Blasphemous, indecent or obscene

Media release: Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Popular fiction with lurid covers and titles such as Love Me Sailor, Road Floozie and Crimes of Passion were often seized by Customs officers and banned without a second thought.

Mairi Popplewell, from the National Archives in Brisbane, is shedding light on Australia's censorship process in two free public seminars Banned Books on Wednesday 18 and Saturday 21 September.

'Even books that today are loved as literary classics, by writers such as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, DH Lawrence and Honoré de Balzac were also deemed as unsuitable for Australian minds from the 1930s to the 1970s – because they were considered blasphemous, indecent or obscene,' she says.

Robert Close, the author of Love Me Sailor, was even prosecuted on the charge of 'obscene libel' and sent to prison in 1948.  On his release he left Australia vowing never to return. His book was later published in France and became an international bestseller. Love Me Sailor was eventually cleared in 1960, and described by the appeal censor LH Allen as 'a remarkable achievement in the literature of the sea'.

Although a New South Wales court in 1888 had decided matters relating to birth control were not obscene, the Australian censors did not agree. A pamphlet entitled The Why and How of Birth Control was banned in 1937 because it contained 'advertising matter relating to contraceptives, a pill for female irregularities and impotence'.

The Brisbane seminars, in conjunction with the National Archives' Banned blog and display in Canberra, will reveal how much Australian society has changed in the past 60 years.

'Modern readers are sometimes unable to understand why certain books were ever banned,' says Mairi Popplewell.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger was banned by the Minister for Customs in 1957, without being referred to the Literature Censorship Board. It caused national embarrassment when a copy was later found in the Parliamentary Library.

After this embarrassment, the censorship system underwent a big overhaul, with the banned list being reviewed and, for the first time, made public. Before this, even booksellers couldn't view the list and often ordered books that were popular overseas, only to have them seized by customs officers on arrival.

The free seminars at the National Archives, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill, are from 10 to 11.30am on Wednesday 18 and Saturday 21 September. Bookings are welcome on (07) 3249 4226.

The Banned blog can be seen at http://blog.naa.gov.au/banned/2012/12/05/welcome/

Contact information

  • Mairi Popplewell (Assistant director, Brisbane Office)
    t (07) 3249 4205
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017