Alcoholics Anonymous History In Your Area
The History of the Establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous in Australia*
The following 1978 account of the establishment of AA in Australia is a fascinating “potted” history of the earliest attempts to establish AA in Australia. Its great strength is that it provides the reader with the “feel” of the infancy of AA in Sydney; from whence the earliest attempts were made to establish AA. Printed in “The Reviver,” the New South Wales organ of AA, it does have its deficiencies. Chief among these is the portion which deals with the arrival of the well-known actress and AA member, Lillian Roth and her husband Burt McGuire, also an AA member.* (Amongst Roth’s credits is the 1930 Marx Brother’s classic “Animal Crackers.” Lillian played Arrabella)
“The Reviver” account could be construed as implying that Lillian and Burt responded to appeals from alcoholics in Sydney to GSO, New York, to send someone to Australia to help them get the struggling fellowship on an even keel. Further, it could be interpreted that Lillian and Burt have Sydney based during their time in Australia and that their visits to other Australian cities were incidental and from a Sydney base. However, this was not the case.
In her autobiography, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Lillian recounts that in 1947 she was working at Melbourne’s Tivoli Theatre. Following a radio broadcast, during which Lillian declared her AA membership, she received numerous requests for assistance from alcoholics and their families. Fortunately the Tivoli management granted her leave to attend to AA matters. Initially this was in Melbourne and the Melbourne Group of AA was established at this time. Lillian then spent three days in Adelaide on AA duties before returning to Melbourne and thence to “… our final stop, Sydney.” Meanwhile the Fitzroy AA group, established in 1946 by the Brotherhood of St. Lawrence and assisted by a non-alcoholic Sydneysider, Archie McKinnon and several Sydney AA’s, was continuing its work in Melbourne’s inner slum areas. Sydney, the home of the first AA group, was on the verge of self destructing when the McGuire’s arrived there. Oddly the first Australian documented to have sobered up through AA, Jim Scott, had no recorded involvement with AA in Australia at any stage, despite returning to Australia prior to AA’s beginnings here at which time he was about ten years sober. His account “The News Hawk” is contained in the first three editions of Big Book and additional information on him and his involvement in writing the Big Book is here.
Despite these ambiguities it is interesting to note that as “The Reviver” account is 24 years old in the year 2002 and the tenor of the article seems to suggest that some of the original Sydney members were instrumental in its authorship. It’s forthrightness is refreshing though the Australian propensity of the era for seeking approval by Americans results a now redundant sycophantic tenor which is evident throughout. The article is recounted on this page in its entirety with a few minor formatting enhancements. The hypertext link covering the text The result? A dismal failure in the article leads to a short article called “Rev. Father Dunlea and AA” which is on the Sutherland Shire Historical Society website. I have added several images of some of the people mentioned in the article as well as a couple of movie posters that may be of some interest. They are located beneath the article. If any reader can provide images of others mentioned in the article and is prepared to have them included on the site please email firstname.lastname@example.org
How AA came to Australia
The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in America in 1935. Based on spiritual experience it has survived many trials and tribulations. Its growth, glory and continuing progress is manifested in the sobriety it has brought in all parts of the world.
This is the story of how A.A. came to Australia. The year was 1942. the place Sydney. The late Dr Sylvester Minogue, for so many years an honored member of our fellowship, sat browsing through the pages of the American Journal of Psychiatry. His attention was captured by an article about the workings of A.A. in America. And that was the moment in Australian history that was to revolutionize the lives of thousands of men and women fallen victim to the disease of alcoholism, and ultimately to bring them from the darkness into the sunshine of happy sobriety.
For the article he had read in the American Journal of Psychiatry so impressed Dr. Minogue, that he wrote to Bobbie B., then secretary of New York’s A.A. headquarters, seeking all the information about A.A. that he could get. That was the start of a correspondence that continued for two years, a correspondence in which Bobbie showed never-failing sympathy, tolerance, and understanding.
It would be nice to record that from the earliest interchange of letters AA was off to a flying start in Australia. But that did not happen. Far from it. Why?
Because we wanted to do things our way, the Australian way, we thought that what was good for others in far off America was not necessarily good for us. Those pioneers in the early days went to extreme lengths to conceal the fact that they had any association with AA, or indeed that alcohol was in any way their problem. As an early AA member has. since put it: “We were known as the town drunks but we did not know it.” And so no AA progress was made in Australia for many months. No groups were formed.
Then came 1944-and the birth of Australia’s first AA meeting. Oddly enough, it was a non-alcoholic, Father R.J. Murphy, S.J., who played the principal organizing part.
He invited Dr Minogue and the late Father Tom Dunlea, founder of Boys’ Town. to join him in helping to bring a better way of life to the suffering alcoholic. Preaching. , . concerts . . . gifts of money and clothing. These were the ways in which the three tried to get through to the unfortunates who huddled together in the camps where food was scarce but alcohol was plentiful.
The result? A dismal failure. The drunks stayed drunk. But all was not lost. In 1945 Father Murphy introduced Dr. Minogue to Archie McKinnon, a non-alcoholic and an attendant at the Reception House, Darlinghurst, to which the alcoholic sufferer was often committed.
Archie, desperately anxious to help the alcoholic patients in his care, helped establish a small AA group, which met weekly at Dr. Minogue’s residence at Rydalmere, where Dr. Minogue was at the time medical superintendent at the Medical Hospital.
A voluntary patient at the hospital remained sober for four months with the help of “the Big Book” (“Alcoholics Anonymous”) sent to Archie as a gift from America. This patient gave his fellow group members the hope that AA would work. Among them was Rex, the first member and secretary, who has remained sober for many years.
It is impossible to record the names of all the early members of AA, as records are scarce and memories dim. However, some names come readily to mind-for example, Russ, Fred, Jack, Clive, Ossie, Bert and Betty, the first woman member. These people and others did much to advance the fellowship in this country.
It was not all sweetness and light at those early meetings. The first recruits-and there were quite a few-looked upon AA as a source of revenue to buy more alcohol, free clothing, and free amusements.Most of those at the meetings were drunk and argumentative. There was a measure of peace only when Rex played the Norwegian Cradle Song on the piano and Norm gave a violin rendering of the overture from Cavalleria Rusticana. But the faith that AA was the key to escape from the bondage of alcoholism burned undimmed in the hearts of those who pioneered the fellowship in this country.
Then came a move, since Rydalmere was inconvenient to reach, to Rex’s room in Bligh House, Miller’s Point. That was in August 1945.
Incidentally, Isadore Brodsky, writing in the “Sydney Sun” of June 4, 1950, about the city’s historic houses, suggests that Bligh House’s most interesting feature is not its problematical association with Governor Bligh, but rather its association with the foundation of AA in Australia.
Rex encouraged alcoholics to share his room. Naturally, it became a refuge for those who wished to continue a night’s drinking or wanted somewhere to sleep. They stole his money and his clothes. Often he returned from work to find his room full of drunks, empty bottles everywhere. In short, a shambles. These goings-on became too much for the landlord of the residential where Rex had his room – and AA was homeless.
For a while meetings were a pillar to post business, with no one getting sober. Eventually a haven for the weekly meeting was found. This was of a small badly lit room, sparsely furnished, damp, on top of, a shop in Walker Street, North Sydney.
At this time AA claimed 12 members throughout Australia. On Christmas night, 1945. six were gathered in the unsavory Walker Street, meeting place. Five were AA members. The sixth, though sober, was not. Of those six, five found the temptation of the Christmas festivities more than they could resist.
Came 1946, and with a new year the Walker Street meetings struggled on, though not for long. The company was varied in quantity and quality alike. A few were desperately seeking sobriety. Most were there for what they could get out of AAIt was common to be “touched” ostensibly for the price of a night’s lodging or for a new shirt, although the money, of course, probably went on more alcohol.
Then there were those who thought more of building AA than of their own sobriety. They dreamed of clubrooms, hospitals. They wanted organizations with presidents and secretaries and, of course, money. In fact, just before AA moved to Walker Street, Jack R., since dead, had been appointed AA secretary at a salary of £9 a week. To this day no one is sure where the money to pay him came from. But it is known that the proceeds of a party helped to solve some grave financial problems. AA was really hit by the organizing bug – so much so that the fellowship decided to become registered as an organization to solicit funds from the public.
This wasn’t so easy. Some of the alcoholics proposed for membership of the fund-raising committee had court convictions and the law, naturally, objected to their holding positions of trust. The money raised from the public was lost in some savings bank. No doubt it eventually finished up in Consolidated Revenue. The operations of A.A.’s first organizing committee, established in 1944 under the presidency of Ron, were far from ideal. Intrigues and counter -intrigues for positions on the committee became the order of the day. The committee took itself very seriously and decided that it should hold its meetings in secret. Even at an AA meeting, the committee would retire to another room to deliberate!
One of the greatest arguments at first was to decide who was eligible for membership. Some argued that no one was eligible unless he had served terms of imprisonment for drunkenness or had been in the Reception House a few times. Arguments also crept in as to the conduct of meetings. They were to be on a rigid parliamentary basis and motions and points of order became the sole topic. There was little or no time to discuss AA business. As could only be expected, conflicts grew. Once AA was divided into two camps; those who claimed that they had AA and those who thought AA should be modified to suit Australian conditions.
Among the latter was Jack, the first AA secretary. In 1945, after his salary had stopped for want of funds, he left to start another AA with the spiritual aspect deleted. This emasculated version folded up after a month and all the adherents, except Jack, returned to the fold. This breakaway movement was the first and only challenge to AA in Australia.
These were the days when money for AA work – and the control of money – became essential. Bank accounts were opened. These were under the control of non-alcoholics, for suspicious AA members feared that a thirsty treasurer would be tempted to run away with the funds. First of these accounts was opened at the Commonwealth Bank, with Mrs M. and a committee in control. Others were opened in banks in all parts of Sydney. These accounts have been inoperative for years.
Back to 1946 and, early in that year, the need for AA to move once again when the Walker Street tenancy was lost. Thanks to the good offices of Father Tom, the fellowship secured a home at Vianney House, the name given to an old, disused hotel in Foveaux Street.
Yet still all was not well with AA
True, the change to the city brought bigger attendances at meetings. The press and radio became mildly interested in AA, which was helpful. But there remained the problem of the drunk who was not honest in his search for sobriety, of those who came to A. A. for selfish ends. This was a problem that was not to be solved until AA broke up into the groups we are familiar with today.
Meetings at Vianny House became more and more disorderly. The place became a refuge for drunks, who brought in undesirable characters. And so once again AA was given the order of the boot, once again we were homeless.
Yet the picture was not all black.
Radio announcer Frank Sturge Harty, a non-alcoholic who put the American AA story over radio early in 1944, was asked to help by Archie McKinnon. He gave splendid service, as did DR M.. with talks on the Twelve Steps and the AA Way of Life.
And there was another step forward, too. It became the rule that no one who was drunk should take the chair at AA meetings and those not sober were also discouraged from speaking.
On the other hand, despite all the advice we had received from America, our enforced exit from Vianney House did nothing to curb our desire for a home of our own. Father Tom eventually managed to secure a home at Loftus on one of the most beautiful sites in Sydney. It was a cottage with a large amount of ground and away from densely populated areas.
Besides the cottage, two seven-room huts were erected upon the site. The cottage was called Christmas House because it was opened on Christmas Day. Rex and some of the earlier members of AA were its first inhabitants. As was to be expected, trouble occurred – much more quickly than they anticipated. There were drunken brawls, police interference, protests by neighbors, and again the scheme had to be abandoned. We had failed to learn from experience in America that attempts to run hospital institutions or homes for A.A.’s under AA control would fail completely.
Thus, with our departure from Loftus, all we could show after three years’ work was an AA membership which by and large had little or no idea of the AA way. And there were few who had been sober as long as 12 months. “Slips” were common and considered normal.
Yet victory was to spring from the ashes of this apparent defeat. We had – had we but known it – reached rock bottom. It, at last, dawned oh us that we knew little of the essence of AAWe had never practiced the 12 Steps. Many of us thought in our secret hearts that we were not alcoholics at all.
If we had kept sober it was because our pride would not let us drink. We had been kicked out of our meeting place. Most of our members had deserted us. Our own sobriety was always a doubtful quantity. All that we had tried to do lay in ruins about us.
Humbly, we reflected. The true practice of AA had rescued thousands of alcoholics in America. Would not the true practice of AA in Australia do the same for us ?
Providence was watching over us. It sent us Bert and Lillian from America. Practically from the beginning we had appealed to New York to send someone over to help us in our difficulties. The appeals were insincere and were wisely disregarded. Our letters were arrogant.
Somehow, we had the idea that alcoholics in Australia were different from those in America. We told them so in our letters. The Twelve Steps could not possibly work here. Our psychology was so different; conditions were different. We were a stolid, phlegmatic race, not a sentimental, religious crowd. Many members, after some of our numerous bust-ups, wrote to New York complaining how badly AA was being run here. That we were tolerated at all is a tribute to the sympathy and understanding of the true A.A.’s in America.
Most new A.A.’s are arrogant and wish to change everything. Their arrogance passes away, leaving no permanent trace. But the arrogance of the pioneer members of AA in Australia remains permanently in the archives in New York. The thought of this keeps many of us humble.
Lillian was a well-known theatrical and radio artist. Both she and her husband, Bert, were alcoholics, seeking to keep their own sobriety by helping other alcoholics to achieve theirs. By lectures, newspaper and radio interviews, by spending hours with individual A.A.’s, they taught us how AA works. They taught the public that alcoholism is a disease that can be arrested if the patient really wants sobriety. Bert and Lillian taught us the course we should follow. We followed their advice implicitly. All ideas of the organization were abandoned. Bitter experience had taught us that this approach was essential.
In the early days, we sought new members everywhere. We looked after them for days when they were on the booze: We gave them money, clothes and shelter. All had failed. Members must come to AA willingly. Membership cannot be bought.
Yes, that visit from Bert and Lillian was surely of immense value. Our progress since has astonished even ourselves. One by one, in the capital city and country town, groups have come into being and prospered in all parts of the Commonwealth. Our Sydney Central Office, abandoned back in 1948 because it became a rendezvous for drunks and undesirables, has been doing most successful work for alcoholics since it was re-established in 1952.
This then, perforce briefly, is the AA story. In 25 years we have come a long way. We are, we hope, a little more tolerant, a little wiser. We are deeply grateful to that Higher Power – God as we understand Him -through which we believe AA came into being and upon whose love we rely for our continued sobriety.
In the early days we had nothing in common save our alcoholism. We were a mixed crew with deeply ingrained prejudices one against the other. Through setbacks and disasters, through enriching experience, we have come to know and love one another. Friendships have remained staunch over the years.
Humility remains – for without it we will again surely fail. AA will live and grow – and we are but humble members playing our part in its beneficent work of helping other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
If there is one lesson more than any other that we have learned over the years it is this: “It is not what we get out of AA that counts; it is what we put into it.”
*Credits and Disclaimers
*Please note that the use of full names of AA members on this site is contigent upon the individuals mentioned having publicly declared their full names and AA membership status. In all other cases only first names of AA’s are used, and the last initial, where possible. This is in accordance with AA’s tradition of personal anonymity at a public level.
This site does not purport to represent Alcoholics Anonymous in any form at all; state, national or international level. As such it has no affiliation with, nor does it purport to represent, or give the impression, that it is affiliated in any way whatsoever with any AA entity within or beyond Australia.
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