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History of the Establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous in
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)
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 were 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
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.
these ambiguites 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 which 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 email@example.com
Account of the Establishment of AA in Australia - "The
Reviver" - May 1978
How AA came to Australia
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.
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 honoured 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
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 which continued for two
years, a correspondence in which Bobbie showed never-failing
sympathy, tolerance and understanding.
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?
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.
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 organising part.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Cavelleria 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
came a move, since Rydalmere was inconvenient to reach,
to Rex's room in Bligh House, Miller's Point. That was
in August, 1945.
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.
encouraged alcoholics to share his room. Naturally, it
became a refuge for thosewho 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 realty hit by the
organizing bug - so much so that the fellowship decided
to become registered as an organization to solicit funds
from the public.
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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.
still all was not well with AA
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.
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.
the picture was not all black.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
victory was to spring from the ashes of this apparent
defeat. We had - had we but known it - reached rockbottom.
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 heart that we were not a alcoholics at all.
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.
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 ?
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.
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.
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.
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 which 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 organization were abandoned. Bitter experience
had taught us that this approach was essential.
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.
that visit from Bert and Lillian was surely of immense
value. Our progress since has astonished even ourselves.
One by one, in 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.
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
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 ex perience, we have come to know and
love one another. Friendships have remained staunch over
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.
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."
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
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