In 1918, several Melbourne Police Officers found themselves under investigation after they were discovered in a brothel by their supervisor during an internal investigation.
By Michael Shelford © 2018
In the years spent trawling through the historic police files at Public Record Office of Victoria, I’ve come across a lot of cases of alleged impropriety by police officers. Such occurrences are to be expected within any large organisation, but within an organisation such as the Police, where the accused are the enforcers of law, it should be of no surprise that matters were generally investigated internally - and the outcomes, guilty or otherwise, kept away from the newspapers where possible.
One of the more interesting files of this nature was an investigation into anonymous letters, received by the Chief Commissioner of Police in 1918. The letters alleged that two plain clothes police officers were in the habit of spending part of their shift each night, in the brothel-beds of ‘Fat Mona’ and ‘Barber Lil’.
In November 1918, when Melbourne’s old inner-city brothel district, ‘Little Lon’, was still in full swing, number 56 Lonsdale St, a building long since demolished, was a brothel disguised as a lolly shop. It was Mona's place of business at the time, and the focus of the subsequent investigation. The first of the aforementioned letters received by Chief Commissioner Sainsbury outlined the allegations as follows:
Sir I must bring under your notice the way Constables Skipper & Randle are carrying on when they are on night patrol. They meet the Officer at midnight and then they go to bed with 2 prostitutes until early morning. Randle sleeps with a woman known as ‘Fat Mona’, 56 Lonsdale St. And Skipper with ‘Barber Lils’, 22 Lonsdale St. This is only when they are on night patrol, midnight until morning. Hoping you will have them watched,
I remain yours,
One who has seen them.”
A second letter arrived, also in November 1918, and read:
Sir I must inform you of the conduct of your night patrol, Skipper and Randle. They meet their Officer at midnight and then they go to 56 Lonsdale St and sleep with 2 well known harlots till early morning and come out in time to go off duty … Are we paying them to sleep with women of the town? Hoping you have them watched and dealt with before we take it to the Truth (newspaper).
I am yours,
As a result of the correspondence, Senior Constable Campbell decided to keep Mona's place under surveillance. His subsequent report stated:
“I have to report that no. 56 Lonsdale St is a brothel kept by a woman known as ‘Mona’, although outward appearances indicate the house to be a confectionery shop. I received attached anonymous letters for attention on Friday evening last and on that same night I, at intervals, kept the house under surveillance but saw nothing unusual … On this morning (Sunday) at about 2 a.m. I took up a position in Leichardt St where I had a full view of the back entrance to 56 Lonsdale St … I could hear men and women conversing in the back room of the house which was close to where I was standing. After a little while I could easily distinguish the voices of Constables Skipper & Randle, although I could not phrase any of the conversation. At 3.30 a.m. the back door was opened and I heard Constable Randle say “We must be going.” Constables Randle and Skipper then opened the back gate and, as they did so, I entered. I walked into the back room and said to the woman ‘Mona’ “Are you the occupier of this house?” She replied “Yes”. I said “What are these men (meaning the Constables) doing here?” She said “We were having a Birthday and they came in to growl at us.” I saw no signs of liquor about but there were 3 women there besides ‘Mona’, 2 of whom I know as prostitutes. I came out and said to the Constables “This is nice conduct being in a house of that class and neglecting your work.” Constable Skipper said “I’m sure we work hard enough and if you do not go into these places you can get no information - and you are looked on as a bit of a ‘Nark’ if you don’t speak to them.” Constable Randle said “We were not there long and I am sure you don’t think we were there for any bad purpose.” I said “The Chief Commissioner has received anonymous complaints about you frequenting this house and sleeping with 2 women there.” The Constables strictly denied this assertion … I do not believe that there was any sexual impropriety in the Constables’ visits to this house but I do believe that they were foolish and indiscreet enough to visit this brothel unnecessarily and gossip with the inmates for periods of perhaps, at the outside, an hour during the night and some person in the neighbourhood, hostile to them, has greatly magnified matters with a view to having them found in the brothel.”
Though the internal investigation deemed that the constables' behaviour was suspicious, Mona, when further questioned, backed up their story by saying that they’d entered her place on the night in question to tell her to turn down her gramophone. Her gramophone was a very loud one, she’d said, and they’d knocked on the door to rebuke her for making too much noise. They’d then remained chatting for 20 minutes before leaving via the back, just as Senior Constable Campbell entered. She also said that police regularly entered and left her premises in the same manner as Constables Skipper and Randle had done and that no impropriety occurred.
Investigators were unable to trace the authors of the anonymous letters, so the claims in relation to the regularity of their visits were seen as unsubstantiated. Senior Constable Campbell also said in his report that it was impossible for the constables to spend from midnight until the end of their shift in bed with prostitutes. He pointed out that he visited the slum portion of the city at least 3 times per night and that it was rare that he was unable to find them. “I do not for a moment believe that there was any sexual impropriety in the constables’ visits to this house but I do believe they were foolish and indiscreet enough to visit this brothel unnecessarily and gossip with the inmates for periods of perhaps, at the outside, an hour during the night and some person in the neighbourhood, hostile to them, has greatly magnified matters with a view to having them found in the brothel, M Campbell, Senior Constable 4400, 24th November 1918.”
The end result of the investigation is best explained in the words of the persons in charge of making the final decision and enforcing it:
“Inspector Superintendent Davidson
Forwarded to the Chief Commissioner.
Whilst giving these constables credit for not being guilty of immoral conduct, I think it is clearly shown they spent too much time in this brothel. There can be no doubt, I think, but they were there for at least an hour on the morning Senior Constable Campbell found them there. On account of their previous good record, I am of the opinion the case can be met with a transfer to another block in the City, and not contiguous to the one now under notice. I recommend accordingly.”
“Russell Street Headquarters 13/12/1918
Noted and returned
Const Randle and Skipper were taken off the Plain Clothes patrol and placed on No. 1 Section, which is not in the locality of the premises subject to this complaint.
Sergeant N K Grange.”
In July 1917, a girl was featured in a Melbourne newspaper as the lucky winner of a cash prize. The only problem was that she was next to her mother in the photo, and her mother was wanted by the law.
by Michael Shelford © 2018
In July 1917, the daughter of Gertrude Burns won a competition. She had been snapped in a crowd photo at the Moonee Valley Races by ‘The Winner’, sports newspaper, and the photo published with a circle around it. Beneath the photo were what would normally have been the welcome words: “Any person whose face is ringed in the picture is entitled to a reward of 5/.”
It just so happened that next to her in the same photo was her mother - and her mother had a warrant out for her arrest. This did not go unnoticed by the police, who recognised her as the person wanted for twice robbing the licensee of the Bridge Hotel, in Richmond, by use of fraudulent cheques. They cut out the clipping, placed a cross on Gertrude’s face and included it in the case file as a clue.
It’s not known whether Gertrude’s daughter ever collected her prize but the police finally collected theirs 9 months later when Gertrude was arrested in Melbourne.
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.