First published

Wowser is a beautiful word. For sheer coarseness and devastating power in attack we have 'bludger', for a neat exercise in deflation or the destruction of pomposity, we have the line, 'don't come the raw prawn'; but surely the richest, most gloriously expressive of all Australian words is 'Wowser'.

Even to the stranger who has never heard the word before, somehow it tells a story almost depicting - well - a wowser. Australia still has squadrons, battalions and divisions of wowsers, they promenade in our newspapers every day, and we still need the word very much indeed, but it had its heyday during the agonies of puritanism before and during the First World War. The wowser was depicted in hundreds of cartoons, usually as a man with a beard, small fat hat and possibly a gimlet. The gimlet, of course, was for boring holes and spying on the dreadful deeds of others. The Bulletin of 1912 described him thus: 1

A long thin beast, in a long, black skin,
Armed with a gimlet and wearing a grin;
He has a very fat hat and a very fat brolly;
Supposed to hate everything pretty or jolly.
Yes, the umbrella was the symbol of the Wowser. This probably derived from Mr James Mirams, the land booming Melbourne politician and one of the leading wowsers of the eighteen-eighties and nineties. He was a very small man and it was his trade mark always to carry an umbrella. The Bulletin said of him: 'Oh heavens, the sight! - the little man's small body clad in a Windsor uniform and his short legs encased in breeches and silk stockings. Mirams is a shining light among total abstainers, He is great at the tea and toast parties, To see him in the chair at the meeting of the Grand United Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association is a treat indeed. Patriarchal he looks as (his small legs hidden beneath the table) his voluminous beard and phrenological brow are seen in all their perfection by disciples of the Pump, then and there assembled."2 So Mr Mirams became the model for sketches of wowsers for the next thirty years. Like many of the Melbourne wowsers he helped lead the charge in the Land Boom and subsequently went to gaol for his activities.

All right then, what is a Wowser? H. L. Mencken in The American Language went into raptures over the word and said it meant, "A drab souled Philistine haunted by the mockery of others' happiness. Every Puritan is not necessarily a wowser; to be one he must devote himself zealously to reforming the morals of his neighbors, and, in particular, to throwing obstacles in the way of their enjoyment of what they choose to regard as pleasures.'

The Bulletin in 1911 went into the subject at length: 'A wowser is a professor of false wonderment. He shrieks at vice as though it were unnatural, whereas nothing on earth is really unnatural save Wowserism... no excuse is possible for the person who looks through the keyhole of a locked door as it were, and then tells the members of his congregation that they would faint with horror if he told them what he saw. He's a false purist, an apostle of prudery, a common wowser.'3

There are many theories on the origin of the word. Sidney J. Baker in The Australian Language says the first use of the term that he was able to discover was in John Norton's Truth for the issue of 8 October 1899 in a heading 'Willoughby Wowsers Worried'. He discounts the theory that Norton invented the word from a temperance slogan 'We Only Want Social Evils Remedied'. From 1900 on Norton used the word with gusto - wowserism, wowserities, wowseristic -a nd the verb to wowse was conjugated from top to bottom, to wowse, to have been wowsing, to be about to wowse.

In 1910 after the defeat of the Liberals in the Federal elections, Cardinal Moran in Sydney used 'wowser' three times to castigate the enemies of the Roman Catholic Church. The Daily Telegraph was fascinated. It went all round the city asking distinguished people what it meant. Mr Holman, deputy leader of the State Labor Party said: 'A wowser means a man who, being entirely destitute of the greater virtues, makes up, for their lack by a continuous denuncialitie of little vices. The word carries with it the implication of certain) shortcomings in manly fibre.'

Mr Holman gave the only really intelligent reply. Several said they did not like the term and, frankly, never used it. Indeed they would demean themselves if they ever uttered it.

So the Telegraph concluded: It will be interesting to learn some of the theories as to the derivation of the term. One is that it arose from the Round Heads raising their hands and crying "Woe Sip) when they saw a Loyalist kissing a pretty maid or draining a tankard of ale. Another theory, however, ascribes the origin to a Loyalist crying out "Whoa, Sir!" when he observed a Puritan drinking off a jug of beer which he had placed aside for future use - the "whoa" in this case meaning desist.'

There was no mention in the article of John Norton and, naturally, Norton was outraged. Cyril Pearl quoted his reply in Wild Men of Sydney.

"Everyone knows right well what the word wowser really means and what a wowser is. Even among sectarian savages and smellful saints of the dirty dickeys, soiled shirts, stale singlets and stinking socks, the real meaning of the word Wowser is as well known as the meaning of such words and phrases as larrikin and hooligan, bludger and wop...

I invented the word myself. I was the first man publicly to use the word. I first gave it utterance in the City Council when I applied it to Alderman Waterhouse whom I referred to ... as the white, woolly, weary, watery, word-wasting wowser from Waverley.

I am proud of my invention. The fabrication of such a word - absolutely absent from, but absolutely required in our local vernacular until I invented it - was a stroke of genius, done on the spur of the moment, impromptu, the result of divine or diabolical inspiration. Therefore 'Palman Qui Meruit Ferat' - the motto of Lord Nelson, let it be the motto of John Norton ... for the purpose of establishing his claim to immortal glory as the inventor of the word Wowser.

To my humble self - to me, John Norton, alone belongs the sole undivided glory and renown of inventing a word, a single simple word, that does at once describe, deride, and denounce that numerous, noxious, pestilent, puritanical, killjoy - the whole blasphemous, wire-whiskered brood."4

But then, does he deserve the sole undivided glory and renown. Mencken suggests the possibility of English origins and they are worth investigating. Take the volume The Dialect of Craven in the West Riding of York by a native Craven, 1828. It has:

WOW: To cry as a cat, to howl.
Or to take it a little further *The English Dialect Dictionary, 1905*, edited by Joseph Wright, Ph.D., refers to 'Wow' as a word in use in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottingham, Lincoln and Cornwall. It means 'to mew as a cat, to howl or bark as a dog, to wail'. It also means, 'To whine, to grumble, to make complaint ..."What did you make such a great wow about it for?"'

Now most of the leading wowsers during the Gold Rush of the 1850s came from these very counties, and Cornwall, in particular.

The 'Wowers' who grumbled and made complaint, surely could have become Wowsers'. This, of course, is speculation and the word does not appear in print before the nineties. Therefore whether John Norton invented it or not, he certainly popularized it, and, as H.L. Mencken wrote, for this he deserves eternal bliss.5

The word received its most constant mention during and immedi ately after the First World War. In the midst of the long debates that gave Australia six o'clock closing for hotels, the Bulletin had the inspired idea of a tax on wowsers. It pointed out that there were taxes on liquor, tobacco, entertainment and gambling but there was 'a conspiracy in the community to allow the Holy Joes to escape their share of the national burden at the expense of the degraded and unpatriotic crowd who permit themselves to be amused.'6 The sinners had this comforting thought: every time they downed a beer, smoked a cigarette, or made a bet with a bookmaker at the races, they were helping the boys who were fighting the war in France, but, alas, the wowsers were missing out on all this.

So the Bulletin suggested a War Precautions Act which 'should provide that every individual in the Commonwealth, man, woman and child, should within 14 days of receiving notice ...acquire a badge to be worn on a conspicuous part of the clothing'. The idea was for various badges to cover various activities, but a black badge at a price of 5 pounds would 'entitle any person to exemption from arrest for attending tea meetings, bazaars, tennis parties, musical evenings, presentations to the clergy, picnics, listening to the neighbour's gramophone, going to funerals, purchasing lemonade or playing chess'.

One journal reported that there was an organization called 'The Liberty League', and its one purpose was to combat wowserism. The Hawklet in July 1918 reported that it had a membership of 20,000 and this was all to the credit of Captain G. A. Burkett and his group of energetic workers. At a meeting in Fitzroy, Melbourne, the Captain said the league was not just for returned soldiers, but for women as well as men. The Hawklet commented: 'There can be no doubt that wowserism with all the gloom that term implies, has taken advantage of war conditions to try to spread itself like a blight over the land. If the wowsers had their way our only recreation would be singing psalms . . . the theatres would be closed, the races would be squelched, the hotels would entirely be closed and food would be cut to one lentil and half a milk biscuit per diem.'7

Then just at this time there appeared:8

The Killjoys prayer

'Oh Lord' he cries on bended knees.
With a sniffle whine and wheeze;
'Ne'er to theatre or musical hall
Or social dance or friv'lous ball
Have I been (except incog)
Nor have I ever tasted grog
(Except perchance, upon the sly
When away from sinful eye.)
To me the racecourse is taboo
And boxing pastimes I eschew,
While picture shows are things of evil-
Yes, lurking places for the very devil;
While, verily, a thing of hell
Is the convivial hotel
Where I do hear the clinking glass
'Mid joy and laughter while I pass
Upon my sober, prayerful way.
Thanking God I'm not as they.

And so my prayer shall ever be-
Until the Great Eternity-
"Thank Thee, Lord, that I alone
Am worthy of thy Great White Throne!"'
But let me, ere I journey hence,
Gather in the goodly pence,
And so increase my worldly hoard,
For thy praise and Glory Lord.'

Over the years the word has lost none of its power or punch. In 1966 when the Right Reverend Ian Shevill, Bishop of North Queensland, published his book, Half Time, he wrote that the Church of England's image in Australia was that of a wowserish, puritanical critic. He found it a handy term just as Cardinal Moran did, 56 years earlier.

In the wisdom of John Norton, if there were not such a word available it would have to be invented.

There has been much speculation over the years as to why wowserism ever came to Australia. This was supposed to be the young, brash, devil-may-care country. The Australian liked to give himself the image of the Digger of the 1914-18 war, a long, lean, tough, brave fellow; a man who perhaps drank a little more than he should, gambled a little more than he should, swore more than he should, perhaps a little free in his amorous habits, a loather of discipline in all its forms; in short a restless man who refused to conform, but because of this was original, inventive, self-reliant and superb in a crisis.

Yet the efforts to make Australians moral by law have been almost as strong as in Puritan England and in the solemn States of the U.S.A., like Massachusetts and Maine. There are two Australian States which have always enjoyed a reputationfor their morally superior to their fellows and these are Victoria and South Australia. Their liquor laws have been harsher, their Sundays have been quieter, their night life less boisterous, and their books, paintings even their undraped statues have been more carefully censored than in other States.

Why this is so has always been the subject of much speculation. Frederick C. Folkard, in The Remarkable Australians, puts forward the theory that Adelaide and Melbourne were not convict towns. Sydney, Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Morton Bay, Hobart, Port Arthur and Norfolk Island had been established for 15 to 50 years. Those who travelled south to Port Phillip did not want a replica of Sydney's raffish, convict based society. But for the hard-drinking types who came in during the gold rush, he feels Victoria could have flooded the whole of Australia with puritanism. 'The moral forces against drink, gambling, prostitution, bawdy entertainment and associated sinning moved in while the village was first being settled. The men and women who led it were natural reactionaries against the manifest vice of Sydney and the prison settlement on Van Dieman's Land.'9

No doubt the lilywhite nature of the Melbourne and Adelaide settlements was a factor but the full eloquent political power of wowserism was not a real force until the seventies, eighties and nineties. In the eighteen-sixties there were still all-night grog shanties in Victoria and Sunday drinking in the City of Churches.

More significant was the extraordinary power of the Non-Conformist Churches in Victoria and South Australia - the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists and the Baptists - but, most important, the Methodists. It is a mistake to suggest that all those who came to Victoria were roughnecks and remittance men: many of them were religious people, particularly the Methodist tin miners from Cornwall.

Dr Geoffrey Serle in The Golden Age wrote of this Methodist power. The Anglican Church was landed, well-financed and self-supporting, but it had great trouble in encouraging ministers in leaving their comfortable livings for the colonies. Few clergy were willing to migrate and there were complaints that the only clergy of intellectual distinction were Dean Macartney and Bishop Perry.

In 1854 there were only two Anglican priests on the diggings, but Methodists had their major forces concentrated on the goldfields. In some places they conducted more services than all the other denominations combined. The Anglicans complained about the lack of clergy but this did not worry the Methodists: laymen went out to form congregations, to start new Sunday schools.

Heritage, Journal of the Methodist Historical Society, records that of 151 Victorian-born Methodist ministers who had died up to I954, 85 or 86 per cent were born in the goldfield towns."10 The percentage of Methodists rose from 8.9 per cent in 1861 to 13.16 per cent in 1871. The Methodist rocket lost its steam after the turn of the century but in 1874 it was the most successful church in Victoria and on all social questions it was more vocal than any other. The Victorian Government Year Book for 1874 tells the story:

Religion Number of Clergy Number of Churches Accomodation Usually attending Number of services a year
Church of England 137 445 65,929 41,180 24,352
Roman Catholic 91 347 87,125 66,726 35,461
Presbyterian 147 600 73,465 62,615 31,815
Wesleyans 148 783 129,824 89,091 79,408

Then the Sunday school situation was particularly revealing
Denomination Number of schools Number of teachers Number of scholars
Church of England 273 2,187 20,711
Roman Catholic 205 1,212 20,711
Presbyterian 314 2,318 25,351
Wesleyans 492 5,065 42,550
The population of Victoria was 798,688

South Australia was even more of a Non-Conformist stronghold than victoria. The founding of South Australia was a social and religious experiment. The dissenters in England had suffered for centuries on the grounds that they were trying to break up the official Church-State alliance. In South Australia, all denominations were to be equal.

Furthermore the voluntary system was to be practised in the building of churches and the support of the people - no State aid. This appealed to the dissenters. Douglas Pike in Paradise of Dissent states that South Australia set a new record for ministers of religion, outstripping Massachusetts in its first 25 years, with the result that one visionary saw in S.A. 'a second Iona shedding the light of learning, piety and civilisation to illumine Asiatic darkness.'11

So South Australia always has had a remarkable proportion of Methodists. In 1871 Church of England had 27.39 per cent, Methodist 19.21 per cent and Roman Catholic 15.44 per cent.

And these figures particularly show the Non-Conformist strength:12

Church 1850 1933
Anglican 2,282 164,500
Presbyterian 597 25,000
Roman Catholic 939 69,300
Methodists 5,372 127,900
Lutheran 2,150 26,000
Congregationalists 1,807 13,800
This is how the Methodists compared with other states.
Year NSW Victoria Queensland SA WA Tasmania
1911 91,000 134,000 99,000 245,000 121,000 130,000
1933 78,000 106,000 93,000 220,000 101,000 117,000

The question of whether all this was relevant could be asked. The Anglicans and the Roman Catholics occasionally raised a word about gambling or the defilement of the Sabbath but not often. The Roman Catholics complained only occasionally about the liquor laws and this often depended on the reigning bishop. On 16 December 1915, Archbishop Mannix in Melbourne put out 'an urgent call' to all Catholic Australians to join the great army of the Total Abstinence Society of the Sacred Heart. Probationary members, those who had gone without drink for two years or less, wore a pin, pendant or brooch with a red cross. Those who had passed these tests and had pledged not to drink alcohol for life, wore the Sacred Heart. The Catholics and the Anglicans complained occasionally, also, about dancing and the theatre, but it was sporadic. The Methodists and the Presbyterians invariably came through loud and clear on all these things.

The Wesleyans were against almost every form of pleasure, and when President Lincoln of the United States was assassinated, the Wesleyan Chronicle nodded its editorial head and pointed out that, after all, 'the melancholy assassination' took place in a theatre. And look who did it? - a professional actor.13

South Australia had a curiously mixed progress towards social freedom. In social experiment sometimes the people of Adelaide were ahead of the rest of Australia. They tried the racecourse totalizator in 1879 (it came to Victoria in 1930); it legislated for cremation in 1891, ahead of the rest of the country; it was the first State to experiment with off-course betting in 1933; and it had Sunday drinking until 1891. At the same time, the S.A. legislature showed a terrible fear of bookmakers, barmaids and lotteries.

The South Australians were ahead of everybody in giving women the vote in 1894, but one wonders what the motives were here. All the Temperance organizations fought for the female vote for they believed this, with certainty, would give them prohibition. Adelaide's Christian Colonist, which campaigned against barmaids, drinking, smoking, dancing, gambling, and even church lotteries, printed this poem in 1884.14


Say, Mister Legislature
You make an awful fuss
An' do a heap of talkin'
Test on account of us;
We've only jest two things ter do
Then rest our happy souls-
The first ter keep the women folks
From votin' at the polls.
We'll let 'em talk jest all they please
On ev'ry public walk-
In politics the humblest vote
Outweighs the biggest talk.

The Colonist pointed out other important social reforms would follow, such as the abolition of the drink traffic and other evils under which society groans.15It was the time of campaigns against the use of the female form in advertising, of Sunday Observance Societies, and in 1880 Adelaide even had a Society for Social Purity. In 1887 Sir Richard Baker pointed out South Australia was known throughout the colonies for being under the thumb of the ministers of religion.16

If actually Adelaide lived up to its reputation for being the City of Churches. In 1895 there were 908 churches in Adelaide alone,.'17 Then in 1891 South Australia had many more churches than hotels. There were in the State 917 Churches and 273 chapels and other places of worship.18 On the other hand, according to the South Australian directors there were only 770 hotels. There was a church in Adelaide for every 270 people.

There was just one lady who revolted in print against the purity of Adelaide. In 1905 there appeared an extraordinary pamphlet which ran to several editions. It was entitled 'Arcadian Adelaide', by Thistle Anderson (Mrs Herbert Fisher), and judging by her photograph Thistle was a remarkably good-looking woman. The dedication read:

"To any kindred spirit whom duty may compel to live in Adelaide and who, living there, suffers as we suffer.
Thistle had a good aggressive style. She wrote:

Outwardly, Adelaide is intensely respectable - that is to say the inhabitants go to church regularly, and think it extremely wrong to play cards for money.         Briefly summing up, the creed of Adelaide so-called Society runs:

'I believe in Lewis Cohen, Mayor of Adelaide, in Sir George Le Hunte, Governor of S.A., from whom much hospitality may be expected. I believe in the social         laws, in much going to Church, in doing to others as they would do unto you if they could, in the charity that will be beneficial to our social position, and       in the Life of Everlasting, Amen

The village is less holy than might be expected, For Melbourne with a population of 494,129 has seven opium dens, while Adelaide with a population of 163,261       has eight. Then, too, it is pretty generally admitted that, in proportion to its size, Adelaide has more prostitution and more young girls on its streets than     any other city in Australasia. any women of the unfortunate class in Adelaide begin their wretched profession at the carly age of thirteen or fourteen. This       is not a treatise on morality, it is not Adelaide's lack of morality I am objecting to, but her lack of sincerity, to my mind a far greater evil.
She called the men dull, the women plain and dowdy, the theatre practically non-existent, the architecture 'a horror' and the furniture vulgar; and there were  some lines that really drove Adelaide to fury: 
The daily excitements of Adelaide are the coming of letters, and the going of the Melbourne express - the fascination of the latter will be readily understood, when it is remembered that it forms the principal link between Adelaide and civilisation."
And this, which was really unforgivable:

Be a little more humble, ye people of Adelaide, try to remember that your hills are not the greenest, or your morals the cleanest, or your shops the brightest     in the whole world - and if you cannot bring yourselves to remember these things, then bear in mind that your wines are the worst ever made, that some of you       are passing plain to look upon, and that you have acquired a world-wide fame for your cruelty to animals - especially horses.
As you can imagine the reaction was severe. Thistle had referred to the female cats of Adelaide and very smartly a counter pamphlet was on the market entitled 'A Scratch from an Adelaide Cat' by Mrs F. Ellis,20 It must be recorded that in her photograph, in beauty and hauteur, Mrs Ellis did not match up to Thistle. 

In the foreword were the words: 'In sorrow and sadness for your evident lack of the qualities requisite to appreciate that which is good' and the dedication read:

'To my slandered brothers and sisters in dear, old Adelaide.'

Said Mrs Ellis:

Adelaide has been spoken of as a beautiful city by people of note and who have travelled much, and who therefore have authority for what they say, and having eyes ourselves and thus being able to see its vast superiority over most other cities, we can and do pity poor Thistle and deplore her lack of appreciation of a city whose equal does not exist in Australia.
    I rather think a question of churches should have no place in writings such as these. I am only going to say that in no part of the Commonwealth do the         Churches do more good nor are they better attended.

    Thistle points out that the girls start prostitution in Adelaide at the age of thirteen and fourteen. Such may be the case, but does not a similar state of     affairs prevail elsewhere. Is Adelaide the only city where such horrible things occur? I am inclined to think not. The only excitement, says Miss Anderson, in     Adelaide is the arrival and departure of the Melbourne express . . . Let Thistle stand on the platform of an incoming train and watch the ecstatic look of joy     and relief on the faces of those who have been on a visit to Melbourne and she will be satisfied that it was through no fault or desire on their part that the     train did not land them once more in Adelaide much sooner than it did. Yes, Thistle you are hugely mistaken when you think by contrasting Melbourne with           Adelaide that Adelaide loses thereby. I myself have been to Melbourne, and nearly every part of the world, and I must say, Adelaide is an ideal place and good     enough for anyone to live in who does not look beyond the sky and who could be satisfied with earthly things.

At last Adelaide could breathe again. Thanks to Mrs Ellis, honour was restored.


  1. *The Bulletin*, 12 December, 1912.
  2. *The Bulletin*, 2 February, 1884.
  3. *The Bulletin*, 20 April, IgrI.
  4. *Truth* (Melbourne), 14 May, 1910.
  5. Mencken, H. L., *The American Language*.
  6. *The Bulletin*, 25 May, 19I6.
  7. The Hawklet*, 18 July, I918.
  8. *The *Onlooker, I July, 1918.
  9. Folkard, Frederick C., *The Remarkable Australians*.
  10. *Heritage*, February 1956.
  11. Pike, Douglas, Paradise of Dissent.
  12. Oldham, Dr W., M.A., Population' chapter, in *Centenary History of South Australia*,
  13. *Wesleyan Chronicle*, 1865, P. 113.
  14. *Christian Colonist*, 4 April, 1884.
  15. *Christian Colonist*, 31 July, 1885.
  16. *S.A. Parliamentary Debates*, 1887, P. 1456.
  17. Chinner, Christine, 'Early 1890s', Honours thesis (Adelaide University).
  18. *S.A. Statistical Register*.
  19. Fisher, Thistle, *Arcadian Adelaide*, 1905 (State Library of Victoria)
  20. Ellis, Mrs F., 'A Scratch from an Adelaide Cat', 1905 (State Library of Victoria).