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William James Chidley (c. 1860–1916)

by David Roth

Sally McInerney, in her 1979 biography of the sex reformer and proselytiser William Chidley (1860?-1916) in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, suggests that his lasting reputation must rest on his autobiography, The Confessions of William James Chidley, which was not published until 1977. I would argue that Chidley’s fame rests not only on his important place in the history of sexuality in Australia, but as much on his posthumous defeat of attempts to use alleged mental illness as a means to protect the community from ideas which governments considered harmful when the existing laws had little purchase. His repeated confinements in mental asylums and gaols between 1912 and 1916, and his radical ideas about sexual relations between men and women, are well described by McInerney. 

In the battle between widespread support for Chidley’s liberty and the willing ‘political’ interventions of asylum authorities, doctors were quite prepared to use unethical and aggressive tactics, including repeated attempts to discredit Chidley by claiming that he had venereal disease at this time when considerable stigma was attached to those infected. These attempts have been revealed in my recent article “In Defence of William Chidley” in History Australia. I argue that after Chidley’s sudden death at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane in December 1916, the level of public outrage at his treatment ensured that no further attempts were made to confine ‘politically inconvenient’ persons to asylums in Australia. 

After a police campaign in Sydney during 1912 failed to suppress Chidley’s proselytising on sexual matters, he was certified insane for the first time in August. It soon became apparent that Chisholm Ross, the certifying doctor, had committed Chidley to Callan Park on the basis of his book, The Answer, without any sort of personal examination as required by law. The case notes, which are extraordinarily detailed, indicate that Chidley's physical and mental examinations at his August admission were hostile and tendentious. A determined attempt was made to find him ‘guilty’ of venereal disease. 

By 1912, all patients at Callan Park were supposedly tested for syphilis using the Wassermann test. It is implausible that this test was not performed for a public figure who the authorities wished to discredit. But the entry for the result is blank, suggesting that it was negative. An extraordinary series of neurological tests, not performed on other patients, were made, apparently in the hope that they would reveal signs of neurosyphilis. The wartime scarcities of asylum staff and resources suggest that these time-consuming tests had a high priority. Apart from discrediting Chidley’s proselytising on sexual matters, a diagnosis of syphilis would have provided plausible cover for his continued detention. Around that time, perhaps a quarter of NSW asylum patients had been afflicted with the mentally and physically crippling condition General Paralysis of the Insane, a common form of neurosyphilis. 

Chidley’s physical examination in 1912 showed that he had significant cardiac abnormalities indicative of imminent heart failure. Until the late-twentieth century, these heart conditions were thought to be irreversible and progressive. Indeed, at admission to Callan Park in 1916, Chidley’s heart was found to be ‘in a bad condition’. At post-mortem his heart was ‘enlarged, flabby, and apparently degenerated’. Henry Palmer, a government Medical Officer, assisted at the autopsy. While the doctors in charge of the post-mortem found that Chidley died of heart disease, Palmer told the coroner that he had little doubt that the diseased blood vessels were due to syphilis. He testified that he had sent Chidley’s organs away for analysis ‘because there were a lot of cranks mixed up with Chidley’. 

While it is true that untreated syphilis can cause life-shortening damage to the heart and other organs, there are many other plausible causes for cardiovascular disease. Heavy drinking is a well-known cause. As stated in the Confessions, Chidley had many lengthy episodes of alcoholism. Despite determined efforts by Callan Park doctors, it is evident that he did not test positive for syphilis in 1912. It is unlikely that Chidley had venereal disease in 1916. It is possible that he may have acquired syphilis or even later-stage neurosyphilis by the time of his death in 1916. But as erectile dysfunction is frequently associated with heart disease, he may not have been capable of, or have desired, sexual intercourse, despite his own eccentric doctrine that absence of an erection was a prerequisite for respectful coitus. Secondly, any hint of a (physical) sexual scandal after 1912, such as visiting sex workers, involving this closely observed and conspicuous public figure, would have been pounced upon by the conservative press and the authorities. Finally, the doctors in charge of the autopsy, Cyril Corlette and Sydney Jones, made no observations about syphilis. They would have been familiar with the signs of venereal disease or neurosyphilis at post-mortem, as syphilis was a common disease at the time, possibly affecting more than twelve per cent of the Australian population. As an apparent ‘insider’, it is possible that Palmer may well have been aware that Chidley’s previous tests for syphilis had been negative. In this context, the hostile tone of Palmer’s claims about Chidley’s supporters suggests that his diagnosis of syphilis was more of a political statement than a medical judgement. 

Widespread hostility to asylum policies in NSW during the Chidley affair increased after his death. In the following years, a number of lunacy reform leagues were established which persistently called on the authorities to establish a public inquiry. After a series of scandals in the early 1920s, a Royal Commission into Lunacy Administration was finally called in January 1923. 

Select Bibliography

  • Bongiorno, Frank, The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc, 2012).
  • Finnane, Mark. “The Popular Defence of Chidley.” Labour History, no. 41 (1981): 57-73.
  • Garton, Stephen, “The ‘Tyranny’ of Doctors: The Citizen’s Liberty League in New South Wales, 1920–39.” Australian Historical Studies 24, no. 97 (1991): 340–58.
  • McInerney, Sally, ed., The Confessions of William James Chidley (St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1977).
  • Roth, David T., “In Defence of William Chidley”, History Australia 19, no. 3 (2022): 450-467

This person appears as a part of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7. [View Article]

Additional Resources

  • inquest, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 December 1916, p 8

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Roth, 'Chidley, William James (c. 1860–1916)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/chidley-william-james-5579/text40500, accessed 21 April 2024.

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