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From The Butcher Shop to Into the River - the history of book censorship in New Zealand

Posted on 02 October 2015 by Michelle

This week is Banned Books Week and a great opportunity for community discussion around the history of book censorship in New Zealand, and how the classification system works today. This post is adapted (and updated) from a paper we presented at LIANZA's 2010 conference.

In this post we'll cover a couple of notable examples of book censorship from the early part of the 20th century, then move on to the era of the Indecent Publications Tribunal (IPT) and the work of our current Classification Office.

The Butcher Shop and Into The River book covers

The early years of book censorship

Censorship is often bound up in debates over morals and values - yet in New Zealand's history it has also been guided by government and legislation. New Zealand's first piece of legislation created to deal with censorship of written material was the 1892 Offensive Publications Act. This Act outlawed "any picture or printed or written matter which is of an indecent, immoral, or obscene nature". This was followed shortly afterwards by the 1893 amendment to the Post Office Act which allowed suspected indecent mail to be opened and destroyed.

In 1910, the Indecent Publications Act came into force, and was not amended until 1954. The 1910 Act replaced earlier censorship legislation, with its purpose being to 'censor smut while protecting worthwhile material', or as put by the Attorney General of the time, John Findlay, its purpose was to protect the "liberty which improves and ennobles a nation" while removing the "license which degrades." Notably, this Act took into account the literary and artistic merits of publications - these elements were not included in England's censorship legislation until 1959.

1920s: first New Zealand novel is banned

In the first few decades of the 20th century New Zealand was developing a new and distinct culture and economy. The 1920s also brought one of the first watershed moments in the history of book censorship in New Zealand.

The New Zealand novel by Jean Devanny entitled The Butcher Shop is on record as the first New Zealand novel to be banned in this country. It is the story of the lives of a rich and cultured farming family in New Zealand, and of their marital and extra-marital relationships.

In its decision made in April 1926, the Censorship Appeal Board of Customs, comprised of two librarians and a bookseller, concluded:

The Board considers this a bad book all round - sordid, unwholesome and unclean. It makes evil to be good. We are of the opinion that it should be banned.

At the time, the editors of the Christchurch Sun and The Press, who had both read the book, expressed their confusion as to why it was banned and guessed that this was because while the content was perhaps equally offensive as many other books in circulation, the difference with this one was that it was set in New Zealand. Decisions made prior to 1963 are no longer in force today, and The Butcher Shop is available in a number of public libraries.

The Butcher Shop book cover

Moral panics of the 1950s

Themes of juvenile delinquency, rebellion, and moral panics were prevalent features of 1950s society both in New Zealand and in other parts of the world. There was a lot of concern in New Zealand at the time about the moral state of the nation's youth, as rock and roll and films like Marlon Brando's The Wild One brought on the era of 'milk bar cowboys'. The 1950s were notable in New Zealand's censorship history for the creation in 1954 of a Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents, which became known as the Mazengarb Committee after its chairperson. The establishment of the Committee followed the well-publicised Parker-Hulme murder case in Christchurch and the 'Petone incident' involving a teenage gang meeting for underage sex (both in 1954).

At this time, comics and 'pulp' literature aimed at teenagers were flooding into the country - the concerns over moral delinquency can in part be attributed to these publications, which resulted in the banning of a number of them on the basis that they were "so harmful to children and adolescents that their sale should not be permitted" (Paul Christoffel, Censored: a short history of censorship in New Zealand, Research Unit, Department of Internal Affairs 1989, p22).

The report produced by the Mazengarb Committee lead to legislative changes targeted at comics and graphic novels.

The 1954 Indecent Publications Amendment Act deemed all literature that placed undue emphasis on sex, horror, crime, cruelty or violence to be Indecent. This test of 'undue emphasis' was not defined, and led to a lot of confusion amongst retailers. In their book In The Public Good, Shuker and Watson discuss this situation, and note that as in other countries, anti-comic campaigners in New Zealand "argued that children would identify with and possibly copy what they saw in the comics", tying into the existing concerns around juvenile delinquency.

Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One'


In 1959, Vladimir Nabokov's infamously controversial novel Lolita was banned by New Zealand Customs, against the advice of their own Literary Advisory Committee. Following the ban, the New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties imported the book into New Zealand in order to challenge the ban through the Supreme Court. The appeal lost on the grounds that the book 'placed undue emphasis on matters of sex'. The Supreme Court decision was then appealed to the Court of Appeal, where the ban was upheld by majority decision.

In 1964, after having been banned by numerous courts, Lolita was again submitted for classification to the newly established Indecent Publications Tribunal (the IPT). The IPT was established by the Indecent Publications Act of 1963 and was responsible for the classification of books, magazines and sound recordings. Its decisions were published in the Gazette, and provide insight into how the Tribunal applied the criteria of the new legislation. Provisions in today's legislation mean that decisions made by the Tribunal are still in force today (while decisions pre-dating the IPT are not).

Under section 10 of the 1963 Act, the role of the Indecent Publications Tribunal was to 'determine the character of the book' using the criteria set out in the legislation. This criteria directed the Tribunal to consider such things as:

  • the dominant effect of the book
  • the book's literary or artistic merit, or medical, legal, political, social, or scientific importance
  • its likely audience
  • the price at which it was going to be sold
  • whether any person was likely to be corrupted by reading the book and whether such corruption would benefit others
  • whether the book displayed an honest purpose and an honest thread of thought or whether its content was merely camouflage designed to render acceptable any indecent parts of the book

Using these new criteria, the IPT examined and classified Lolita as 'not indecent', meaning anyone was legally able to access it.

The majority decision of the Tribunal noted that:

It is important in our view that the central figure, a middle-aged man in the grip of his obsession for a child of twelve, is represented as a pitiable, remorseful creature. There is nothing romantic or admirable about him, and his course of conduct leads him to disaster. Far from condoning that conduct, the author throughout implicitly reprehends it... If we thought that Lolita was a pornographic book written to corrupt, our decision would be different.

Lolita book cover

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Another prominent book from this era that often comes up in discussions of censorship is Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence. The book soon became notorious for its story of the physical relationship between a working-class man and an aristocratic woman, its explicit descriptions of sex, and its use of (at the time) unprintable words. It was the subject of a trial in Britain which tested the scope of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act (where ultimately the publisher was found to be not guilty of producing an obscene publication) as well as a trial in Japan where the publisher was found guilty; it was also banned at one time in Australia, Canada and the United States.

The book was submitted to the Indecent Publications Tribunal by the same publishers (Penguin) who had fought and won the obscenity trial in Britain. The Tribunal acknowledged that the novel had been the subject of 'judicial consideration' in other countries, but noted that "such decisions as there have been in other jurisdictions have only a limited application to New Zealand since the Indecent Publications Act 1963 is a considerable advance on any legislation in this field hitherto enacted here or elsewhere" (this was in 1964, only a year after the legislation was created). The legislation showed innovation by allowing the Tribunal to not just pass or ban a publication, but to consider restricting it to persons over a certain age, or to a particular class of person, or restrict it for a particular purpose.

In its decision on Lady Chatterley's Lover, the Tribunal noted that the book contained "accounts of several acts of sexual behaviour described in language which is exceedingly frank and to some readers must be repellent". They also pointed out that while the test for other jurisdictions was whether the book was an undue exploitation of sex or whether it offended against community standards, the test under New Zealand law of the time was whether the book dealt with matters of sex in a manner which was "injurious to the public good". By majority decision the Tribunal classified the book as 'not indecent'.

Lady Chatterley's Lover book cover

The 1970s

The 1970s were an equally interesting time for censorship, as social values, media and legislation came head to head over a number of publications.

The Little Red School Book was referred to the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1972. The Tribunal received a number of submissions on the classification of this book, with some people concerned that the book was "intended to be totally destructive of the school system and anti-authoritarian" while others feared the book would "incite schoolchildren to violent revolutionary action". On the other hand, there were arguments made that it "intended to be constructive and to improve the school system for all concerned, pupils, teachers and parents" by informing young people how they could act within the system, advising them "to try dialogue before direct action". Upon weighing of these factors, as well as considering the book's discussion of sex, the Tribunal classified it as 'not indecent', meaning it could be made available to anyone.

The 1963 Indecent Publications Act did not allow the Tribunal to give age restricted classifications to pictorial publications which were likely to appeal to children. This was a hangover from the 1954 amendments to the previous legislation, which presumed that all comics were likely to be read by children and should therefore be judged accordingly.

Section 11(3) of the 1963 legislation stated that:

Where the Tribunal decides that any picture-story book likely to be read by children is indecent in the hands of children under a specified age, that picture-story book shall be deemed to be indecent in the hands of all persons.

This section led to the banning of a number of graphic novels and comics that might have otherwise received age restricted classifications, given that they were targeted at, and had content suitable for, older teens and adults. An example of this is the decision dated 14 December 1973 which banned 20 comics.

In its decision the Tribunal noted that:

In a large number of these comics sex, violence, horror, and crime are depicted in gross and explicit detail... the Tribunal considers that their explicitness... makes all of the comics equally unsuitable for children. ...The treatment of sex and violence where these subjects occur is likely to have ill-effects upon children and these books would therefore warrant some form of restriction... The Tribunal however, is not free to impose restrictions on the circulation of comic books when they are likely to be read by children... The Tribunal has no alternative but to classify all these comic books as indecent.

It was also in the late 1970s that books dealing with the production, cultivation and consumption of drugs began to be submitted to the IPT for classification.

In September 1978 eight books with such titles as Marijuana Growers Guide, Ancient and Modern Methods of Growing Extraordinary Marijuana, and The Complete Psilocybin Mushroom Cultivators Bible were classified as Indecent - banned - by the Tribunal due to the way they dealt with matters of crime in relation to the production, manufacture, possession, use and supply of controlled drugs, and the cultivation of prohibited plants.

Little Red Schoolbook book cover

The 1980s

The 1980s saw the IPT classify a number of books dealing with guns and weapons.

In August 1983 the Tribunal issued a decision on a group of books which had been submitted by Customs. The Comptroller of Customs informed the committee that these books had been seized over the course of the previous 12 months, and were being submitted in order to give Customs and the Police guidance and assistance when dealing with similar publications.

One of the books, The Improvised Munitions Handbook, was an official publication of the United States War Office, produced in 1969 "for official use only" - remember that this was a book that was seized by Customs on its way into New Zealand.

On page 5 the book stated that:

This manual contains simple explanations and illustrations to permit construction of the items by personnel not normally familiar with making and handling munitions.

The book also included methods for fabricating explosives, detonators, propellants and similar objects from items which were obtainable without very much difficulty by any member of the public.

Home Workshop Guns for Defense and Resistance Volume 1 gave illustrations for making a submachine gun, while Volume 2 illustrated how to make a hand gun. The final book in the submission from Customs, Bare Kills, gave complete step by step instructions on how to kill with bare hands.

In its decision on the books, the Tribunal concluded that:

Publications which could very easily lead members of the public to criminal offending can properly be classified as indecent.

Automatic rifle

The Indecent Publications Tribunal is replaced by the Classification Office

In 1989 the Minister of Justice appointed a Committee of Inquiry into Pornography. The Committee reported back with 202 recommendations for changes to the structure of New Zealand's classification system. Some of these were realized in the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, and in 1994 the new Office of Film and Literature Classification replaced the three classification agencies that were operating (the Chief Censor of Films, the Video Recordings Authority and the IPT). This is the organisation and legislation responsible for the classification of books, films, and other publications today.

While the content of comics and books that were banned in the past might in some cases not be classified as objectionable under today's legislation, an IPT classification remains in force until someone seeks to have it reclassified. And while some publications may receive different classifications were they submitted today, it is likely that others would not. Some social values shift and evolve more than others as time passes - sexual content which was previously banned might now receive an R18 or even R16 classification - comics which are targeted at teenagers (not children) can now be made available to their target audience through age-restricted classifications such as R13 and R16.

However there are other values or social mores which shift less rapidly or not at all. For example, the book The World of the American Pit Bull Terrier was submitted to the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1991 by the Chief Executive of the SPCA. The Tribunal noted that the dominant effect of the book was to actively promote and encourage dog fighting, and used "exhaustive text and wide-ranging illustrations to discuss activities which very clearly [were] offences under the Animals Protection Act 1960".

Among other content, the Tribunal's classification decision makes references to:

  • A graphic description of a dog fight in which an injured dog was allowed to continue to fight
  • The description of a device known as a "cat mill", which is designed to have a live animal or bird suspended in it as bait for the pit dog being trained
  • The author's advocating of bribing of veterinary practitioners to treat animals that are injured in illegal dog fights, without reporting these activities to the Police.

Due to the way the book dealt with horror, crime, cruelty and violence, the Tribunal placed a ban on the book which remains in force today. Over the past few years the Classification Office has classified and banned cock-fighting magazines and explicit scenes of the killing of animals such as pigs, monkeys and turtles filmed purely for shock or entertainment value. The arguments used to ban these publications featuring animal cruelty echo those used by the Tribunal.

In the last five years the Classification Office has reconsidered 20 IPT decisions: 12 of the books were given new classifications, however the classification of the remaining 8 remained the same. One of these was American Psycho, which kept its R18 classification.

Cover of the Classification Act

Classification today

The Classification Office uses the criteria set out in section 3 of the Classification Act to determine whether a publication should be classified as unrestricted, restricted, or Objectionable (banned). A publication is banned if its availability is likely to be injurious to the public good - this is a departure from earlier tests of indecency or offence.

Books are not required to be classified before they are supplied to the public in the same way that films are. For this reason, most of the books we classify come to us through the enforcement agencies of Customs and the Department of Internal Affairs, or as a result of a complaint by a member of the public. Each year the Office classifies a few books - usually around 5 or 6.

Lost Girls

Lost Girls is an explicitly sexual graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Melinda Gebbie. Early chapters were serialised in a comics anthology in the early 1990s. The finished work appeared as a three-volume set in 2006 and were collected as one volume in 2009. The single-volume publication was submitted for classification.

The three main characters in Lost Girls are the heroines of classic works of fiction from the 19th and early 20th century: Alice, from Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Dorothy Gale from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Wendy Darling from the play and novel Peter Pan. Lost Girls is set in the period immediately before the outbreak of World War I. The story follows the three (now adult) characters as they meet by chance at an Austrian hotel.

The book was submitted by Auckland Libraries in 2014 due to uncertainty as to whether the book contained objectionable material (it includes depictions of incest, sexual violence and the sexual exploitation of children). Auckland Libraries wanted clarification as to whether it could legally possess the book and supply it to patrons.

In its decision the Classification Office stated:

In the framework set by New Zealand's Bill of Rights, classification decisions must be reasonable and demonstrably justifiable. The potential for injury to the public good if the availability of the book is unrestricted lies in its explicitly sexual subject matter, particularly the inclusion of images of incest and the abuse and exploitation of children and young people, considered under s3(2) [of the Classification Act]. This material is difficult and challenging. Nevertheless, as stated earlier, it would be impossible for this graphic novel to so thoroughly explore sexual desire and sexual pleasure without tackling the issues around the age-old human fantasies, such as incest or bestiality, that lie on the borderline of ethical sexual behaviour. Individual parts may well have a promotional aspect that has the potential to appeal to some adults. However, the publication as a whole does not promote or support, or tend to promote or support, any of the activities listed in s3(2).

The book has been acclaimed for its literary and artistic significance. In Lost Girls, Moore and Gebbie have produced a work that has a serious purpose: they intend it as "good" pornography that re-asserts pornography's potential as art and therefore, its socio-political possibilities as an antidote to repression and violence.

Given these considerations, to ban Lost Girls would be neither reasonable nor justified.

The book was not banned, however it was restricted to adults:

There is a consensus amongst the public of New Zealand that children and young people should not be exposed to explicit sexual material intended for adults until they reach a level of maturity and experience that would allow them to cope with such material. In particular, young readers should not be exposed to images and text that they would be likely to find extremely shocking and disturbing.

Lost Girls book cover

High profile recent decisions: To Train Up A Child and Into the River

The classification or censorship of books has come a long way over the past 100 years or so, but books can still be controversial - and whether or not they should be restricted or banned is very much a live issue in New Zealand today.

The classification of books in New Zealand has received a lot of attention lately due the Interim Restriction Order (a temporary ban on distribution) placed on the book Into the River by the President of the Film and Literature Board of Review (an appeals body that operates independently of the Classification Office). We've written a detailed case study about the classification history of Into the River on our website for students, and you might also be interested in an interview we gave for Auckland Libraries' blog. At the time of writing, the Interim Restriction Order is still in effect as the Film and Literature Board of Review decides on a new classification for Into the River.

Another book which has gained a lot of attention is To Train Up A Child. Read more about why we classified this book as unrestricted.

If you have any questions about the classification of books or the history of book censorship we'd love to hear from you. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, or contact us by phone on 0508 236 767, or by email at

Michelle works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Her views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Into The River book cover
To Train Up a Child book cover


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