A Bag Snatcher's Remorse c.1914
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.