The year is 1913, and you’re walking through the Domain. There’s a crowd gathering around a strangely-dressed man, so you go over to listen. He’s reading from a book:
‘Coitus impairs the proper function of the skin … The nerves of taste are perverted also, the wish for natural food – fruit and nuts – is destroyed and the taste for meat, oysters, etc., acquired.’
What would you do?
a) walk away in confusion, wondering what he’s going on about, and why the crowd is staying
b) buy a copy of the speaker’s book, because this is quite interesting
c) get the nearest policeman and insist that the speaker be arrested. He’s talking about sex in public!
The speaker, William Chidley, well-known eccentric, public speaker and author of the book ‘The Answer’ knew quite a bit about being arrested. His firmly held views on sex, food and clothing, and his insistence of making them public, ensured that he did quite a few bits and pieces of gaol time, and by 1913 he also knew what the inside of a lunatic asylum looked like.
His book ‘The Answer’ drew on well-known theories of the time. These theories held that sexuality and desire were morally and physically degrading – but that they could (and should!) be repressed with good clean living, namely exercise and changed diets. Flesh in the diet was frowned upon as being too ‘stimulating’, as were tobacco and alcohol.
Pioneers of these theories included men such as John Harvey Kellogg, co-inventor of the corn-flake, and in 1913 these sort of views were widely accepted by many people. For instance, one of the judges who locked Chidley away, reportedly said in his sentencing, that,
‘With a great deal of [Chidley’s] book he agreed – for instance, that man was not a carnivorous animal, and that the use of meat had a great deal to do with the demoralisation of the human race’. The Argus, 21 June 1913
But Chidley took those theories to new extremes. He argued that people had become so degenerate that they didn’t realise that each and every sexual act was causing physical and mental damage. Furthermore, they should only be having sex in the spring. His advice for a better life started with a change of diet and no more sex:
‘As you persevere in your fruit diet, drinking no hot teas nor doing anything unnatural, you will find your clothes become irksome. You can then pass on to life in the open air – return to Paradise – and in the spring, if you fall in love, you will find that coition will come about quite simply and naturally, and do you no harm whatever, but a world of good.’
And did Chidley practise what he preached? He refused to wear conventional clothing, instead wearing neck-to-knee swimmers. He stuck to a vegetarian diet. We can only surmise about his sexual activity!
It’s fair to say that the crowds loved him. Chidley with his book were featured in the moving picture ‘William’s Weekly’ alongside other Sydney attractions. A clothing manufacturer started marketing the ‘Chidley Flannel Shirt’.
However, the authorities didn’t want to encourage him. During 1912 and 1913 he was arrested repeatedly, for many crimes. The most interesting charge was for sending a prohibited publication through the post. This charge raised very interesting questions. Chidley was unaware that his book was on this list (not surprising – the list was never made public). He maintained that the book wasn’t obscene – it was scientific work – and he attempted unsuccessfully to take his appeal to the High Court. In the meantime, the court questioned his sanity, and he was sent to the Kenmore insane asylum in 1916.
Supporters got him out after only a few months, essentially by promising to take very good care of him. But sadly, the end was near for Chidley. He attempted suicide shortly after, and was placed back in an asylum, where he died after a couple of months at the tragically early age of 56.
Not quite the 130 years that he had promised followers of his vegetarian/clothingless/sexless ideal.