Read all about it: Scandal in the student paper

Pranks gone wrong, electoral fraud, and drunken misadventure. 20th century USyd at its finest.

Honi Soit was a paper born into the scandal of student activity at USyd. Students dressed a statue of a soldier in women’s underwear, and taunted the judgement of older generations, before the first edition of the paper reared its countercultural head in 1929. Locked away in the archives of Honi Soit, and stitched into the patchwork of our University’s history, are countless controversies embroiling many clubs, societies and student organisations. 

It is important to remember that scandals are often not premeditated. Sometimes they are the result of drunk students, thrown together in a room, and left unattended. That set of circumstances played out during the 1953 Law Society dinner in the Holme Building. By the end of the night, 74 of the 78 drinking glasses were left in smithereens;“jagged bottles”, “sodden bread rolls”, and “spilt beer” were mushed into the carpet. The wine cellar had been looted, the cash register pilfered. While the Law Society executive assembled to investigate the matter, they couldn’t conclusively assign blame to any particular attendees. In the wake of the scandal, the Vice-President of the Law Society resigned and the Society itself was banned from University of Sydney Union venues for two years. 

Fast forward to the Australian Intervarsity Debating Championships of 1975, where Malcolm Turnbull led his USyd team to success in a slew of University debates. One of these denied “That Ecstasy is a Political Activity” and another affirmed “That Life is Long Enough”. The captain from the University of Melbourne, upon receiving an unfavourable speaker score, set his notes alight in front of the adjudicator in protest. More concerning, however, was the USU publication the Union Recorder’s coverage of the night’s activities including: alcohol poisoning, the Usyd team “declar[ing] their undying love for all females present” and most disturbingly, “deliver[ing] long speeches of Hitler in the original German”. 

Sometimes a prank can also go too far, advancing from mere hijinks to high hooliganism. When a prank breaches the borders of the student body, and makes its debut in polite society — well, that’s when things get messy. In 1941, British author Sir Evelyn Wrench was invited to speak at the University by the British Unity Society. He agreed to attend, but only on the condition the Society could muster one hundred attendees. Sadly, the audience surpassed no more than 25 and Sir Wrench left in protest. The following evening, false pretences lured him out onto the steps of his hotel, where he was met by two men and hurried into a ramshackle car. “Kidnapped!”, the metropolitan press screamed. After a bumpy ride, the two men ejected him at the Botany Bay incinerator and sped off. While he insisted that they were Fifth Columnists, a mystical cabal of foreign agents attempting to tear Australia down from within, they turned out to be nothing more than humble USyd students. Naturally, the Sydney press had a field day, slinging mirthless allegations at the “out of control” University students that prowled the streets at night. So next time your club or society executive is planning to invite a distinguished speaker, just confirm they’re okay with limited attendance, lest disappointment lead to a kidnapping.

Now, everyone loves an electoral scandal. Once you’ve gotten over the rigging, ballot-stuffing, and stock-standard voter intimidation, it’s easy to appreciate the whole situation and just laugh it off. Although, in 1944, it took an awfully long time for the SRC to start laughing. Following the year’s student council elections, a flurry of allegations emerged — including fraud, racketeering, theft, and arson. The integrity of the SRC President and Returning Officer was called into question after he allegedly allowed a scrutineer to alter ballots in favour of his brother, a candidate from the faculty of medicine. The scrutineer said all alterations were made by the returning officer himself. If that wasn’t enough, the President admitted that he had persuaded students from Sydney Teachers’ College to vote for the candidate of his choice. These students denied ever having been approached. All of this dubious electioneering culminated in someone breaking into and burglarising the SRC office safe, where medical ballots, statements, and other assorted evidence were removed and promptly burnt to a crisp outside. Resignations were demanded, a new vote was ordered, and SRC elections were never quite the same. Electoral fraud these days just isn’t what it used to be.

As we muse on the jaw-dropping skeletons in the closet from this century, we must not let last century’s bones collect dust. Interrogate the older alum that you know, whose footsteps are barely a smudge on Eastern Avenue – perhaps their minds harbour epics of bigger controversies than 2022 USyd could ever imagine. Once the book of secrets is opened, no force can glue its pages shut.

Filed under: