The Secret History of Australian Censorship

During most of the 20th century Australia was one of the strictest censors in the western world. Most imported publications were closely inspected before being released, and Australia would frequently ban what was considered suitable reading in England, Europe and America.
The censor's library
The Commonwealth Customs Department, which had the authority to prohibit imports under the Customs Act 1901, kept a reference library of around 15,000 books, magazines and comics banned in Australia between the 1920s and the 1970s. Some of the titles are rare editions, and many are no longer in print. This valuable collection, held by the National Archives of Australia, reflects the social attitudes and morals of the period and also provides a fascinating insight into how these have changed.
During most of the 20th century, three pieces of legislation were used by Customs to ban publications coming into Australia: Section 52(c) of the Customs Act 1901 (blasphemous, indecent or obscene works or articles); Item 14A of the Second Schedule of Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations introduced in 1938 (literature unduly emphasising matters of sex or crime, or calculated to encourage depravity); and Item 14 of the Second Schedule of Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations introduced in 1921 (seditious publications).
The Catcher in the Rye
First published in 1951, JD Salinger’s classic novel about adolescent angst had been freely circulating in Australia for some years when a clerk of the Customs Literature Censorship Section seized an imported copy for review. Describing it as ‘extremely readable … and punctuated with humour, pathos and wise commentaries on our society’, the clerk felt the novel contained enough indecent references to be considered a prohibited import. Without referring it to the Literature Censorship Board, the Customs Department added the novel to the list of banned books on 21 August 1956. In September 1957 it was revealed that a copy of the novel donated by the United States Ambassador as an example of his country’s literature had been removed from the Parliamentary Library. Widespread protest in the press declared the ban a national embarrassment and criticised the censorship regime. The Literature Censorship Board reviewed the novel in October and had ‘no hesitation’ in recommending release.

Only months before the ban on ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was lifted, the publisher made an unsuccessful appeal to have their expurgated English edition of the book released.

The scandal of the banning of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ provoked the first major review of Customs censorship administration to ensure all literary works would be forwarded to the Literature Censorship Board from then on.

Naked Lunch
First published in 1959 by Olympia Press, Paris, William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’ (sometimes ‘The Naked Lunch’) provides a fractured account of American homosexual and drug cultures in the 1950s. One of the most provocative and radical novels of the 20th century, it was banned as ‘hard-core pornography’ by Customs after an imported copy was seized at Port Adelaide in February 1960. ‘Naked Lunch’ was sent to the National Literature Board of Review in 1963 and 1967 after applications for its release were made by members of the public. On both occasions the censors unanimously agreed to retain the ban. However, they did not consider it a pornographic work and recommended the novel be made available to literary students and writers.

Photograph of William Burroughs during a visit to London published in ‘The Age’, 9 February 1963.

Chairman ER Bryan described ‘Naked Lunch’ as ‘one of the crudest books we have read in recent years’, 8 July 1967.

Another Country
James Baldwin’s provocative novel ‘Another Country’, which explores inter-racial relationships in the United States in the mid-1950s, quickly became a bestseller after it was published in 1962. In August that year Customs seized an imported copy of the book for examination and, without the advice of the Literature Censorship Board, deemed it a prohibited import six months later. The Literature Censorship Board reported on the novel in May 1963. Although they agreed the author was ‘one of America’s leading writers’, his novel was ‘continually smeared with indecent, offensive and dirty epithets and allusions’. However, the Board believed that Baldwin had ‘a message and a reasoned point of view’ on race relations. It recommended the novel not be banned completely but made available to ‘the serious minded student or reader’. ‘Another Country’ was removed from the prohibited list following intense pressure and a review of banned titles in 1966.

‘Another Country’ presented ‘important and difficult censorship problems’ for the Board, including concern that a ban would be perceived as an expression of Australia’s ‘misunderstood White Australia policy’.

The ban on ‘Another Country’ did not prevent Australians from attempting to read the novel. Gough Whitlam, then Deputy Leader of the opposition Labor Party, had his copy seized by Customs in 1964.

Portnoy’s Complaint
Philip Roth’s bestselling novel ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, which shocked and amused readers with its frank treatment of sexuality, was declared a prohibited import in Australia four months after its publication in 1969. The National Literature Board of Review recommended prohibition as the novel ‘exceeds the standards acceptable in the community today’. In 1970 Penguin Books Australia challenged Customs by publishing 75,000 copies of the book for local distribution. The publisher was found guilty under Victorian legislation but was only fined $100 plus costs. In New South Wales, bookshop owners and the publisher were taken to trial twice, but on both occasions the jury could not agree on a verdict. The charges were dropped in May 1971. ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ was released the following month. With the Australian edition freely available in three states and one territory, Customs Minister Don Chipp thought it ‘absurd’ to maintain the prohibition on the imported edition. The novel was the last work of fiction taken to court in Australia.

The banning of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ was met with widespread protest from the public, booksellers and publishers.

Selected covers of books banned in Australia in the 20th century
‘There is no need to note any particularly objectionable scene or passage for the book is so full of them and the general writing so extremely coarse that one need only consider the general character and tone …’ Kenneth Binns, Chairman of the Commonwealth Literary Censorship Board, on 'Naked Lunch' by William Boroughs, 3 October 1963.

Barry Humphries, ‘The Wonderful World of Barry McKenzie’, Macdonald & Company, London, 1968.

Banned: 1968 to 1971

Loren Wahl, ‘The Invisible Glass [1950]’, Greenberg, New York, 1965.

Banned: 1953 to 1971

Grace Metalious, ‘Peyton Place’, Dell Publications, New York, 1956.

Banned: 1957 to 1971

Mickey Spillane, ‘Vengeance Is Mine [1951]’, Corgi Books, London, 1960.

Banned: c.1950s

Ian Fleming, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, Jonathan Cape, London, 1962.

Banned: c.1960s

Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Lolita’, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1961.

Banned: 1958 to 1965

Vatsyayana, ‘Kama Sutra’, DB Taraporevala Sons & Co. Private Ltd, Bombay, 1961.

Banned: c.1960s

DH Lawrence, ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover [1928]’, The New American Library of World Literature Inc., New York, 1959.

Banned: 1929 to 1965

‘Art of Kissing’, Devendra, Delhi, 1950.

Banned: c.1950s

Cover of ‘Forever Amber’ (English edition), The Modern Publishing Company, London, 1944.

Banned: 1945 to 1958

Ruth Lyons, ‘Hotel Wife’, Macaulay Company, New York, 1933.

Banned: 1935 to 1963

Donald Henderson Clarke, ‘The Housekeeper’s Daughter [1938]’, Avon, New York, 1953.

Banned: 1949 to c.1960s

‘Black Mask Detective’, December 1950.

Banned: c.1950s

Credits: Story

This exhibit is from 'Banned', a larger exhibition developed by the National Archives of Australia in 2012, drawing on the material collected by Commonwealth Customs Department now the held in the Archives. The exhibition is currently on display at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra. For further information please visit

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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