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William James Chidley (c. 1860–1916)

by Sally McInerney

This article was published:

William James Chidley (1860?-1916), sex reformer and eccentric, was a foundling, probably born in Victoria, and adopted as an infant by John James Chidley (d.1891), toyshop-owner, and his first wife Maria, née Lancelott. The Chidleys also adopted three girls and another boy and returned to England for several years in the early 1860s. On their return to Melbourne his adopted father became an impecunious itinerant photographer with a horse-drawn studio; William attended at least four schools in Melbourne before leaving aged 13; he continued his education by reading voraciously in public libraries. Unsuccessfully apprenticed to a solicitor and then to an architect, he failed to matriculate after months of evening study. While working for his father, he learned photography and developed some talent for sketching likenesses.

About 1880 Chidley moved to Adelaide where he did water-colour and crayon portraits. In 1882 he and a friend were acquitted of manslaughter after a street brawl. About 1885 he met a 'promising young actress' Ada Grantleigh, née Harris, who was married to W. Thoms. Chidley lived with her intermittently until her death—in Adelaide until 1890, then in Sydney, New Zealand and Melbourne; an alcoholic, she died in 1908. He, too, lived through abject periods of alcoholism. They never married but adopted a son (reputedly hers).

Blaming himself for Ada's death, Chidley was attacked by obsessive remorse and also suffered from extreme sexual guilt. For years he had been formulating a theory to deal with the inordinate amount of misery among people he knew. While reasonably recommending vegetarianism, fresh air, sunlight and unrestrictive clothing, and criticizing money-making and class distinction, he also postulated a 'correct' method of intercourse that would 'take place only in the Spring … and between true lovers only'. He believed that his sexual theory was the answer to all the ills of mankind and reluctantly resolved to 'go on the active warpath' and propagate it, but began to run foul of the authorities when trying to explain its technicalities to audiences. 'I shall become a scandal and a voice crying in the wilderness' he wrote to H. Havelock Ellis, with whom he had been corresponding since 1899.

In Melbourne in 1911 Chidley published The Answer and sold copies to curious passers-by on the footpath. Soon in trouble with the police, he moved on to Sydney. Tall and suntanned, with 'black curly hair going grey', beard and moustache, he wore only a short white tunic, with bare head, arms, legs and feet—he made an immediate sensation. Twice charged with offensive behaviour, he was deemed insane by the Lunacy Court on 3 August 1912 and sent to the Callan Park Mental Hospital. His case was debated in the Legislative Assembly and his defenders raised fundamental questions about the misuse of power to certify. Released conditionally on 1 October, he quickly broke undertakings to dress in men's ordinary costume, and to refrain from addressing meetings in public places and from selling his book in the streets. He was again deemed insane on 26 December 1913 but was released five days later. Chidley was charged with such minor offences as breaking the Domain by-laws, offensive behaviour and begging alms seven times in 1914 and eight in 1915. His numerous fines were usually paid by his friends.

On 16 February 1916 Chidley was again found insane and committed to Kenmore Mental Hospital at Goulburn. Backed by the Chidley Defence Committee, chaired by Meredith Atkinson, in June he appealed in vain to the Supreme Court. There was considerable popular agitation by the press and in parliament for his release, and efforts were made by his friends to have him deported to Canada or the United States of America. However he was granted leave of absence from Kenmore on bond by the colonial secretary, George Black, on the usual conditions, but as he was unable to refrain from 'inculpating' himself Black had him recommitted in September. He recovered from a suicide attempt on 12 October but died suddenly of arteriosclerosis at Callan Park on 21 December 1916.

Chidley's lasting reputation must rest on his autobiography, the 'Confessions'. Although he intended no-one to read them until after his death, in 1899 he sent the manuscript to Ellis who used extracts in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex (London, 1897-1910). Chidley made a duplicate copy as his papers were often confiscated and destroyed by the police. In 1935 Ellis sent this manuscript to the Mitchell Library, Sydney, remarking 'Not only is it a document of much psychological interest, but as a picture of the intimate aspects of Australian life in the nineteenth century it is of the highest interest, and that value will go on increasing as time passes'.

Chidley was a victim of morbid elements in his own nature and in his life: coinciding, they led to his destruction. His theory, although ludicrous at first sight, is no more than a doctrine of gentleness and love. To a certain extent, he was a primitive, unschooled forerunner of Freud and Reich, with his message that 'Our false coition makes villains of us all'. The Confessions of William James Chidley was published in Brisbane in 1977.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1912, 4th session, p 534-58
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Oct, 8 Dec 1882
  • Observer (Adelaide), 9 Dec 1882
  • W. J. Chidley papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Secretary's papers, special bundles 5/5298, 5/5299 (State Records New South Wales).

Additional Resources

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

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sally McInerney, 'Chidley, William James (c. 1860–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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