Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2021

Arcadian Adelaide, by Thistle Anderson

Since I’m a Melburnian, it feels a bit brave to be reviewing Arcadian Adelaide.  This vitriolic spray against the good folk of Adelaide was published as a pamphlet at the beginning of the 20th century in 1905, and it caused considerable outrage at the time.  Packaged in this new edition with a foreword by Katie Spain and an essay on the historical context by Derek Whitelock, the pamphlet is only about 50 pages long but Thistle Anderson manages to insult almost every aspect of Australia’s most respectable city.  As it says in Whitelock’s essay, Adelaide would have liked to dismiss her as an immigrant harpy, but no, she was a lady of character, style and note.  (Austlit says she was even presented at court, which I reckon would have stymied her Adelaide critics who had to make do with being presented to the local MP or mayor).

Born in Scotland, Thistle Anderson was a beautiful and well-educated Scotswoman, of Kiplingesque imperial beliefs, much travelled, who confessed to two years on the stage and a love for adventure and vigorous outdoor life.  She had published poetry in 1901 and 1902, and she went on to publish other works after this one.  But this is the one she is famous for….

This is the dedication for the book:

To any kindred spirit whom duty may compel to live in Adelaide, and who living there, suffers as we suffer.

There are three parts to her critique, which clearly indicate that her approach is comprehensive, albeit concise:

  • Part I—The Place
    • Chapter I. Holy Village
    • Chapter II.  Living Accommodation
    • Chapter III. The Tram-Cars.
  • Part II—The Inhabitants
    • Chapter I. The Men
    • Chapter II. The Women
    • Chapter III. The Lesser Animals
  • Part III—Generalities
    • Chapter I. Manners and Customs
    • Chapter II. Industries
    • Chapter III. Redeeming features

The Author’s Note and Foreword refute the criticism that she is bitter or malicious.  Rather, she claims, the pamphlet is meant as a playful skit.  But she doesn’t hold back!

Adelaidians, look away…

Outwardly, Adelaide is intensely respectable—that is to say, the inhabitants go to church regularly, and think it extremely wrong to play cards for money.  They are ostentatious in their charity, but it goes very little below the surface.  Their ideas are, for the most part, about as broad as Blondin’s wire, and their cardinal virtues are Religious Belief and Conventionality. Briefly summed up, the creed of Adelaide so-called society runs:—

“I believe in Lewis Cohen, Mayor of Adelaide, and in Sir George LeHunte (or any other man), Governor of South Australia, from whom much hospitality may be expected.  He was appointed in England, and ascended into Government House.  From thence he shall issue many invitations.  I believe in the social laws, in much going to Church, in doing to others as they would do unto you if they could, in the charity that will be beneficial to our social position, and in the Life of the Everlasting.  Amen.” (pp.11-12)

The Men?

Adelaide is largely inhabited by the type of man that wears celluloid collars, and travels on coastal boats—to be sure there are a few male inhabitants who have neither qualification, but these are mainly bankrupt.  It is fairly safe to assume their bankruptcy is due to their contempt for celluloid collars, and their disregard of Adelaide’s social laws, combined, in many cases, with a large devotion to Bacchus. (p.33)

The only men exempt from this generalisation are the Post Office officials and the Railway employés [sic]. From them she has had only kindly courtesy and she thinks they are the most valuable assets in Adelaide. 

I doubt that young Thistle had many friends left in Adelaide after this dismissal of the women:

The outward semblance of the Adelaide female is intense respectability, and of course, in many cases, being homely to look upon, and exceedingly badly clothed, she has no temptation to err from the paths of strict propriety.  The poorer type is terrible to look upon, and the rich women make one wonder how they manage to spend so much money in clothing their nakedness, and with such disastrous results.  (p.37)

The text is accompanied by pen and ink drawings and occasional B&W photos from the period.

I was amused by Whitelock’s reason for wanting the pamphlet republished now:

I chanced upon Arcadian Adelaide while writing a history of Adelaide and found its wit and polemics a bracing and informative diversion from masses of self-congratulatory civic and state publications I had had to ingest. (p.98)

That may well be the case, but the other reason to rescue this work from oblivion is that Thistle was courageous in breaking the deafening silence of Adelaide self-criticism.  And she had fun doing it!

Author: Thistle Anderson
Title: Arcadian Adelaide
Foreword by Katie Spain
Essay by Derek Whitelock
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2020, first published 1905
ISBN: 9781743056189, pbk., 99 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Wakefield Press, your favourite indie bookshop or Fishpond: Arcadian Adelaide


  1. This sounds terrific. I had never heard of it before. Thank you, Lisa.


    • It makes one wonder what else is lurking in the vaults of our state libraries…


  2. Well am not going to miss this one. A lass after my own heart. So much yet to discover.


  3. Do you think there may have been an element of looking down on mere colonials from the author’s lofty position of ‘presented at court’? (Not that Martin Boyd doesn’t say much the same of Melbourne, but then the Boyds were able to get away to England too).


  4. How hilarious – and also a bit worrying if you live(d) in Adelaide. What a hoot! :D


  5. Sounds like a fun read.


    • Did you get to Adelaide on your trip?


      • No, we didn’t have enough time.


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