Melbourne’s Theatre Royal was a place of prestige for theatre goers - and a reliable source of income for the notorious ‘Bourke Street Rats' gang.
By Michael Shelford © 2018
The new Theatre Royal, 234 Bourke St, was built by actor, entrepreneur and politician George Coppin, after the last one had burnt down in 1872. It was a place of prestige, the venue for many of Melbourne’s most popular theatre productions - and also contained a number of ornately furnished and ‘well attended’ drinking bars.
These bars were frequented by wealthy visitors to Melbourne, persons with money to splurge and plenty of spare time to do so. The toilet closets were out on the eastern side, in an area which was open to Latrobe Place, a right of way which still connects Bourke and Little Bourke Streets today. Latrobe Place was not a place you wanted to be 120 years ago. It was the favourite haunt of a gang of pickpockets and garrotters known as the 'Bourke Street Rats' or ‘Rats Push’. Their sobriquet included the words ‘Bourke Street’ because of their predilection for robbing people around the theatre district of Bourke Street and ‘Rats’ because they disappeared like rats into the nearby alleys and laneways after the deed was done. The toilets of the Theatre Royal were, to the Bourke Street Rats, a gift that kept on giving.
In 1899, a man by the name of Ullett, who had taken on the task of a lengthy bender with great application and resolve, got arrested for drunkenness, and then complained that the police must have robbed him of his wallet containing £30 at the lockup. The police retraced his booze-affected steps with the assistance of bar tenders, drinking companions and other witnesses - and then reported that there was no doubt his wallet had gone missing "due to the fact of his leaving the Bar so frequently to go to the back premises where it is well known to us that several of the Rats Push are in the habit of frequenting, also spielers and doubtful characters who are always on the watch for drunken persons and no doubt he must have fallen into the hands of this trap."
The famous criminal, Leslie ‘Squizzy’ Taylor, would later join the same ‘Rats Push’ gang of thieves. Squizzy was charged with robbing a man in the back toilets of the Oxford Hotel on Lonsdale Street in 1907. He had been seen by the hotel publican in the toilets at the time that a drunken man was garrotted and robbed. Squizzy was found not guilty but police were of no doubt that he’d been one of those who had choked the victim into a state of insensibility before relieving him of his funds.
The Theatre Royal was demolished in 1933 and replaced by Manton’s Department Store, then Coles and then Target. The Target Centre still occupies the same space.
Latrobe Place will be a feature on the upcoming Chinatown night tours. Dates to be announced shortly.
by Michael Shelford © 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.
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.