorship controversially continued, occasioning the Sydney Daily Telegraph to publish a blank editorial column and newspaper proprietors to contest press censorship in court. [40] In 1946, Melbourne novelist Robert Close and his publishers were prosecuted in the Victorian courts for the obscenity in his novel Love Me Sailor, resulting in the gaoling of Close in Pentridge for ten days. [41]

In the wake of the storm of public debate and official pressure on publishers surrounding the Love Me Sailor case, some significant books were censored after 1946. One of Australia's most internationally respected novelists, Christina Stead, had her novel Letty Fox banned in Australia (unlike anywhere else in the world except Boston), and the investigating customs officials declared the obscenity in the novel 'absolutely unbelievable'. [42]

I have discussed that banning in detail elsewhere, but Kenneth Binns’ individual report as a Board member, which I have included here (but not elsewhere), shows that the decision wasn't necessarily straightforward or unanimous. Binns took seriously the novel’s satirical intent. [43]

I have included two later reports from perhaps the first woman member of the Board, A Hope Hewitt, appointed in the early 1960s and a lecturer in literary studies at the Australian National University. [44] She reports in a lively and interesting way on Harold Robbins' most famous commercial blockbuster, The Carpet Baggers, first scheduled for importation into Australia in 1961. She opens by declaring 'This is one of the trashiest books I have ever read', and only heats up from there. She ends by wishing to ban it, but noting that 'this is treating the book as literature which it is not'. [45]

Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar also occasioned a revealing report from Hewitt in 1965, when it was reconsidered by the Board after having been banned in 1947. She describes it as 'one of the earliest homosexual novels' and compares it to Australian novelist GM Glaskin’s No End to the Way, a wonderful novel about relationships between men, set in the pubs of Perth. Hewitt declares that if, in 1965, the time had come to release books on homosexuality, these two 'would be good, serious fictional studies with which to start'. [46]

Carolyn Steedman's recent book on memory and archival history is simply titled Dust. In it, she distinguishes between what she terms 'process' ('ideation, imagining and remembering') and 'stuff' ('the content of any piece of historical writing, and the historical imagination it imparts'). [47] You can see that something of this distinction has operated here. I've tried to acquaint you with some of the processes of censorship in Australia, focusing on obscenity as a target, examined through the files of some of the main agents, particularly the Literature Censorship Board. But the full story is yet to be told, particularly the story of the stuff of the books themselves, or the reasons they offended. But thanks to the extensive holdings in the archives, we're getting closer to it.

Some of the material in this paper has been published as 'National Parapraxis: Sex and Forgetting in Australian Censorship History', Australian Historical Studies Special Issue: History of Sexuality, vol. 37, no. 126, 2005, pp. 296–314.


  1. Decisions, with Comments, on Literature Forwarded by the Customs Department to the Commonwealth Book Censorship Board, 1933–1957, NAA: A3023, Folder 1945/1947.
  2. NAA: A3023, Folder 1945/1947.
  3. Kathleen Winsor, Forever Amber, Penguin, 2002, pp. 600–601.
  4. Decisions, with Comments, on Literature Forwarded by the Customs Department to the Commonwealth Book Censorship Board, 1933–1957; NAA: A3023; Folder 1951.
  5. Deana Heath, ‘Literary censorship, imperialism and the White Australia Policy’, in Martyn Lyons and John Arnold (eds), AHistory of the Book in Australia 1891–1945: A National Culture in aColonised Market, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2001, p. 70.
  6. Peter Coleman, Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition: The Rise and Fall of Literary Censorship in Australia, [1962] Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 2000.
  7. Heath, p. 70.
  8. Heath, p. 69.
  9. Heath, p. 74.
  10. Cf. Geoffrey A Flick, Civil Liberties in Australia, Law Book Company, Sydney, 1981, pp. 224–244.
  11. Heath, pp. 69–70; Richard Nile, The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2002, pp. 169–192.
  12. Nettie Palmer, ‘Fog on the wharf’,Stead’s Review, 1 July 1930, pp. 11–12.
  13. Customs and Excise Office and Book Censorship Office; The Virtuous Courtesan, NAA: A425, 1935/10184.
  14. Policy document ‘Control of Prohibited Literature’, National Literature Board of Review Correspondence on Censorship and Legislation, NAA: C4480, 23.
  15. Organisation – Literature Censorship Board – NSW, NAA: A425, 1962/15683.
  16. National Literature Board of Review correspondence on censorship and legislation; Item 23; Policy document ‘Control of Prohibited Literature', NAA: C4480, 23.
  17. Library Index Cards; 1933–1957, NAA: C4127, whole series.
  18. National Literature Board of Review Correspondence on Censorship and Legislation; Item 23; Policy Document ‘Control of Prohibited Literature’, NAA: C4480.
  19. NAA: C4480, Item 23.
  20. NAA: C4127, whole series .
  21. Augustine Brannigan, ‘Crimes from comics: social and political determinants of reform of the Victoria Obscenity Law 1938–1954’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, vol. 19, 1986, pp. 23–41; Mark Finnane, ‘Censorship and the child: explaining the comics campaign’, Australian Historical Studies 23.92 (1989), pp. 220–40; cf. Alec Craig, The Banned Books of England and Other Countries: A Study of the Conception of Literary Obscenity, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1962, p. 133.
  22. NAA: C4480, 23 .
  23. Heath, p. 72.
  24. Letter of appointment to Sir Robert Garran, Chairman, from Sir Thomas White, Minister for Trade and Customs, 14 August 1933, LH Allen Papers, NLA: MS2113.
  25. Letter from E Abbott, Comptroller-General of Customs to R Garran, Chair of the LCB, 15 August 1935, Decisions, with comments, on literature forwarded by the Customs Department to the Commonwealth Book Censorship Board, NAA: A3023, Folder 1935/36.
  26. War censorship, however, took some significant responsibility for vetting titles away from the Literature Censorship Board, and complicates the picture suggested by the Board’s records and Allen’s explanation.
  27. Kenneth Binns, report to Literature Censorship Board, 28 March 1953, NAA: A3023, 1953.
  28. LH Allen, report to Literature Censorship Board, 17 March 1953, NAA: A3023, 1953.
  29. Reports on Orwell titles, NAA: A3023, 1954.
  30. FM Todd, report to Literature Censorship Board, 31 March, 1954, NAA: A3023, 1954.
  31. This is contra Deana Heath, who identifies JM Harcourt’s Upsurge as the first Australian novel to be banned (Heath, p. 71). Customs files of interest relating to the banning of Redheap include a legal opinion from Sir Robert Garran as Solicitor-General, prior to his role as chair of the Book Censorship Board. He notes that the indecency in the book ‘brings it within the terms of Section 52C’ [of the Trade and Customs Act relating to obscene publications] but also that, if Redheap is to be judged obscene, other works currently circulating should also be prohibited’. (R Garran to Comptroller-General of Customs, Canberra, 5 May 1930, National Literature Board of Review, Professor ER Bryan personal folder. NAA: C4480, 23.) See also Nile, p. 253, for a discussion of this opinion.
  32. ‘‘Redheap’: banned in Australia’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 1930, p. 10.
  33. ‘Banning of ‘Redheap’, Commonwealth Powers to Prevent Reprinting’, Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1930, p. 10; ‘Norman Lindsay and this Censorship’, The Bulletin, 28 May 1930, 51(2624) p. 9; Cecil Mann, ‘Australia remains a joke’, Bulletin, Red Page, 25 June 1930, 51(2628) p. 2.
  34. Robert Garran, ‘When books are banned: principles that guide the censors’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 June 1934. Clipping in LH Allen papers, NLA: MS2113.
  35. The debate was sponsored by the Star, a small pamphlet newspaper, which reported the debate and reprinted the speeches, and a copy of that edition is held in LH Allen’s papers, NLA: MS2113. See Heath for a discussion of that debate, also based on the Star’s report (p. 78).
  36. NAA: A3023, 1944, Folder 194/1944.
  37. ‘Best-selling American novel banned’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1945, NAA: A3023, 1944, Folder 1941/1944.
  38. NAA: A3023, 1933–1934, Folder 1933/34.
  39. NAA: A3023, 1933–1934; Nicole Moore, ‘Treasonous sex: birth control obscenity and White Australia’, forthcoming, Australian Feminist Studies, 2005.
  40. Coleman, Peter, Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition, 1962, pp. 146–151.
  41. Robert Close Papers, Rare Books, Fisher Library, University of Sydney: Robert Close Papers, NLA: MS 7254; Nicole Moore,‘Obscene and over here: national sex and the Love Me Sailor obscenity trial’, Australian Literary Studies, vol. 20, no. 4, 2002, pp. 316–29.
  42. Australian Censorship Board: Prohibited Publications Letty Fox: Her Luck and A Little Tea, A Little Chat, NAA: A425, 1949/1976; Nicole Moore, ‘The absolutely incredible obscenity of Letty Fox’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, vol. 2, 2003, pp. 67–79.
  43. NAA: A3023, 1947, Folder 1945/1947.
  44. Mrs RA Ellis furnishes some reports from 1959, but the unsystematic collection of files means the date of her appointment is difficult to confirm. Hope Hewitt’s papers relating to her time on the Board were left to the National Library of Australia and furnish a very useful account of one Board member’s practice through the 1960s.
  45. Hope Hewitt Papers, NLA: MS 6583, Box 3 ‘Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board 1960–1967’.
  46. NLA: MS 6583, Box 3.
  47. Carolyn Steedman, Dust, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2001, p. 67.

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