Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walter Cresswell O'Reilly (1877–1954)

by Joel Greenberg

This article was published:

Walter Cresswell O'Reilly (1877-1954), public servant and film censor, was born on 6 June 1877 in Sydney, eldest son of American physician Walter William Joseph O'Reilly and his Ballarat-born wife Mary Narcissa, née Taylor. Dr Susannah O'Reilly was a sister. Educated at Newington College and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1903), he joined the Department of Justice in September 1897 as a junior clerk. On 14 January 1909 O'Reilly married Ethel Jane Vickery, granddaughter of Ebenezer Vickery. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force early in 1917 and served in France late in 1918 as a gunner. After a period as warrant officer, class 1, in the Army Education Service, in August 1919 he returned to the Department of the Attorney-General and of Justice as officer-in-charge of the justice branch. A noted Wesleyan, O'Reilly was a trustee of Pymble Methodist Church from 1902 until his death, and a choirmaster, Sunday-school-superintendent and lay preacher.

In January 1925, as the nominee of groups including the Methodist Church, the Young Men's Christian Association and the Businessmen's Efficiency League of New South Wales, he was selected from 282 applicants as the senior Commonwealth film censor in Sydney. Although nominally responsible to the part-time chief censor, Professor R. S. Wallace in Melbourne, O'Reilly became de facto chief censor because the majority of films entered Australia at Sydney; he referred to Wallace only cases about which appeals were made.

In November 1928 O'Reilly was appointed chief Commonwealth censor, heading a three-member film censorship board in Sydney, established on the recommendation of the 1927-28 royal commission on the Australian film industry (despite testimony critical of the proposal from O'Reilly and Wallace). Reappointed annually until his retirement in June 1942, O'Reilly dominated and shaped Australian film censorship. Under the very general guide-lines of the Customs (Cinematograph Films) regulations, he had wide discretion within which to define appropriate mass entertainment.

O'Reilly was dedicated to upholding Establishment values. His extreme conservatism manifested itself in decisions which often contributed to an overseas perception of Australian film censorship as among the strictest in the world. Professing to apply community standards in his decision-making rather than his personal views, he nevertheless made plain in his annual reports his desire to make the cinema conform to his paternalistic ideal of what was appropriate in mass entertainment. In practice, this meant cutting or rejecting half the films submitted until 1935. The proportion so treated fell thereafter, reflecting a tightening of the U.S. Production Code effected in 1934. His decisions occasionally attracted controversy, especially when made on political grounds or on the fitness of Australian-made films for export. Perhaps his most valuable legacy is the classification system he introduced about 1930, grading films 'For General Exhibition' and 'Not Suitable for Children'.

An alderman (1927-35, 1944-48) of Ku-ring-gai Municipal Council and mayor (1929-33), O'Reilly was also a councillor of Warringah shire in 1939-41. Dubbed the 'tree mayor', he was president of the State branch of the Australian Forest League in 1935-36 and 1939-40, and a member of the Forestry Advisory Council of New South Wales. He was later chairman of the New South Wales division of the National Trust of Australia. A councillor and treasurer of Wesley College, University of Sydney, from 1920, he wrote a history of the college which was published in 1956. His short History of Ku-ring-gai Shire (1948) was reprinted in 1963. O'Reilly died on 20 December 1954 at Pymble and was cremated. His wife, two sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Bertrand, Film Censorship in Australia (Brisb, 1978)
  • G. Shirley and B. Adams, Australian Cinema (Syd, 1983)
  • Film Censorship Board, Annual Report, 1925-42
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1942.

Citation details

Joel Greenberg, 'O'Reilly, Walter Cresswell (1877–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1877
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


20 December, 1954 (aged 77)
Pymble, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.