by Michael Shelford, 13th May 2018.
When 28 year old convicted burglar, safe cracker, cop shooter and gaol breaker James Henry Townley was doing time in Pentridge Prison in 1917, police were investigating the possibility that he may have posted stolen jewellery to friends or relatives in Adelaide prior to his arrest. South Australia Police were quick to downplay the likelihood of relatives being involved, stating that the Townleys were respectable, upstanding citizens and that James was very much the black sheep of the family.
Authorities at Pentridge Prison were intercepting all of his mail and amongst what they passed on to police was this heart wrenching letter from his mother:
“My dear son Jim,
I have been daily expecting a few lines from you and as it has not come I feel that I must write to you. Perhaps you do not like to write to me on account of the latest trouble you are in, but you must when you get the opportunity because it will help me to bear it better. I am your mother and I love you with undying love and shall always be the same to you while life lasts. I do not pretend to understand this new calamity or why it has befallen you, but it has to be borne somehow. Your brother Herbert is to be married in less than a fortnight. I hope you will be very happy. He has been engaged a long time, but I did not expect it quite so soon. Ted and family send their love to you. I think Ted would like you to write to him – he is very unhappy about you. Lily sends her love. I send to you my heartfelt love for you are very dear to me.
With love from all,
I remain ever the same, Your loving mother
A beautiful depiction of a mother’s unwavering love for her child. Happy Mother’s Day from Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.
© Michael Shelford 2018
Race day has always seemed to do something funny to people’s brains. They wake up expecting to lose money and generally do so without complaint. For this reason, the major racing events around Australia were once frequented by what the police used to refer to as ‘the travelling class of magsmen’. They were the swindlers who would journey by ship or train between the major racing events to take advantage of the race day crowds.
There was an assortment of ways in which to fool people out of their money. The ‘pea and thimble men’ enticed the crowd into betting on which thimble (or shell) the pea was under. The '3 card trick men' would tempt people to guess which card out of 3 was the red one - sleight of hand would mean that it was never the most obvious choice. There were men with portable roulette wheels and a table cloth printed with coloured, numbered squares. They would spread the cloth out like a picnic blanket so that punters could put their money on whichever number or colour they thought would win. There were countless types of magsmen at the races. If there was a way to ease someone of their money these guys had already thought of it, perfected it and taught it to others. All of their equipment was designed for a hasty pack-up because they always operated under the nose of the police who patrolled the racecourse flats.
In the week leading up to the 1884 Melbourne Cup, the police did a last-minute sweep of the usual haunts and arrested over 20 of the best-known magsmen in town and charged them with vagrancy. This was not unusual practice and it was quite clever. Leaving things to the last minute meant that the magsmen would be in prison awaiting trial whilst the Melbourne Cup was held. Best case scenario they were convicted and sentenced to time in prison, worst case scenario they were off the streets until the Cup was over and thus unable to fleece the crowds.
On this occasion, all were convicted and sentenced except a slippery customer called Thomas Carmody. He provided evidence that he owned property in Gippsland, thus convincing the judge that he had lawful means of support. Sergeant Thomas Nixon, who’d been in charge of the operation, said of Carmody in his later report: “This man is one of the oldest magsmen in the City and has been before the Court frequently on various charges of obtaining money by means of the Matchbox Trick and other similar games. (Sergeant Thomas Nixon, Police Report entitled ‘Magsmen’, 10th December 1884).
Carmody, who was born in Ireland in 1827, had given many demonstrations of the ‘matchbox trick’ over the years, one of which was detailed in the Argus newspaper back in 1873. Nathaniel Ellis, a young farmer from Diamond Creek, was in Melbourne for business and had bumped into Thomas Carmody whilst walking along Bourke Street. Carmody introduced himself and explained that he was just recently arrived from country Victoria as well. Ellis was happy to meet another fellow from the bush and they walked about in amiable conversation until lunch time. Carmody then suggested that they go into the Australian Felix Hotel, (the building is still there on the corner of Bourke and Russell St), for a parting drink. Ellis explained that he was a member of the Order of Rechabites, and thus a non-drinker. Carmody responded by saying that he never touched anything stronger than sarsaparilla himself and on this note the two abstainers entered the venue to drink each other’s tee-totalling health. Not long afterwards a stranger entered the pub and threw a matchbox on the counter. Carmody asked him for a match and the stranger threw him the box so that he could take his own. Try as he could though, Carmody couldn’t work out how to get the matchbox open. The stranger opened it, withdrew a match, tossed it to Carmody and then strolled outside for some air. While he was away, Carmody fiddled with the intricate box and managed to get it open. He then said to his new chum, Ellis, that now that they’d worked out how to open it, they should bet the man that they could do the same when he returned. When the man came back he didn’t believe that they knew the secret to opening his matchbox and kindly accepted a £10 bet from Carmody and £5 from Ellis. Unfortunately for Ellis, Carmody had forgotten his method and they both lost their money. Carmody had, of course, been working in concert with the stranger to achieve £5 profit. He was arrested later that day when Ellis saw him on the street and pointed him out to police. Carmody claimed in court that Ellis had lost his money at a game of skill and the charges were dismissed. This was one of the smaller profits for Carmody and his gang that year, having succeeded in fleecing other men of £50 and £100 at a time.
by Michael Shelford © 2017
In 1915, the Victorian police, under direction of Chief Commissioner Sainsbury, launched an undercover operation against Melbourne’s fortune telling industry. There'd been a number of recent complaints in regard to clairvoyants, palm readers, spiritualists and others who profited financially by claiming to predict the future. It was seen by the law at the time that such industries were fraudulent and made money by imposing on vulnerable people.
The operation revolved around the employment of 2 female agents who were assigned to collect evidence by posing as customers. The regular detectives from the Criminal Investigation Branch had experienced difficulty infiltrating the fortune telling networks as the mystics were always on their guard. Most of their customers were female and all police were male which meant that any strange male customers were immediately treated with suspicion.
Police Agents Georgina Daniell and Eva Asplin, were each paid £2.10 per week and were employed for a term of 16 weeks. Over this period they obtained substantial evidence against fortune tellers in Melbourne, Port Melbourne, South Yarra, Prahran, St Kilda, Caulfield, Fitzroy, Brunswick, Carlton and Yarraville.
The evidence culminated in 23 convictions and a return of £105 in fines.
Included on the list of convicted persons were such intriguing names as Madam Zingalle, Madam Zephey, Madam Orion, Madam Le Green and - the one and only Madam Reprah.
Alice Harper had adopted the pseudonym Madam Reprah back in the 1890's, 'Reprah' simply being the letters of Harper placed in reverse.
She specialised in 'character assessments': the reading of a person’s character “by a series of mind-pictures which are formed on the brain of each subject by the various influences that have affected the life of the individual.” Much of her career had been spent on the road, travelling from town to town, advertising her arrival in the newspapers and giving lectures at local halls. Her lectures on psychology, physiognomy (face reading), and phrenology (character reading by shape of the head), were free apart from a collection to cover travel and accommodation expenses. She would then remain in town for 7 days to give locals an opportunity to visit her for private, paid consultations. She had many happy customers, including those in influential circles, and held a loyal following throughout Australia. She had lately been showing signs of wanting to settle down and had just done a stint in a bricks and mortar store in Western Australia. Work must have been slowing down in the West so it was next stop Melbourne.
Whilst In the process of setting up her shop at 352 Chapel St, South Yarra, Madam Reprah thought it pertinent to visit Chief Commissioner Sainsbury to enquire as to whether her business would be permitted under law by the Melbourne police. She was known to be an engaging conversationalist and to have a charming educated, air. Sainsbury, a former head of detectives, obviously enjoyed the meeting but hesitated when it came to granting specific police permission to conduct a business which pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in Australia at the time. Madam Reprah, a character reader by trade, sensed his hesitation and countered it by inviting him to send an undercover detective for a surprise consultation. This way a truthful representation of her services could be ascertained.
Three weeks later Detective Bell was sent on a visit to her shop. He pretended to be a customer from the street and felt confident that his cover had not been blown, even though Madam Reprah remarked that the shape of his feet would have made him good for chasing criminals. He returned to the detective office with his written character reading and handed it to the head of the Criminal Investigation Branch, Sub Inspector O'Donnell. O'Donnell studied the reading before passing it on to the Chief Commissioner together with a report that gave his opinion of its contents. The Chief Commissioner then penned Madam Reprah a letter on Victoria Police letterhead:
Chief Commissioner’s Office
In reply to your verbal query I have to inform you that the manner in which you conduct your business is within the law.
You may be pleased to hear the result of the test I subjected you to per medium of Detective Bell.
The officer who has charge of the detectives in submitting his report to me says:
“This lady seems to be a genius. Her deliberation of the character, disposition and peculiarities of Bell is fairly correct”,
and in this I concur,
I am, yours faithfully,
A G Sainsbury CCP.
When the Chief Commissioner sent this letter he did not expect that Madame Reprah would put it up for display in her shop front window. After news that she had done so filtered back, Chief Commissioner Sainsbury hurriedly wrote the following memo:
“It has been reported to me that Madam Harper of 352 Chapel Street has exhibited in a window a copy or extract of a communication sent her from this office some months ago. As this is not the purpose for which Madame Harper was communicated with, cause her to be notified that the document will have to be withdrawn from the view of the public at once.”
On the reverse of the memo, Constable R Halpin replied:
“I have to report that I interviewed Madam Harper (otherwise Madam Reprah) on the 3rd inst., and when requested she at once removed the communication from the window, and said that she will not exhibit it again.”
Although Madame Reprah removed the letter from display, she didn't throw it away. She felt that it would come in handy one day and this it did. The following year she was caught up in the aforementioned raids of 1915 and used the letter in court as evidence that she had been trading in goodwill. This was a very embarrassing time for the Chief Commissioner. He was subpoenaed to appear at her trial and faced questions as to why he had given her permission to conduct a business that she was now being prosecuted for. When called to the witness stand he refused to turn to face the Bench of Justices even when directed by them to do so. This earned him a rebuke from the Chair. Another of the magistrates reprimanded him for handing out written testimonials to business-keepers of her type. His boss in parliament, the Chief Secretary, was not impressed either, saying that he thought the Chief Commissioner had “made a great mistake.”
Police blunder or not, Madame Reprah was convicted of 'Imposition by subtle craft' and fined £7 10/ with £5 5/ costs . She would continue to conduct her career in other locations, including New Zealand where she was also fined for fortune telling in 1921. By 1926, still trading under the name Madam Reprah, she was teaching piano and music theory in Sydney.
Chief Commissioner Sainsbury would remain at the helm of the Victoria Police until his retirement in 1919.
by Michael Shelford © 2017
*Alice Harper alias Madame Reprah was a woman of many exceptional talents and lived an amazing life. She was a public speaker, elocutionist, artist’s model, actress, musician, piano teacher, school teacher, hypnotist and an encyclopedia on psychology, phrenology and physiognomy. She also put herself in trances and gave demonstrations during which she claimed to be communicating with the dead. She was mother to the famous poet Anna Wickham.
Further reading: Anna Wickham: A Poet's Daring Life
By Jennifer Vaughan Jones
A New Matrix for Modernism: A Study of the Lives and Poetry of Charlotte Mew ...
By Nelljean Rice
A cunning way to make a quid had the old ‘racecourse whisperer’. Get into a conversation with a stranger, inform him that you’re in the know, that you’ve been chatting to a horse owner, a jockey … a stable hand. You tell him there’s a sure thing running in race 5, maybe it’s a rigged race … one of the donkeys has been juiced … or one of the champs has been doped. He gets all excited and plonks 50 quid on the nose. If he wins you go have a chat with him just after he’s collected. He’ll be so happy he’ll give you a tenner for sure, maybe another tenner if you give him a tip for race 6. If he loses, you avoid him at all costs and go catch up with that other fella instead - the one you advised to back a different horse.
By Michael Shelford ©,
Caulfield Cup Eve, 2017
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, con-men, card sharpers and common thieves used to meet the country trains at Flinders Street Station in the hope of befriending a mug. They’d be looking for a shearer, a miner, a farmer - anyone with wide eyes and a fat purse would do.
The con-man might choose the ‘inheritance from a rich uncle in Fiji’ story or the ‘buy shares in a sheep station’ yarn.
The card-sharper often used the ‘silly man trick’ to entice mugs into playing cards for money.
The common thief would try to entice the mug into a pub crawl. There’d be lots of friendly banter, they’d take turns shouting drinks and it would be a very pleasant afternoon until the mug from out of town started to show signs of intoxication. The thief would then explain that he knows a shortcut to another pub and next thing the mug knew he'd be waking up in a back-lane with a bump on his head and empty pockets.
“If I didn’t take it he’d be returning to his wife with an empty purse and a bad case of syphilis”, the thief would muse, “now, at least, he’s only going to be returning with an empty purse.”
If you were met by a friendly stranger on the country platform, in this era, it was best to politely decline any offers to be shown about the town.
By Michael Shelford, 2017.
For today, Friday the 13th October, I thought I’d share with you something I came across whilst going through the old police files at Public Record Office of Victoria.
In 1904, West Melbourne Grocer, Richard Jefferson Edwards, received a death threat from an anonymous letter writer using the pseudonym ‘Guy Fawkes’. It was written in a cursive style not unlike some dark-metal fonts of today. Edwards disregarded the threat as a hoax until he was tipped off that it may well have been written with serious intent. Attached above are the photos I took of the threatening letter and Edwards’ note to police.
"Beware! Thy days are numbered!
Prepare for Hell!
PS One man, one business
signed Guy Fawkes.
Tremble thou cutter!
for ye shall likewise be cut down,
like unto a tree,
by Guy Fawkes’ terrible hand
Thou shalt either live and let live
or thieve and be blown up.
Was it from a disgruntled former employee? The mention of cheap labour in the drawing of the coffin could be a clue to this. Could it have been a business associate? Could the Guy Fawkes theme have been symbolic of religious differences?
The outcome of the investigation is not known but Edwards lived right through until 1957 and the ripe old age of 92.
His days may have been numbered but the sum was substantial.
by Michael Shelford, Friday 13th October 2017
by Michael Shelford © 2017
Thomas Dunn was a detective under the temporary employ of Customs in 1896. He had a thirst for liquor and was determined in his efforts to quench it.
In the last few decades prior to Australia’s 1901 Federation, the responsibility for enforcing Victoria’s liquor licensing laws lay in the hands of the Customs Department. During this period, evidence in regard to breaches of licensing regulations was collected through the use of revenue detectives.
Revenue detectives were usually private contractors engaged by Customs. Their methods were of a surreptitious nature and thus kept hoteliers, wine saloon keepers, restaurateurs and other purveyors of intoxicating fluids in a constant state of watchful anticipation. They posed as customers to gain entry to licensed and unlicensed premises, often using inventive disguises including that of the sailor, soldier and clergyman. Once inside an establishment, they were known to use the tactics of the agent provocateur - actively encouraging a proprietor or staff member to break the law so that there was a case to prosecute. The infractions could include anything from trading without a license through to selling relabelled, watered down or otherwise inferior beverages. The remit of the revenue detector also extended to gathering evidence of the improper behaviour of premises such as trading outside of licensing hours or allowing convicted criminals and ‘women of ill repute’ to frequent the premises.
The job was a pretty good racket for those who enjoyed a tipple as they often got to sup on the public purse for weeks or months on end and were paid quite handsomely for the privilege. They were generally strangers to the district which meant there was less chance of their cover being blown. They were often alcoholics with a criminal record which made them typical of the type of customer expected at certain establishments. Once the matter got to court they were not always the most reliable of witnesses. Their criminal past was regularly unveiled by the defence and their recollections as to what had occurred during their drunken evidence gathering expeditions often turned out to be hazy.
One such revenue detective was Thomas Dunn. A formerly respectable citizen, he had fallen from grace due to his use of fraudulent cheques and was subsequently employed by the Customs Department in 1896. His role was to work on licensing cases under the direction of the famous Customs officer: Detective Inspector John Christie. It wasn’t long before Christie began to notice character traits in Dunn which suggested that he was not a man particularly suited to the role. He exhibited an extraordinary thirst for the product he was investigating, resulting in a constant state of extreme intoxication. Detective Christie dispensed with Dunn’s services within 2 weeks of having hired him.
Though Dunn had lost his job at Customs he wasn’t ready to give up his responsibilities. He continued striving to ensure that Melbourne’s liquor supplies were up to standard by posing as a Customs Officer and visiting the many hotels and bars about the suburbs. The drunken former detective found that publicans were quite prepared to do their civic duty by providing samples of their booze for his evaluation.
Things went well for the first month but inevitably someone was going to become suspicious and question his credentials. The first business to notify the authorities was the Tankerville Arms in Fitzroy. Dunn had attempted to use his influence as a faux Customs agent to coerce bar staff into providing him with a couple of free bottles of liquor to take away. They refused to acquiesce and instead reported the matter to the police.
Whilst the authorities were investigating this potential misdemeanour, Dunn entered the Village Belle Hotel in Abbotsford and represented himself as an officer of the Excise Department. He announced that he wished to test the stock and was subsequently presented with 4 clean glasses. He began by sampling a light rum and a dark rum. He then tested a large nobbler of JDKZ Gin and one of Hennessy’s Brandy, drinking each specimen neat and commenting that he found them to be true and correct. He was especially enamoured with the dark rum, telling the barmaid that it was 45% proof and that it could take a little water if the establishment wished to increase their profit margin. At this point the licensee arrived and Dunn introduced himself and again explained his purpose. He had verified the hard liquors but would also need to test the tap beer. He directed the publican to pour him a long glass which he promptly drained before requesting another, one glass not being sufficient to properly sample the quality. The licensee became suspicious and asked why a hydrometer was not being used to test the liquors. He also suggested that it may be an opportune time for Dunn to produce his certification. Dunn explained that he did not have his equipment or paperwork with him but to save the establishment going through the same rigorous tests again he called for a pen and paper. Once the requested items had arrived he proceeded to write: “I certify to you that I have examined the liquors in your bar, and have found them all correct, Thomas Dunn, Customs House.” He then handed the document to the incredulous publican who responded by sending for the police. When Dunn learned that he was being detained awaiting the arrival of the men in blue he threatened to hit the licensee with a loaded stick. His evaluation of the purity of the spirituous liquors was soon proven to be correct though, causing him to slump into a seated position.
In court, he claimed that he had never been given notice of dismissal by Detective Christie and so, still believed himself to be in the employ of Customs House. An official letter from Detective Christie to the court persuaded the judge otherwise and Dunn was found guilty on 2 charges of imposition and 1 charge of attempted imposition. He was sentenced to 9 months hard labour at Old Melbourne Gaol. He was granted freedom by remission after serving 7 ½ months of his term.
As this was Thomas Dunn’s only prison record in the State of Victoria, it could be assumed that the punishment had a sobering effect.
by Michael Shelford © 2017
In December 1913, notorious burglar and safe breaker, John Clarke, mystified Victoria Police by disappearing from the holding cell at the Melbourne City Court. Clarke was there to face trial after having been arrested by the famous Detective Sergeant Michael ‘Joe’ Bannon for the theft of two bales of wool valued at £30. On the morning of his hearing he was taken from gaol to the courthouse in the prison van known as the ‘Black Maria’. From the Black Maria, he and his fellow prisoners were transferred to the holding cell within the court complex. There were five male prisoners in all, each awaiting their turn to be called. Orders were that they be kept under constant supervision by uniformed police.
The following excerpt from a report by Inspector Patrick Canty helps to shed some light on what occurred that day:
“On 22nd December 1913, five male prisoners, including John Clarke, were placed in a cell at the Temporary City Court and the key to the cell was then given to Constable Loughnan, Assistant Watchhouse Keeper, whose duty was to keep them safe until they were handed over to the arresting constable to take them to the court. Four of the male prisoners were thus properly dealt with but the fifth, John Clarke, when called by Detective Sergeant Bannon who arrested him, was nowhere to be seen. Ample evidence was given that Clarke was allowed to remain in the cell after the other four prisoners had been taken from it and that he was not taken into the waiting room leading to the court… evidence was given by a young man named Rose that about 10am that day he saw a man of Clarke’s description jumping down from a wall adjoining the cell and walking into the Law Courts opposite”. (Inspector Patrick Canty, 29th December 1913)
The only way out of the City Court was through the courtroom itself. Clarke had apparently managed to scale an inner wall and then jump to the floor in full view. He had then composed himself enough to walk coolly through the court room, past detectives, uniformed police, barristers, solicitors, court attendants, members of the public and the judge himself, before breezing through the front gate and into freedom.
One can only imagine the chaos that ensued after it was discovered that he was missing. The Undersecretary was demanding answers from the Chief Commissioner, the Chief Commissioner was demanding answers from his Superintendent, the Superintendent was letting fly at anyone within earshot, the Superintendent’s subordinates were pointing the finger at each other and the newspapers were having fun poking ridicule at the lot of them. He needed catching and he needed catching fast.
In the days before modern forensics, security cameras etc. , police detectives relied heavily on intelligence from informants in the underworld. They were encouraged to mix with the criminal community and to make allies of sorts. Sometimes the detectives paid bribes but there were also a lot of crooks who quickly developed loose lips when the alternative was being charged with vagrancy. Word on the movements of John Clarke inevitably made it back to the Criminal Investigation Branch and in this particular case the news was so unique that the detectives were able to formulate a seemingly faultless plan for his recapture. The source had informed them that John Clarke was planning to marry his de facto, Minnie Clarke, at a chapel in Fitzroy. It was to be a Saturday night wedding, set for 9pm. Minnie, a Carlton brothel keeper, had been charged over the same robbery and was out on bail awaiting her trial for receiving the stolen bales of wool.
On the night of the wedding, Detective Sergeant Joe Bannon and Detective Mercer secreted themselves behind pews in the chapel and awaited the arrival of the bridal party. Detective Bannon had been the investigating officer in the wool theft case and had a special interest in recapturing his man. Right on 9pm, two figures entered the darkened chapel: the bride to be Minnie, and on her arm a well-dressed gentleman whom the two detectives assumed to be Clarke. Detective Mercer raced for the chapel door and bolted it shut whilst Bannon rushed at Minnie’s partner exclaiming “we’ve got you this time Clarke!” To their surprise the gentleman sidestepped the rushing detective, and giving a wide grin, said “I’m afraid you’ve been had, I’m not Clarke, I’m the best man.”
Suspecting that Clarke might turn up anyway, the detectives decided that they were all going to sit and wait for him. After 15 minutes had elapsed, they got tired of waiting and ventured outside to have a look around. Seeing two men leaning against the wall of a house further up the street, they pulled their hats down low and walked as casually as possible toward them. When they got within a few feet they recognised one as John Clarke and leapt upon him. Bannon got him in a headlock and Mercer gripped him tightly by the coat. Clarke, who was a wharfie when he wasn’t breaking into shops, was strong and athletic and these qualities proved more than a match for the two burly policemen. They thought they had their man but he suddenly bucked into reverse, smashed them against a fence, then dragged them to the opposite side of the footpath and into a telegraph pole. He then shrugged out of his suit coat and disappeared at speed into the backstreets of Fitzroy. Mercer was left holding Clarke’s coat and Bannon his hat.
John Clarke was eventually recaptured in Freemantle, Western Australia, after Detective Sergeant Bannon paid an informant £5 for information on his whereabouts. Bannon was then sent from Melbourne, along with Constable White, to escort him back. They booked a return passage on SS Zealandia, collected their prisoner and boarded the vessel. During the journey the ship docked at Adelaide for 28 hours and so it was thought best to lock Clarke up in the Port Adelaide watchhouse for the night. Bannon and White delivered him, made sure he was locked up, warned the Adelaide police that he was a slippery customer and then left for the evening. Shortly after his Melbourne escort had bid adieu, Clarke feigned stomach cramps and began to desperately undo the buttons at the back of his trousers as if he were about to explode. He was hastily admitted to the lavatory, from where he accessed the yard, scaled a 12 foot wall and was once again in freedom. Port Adelaide police later reported that the escape was only possible through ”very exceptional agility and unforeseen acrobatic strength”.
Though the Melbourne detectives received the assistance of Adelaide’s entire police force, Clarke could not be found and they returned from their long journey tired and empty-handed. Adelaide police captured him 3 weeks later, however, and Bannon once again set out to collect his man, this time returning from Adelaide with the prize.
Constable Loughman of the City Court was suspended without pay for 7 days, fined £3, made to pay for the costs of witnesses and transferred to another division.
John Clarke was sentenced to 12 months hard labour and his fiancé Minnie got 6 months as well.
On the 13th August 1916, John Clarke alias Dean alias Williamson alias Morse married Minnie Clarke alias Dean alias McKillop alias Burgin. They were hitched in the same Fitzroy chapel and by the same Reverend who had allowed the police to mount their ambush two and a half years previously. The detectives were not invited on this occasion – but they would meet the married couple again.
by Michael Shelford © 2017
On the evening of 25th September 1914, 22 year old dressmaker Olive Buchanan was taking a stroll in her home suburb of South Melbourne when a young man ripped her handbag from her grasp and ran off with it. The police held little chance of identifying the offender as the only description Olive could give was vague: "5 foot 5’, medium build, wore a cap and a light rain-proof overcoat".
Several days later, and much to her surprise, Olive received a parcel in the post which contained her important papers and a hand-written note: “I am sorry now. When I get work will send other things, Yours in Despair.”
The identity of the thief was never discovered; but one would hope that his symbolic attempt at redemption helped to restore a little of Olive's faith in humanity.
The police Criminal Offence Report above has been reproduced with the permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office Victoria, Australia. © State of Victoria through Public Record Office Victoria. VPRS 807, Unit 522, Item 8167. The anonymous letter and envelope have no known author so attaining permission to publish is not feasible in this circumstance. If anyone knows who it was I'd love to find out!
Photographs of these documents were taken by Michael Shelford © 2013.
Charles Smith alias Thomas Watkinson (larrikin bottle thrower). The prison photo above & those in the slideshow below have been reproduced with the permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office Victoria, Australia. © State of Victoria through Public Record Office Victoria. PROV VPRS 515, P0001.
by Michael Shelford © 2017
New Year’s Eve 1884 was not a particularly pleasant experience for Constable John Gleeson of the Collingwood Police. In fact by the early hours of 1885 his shift had turned into a complete nightmare. Collingwood was a tough place to be a cop. The beat police in particular were objects of ridicule and would often be stalked, taunted and sometimes attacked whilst doing their rounds.
From the beginning of the 1870’s right through to the early 1900’s, many of Melbourne’s streets were plagued by gang members who followed a violent subculture known as ‘larrikinism’. Though the fashions evolved a little here and there (e.g baggy trousers into bell-bottoms), the male larrikins of the 1880’s had their own particular style of dress: a broad-rimmed black hat, short black coat with as many pockets and braids as possible - and bell-bottom trousers, tight at the top, flared at the base. From beneath the trouser flares could be seen boots with pointy toes. The boots had high heels which were shod with brass tips for maximum sound effect on the pavement. A lot of the Collingwood larrikins worked in local boot factories and pimped their footwear by sewing in small mirrors or photos of their girlfriends. The larrikins mostly dressed in black, the only other colour in their attire being a bright scarf and occasionally some coloured tassels hanging from the back of their jackets.
The female larrikins, or 'larrikinesses' as they were known, also had their own original fashion styles. Their fashions also evolved over time but one of the popular larrikiness looks included a straw hat with large plumes of Ostrich feathers, a plush velvet jacket, long laced boots to the knees with short skirts to show off the length of the boots. A short parasol was a popular accessory as it doubled as a club during a melee. Their clothing was said to have been of a violent array of colours including purple, puce, violet, scarlet and emerald green, often mixed together.
The larrikins had their own style of music too. It was described by some as an energetic upbeat polka and by others as having the air of an Irish jig. As for the lyrics of their songs, they were considered by outsiders to be made up of unintelligible slang. The larrikins loved to harass people, they loved to dance, they loved to fight and they hated authority.
Gangs were called pushes in Australia during this period, meaning that when someone spoke of a 'larrikin push' they were referring to a gang of larrikins. Collingwood was famous for larrikin pushes during the 1880’s. Its streets were regarded as unsafe for the general populace and downright dangerous if you were wearing a police uniform.
Collingwood’s New Year’s Eve celebrations of 1884 began as expected. The pubs were full to the brim with factory workers, larrikins, convicted criminals and gang members. There were fights and arrests and the alcohol was supplied in abundance. The real trouble began when the drinkers were ejected at closing time. In a report of the evening, Constable John Gleeson referred to being “in the midst of roughs and well known criminals who were mad with drink having been obtaining it in bucketfuls all the night from the various publicans.” After midnight the crowds began celebrating the new year by smashing the shop windows in Wellington St. A local criminal named Colley Mitchell then expressed his dissatisfaction at being on the outside of the pub rather than the inside by hurling a rock and smashing the bar window of the Rose of Denmark Hotel. Road metal was a weapon of choice for the larrikin pushes and Colley Mitchell’s action was like a call to arms for the rest of the thirsty thugs loitering around the streets. Constables Gleeson and Coakley attempted to arrest Mitchell and were immediately showered with rocks by the increasingly ill-tempered crowd. It was the practice of the undermanned police force to call on the assistance of members of the public when in need and on this occasion the man who jumped in to help was an engineer by the name of John Scott. Part of Scott’s police statement read as follows.
“When Constables John Gleeson and Coakley were attempting to arrest a local rough named Colley Mitchell for breaking the windows of the Rose of Denmark Hotel in Wellington St Collingwood, and when on the night in question they were conveying a prisoner named Mitchell to the watchhouse, the police asked me to assist them and I did so. A young man named Charles Smith was charged with unlawfully wounding me. When prisoner Smith was inciting Mitchell to resist arrest there was a crowd of 600 persons present between the hours of 12 and 1am. Prisoner Smith went into the road and picked up a stone and threw it at me knocking a hole through my hat. Prisoner Smith then followed us in the direction of the police station. A piece of broken bottle was thrown at me by prisoner Smith which struck me in the right side of the neck inflicting a lacerated wound 1 ½ inches in length. A great deal of blood had been lost and the wound was a dangerous one and it was a considerable time before I recovered. And Sirs, Constable Gleeson was savagely assaulted by the crowd whilst overpowered, and maltreated by roughs who were attacking him at the time. I myself can accurately vouch that he was struck on the head by a stone, I also saw the lump and felt it on the left side of his head and some of those larrikins had hard wood pickets, pointed, which they dug at us right and left to try and get prisoner Colley Mitchell away from us on our way to the watchhouse.”
(From report compiled in regard to Gleeson’s treatment costs, C3609, 20th April 1895).
To elaborate on John Scott’s statement, the bottle that he copped in the neck cut right through to his windpipe and he lost so much blood that he nearly lost his life. Constable Gleeson left his prisoner in the care of Constable Coakley and waded into the crowd of hundreds to save Scott - all the while being shelled with heavy stones, bottles and brickbats. Eventually other police officers arrived to render assistance.
The blow to Gleeson’s head was a terrific one. It caused a large lump which remained for weeks after the incident. He continued to suffer from severe headaches in the vicinity of where the stone had impacted and after several years he began to have fits and suffer partial paralysis. He was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumour and underwent brain surgery in 1895. The tumour had grown in the area where the heavy stone had struck him. The Chief Commissioner was reticent to accept that the injury had caused the tumour and reluctant to compensate him for his time off work or for the costs of medical treatment. After much deliberation the Chief Commissioner decided to grant him full pay during his recovery from brain surgery. This included therapy to assist in his recovery of speech. He was then transferred to a different role in the force and notified that he would be losing the additional allowance he had been receiving as a Plain Clothes Police Officer.
The two larrikins arrested on the morning of Gleeson’s injury both faced their day in court early in 1885. Colley Mitchell got off lightly by receiving a fine for breaking the window of the Rose of Denmark Hotel. Judge Casey was in no mood for leniency when he sentenced the thrower of the bottle, Charles Smith, however. He sentenced him to 4 years in prison with the first year to be served in irons. The judge later reconsidered his decision and called Smith back, sentencing him instead to 3 years hard labour with regular terms of solitary confinement. The person who threw the stone that hit Gleeson’s head was never identified.
The Victoria Police Valour Award was introduced in 1899, and a retrospective application was made by Gleeson to receive the badge. Chief Commissioner Chomley refused his request point-blank. Gleeson had received the Royal Humane Society Certificate of Merit for saving a life on a separate occasion but it seemed that he yearned for some recognition from his own force for the sacrifices he had made in its service.
In 1917, Constable Gleeson, who was 57 years of age and still serving as a member of the police force, tragically died in his home of a gunshot to the head. Gleeson’s wife said that he hadn’t been sleeping well of late and had complained of pains in his head. He still had a silver plate in his head from the surgery many years before. He was described by his superiors as a sober, steady man who was attentive to his duties. The initial police report stated that the gunshot was apparently self-inflicted but the Coroner’s opinion was that his death was due to an accident. In summing up, the Coroner said that he had known Constable Gleeson very well and had always found him to have a disciplined mind. A broken chair, beneath the shelf on which the gun was kept, suggested that he had climbed up to get his gun to clean or inspect it and that the chair had given way, causing both he and the gun to fall to the floor thus resulting in the accident. Constable Coakley, who had been present on that New Year’s Eve in 1884, was asked to file a report after Gleeson’s death. His report read:
“There is no doubt in my mind that the strike of the stone on that night was the cause of his trouble and he always complained to me about a pain in his head where he was struck. There was nobody arrested for the offence as it was not known who threw the stone - there was such a big mob there. At the time he was operated on there were a lot of inquiries made and the conclusion arrived at by Dr Syme was that the strike of the stone was the cause of the injury to his head.”
(WW1195, 26th January 1917)
Though Constable Gleeson’s death was found to be accidental, other police of the era did take their own lives after suffering from merciless beatings at the hands and feet of larrikin pushes. Constable Glen Lilley received head trauma at a Clifton Hill Cricket game in 1914. A brawl between Clifton Hill supporters and the *Lyric Push of Collingwood had spilled onto the field and the Secretary of the Clifton Hill Cricket Club took the liberty of asking for them to take their rough play to the sidelines. He was punched about the head, fell to the ground and only escaped the mob’s boots when Constable Lilley raced onto the field to rescue him. Constable Lilley then found himself on the ground being kicked from all sides. Lilley was diagnosed with severe concussion, the aftereffects of which took a toll on his normally happy disposition. He reportedly lost interest in everything and became depressed. He took his life with cyanide just 2 months after the event. Several members of the Lyric Push were found guilty of assaulting him but escaped with only a £20 fine.
To give you an idea of what life was like for police during the period of the larrikin push, I’ve included a quote from The Argus newspaper which produced details from the Police Hospital during 1881:
“Constable Shorthill.—Head cut open and ear badly hurt by larrikins in Collingwood. Admitted 24th November, 1880, discharged 23rd March, 1881, for three months' leave of absence; returned to hospital 23rd June, discharged again 23rd July for a month's leave of absence; found incapacitated by medical board on 1st September, and superannuated on half pay.
Constable Hanley.—Injury to ankle in struggling with a rough in Melbourne. Admitted 19th January, 1881, and under treatment until 2nd March.
Constable Webber.—Injury to knee. Knocked down by roughs in Collins-street when arresting a prisoner in February. Attended hospital for 15 months and had ultimately to be superannuated.
Constable Sheridan.—Contused face; city larrikins. Admitted 13th July; under treatment until 26th of same month.
Constable Hannan.—Contused foot, and injury to bones; struggling with Fitzroy larrikins. Admitted 21st February, and in hospital for a month.
Constable Britt.—Haematuria, or bleeding from kidneys. Injury caused by larrikins in Lonsdale-street, who struck him on the back with a brick. Admitted 10th March, discharged 13th May. Back weak ever since and was sprained at a fire in Gippsland October last.
Constable Duross.—Contused face; city larrikins. Admitted 10th May, under treatment until 25th of same month.
Constable Cooney.—Contusions and cuts on face and body; fight near McIntyre-lane. Admitted 11th June, discharged 1st July.
Constable Kinnealy.-Contused head and consequent erysipelas; row in King-street. Admitted 4th July; discharged 18th August.
Constable Mulcahy.-Scalp wound over eye, and consequent erysipelas ; also caused in King-street row. Admitted 12th July; discharged 12th August.
Constable McLiney.-Bruises all over face and body, sustained at the hands of roughs in the back slums of the city. Admitted 14th July, discharged 20th of same month.
Constable McAlinn.-Cataleptic fits, caused through injury to head sustained when tripped up by larrikins in Fitzroy. Admitted after a few days in bed at home on the 1st August, and found incapacitated and superannuated on the 6th September.
Constable Mahony.-Contused knee; city roughs. Admitted 29th August; discharged 23rd September.
Constable Turner.—Injury to ankle; struggling with larrikins. Admitted 2nd October; discharged 6th January.
Constable Vaughan.—Stabs in leg, by larrikin at Hotham. Admitted 4th December; discharged 10th January.
Detective O'Donnell.—Contusions on face and body, got in row in Russell-street between larrikins and police. Admitted 5th December; discharged 24th of the same month.
Constable O'Sullivan.-Contused eye; was struck by a loaded cane by a sailor in Sandridge. Admitted 27th December; still in hospital.
Constable Maxwell.-Severe scalp wound, struck with a brick when arresting a man in Little Bourke-street. Admitted 28th December; still in hospital.
Constable Hallinan.-Injury to thigh, Little Bourke-street row. Admitted 31st December; still in hospital.
Constable Moore.-Contused eye, row in Collingwood. Admitted 1st January, and under treatment until the 9th inst.
Constable Callender.-Contused knee, Collingwood row. Admitted 2nd January; discharged 15th inst.
Constable Waldron.-Contusions on body, city duty. Admitted 4th inst.; discharged 9th.
Constable Smith.—Contusions on face, head, and body, done by larrikins in Carlton. Admitted Monday last; still in hospital.
If more facts were wanted, we could point to one constable (O'Grady) who some two years ago was overpowered by larrikins, and whose leg they stretched over the water channel in Little Bourke-street, and whilst a number held him down one fellow deliberately jumped on the limb until he broke it; or to scores of policemen who bear scars representing wounds inflicted by stones, "sling shot," and the knife-marks which can never be effaced.”
(The Argus, 20th January 1882)
(Note from author) The media always seem to propagate the idea that crime and violence is on the increase but we only have to take a look back to see that such things have been around for quite some time. The newspapers of 100 years ago used to propagate the same idea. Maybe it’s a human trait, maybe it sells more newspapers.
*The Lyric Push were a Collingwood gang from the early 1900's. They were named after the Lyric Theatre, where they often assembled to cause trouble. The Lyric Theatre at 247 Johnston St, Fitzroy is still there but will soon be demolished to make way for apartments. If you haven't seen it try to get a sneak peak soon.
I’ve added a few links at the bottom of this page for those who suffer or know someone who suffers from depression or head trauma: anyone who could do with some help really. I also added a link to the Blue Ribbon Foundation who do great work in remembering police who have died in the line of duty in Victoria.
If you are feeling distressed and in need of immediate assistance, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
The Black Dog Institute is a not-for-profit organisation and world leader in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder. http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
Founded in 1986, Brain Injury Australia is the central clearinghouse of information and gateway to nationwide referral for optimising the social and economic participation of all Australians living with brain injury. http://www.braininjuryaustralia.org.au/
The Blue Ribbon Foundation works to commemorate police who have died in Victoria in the line of duty http://www.remember.org.au/
Michael Shelford is a writer who specialises in Australian true crime. He is currently completing a book on Melbourne's crime scene c1890's to 1920's. He is also the creator and guide for the walking tour company Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.