Founded in 1923 as a branch of the London-based English Association, the Sydney branch of the English Association (known until 1944 as the Australian English Association) pursued the primary objective of preserving the purity of English in both written and spoken forms. In 1936, a four-page 'Bulletin' was produced to promote these objectives. This format was expanded three years later to include articles, reviews, and news about the association in a 40-page journal called Southerly. The title was designed to suggest the relation that the journal had with English literary traditions. It also evoked the refreshing winds of Sydney's 'southerly buster' that sometimes develop into a destructive natural force. The significance of the title was augmented when the now familiar Hugh McCrae (q.v.) sketch of Auster, spirit of the South Wind, was first displayed as a motif in 1946.
R. G. Howarth (q.v.), a lecturer in English at the University of Sydney and one of the leading proponents of the journal, was appointed founding editor, a position he held until 1955. The first volumes of Southerly were completely funded by the Australian English Association. The editors and contributors worked in an honorary capacity, but the costs of production remained a financial burden. This burden was relieved in 1944 when the publishing company Angus & Robertson agreed to take responsibility for the cost and management of publication and distribution. Two years later they also took responsibility for printing Southerly at their Halstead Press, an arrangement that continued until the early 1960s. The English Association received further financial relief in 1952 when it was awarded the first of its ongoing literary grants from the Australian government.
Howarth's editorial policy delivered articles and reviews on both Australian and overseas literature, but this policy drew criticism from members of the Jindyworobak movement for its lack of focus on the local product. Howarth defended his editorial policy in the November issue of 1941, stating that he wished the journal to avoid regionalism or parochialism, thus 'maintaining the cultural good relations that have hitherto subsisted between the mother and the daughter countries.' In time, this policy became less stringent as Australian literature became more widely accepted as a serious field of study.
The physical size of Southerly changed several times during its lifetime, and the number of pages devoted to Australian literature steadily increased from the 40-page issues of the 1940s to regular issues of more than 200 pages in the 1990s. The influence of Howarth's early editorial policies lingered into the 1970s. During the 1940s it was not unusual to see articles on Australian literature beside articles on European poetry and fiction. In 1950, one issue printed the poems of a number of contemporary English poets, but during the 1950s the number of articles on non-Australian subjects gradually decreased. By 1963 readers could expect a strong concentration on Australian writing in major articles by academic writers. But the 'Books Received' column continued to announce the arrival of British and European books, and reviews of such books were common until 1973.
When Howarth left Australia in 1956 for an academic position in South Africa, Southerly was set to change its focus and format. Kenneth Slessor (q.v.) was appointed the second editor of Southerly and responded immediately to its flagging reputation. The critic and literary historian H. M. Green (q.v.) had recently described the journal as 'dull' and 'unadventurous'. To address this, Slessor implemented a number of changes to the format and content, bringing a less academic tone to the journal by inviting contributions from his journalist colleagues and high-profile figures such as the Prime Minister Robert Menzies (q.v.). Most significantly, he added the sub-title 'A Review of Australian Literature', signalling an intention to break from Howarth's early editorial policy.
The support from Angus & Robertson ceased during Slessor's term as editor because of the publisher's reluctance to continue providing labour and equipment at the Halstead Press for no charge. Slessor resigned in frustration after consistent delays and the subsequent absence of issues for 1960. Walter Stone (q.v.) acted as editor following Slessor's departure, printing Southerly at his Wentworth Press, and later taking responsibility for subscriptions and distribution. During the 1970s, the English Association accepted more control of the publishing activities of Southerly, assuming full managerial responsibility after 1985. As in its foundation years, the journal survived the financial difficulties of these transitions with much unpaid labour by members of the English Association.
In 1963, G. A. Wilkes (q.v.) began his long term as editor of Southerly, presiding over a period that saw continued change in the study of Australian literature. The foundation professor of Australian literature at Sydney University, Wilkes broadened the scope of the journal by seeking contributors outside of the Sydney circle of writers employed by Howarth and Slessor. Assisted by the growing university system, this new editorial approach stimulated academic criticism of Australian literature and enabled junior academics to achieve wider exposure. In addition to the development of criticism, Southerly continued to attract contributions of fiction and poetry from some of Australia's best writers. After G. A. Wilkes' retirement in 1987, Elizabeth Webby (q.v.), Professor of Australian literature at Sydney University, edited Southerly until 1999.
In 2000, Southerly renewed its association with the Halstead Press which once again accepted responsibility for subscriptions, publication and distribution. This arrangement allowed the new editors, Noel Rowe (q.v.) and David Brooks (q.v.), to concentrate on the planning and contents of each issue, beginning a new phase in the journal's ongoing contribution to the study of Australian literature.