1940 • Will they burn them?

Only the Communists will remember what happens in hundreds of homes across Australia on this night. [RED, page 128]

raids truth 1940-06-16 p21

Truth, 16 June 1940, p. 21.

The nationwide raid of 15 June 1940 had been planned for some weeks. Rumours were circulating at least the day before, when all police leave was cancelled for the following day, a Saturday. A regulation to enable the raid was not gazetted until 6 pm on the Saturday; the raids started at 8 pm; some homes were raided after midnight. Local police were employed but “the work was done under direct orders from Canberra.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1940, p. 9) About a hundred homes were raided in Sydney alone. (Barrier Miner, 17 June 1940, p. 1)

But the police weren’t there to intern communists; they wanted instead to take away their books:

The detective reads from a typewritten sheet. Then: “We’re not taking you in,” he adds, folding up his document. “We’re here to search the place.” … [Paul] decides to follow the detective, or did he say inspector, to the kitchen, while the third man who does not speak, falling behind, takes his position in the middle of the living room. Stands behind the young policeman, double-checks the checking of the books, spine by spine. Points out Machiavelli. The Prince is taken in. [RED, page 129]

It is a time of many banned books, supervised by the Menzies government, some for political but most for prurient reasons. The books seized from my father’s house were—

Anything to do with war, or (worse) with peace, and anything that has an ism or an ist, or any of the famous names, the names provided on a handy list. Banned books—James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence. The orders are to seize them, too. [RED, page 130]


Some of the books and magazines that were removed from my father’s house that night include Falsehood in Wartime, an entertaining (also alarming) collection of distortions, rumours and propaganda  from the First World War. The book A.R.P. is an account of Air Raid Protection measures in Britain by a well-known scientist. A copy of the magazine Soviets Today (this one has Paul Robeson on the cover) was later burnt by the authorities.

Some of the seized books were plays and novels found in many public libraries at the time, such as stories by Jack London (The Strength of the Strong), Jean Devanny (Sugar Heaven) and Maxim Gorky.

sugarHeaven smaller

Artwork by Adrienne Parkes for a poster promoting Devanny’s novel.

Fascinated, Paul watches while the inspector passes over both their copies of the Origin of the Family (so harmless-sounding, but if he only knew), yet he picks out classics found in every library, novels and biographies, and even travel books. Gorky and Devanny, Sugar Heaven and The Man Who Was Afraid. Two magazines with foreign names—apprehend them! Also a book of grim cartoons, displaying poverty and heartlessness, by the Christian Socialist Arthur Wragg, called Jesus Wept. A revolutionary Christ? The man hesitates. Better to be safe, though. Adds it to the pile. [RED, page 130]

boox litho wept SMALLER

Graphics from Hugo Gellert’s Karl Marx Capital in Lithographs (left) and Jesus Wept by the Christian Socialist Arthur Wragg (right). Both books were seized.

At other homes similar books were taken:

DN 1940-06-18 p2 valuable books

From  Daily News, 18 June 1940, p. 2

Months later, many of these books were returned. Paul’s ASIO file includes two lists of these seized books, magazines and pamphlets, showing that police divided them into separate groups—those they later “returned”, and those they “held”. Books by Marx and others, including the novelists, were all returned. In Paul and Adrienne’s case, what the police “held” were mostly magazines, pamphlets, and “one bundle of international correspondence”:

boox HELD

The first list, of items “held” (never returned), include seven copies of a pacifist magazine War! What For?, 12 copies of Palme Dutt’s Labour Monthly (freely available in Britain), and a Moscow literary journal International Literature which published articles by writers such as France’s Louis Aragon and the American John dos Passos:

collage of mags

These magazines, “held” by the police, were later either auctioned by a Mr Henry Foggan, or they were burnt. Foggan advertised the seized books for auction in the Sydney Morning Herald in November and December 1940. Books too dangerous for the Anvil Bookshop to sell and for Communists to possess, apparently could be sold freely to the general public:

SMH 07-12-1940 p21

Oddly, Henry Foggan’s first advertisement (8 November) announced that he had 30,000 books to sell, but by 23 November the quantity was reduced to 12,000, and the last advertisement on 7 December (shown here) does not give a quantity at all.

A press clipping Madeline Wood kept, headlined “Red Books For Auction”, quotes Henry Foggan: “Hundreds of books confiscated by police have been burnt, but these [the remainder that were not burnt] have been sent in for auction. The property and plant taken over in raids have already been sold by the Federal Government.” (News clipping in Wood family papers, Box 2, ML MSS 2057 / 84)

Rupert Lockwood said with a flourish in 1975 that “the air over Sydney not long after [15 June 1940] was pungent with the odour of burning books and melting printer’s ink.” (Transcript of interview with Rupert Lockwood by Tim Bowden, ABC Radio, “To Lockwood with Love, Part 2. Originally broadcast on Sunday Night Radio Two, 13-07-1975. Security and I” in “Papers of Rupert Lockwood, …”, Bib ID 2075372, National Library of Australia.)

DN 1940-06-17 p2 Freda NTL raid

Sydney’s New Theatre premises were also raided on 15 June. Hundreds of scripts were removed, including plays by Shakespeare. Here the theatre’s publicity officer Freda Lewis sorts through the books that the police left behind.  (Daily News, 17 June 1940, p. 2)

One thought on “1940 • Will they burn them?”

  1. Wonderful work so relevant I had to share it with psychoanalytic colleagues as we go through and try to establish our own archive
    Thank you !


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