Keith's third book, published in 1968, documents the prudery of an early Australia aiming to shed its image as a place of convicts and rough behaviour.

Cover of the  book

From the original dust jacket

Delightfully but ruthlessly, Wowsers destroys the illusion that Australians were always rough, tough, independent and haters of discipline.

The truth is that they revelled in prudery and have a remarkable history of censorship of all kinds, Wherever there has been the slightest excuse for it, there have been wowsers: killjoys, prudes, zealous reformers. Keith Dunstan's fascinating and thoroughly entertaining exposé traces the remarkable influence wowserism has had on the character of cities like Melbourne and Adelaide, and on many aspects of life in other capital cities.

In these pages, Keith relates astonishing examples of wowserism in all its forms: drink, barmaids, smoking, dancing, the theatre, prostitution, gambling (from two-up to lotteries) and, of course, there is special mention of Australia's unique attitude to literary censorship.


Much of the research for this book was done by Philip Garrett. He will never receive sufficient credit for the number of books which he researches, guides and brings into being through his remarkable knowledge of Australian history. This one was no exception and every chapter was improved by his ability to produce off-beat information for which there are no guides, no indexes. He knew the sources through his great experience.

I also wish to thank the staff of the La Trobe Library, Melbourne (now State Library of Victoria), who gave an inept amateur so much help, far beyond the call of duty. Roy Weston also made available his time and the files of the library of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd. Many others gave their advice and assistance, including Geoffrey Blainey, Peter Coleman and Cyril Pearl. Dr F. B. Smith made available his thesis 'The Sunday Observance Controversy', Mr Anthony A. Rendell gave permission to use his thesis 'The Punter in Paradise' and Mrs Christine Chinner her thesis Earthly Paradise--A Social History of Adelaide in the Early 18gos'. Messrs Wilke and Company gave permission to quote several extracts from George Meudell's The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift.

I am indebted also to Mr E. Cole Turnley for pictures from Cole's Funny Picture Book No. I, and other works by his remarkable grandfather. The Bulletin, Sydney, for more than 80 years our most potent anti-wowser organization, gave permission to use the majority of illustrations in this book.


Melbourne in the nineteen-forties was a curious, inhibited city. For a land that loved freedom, so much was done to interfere with personal freedom. I could not understand why hotels were closed at 6 o'clock at the very moment when men had time to enjoy them; why bottles should be snatched off dining room tables half way through dinner; why one should have to go to a dinner dance with the bottle hidden under one's overcoat; or why, in a wine producing country, gg out of 100 restaurants and cafés should be forbidden to sell wine. And in this open-hearted country, why was it that Collins Street on a Sunday was bereft of things and people, deserted like an after hours film set?

Obviously there was a streak of prudery in the makeup of the Australian, particularly the Australians of the South. The more I investigated, the more I read, the more I came to the idea that the old-style wowser with his eternal campaigning had given our cities their special character and atmosphere, an atmosphere that still lingers. Melbourne loves to think Collins Street is Parisian with its footpath cafés, but those cafés do not sell anything stronger than milk.

Our family back through the seventies, eighties and nineties, was Non-Conformist and all members good wowsers. There is a story that has been handed down.

On Sunday there was no jollity, no reading of anything but the Holy Book, no garden digging, no sweeping, and, of course a picnic in the country was out of the question. The family always had its regular pew in Church. One morning during the sermon a messenger came up the aisle, stopped at our pew, and there was a discreetwhisper. One head leaned over to the next head, whispered, and so the message was passed along. Then the heads tilted the other way and the whispered reply returned.

At the end of the service the reverend gentleman was most con- cerned. What was the message, and the reply, that required such urgency? Was there a serious illmess? Was there a ...?
No, this was the message. Where had Nellie put the peas for the Sunday lunch? You see, it was a sin to go so far as to shell peas on a Sunday.

Perhaps this was the story that moved me to write the story of wowserism in Australia. Actually the story is mostly about Victoria, because Melbourne of all cities has always had a special gift for wowserism. Yet there are major forays into other States, particularly South Australia, another State with a gift. But, alas, it has been impossible to cover wowserism everywhere and from all angles. The country was very richly endowed, and to do the job completely one would require a work the size of the Australian Encylopaedia. It seemed better to cover fully various incidents, in the hope that they would give the feeling of a time and place.

It is not meant to be an attack on wowsers, nor an attempt to ridicule them. There was a time, particularly in the last century, when wowsers were needed as a balance against the desperate appetites of the young colonies.

However, if there is any malice, it comes out when the wowsers turned political, for in trying to mould everyone in their own image, often they created evils greater than those they were trying to cure.

Keith Dunstan, Melbourne, 1968