Written by Christine Yeats, RAHS President

The twenty-eight year old Thomas Walker, spiritualist, secularist, free-thought lecturer, journalist and politician, encountered the full force of the law when he presented the last of his series of Thursday evening lectures in the Secular Association’s rooms at 20 Oxford Street in Darlinghurst on 9 April 1885. [1] The subject of his lecture was Moral and scientific checks to over-population; or large families and poverty. [2] Walker was an advocate of the views of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, who had been prosecuted in England in 1877 for publishing a book by birth control campaigner Charles Knowlton. [3] To illustrate his lecture Walker used six drawings, which he later testified were taken from diagrams of the male and female anatomy in standard medical works. As he was delivering his lecture—and in a dramatic sequence of events—Sub-Inspector Bremner entered the room and seized the drawings and informed Walker that he would be prosecuted for delivering the lecture. [4]

Given the colourful nature of the charge against Walker, and no doubt fuelled by the reference to the allegedly obscene diagrams, the press coverage of the case was extensive. This is most fortunate as none of the Water Police Court records relating to Walker’s case have survived. The press reports also document his determination to fight the matter. In preparation for the hearing:

Hand drawn sketch of Inspector Bremner, Daily Telegraph, 3 January 1901, p.4.

Inspector Bremner, Daily Telegraph, 3 January 1901, p.4.

He had gone to the booksellers, Messrs. Robertson and Turner, and purchased the medical works from which the diagrams used to illustrate his lectures had been taken; and if he were liable to be prosecuted for exhibiting these diagrams to adults for the purpose of illustrating a lecture, then the booksellers who sold the works containing the same diagrams were also liable. Moreover, if he had rendered himself liable to a criminal prosecution, so likewise had the doctors and professors in the universities and colleges rendered themselves liable for having exhibited the same diagrams and others to the students who attended their lectures.[5]

Thomas Walker was duly charged:

That on the 9th April, 1885, six obscene diagrams or representations were kept on the premises, 20 Oxford street, Sydney, as exhibits, such premises being occupied by the defendant, and a warrant was thereupon issued to enter, search for, and seize all such diagrams or representations, &c.; that James Bremner thereupon entered the said premises and seized the said six diagrams, &c.; that the said defendant was there and then the occupier, &c.; and that the said premises wherein the same were found were open to the public on payment of money, contrary to the Act in such case made and provided. [6]

The Secular Association expressed its indignation at the actions by the police and voted the funds necessary for Walker to defend himself. [7] The case was heard in the Water Police Court at Circular Quay—today the site of the Justice and Police Museum. The hearing began on Tuesday 21 April 1885 but was adjourned until the following Tuesday on the application of Walker, who was defending himself. [8] On 28 April Walker appeared before the magistrate, Mr Whittingdale Johnson, D S M. Walker’s objection that his action was not an offence under the Obscene Publications Prevention Act 1880 (43. Vict. No. 24), which ‘in no way contemplated’ the prohibition of pictures for scientific purposes—and as ladies and children were not admitted it was not a public place—was overruled. Sub-Inspector Bremner gave evidence stating that Walker had commended several books to the audience, which were of an obscene nature and that he had repeated the obscene parts of such books in his lecture. [9]

The hearing continued on Thursday 30 April and Walker called four witnesses in his defence. They included American trained physician Mrs Attwater. She stated that where she studied, women were admitted to all the physiology lectures. Diagrams showing the human organs were exhibited and she had not known of demoralisation to arise from this study. Her evidence was to no avail. At the conclusion of the hearing Magistrate Johnson found that the offence had been fully proved under the Act. He imposed a penalty of £10 and £4 4s in costs, or the alternative of two months imprisonment. Johnson also made an order for the destruction of the diagrams. [10]

Although the appeal was ‘stood over from term to term’ it was eventually heard by the Full Court—before Chief Justice Martin, Justice Faucett and Justice Innes—on 13 November 1885. Mr. F. Rogers appeared for the Crown, and Walker again conducted his own case. [11] The Court reserved its judgement until the following day. The Evening News, which had followed the case over the past months, reported the judgement:

The offence was considered obscenity. The drawings were obscene, and so were the lectures they illustrated, but the information was so badly drawn that it did not disclose any offence under the statute, and therefore the conviction must be quashed. This course, however, the Court took with great reluctance … The main point on which the judgment proceeded was the confusion in the use of the words ‘then and there’. It was doubtless intended that these words should apply to the exhibition of the pictures at Walker’s lecture, which was delivered ‘for gain’ but by mistake the words have been applied to the place where the seizure took place, which happened to be a private room not open to the public, and not occupied by Walker. Order of the justice reversed; no order as to costs. [12]

After an extensive search it appears that the only official records in the NSW State Archives relating to Walker’s appeal to the Supreme Court are the Prothonotary’s Notebooks and the notebooks of Chief Justice Martin, Justice Faucett and Justice Innes. These provide only minimal information. As previously noted, there are numerous newspaper reports, in particular the Evening News, on the Water Police Court hearing and Walker’s Supreme Court appeal. The good news is that there is a full report of the appeal in the NSW Cases at Law on the AUSTLII (The Australasian Legal Information Institute) website. [13] It records the decision of the Full Court as well as the reasons of the three judges. These reflect much about the attitudes of the day regarding morality, decency, womanly propriety and what constituted obscenity, offering researchers ample material for further investigation. [14]


[1] F. B. Smith, ‘Walker, Thomas (1858–1932)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walker-thomas-4789/text7975>, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 31 December 2018.
[2] Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 1885, p.1.
[3] The Queen versus Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, Queens Bench Division, June 18th 1877, <https://archive.org/stream/queenvcharlesbra00brad/queenvcharlesbra00brad_djvu.txt>, accessed online 31 December 2018.
[4] Daily Telegraph, 17 April 1885, p.4.
[5] Evening News, 20 April 1885, p.3.
[6] NSW Cases at Law, Bremner v. Walker, 13 and 14 November 1885, p. 276 <http://www8.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/nsw/NSWLawRp/1885/56.html>, accessed online 31 December 2018.
[7] Daily Telegraph, 17 April 1885, p.4.
[8] Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 23 April 1885, p.2.
[9] Evening News, 29 April 1885, p.6.
[10] Evening News, 1 May 1885, p.6.
[11] Evening News, 14 November 1885, p.5.
[12] Evening News, 16 November 1885, p.6.
[13] AUSTLII is a joint facility of UNSW and UTS Faculties of Law, provides free access to over 770 full text Databases from all Australasian jurisdictions.
[14] NSW Cases at Law, Bremner v. Walker, 13 and 14 November 1885.

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