The book that changed Australia

Today we take for granted our ability to read any book we choose, but it wasn't long ago that Australia had some of the most severe censorship regulations in the Western world. Allens played a pivotal role in changing this and bringing an end to literary censorship in Australia.


Until the 1970s the Australian Government used the Trade and Customs Act 1901 to prohibit the importation of literary works deemed obscene, indecent or seditious. Between the 1920s and 1970s, more than 15,000 books were banned from publication in Australia, including J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Ulysses by James Joyce. Even Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me was considered inappropriate. Australians had been growing uneasy with the government’s paternalism, but it was the publication of Philip Roth’s best-selling novel Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 that proved the tipping point for fundamental change to censorship in Australia.

Portnoy’s Complaint is the salacious story of a young lawyer and his confessions to a psychiatrist. Despite its scandalous content – or perhaps because of it – the book was an instant best-seller, moving 200,000 copies in the United States in its first two months of publication. The Australian Government, however, considered the novel too explicit for Australian readers and prohibited its importation.

Penguin Books Australia had been lobbying for many years to ease Australia’s restrictive censorship laws. Determined to take a stand and let Australian readers make up their own minds, in conjunction with Angus & Robertson they secretly printed and distributed 75,000 copies of the book. It was an immediate success, with readers queuing outside bookstores when it went on sale on 31 August 1970. The Angus & Robertson store in Sydney sold 600 copies in the first day.

It wasn’t long before the authorities discovered what was happening and police seized the prohibited books. While the Crown solicitor could have prosecuted any number of bookstores participating in the illegal sales, it was agreed to undertake a test case against Angus & Robertson. Allen Allen & Hemsley led the defence for Angus & Robertson, their longstanding client, bringing in an impressive group of witnesses, including celebrated author Patrick White, who was called to testify to the literary merit of the book in two separate trials in New South Wales. William Deane QC (later Sir William Deane of the High Court and governor-general of Australia) acted as senior counsel. A devout Irish Catholic, he personally found the book distasteful, but was determined to let the law speak for itself, commenting in his closing remarks, ‘Not everyone enjoys Shakespeare’.

​​​​​​​Neither jury in New South Wales was able to reach a verdict. Many considered the book obscene, yet its literary merit could not be ignored. A series of similar legal trials in different states drew further attention to Australia’s draconian censorship laws and ultimately created a powerful momentum for change. In 1971 the Australian Government was left with little choice but to remove Portnoy’s Complaint from the list of banned books representing a marked liberalisation in Australia's attitude to censorship.

Image credit: News Ltd / Newspix


A glimpse into our history

A global platform: Joining forces with Linklaters

Ten years ago, on 1 May 2012, Allens and Linklaters formed a global alliance to enhance and expand our offering to our people and clients. Since then, more than 200 people have enjoyed global career opportunities through the alliance and we have worked together on thousands of matters spanning the world. Here is where it all began...

The launch of World Series Cricket

The summer holidays mean one thing for many Australians: cricket. Heading to a day-night match and watching the brightly coloured teams smacking the ball into the crowd is what we've come to expect. But, it wasn't always like this and Allens played a big part in transforming the game of cricket into what it is today.

George Allen's escritoire

We've welcomed the office of the past into the present with the arrival of a desk originally owned by our founder, George Allen. The desk, officially known as an escritoire, was a gift to the firm from the Allen family and has been lovingly restored to bring it back to its former glory.

Upholding the right to vote

In 2006, the Howard Government introduced significant changes to Australia's voting laws through the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2006 (Cth). Among the changes contained in the legislation was the denial of voting rights to all people in prison.

The book that changed Australia

Today we take for granted our ability to read any book we choose, but it wasn't long ago that Australia had some of the most severe censorship regulations in the Western world. Allens played a pivotal role in changing this and bringing an end to literary censorship in Australia.

Hard to find – but worth the hunt

One of the frustrations of historical research is knowing something exists but being unable to locate it. That was the case with letters from Allen Allen & Hemsley to client Angus & Robertson. The letters related to the copyright of several works by Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Paterson, including The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses.

Lawyers draft wills better than authors

When legal practices were first established in Australia, a significant portion of their work involved the management of complex wills and estates. However, over time, the founding firms of Allens shifted their focus from managing family estates and trusts to become predominantly commercial practices. This is the story of the firm's involvement in celebrated author Nevil Shute's will.

Hidden treasures

Research for the Allens history book has turned up a variety of interesting items, among them a hand-drawn map of Brisbane from 1849 and a mallet used by founder George Allen in 1859 to lay the foundation stone for a new chapel in Newtown, Sydney.

First true civil libel case in Australia

In 1817, 16-year-old George Allen was just a few months into his legal training when he found himself amidst one of the most interesting legal cases in the colony of New South Wales. George had just entered his articles of clerkship with Frederick Garling when Garling was appointed to represent defendant John Thomas Campbell in the first true civil libel case in Australia.

Helping Bush Heritage preserve precious land

Since 1995, Allens has committed thousands of hours of expertise to helping Bush Heritage with its vision of healthy Country, protected forever. This includes 14ha of land in the Liffey Valley of Tasmania, which former Australian Senator Bob Brown gifted to the organisation in 2011 with support from Allens.

Seeking justice for the Stolen Generation

Right from the start, almost 200 years ago, Allens has shown support for Australia's Indigenous communities and, in 1996, we helped pave the way towards the National Apology through our involvement in the first Stolen Generation legal trials.

Supporting critical Australian infrastructure

17 October 1949 marked the official start of what is still considered one of the largest and most ambitious engineering projects ever undertaken in Australia – the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

It all started in 1822

Allens was founded on 22 July 1822, the day 21-year-old George Allen was admitted as an attorney and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and became the first person to complete their full legal training in Australia. When he began his small legal practice in a cottage on Elizabeth Street in Sydney, he could not have foreseen the story that would follow.