The Law That Was Loved By Criminals (100 year anniversary of the introduction of 6 o’clock closing).
By Michael Shelford © 2016
At the height of WWI, a unit of soldiers kicked in the front door of Squizzy Taylor’s sly grog shop at Little Lonsdale Street and demanded beer. Squizzy’s wife, Dolly Gray, suggested that instead they go to Fitzroy, where they would find all the beer they could drink.
Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the introduction of 6 o’clock closing in Victoria and by default - the beginning of that frantic afternoon tradition known as the 6 o’clock swill. On the 25th of October 1916, the amended Temporary Licensing Restriction Act of 1915 came into practical effect in Victoria. It was a law intended to only last the duration of WWI but it would end up hanging around like a bad smell for almost 50 years.
The liquor trade in Australia had been under immense pressure from temperance movements since back in the time when rum was a currency. The agitators, mostly of a conservative Christian base, had long pushed for not only a restriction in the availability of alcohol but a complete prohibition - much like that introduced nationwide in America in 1920. The temperance movement in Australia recognised WWI as the perfect time to push such changes through parliament. It was presented that the hours of liquor trading should be restricted for the health of Australia’s fighting force, and that those who remained at home should practise temperance out of respect for the ones risking their lives at the front. It was also argued that such reform was needed for the good of the nation – both morally and financially. It was promoted as an opportunity to arrest moral decline, decrease alcohol-induced family violence and redirect the flow of bread earner’s wages from the hotel till back into the family larder. The drive for change gathered momentum, and South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria all introduced 6 o’clock closing in the year 1916. Western Australia opted for a more moderate change in 1916 with 9pm closures, whilst Queensland waited until 1923 to implement 6 o’clock closing there.
It would be of no surprise that this law was not very popular amongst drinkers; nor was it the flavour of the month for those in the hotel trade. There was one group of traders however, who were very satisfied with the change. They were the unlicensed vendors already profiting from the illicit sale of alcohol. Melbourne’s inner-suburb of Fitzroy, in particular, had developed a reputation for being a place where you could whet your thirst outside of trading hours. There were a large number of well-established sly grog shops in Fitzroy. The keepers of these establishments had taken advantage of the already existing legislation which required hotels to close on Sundays and after 11pm weeknights.
An organised criminal network had grown and nurtured the sly grog industry in Fitzroy for over a decade and by 1916 it was well managed and tightly controlled. The ‘Fitzroy combine’ were prepared for the introduction of 6 o’clock closing and when it was finally enforced they hit the ground running.
Sly grog shops in Fitzroy were generally just normal rented houses. Some were set up like licensed bars – with beer on tap, fresh glasses, glass washing facilities, bar room furniture, a kitchen with a maid making fresh sandwiches and a piano man for singalongs. At the other end of the spectrum were establishments often bereft of furniture, with perhaps some wooden crates for seating and a few filthy mattresses for customers to sleep off the booze or to sojourn with one of the prostitutes who worked from these houses. When a customer wandered, or was lured, into such an establishment, they would rarely leave with their valuables. It would be their duty to shout beer for all those present and, if they attempted to leave with money in their pocket, they would be assaulted and robbed in a nearby alley - that’s if they made it that far. One unlucky chap, by the name of James McGuiness, was assaulted in an alley after leaving a Fitzroy sly grog shop known as ‘Porky Walker’s’ in January 1916. His assailants were disappointed to find that he only had £1 on his person and stole his spectacles as well.
Edward ‘Ted’ Whiting had the controlling stake in most of the sly grog shops in Fitzroy. He was the former Australian Middle Weight Champ and was described in police reports as ‘the King of them all’ and in The Age newspaper as ‘the uncrowned King of Fitzroy’. It was known that if someone wanted to open a new sly grog shop in the area, they had to run it by Ted first. If they opened their business without taking up one of his franchise deals, their place would either be smashed up or raided by the police – or both. The whole system was remarkably well run. Houses were leased as depots and occupied by staff. Delivery men, who were insiders, would transfer the alcohol from the wholesaler to the depots. The depots were quietly conducted houses located nearby to the sly grog shops. The sly grog shops would top up their stocks from the depots as required, lessening the risk of conviction in the case of a raid (“We were just having a party, Your Honour, and each person brought along their own beer to drink”). The sly grog operators also had agreements with Marine Collectors: those licensed by the government to collect empty bottles from hotels and restaurants. Their late-night, rear-lane, collections helped the sly groggers avoid the tell-tale sign of having large piles of empties in their backyard. The sly groggers also had the biggest asset a business can hold and that was a brand – the name Fitzroy was already synonymous as an illegal nightclub district and people came from near and far to avail themselves of what there was to offer.
In February 1916, Constables Berriman and O’Keefe, both stationed at Russell St Police Headquarters, were on duty in the Melbourne inner-city red light district known as ‘Little Lon’. They observed a large number of soldiers coming out of Exhibition St into Little Lonsdale St, and moved in when they sensed some trouble. The following is an excerpt from the written report of Constable Arthur Berriman, 6th February 1916.
“On Tuesday night the 1st instant about 10.30pm we were on duty in Little Lonsdale Street between Russell Street and Exhibition Streets when I saw a large number of soldiers come out of Exhibition Street into Little Lonsdale Street. They went to number 120 Little Lonsdale Street. These premises and the adjoining premises, 122 Little Lonsdale Street are occupied by Dolly Gray who is living with the notorious Leslie Taylor. The soldiers broke in the front door of 120 Little Lonsdale Street, and when we arrived with Constables Fennessey and McCaffrey, the soldiers were saying to Dolly Gray. “This is a sly grog shop and you met us in Lonsdale Street today and you told us, this number - ‘120’ - and said we could get plenty of beer up here at one shilling and sixpence a bottle. Dolly Gray said “You have made a mistake boys.” We ordered them off and after some whispered conversation with Dolly, the ringleaders said “Yes. We have made a mistake and are sorry." They fell in and one of them called out “Quick march to Fitzroy. We can get plenty of beer out there”, and they all marched off towards Fitzroy.”
(Constable Arthur Berriman, 6th February 1916)
As is evidenced by the above quote, it was often the soldiers, those on whose behalf the law was supposedly introduced, that were often the biggest frequenters of the sly grog shops. One of the busiest establishments in Fitzroy was run by a wounded soldier named Victor Ewart. He went by the sobriquet of ‘Anzac’ and his establishment was known as Anzac Cove. Around the corner was a brothel and sly grog shop run by ‘Mum Matthews’ and known as ‘The Dardanelles’. The busiest sly grog district of Fitzroy, just south of the Fitzroy Town Hall, was nicknamed ‘the Narrows’ – arguably a reference to the ‘Dardanelles Narrows’ – a notoriously dangerous 68km strait of water through Turkey which connects the Mediterranean and Black Seas. If ships attempted to travel through this strait in WWI, they could be fired on from the land on both sides. Interestingly, the aforementioned gangster, Squizzy Taylor, was nicknamed ‘The Turk’ and did plenty of shooting of his own in Fitzroy’s ‘Narrows’. Some of the returned servicemen, who were recovering from wounds both physical and mental, became tenants in the sly grog shops and handed their pensions over to the proprietor in return for lodging and as much as they could drink.
As mentioned previously, the 6 o’clock closing legislation also gave rise to the term ‘six o’clock swill’. This referred to the practice of workers making haste to the closest pub after knock-off and knocking down as many beers as they could before being ejected at 6pm. To add to the perfect storm was the introduction of the Licences Reduction Board of 1906. Each year from 1906, suburbs which were seen to have more than their share of pubs would have the number of licenses in their locality reduced. At license renewal time, the pubs that had been fined for trading after hours would usually be first on the list to be culled. This meant that each year there were fewer venue options for post-work drinkers and thus less elbow room at the bar during the rush.
The effect of 6 o’clock closing on the already established sly grog industry in Fitzroy was exponential. Some streets would be so littered with bottles on a Monday morning that pedestrians could barely walk along them. Police reports of the era stated that in the worst streets of Fitzroy, such as Marion St, Fleet St, Little Napier St and Young St, practically all of the houses were sly grog shops or brothels - or a combination of both. And it was into these places that the drinkers would walk after they were turfed from the pubs at 6.
The expansion of the illegal liquor trade brought on other problems for the police, namely - law enforcement and their sworn duty to protect the public. The police were supposed to have unrestricted access to the interior of hotels at any time of the day. Even at 3am in the morning, if a police officer requested entry they were supposed to be allowed entrance without undue delay. The penalties for a licensee who was deemed to refuse or even slow down access to the police were substantial. The sly grog shops on the other hand were conducted in private houses, which meant that the police had no right to enter them without a warrant.
The hoteliers grew more and more furious as they saw a huge portion of their profits spill directly into the black market. They also felt that they were suffering an unfair amount of raids and surveillance compared to their illegal business opponents. In 1918, Emma Foy, the licensee of the Victoria Parade Hotel, (corner of Napier St and Victoria Parade), was fined for trading outside of licensing hours. She had been allowing customers inside the hotel after hours and also selling grog over the back gate. When raided by the police she said “You stop the sly grog shops and I stop the trading. They are everywhere around here.” (Z9843)
The inability of police to gain access to private premises made the sly grog shops a haven for criminals and illegal activity. A good number of these houses were traps for young players and men were robbed and beaten within their walls on a regular basis. Other drinking houses in Fitzroy were open only to criminals; and many large-scale robberies were planned over drinks at their tables.
1919 marked the arrival of a new Chief Commissioner of Police, Sir George Steward. He launched an unrelenting attack on Ted Whiting’s sly grog network and much of it was successfully dismantled. Ted was gaoled for ‘Being the occupier of a house frequented by thieves’, after a raid on his headquarters resulted in not only his arrest but that of 4 members of his gang. Ted’s younger brother, Bunny Whiting, had been gaoled for sly grog earlier the same year. Ted’s main opposition, in the form of Squizzy Taylor, could smell blood too, and just a few months prior to Ted’s imprisonment, he squeezed 7 bullets into the ex-boxer whilst he was sleeping: 6 were later extracted from his head and 1 from his arm. Ted’s surgeon told the newspapers that he had only survived because of his extraordinarily thick skull.
Ted Whiting’s imprisonment, and the breakup of his gang, signalled the end of this particular sly grog monopoly but similar cycles would be played out again and again in the years before the legislation’s eventual repeal in February 1966. There would be many police campaigns against the sly grog trade over that half century but none as intense as that of the first half decade. Many men and women were sent to prison during this initial period, purely for selling alcohol without a license.
In 1954, police estimated that there were 24 sly grog shops operating in the South Fitzroy area. Though a goodly amount, it was only a shadow of the boom time era which had surrounded WWI. The sly grog shops continued to be havens for criminality right through to the 1960’s and maintained their reputation as places where gangster rivalries came to the fore, often at the end of a gun.
On the 1st February 1966, the pubs of Victoria were packed to the hilt with drinkers who’d turned out to celebrate not being turned out. They were again allowed to drink their beers at a respectable pace and they could stay until 11pm if they wanted. The law was over and almost all of the sly grog shops went out of business overnight.
Though pubs will soon be shut at six,
The booze will still be flowing;
The Trade will trump the Wowsers’ tricks,
So little grief it’s showing,
Shebeens spring up in every row;
And will they squelch them? – Never;
For Wowsers come, and Wowsers go,
But booze goes on forever.
(Truth Newspaper, Melbourne edition, 14th October 1916).
Author's note: The former sly grog shop and brothel of Squizzy Taylor still exists in Melbourne’s CBD today. Numbers 120 and 122 Little Lonsdale Street are protected as part of a mini heritage precinct that covers that small streetscape between Bennetts and Exploration Lane, this was done after fear it would be demolished in 2012 when sold. (A special thank you to Melbourne Heritage Action for this confirmation).
By Michael Shelford © 2016
Part II of Margaret Dougan 'Rogue & Vagabond', written and researched by Michael Shelford of Melbourne Historical Crime Tours.
To read Part 1 of this article click on this link or scroll down the page.
Although Margaret Dougan preferred bilking to prostitution, there is no doubt that she actively cultivated the impression that she was a sex worker. She understood that it was more acceptable to pose as a prostitute than to be considered a thief and it also gave her an excuse for loitering in Collins St and other areas of Melbourne’s CBD. As mentioned previously, the penalties for theft from the person were much greater than those for soliciting - so it made sense to profess to be a prostitute in a court of law rather than admit to bilking as a source of income. Many of her side-street pilferings were conducted under the pretence of being a prostitute and took place whilst supposedly negotiating terms for access to her services.
Dougan was insightful, a clever manipulator, and would customise her approach according to the way she read her potential victims. Once she had them in a dark alley she took steps to ensure that they weren’t able to leave without a fuss. She would lock them in embrace by wrapping her legs tightly in and around theirs. This caused their feet to be stuck to the ground and meant they would overbalance if they attempted to back away. Planted to the spot, they faced quite a struggle if they wished to free themselves from her affections. If they persisted in their efforts to disentangle themselves, the scene became chaotic and usually generated some loud and colourful language from Dougan, particularly if she had not yet claimed her booty. Even the drunkest of men realised that if they were seen to be struggling with an upset woman in a dark lane - they were likely to attract the ire of passers-by and maybe even receive a good kicking from someone looking for an excuse to hand out a bit of street justice. And then there were the dangers presented by Dougan herself. On one occasion, when accused of robbery, she picked up a brick and hurled it at the purseless man’s head, only missing it by inches.
Prior to getting a revolver, Dougan’s weapon of choice had generally been the ordinary hatpin. Kept in the quiver of her bouffant, these razor tipped lancers were typically 20cm long and had a decorative pinhead which could be used as a hand grip whilst thrusting.(If you have a look at the 1909 newspaper drawing of Margaret Dougan in the slideshow below, you can see that the artist included her hatpin in their impression). In 1909, when charged with robbing a man in Bourke Street, she explained that she had tripped and grabbed hold of him to prevent herself from falling. She said that he had responded by striking her and fracturing her nose. She went on to explain that: “I drew a hatpin out to defend myself as he was coming to hit me a second time. He caught hold of the hand with a pin in it and threatened me. He took the hatpin from me. I drew another hatpin and made another hit at him on the hand.”
In 1908, another notorious Fitzroy local, Maud Gunter, had driven her hatpin into the side of a Ballarat policeman before giving him a kicking. In 1912, two of Margaret Dougan’s regular partners in crime, Ray Lacey and Doreen Livingstone, were involved in a seven person brawl in the Melbourne red light district known as ‘Little Lon’. Six women and one man partook in the fierce fight. The participants were said to have been duelling with hatpins and manicure implements and the carnage left behind included large amounts of spattered blood and long tufts of hair. Ray Lacey was arrested at the scene but the others managed to escape. Ray Lacey didn’t appreciate the attentions of the arresting officers and fought the two large constables so bravely that they were unable to gain the advantage until a third officer arrived to assist. The Argus newspaper reported that “The woman Lacey threw herself on the ground, and she kicked, swore and struggled, fastening her teeth, so it is alleged, in Constable Anstee’s arm, and making a vicious lunge at him with a sharp pointed instrument belonging to a manicure set. Constable Cooper managed to get hold of this, and after a fierce struggle lasting over half an hour, the woman was bundled into a cab and taken to the Russell Street Police Station. The police then went to the Melbourne Hospital and arrested Walter Johnson and Doreen Livingston, two others who had taken part in the fray. Their clothing was saturated with blood. Johnson complained of having been stabbed in the neck and head with a hatpin, while the woman had large puncture wounds in the arms and head, which it is believed were caused by the manicure instrument.” (The Argus, 29th October 1912).
Both Ray Lacey and Doreen Livingstone had been arrested on various occasions for being part of Margaret Dougan’s ‘act’ - and it was well known that they were her accomplices. How Walter Johnson had become mixed up in this melee was not noted but I know him well from my research. Walter ‘Cul’ Johnson was a member of the Bourke Street Rats or ‘Rats Push’ as they were also known; a criminal street gang which included the likes of the famous gangster Squizzy Taylor. Considering the methods of income employed by the Rats Push, it could be assumed that the women had taken violent exception to this gang’s standover tactics. By the time of the Little Lon brawl Margaret Dougan had armed herself with a revolver - and it goes without saying that the attentions of the Rats Push would have been a very good reason for her doing so.
One month prior to this brawl, Griffith William Tasker, a boot clicker and champion swimmer from Fitzroy, had been walking along Lonsdale St in the city when Dougan grabbed hold of him and refused to let him go. He was a strong healthy young man who’d previously been proclaimed a hero after diving deep into the Swan River to save a woman who had fallen from a pleasure craft and sunken like a stone. Even he, the strongest of swimmers, explained that he had to struggle for three minutes before managing to get away from Dougan. After his escape he stopped to light his pipe and noticed that the end of his neck chain was hanging loose. Attached to the chain had been a sovereign case containing money and two diamond rings. Tasker followed her to a Chinese cookshop and then went for a police officer. When she was searched they didn’t find his valuables but they did find a nickel plated revolver and six cartridges. She was fined £3 for carrying firearms without permission of the authorities and let off on the charge of larceny.
A few months later, Dougan again was found to be carrying a revolver after being arrested for theft from the person of George Bentley in Equitable Lane, just off Collins St. Dougan had called out “Hello sports, want a sweet heart?” and had rushed up to him and given him a hug. Bentley managed to push away, noticed Dougan pass something to another woman, and instantly noticed that his purse missing. He called out to his friend Baxter to make a citizen’s arrest while he went after her accomplice (the accomplice fitted the description of Doreen Livingston - the one injured in the Little Lon hatpin brawl). After struggling with Baxter for a few minutes Dougan managed to reach into her handbag and pull out her revolver. “If you don’t let me go you bastard I’ll shoot you” she said. Baxter’s reaction was not immediate so she repeated herself. About this time Bentley returned puffing and panting. He had been outrun by Dougan’s accomplice. On being released, Dougan placed her gun back in her bag and walked voluntarily with the men to Elizabeth St where a passing Constable was located and she was given in charge. She was relaxed about the situation because the stolen items had left the scene of the crime with her accomplice. Dougan claimed in court that she had only threatened to shoot because she thought the men were going to rob her and that she used the gun to protect the £300 worth of jewellery that she carried in her bodice. Surprisingly, the police returned the revolver to her part way through the trial. She was sentenced to 6 months in prison for larceny but appealed the decision. Three juries then failed to agree before she was finally found not guilty in March 1913 and given her freedom.
During this era there were as many ingenious ways invented to relieve a person of their money as there were mugs to part with it. Two other girls from Fitzroy, Violet Clifford and Maud Manning, worked a daylight scam in downtown Melbourne for years. Their modus operandi was to select a wealthy looking man from the crowd and then create a scene by loudly accusing him of stealing their purse. They would continue to harass him as he walked along the street until, bewildered and embarrassed; he would settle the matter by replacing their ‘lost property’ with a donation. In 1908, a fellow named Ehrlich was harried from the street into the foyer of his lodgings at the Grand Hotel, where the hotel manager said “Give the girl her money or I’ll pitch you out on your head.” Violet Clifford then whispered to Ehrlich “If you don’t square this I’ll give you in charge”, to which he replied incredulously “This is deliberate blackmail, you can go to hell!” When the hotel manager called the police, Violet and Maud felt obliged to stick by their story and Ehrlich found himself in the lockup and then later facing trial in a court of law. After it emerged that Violet and Maud had been involved in other cases of a similar nature, their attorney decided to drop the charges against Ehrlich. In striking out the case, the judge stated that it was one of the more remarkable matters that had ever come before him in the police court.
Dougan’s methods were a lot more refined than the last example and could be re-enacted multiple times on the same night. If she felt that a dupe may return, she could temporarily shift her base to another location in the city. If she didn’t feel like changing locations there were other means by which she could continue her calling for a full shift. She was a trained dressmaker and had transferred these skills to her more recent mode of employment. On one occasion she robbed a drunken man who decided to report it to the police. After taking down the description of the perpetrator: “a pretty woman wearing a conspicuous red dress, red hat and red shoes”, the sleuths from the Criminal Investigation Branch believed that they had her at last. They’d seen Dougan in town earlier that evening - and she’d been completely clad in dazzling red. Detectives were sent to look for her in her usual haunts but when they found her she was not dressed in red, she was suited completely in vibrant blue. She had apparently travelled home for a costume change. When she was presented to the drunken businessman for purposes of identification, he said immediately “no that is not her, she was wearing all red, this lady is dressed in blue.” Later that night another man reported being robbed by a woman dressed in blue.
Dougan had an extraordinary work ethic. A lot of other pickpockets and bilkers would get a decent haul and then lay low or live large until they were short on cash and then they’d go and do it all again. Not Dougan, she was such a constant at the Paris end of Collins St that she was almost part of the furniture. The police grew so tired of filling out Criminal Offence Reports that constables were placed on duty with the specific task of directing men away from her. One night in 1909, Constable Brennan saw Dougan talking to a man in a doorway on Collins Street and stopped to warn him: “This woman is a thief. See if you have lost anything”. “ Don’t take any notice of him”, retorted Dougan, “he thinks he is a Sherlock Holmes”. Constable Brennan claimed that she then berated him with bad language and for this reason he placed her under arrest. Dougan’s solicitor counter-claimed that Constable Brennan had grabbed her by the throat and that she still had bruising to show for it. Brennan did not deny this assertion; excusing his actions by saying “She bit another constable on the hand and threatened to run a hatpin through him!” The judge found that Dougan had been provoked by Constable Brennan and that he had caused the drama by interfering in a situation where no complaint had been made. Dougan was let off with a very small fine - a nominal fee seemingly designed to save face for the police force.
If Dougan decided that the subject of her attentions was not suitably inebriated, she would attempt to stupefy them by offering a bottle of beer laced with drugs. She kept a bottle in the laneway near where she was positioned and would encourage passing men to join her for a drink. She would then pretend to take a sip before passing the bottle to them. The only time Dougan was convicted of robbery came from such an attempt, unfortunately for her she had miscalculated and chosen a teetotaller. The year was 1914 and, five years after the hotel strangulation incident, Dougan and Ginger Liz had teamed up again. Two men by the names of James Manley and James Forbes were passing along Elizabeth St, between Little Collins and Collins St, when they were hailed by the women. Dougan called out to them “Goodnight boys. I have something to show you.” She then backed into an alcove and produced a bottle of beer and beckoned to Manley. Manley explained that he was not a drinker and went to move along but she leant into him and wrapped her leg around his. Ginger Liz and Forbes were meanwhile having a conversation out on the footpath. Manley made his excuses, promised that he may hook up with Dougan the following night and then he and Forbes made off along Little Collins St. Dougan and Ginger Liz didn’t give up so easily though and they followed the men and called out to them again. Dougan pulled Manley into a side alley, saying “Come here lovie, I want you” and tried to get him to drink from the bottle once more. Feeling suspicious, he moved his purse from his trouser pocket to an inside coat pocket. Dougan wrapped her leg around his and leaned against him. Manley felt her hand touch is coat pocket then saw her pass something to Ginger Liz. He immediately checked his pocket and noticed that his purse was gone. He caught Ginger Liz by the arm and called out to his friend Forbes “Come here, they have picked my pocket.” Forbes held on to Ginger Liz and Manley to Dougan. Just then a policeman happened to be walking past on his beat and they were caught red-handed. Dougan’s luck had run out. The policeman saw Ginger Liz throw the empty purse and it happened to land between his feet. The stolen bundle of pound notes sat on the ground behind Dougan. On the way to the watchhouse both of the women tried to intimidate Manley. Ginger Liz said “You are not going to sign the charge against us are you?” Dougan then said to him “I’ll swear all kinds of lies imaginable in the Court tomorrow against you. I’ll give the Truth Newspaper half a crown to get you exposed.”
In court, the police prosecutor made a point of questioning Dougan on whether or not she had put anything in the drink that she had kept offering to Manley. The detectives were quite confident that she had been drugging men but it may have been a better idea for them to have collected the bottle for testing rather than ask her about it in court. The evidence in regard to the theft from the person was irrefutable on this occasion and both Dougan and Ginger Liz were convicted and given a 6 month holiday in Pentridge Prison. The police would soon be reminded of how difficult it was to keep Dougan in the coop. She wasted no time in appealing the decision and was allowed out on bail whilst awaiting her next trial.
Before the police could blink she had skipped town and ‘gone into smoke’.
Margaret Dougan P III coming soon.
You can read Part I of this article by clicking here or scrolling down the page.
The photograph at the top of this article and the two prison photographs in the slide show below were reproduced with permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia. © State of Victoria through Public Record Office Victoria.
By Michael Shelford © 2016.
Margaret Dougan was a ‘rogue and vagabond’ - and a street siren of the small stage at the local courts of judicature.
To read Part II click here
A popular form of entertainment in Melbourne in the early 1900’s was the real life theatre provided at the local courthouse. Crowds would attend the weekday trials in their Sunday best to gather fuel for front-gate gossip. The public gallery was a place of excited whispers, raucous laughter - and expressions of shocked disbelief betrayed by twinkling eyes.
One of the audience’s favourite entertainments was to witness men of high social standing explain how they came to be lured into dark alleys by women of ‘ill fame’.
All of the major newspapers would be there, and detailed accounts of the court proceedings would be published the following day. The Truth newspaper, in particular, would revel in every lurid detail, even reporting on which statements caused the most laughter in the public gallery. The newspapers made stars of many a courtroom performer; turning the monikers of petty crooks into household names. For the residents of Fitzroy, a suburb labelled by Superintendent Davidson in 1919 as “the home of Melbourne Criminals” - the headlines added an element of prestige and criminal standing in the local community.
The darling of the courtroom press was the glamorous Margaret ‘Rita’ Dougan. She was very attractive, a stylish-dresser, had an abundance of charm, flaunted expensive jewellery and carried a gun. She was referred to in the press as “the beauteous bilker and bejewelled bail-absconder”, a “street siren” and “the gorgeous, voluptuous demi-mondaine”.
Dougan was a dress maker who preferred to make her money without having to make dresses. She was known to be one of Melbourne’s best known ‘bilkers’ and frequented the city’s central business district after dark. She was drawn into town from her home in Fitzroy by the treasures contained in the trouser pockets and waist coats of wealthy gents who had over-imbibed. Her favoured haunt was the Paris end of Collins St, where the upmarket business clubs, fashionable cafés and restaurants prospered. With a flutter of the eyes and a cheeky smile she would entice men into side alleys, give them a long active hug, and relieve them of their money. She was so skilful that she would replace their wads of pound notes with tissue paper so that they wouldn’t feel that anything was missing – and all without their purse leaving their waistcoat pocket. If the men were carrying their wealth in coins she’d replace the crowns in their trouser pockets with pennies. She would then pass her plunder to an accomplice, usually one of the working girls who paraded the same strip.
Of all the times Dougan was searched by female officers at the lockup, only once was she found to be in possession of the items she had stolen. She knew that if her quarry were in a suitable state of intoxication it would work as a distinct advantage to her probability of success. Firstly, it rendered the men more vulnerable i.e. they were more likely to believe that an attractive stranger found them irresistible, more likely to follow the attractive stranger into a laneway and less likely to object to the attractive stranger’s unusually aggressive methods of caressing. Secondly, the intoxicated state of her target added additional insurance against conviction. An inebriated person was often regarded by the police and the judicial system as an unreliable witness. They were less likely to have an accurate recollection of the circumstances and less likely to positively identify the culprit. There was also the chance that they may have lost their valuables through any number of drunken acts of stupidity.
Born in South Australia in 1890, Margaret Dougan first came to prominence in the Melbourne crime scene around 1908. She was keeping company with the already notorious Mary Rous alias Corned Beef Maud. Corned Beef Maud would later become one of Melbourne’s best known brothel keepers and professional bail agents but in 1908 she was bilking with the best of them. What was bilking you may ask? Bilking was a term used in the early 1900’s for obtaining money from someone in a deceitful or dishonest way. It was usually used to describe the act of illegally obtaining money or valuables whilst feigning interest in future-coitus. Dougan could have had no better mentor for her apprenticeship in this trade than the wily Corned Beef Maud. Maud maintained a high-profile career on the wrong side of the law for over three decades without obtaining a gaol sentence. As for Dougan - her good looks, charm and classy demeanour were a gift for someone of her chosen profession. And to add to her armoury, she was smarter than most and confident to the point of arrogance. She knew the system and played it with ease.
In the earlier mentions of Margaret Dougan in police records she was referred to as a prostitute, and though this may have been the case at the beginning of her career, she would soon have discovered that better profits lay elsewhere. The going rate for the services of a street prostitute in the early 1900’s was a mere £1 for the whole night. So why did they do it? There was virtually no social welfare in the era and work for a female was often hard to come by. Even when employment in a boot factory or as a ‘typiste’ or in a department store was available, the wages for females were much lower than for their male counterparts. As far as jobs with a chance of career progression - they were rare for females indeed. Married women were expected to be dependent on their husbands for money and single females were expected to be dependent on their families. So what did a woman do to feed her children and put a roof over their heads if her husband disappeared to the gold fields of Western Australia or failed to honour a financial support agreement? Unfortunately there was only one answer for many, and that was to go out and battle on the dangerous streets of Melbourne. And ‘battle’ was the term used for this occupation during the era: by prostitutes, the press and even the police. For example, an anonymous letter to the police in 1915 stated:
“Dear Sir, I want to draw your attention to a Bludger named Cyril Ewart. He lives in Little Lonsdale St and his wife Lizzie Ewart, she battles at 105 La Trobe St. This man has not worked for 6 months. He lives off his wife’s prostitution and he can be seen every day and night taking his wife to where she battles at 105 La Trobe St.”(PROV VPRS807, R4493)
As suggested in the above letter, it was not always just the single mothers who went out to battle, often their husbands or partners would force or convince them to do so. I should mention that there were also sex workers in the era that liked their job and there were women with regular employment who worked in high class brothels for the extra money or the thrill or the champagne or the cocaine. But for the battlers on the street, each night presented danger and most nights included at least one distasteful experience.
When faced with battling on the streets for very little money, bilking would no doubt have seemed an attractive alternative. A woman who was skilful in the art of bilking could return home with £10 or £50 and not have to go through the ordeal of a night sleeping with a stranger who was possibly dangerous and likely repulsive. A lot of the street prostitutes would bilk when an opportunity arose. Taking the contents of a customer’s purse when they were snoring in drunken-post-coital-slumber was like accepting a tip when you were underpaid. Other battlers were rewarded by male criminals for decoying drunken men to the sly grog shops of Fitzroy where they would be fleeced and then ejected.
Though the pay could be good, there were inherent dangers in the game of bilking. Punishments for ‘theft from the person’ were generally much higher than those for prostitution. Prostitution was not illegal as such - but soliciting for prostitution was against the law. The punishment for soliciting for prostitution was usually only a fine. The particularly troublesome prostitutes, those who were known for public violence, noisome drunkenness or theft from the person, they were generally charged under the vagrancy act i.e. they were tasked with demonstrating to the court that they had legal means of support. Vagrancy convictions attracted lengthy sentences which usually meant a 6 to 12 month term. A ‘theft from the person’ conviction could get a known bilker anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. The other more immediate danger for someone like Dougan was that when caught in the act, she had to deal with the anger of a person who had been robbed - a mood which was often further enflamed by drunkenness and injured pride.
Margaret Dougan had a close call early in her career. In 1909, she and another bilker known as ‘Ginger Liz’ picked up a drunken commercial traveller by the name of Carl Heinrich and returned with him to his room in Melbourne’s grand Menzies Hotel. On entering the hotel room, Heinrich placed his purse, sovereign case and loose coins on the dining table before transferring to the bedroom to get changed into something more comfortable. He returned in his dressing gown to discover that his money was missing and that his female admirers were making for the door. Things turned ugly very quickly as the drunken, enraged Heinrich attempted to capture them both. Dougan managed to skip out of his way and if it hadn’t been for her screams of “Help! Police! Murder!” - then murder it may have been. A police constable raced into the room to find a crazy-eyed Heinrich on top of Ginger Liz with his hands around her throat and seemingly choking her to death. She was bleeding from the mouth and the head and there was blood on the stairs. Heinrich’s temper dissipated on the arrival of the police officer, who subsequently allowed the travelling salesman the dignity of getting dressed before being transferred to the watchhouse. Whilst this was taking place, the ever-alert Dougan took her opportunity to slip out of the building. She was arrested later when visiting the watchhouse where Ginger Liz had been detained. When the matter came before the court, Heinrich requested that the charges of theft be dropped and in return, the lawyers for Ginger Liz dropped her charges of assault.
It was around this time that Dougan started carrying a gun. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be that vulnerable ever again.
To read Part 2 of Margaret Dougan: ‘Rogue and Vagabond’ click here.
*(By commenting on the conditions of 100 years ago the author does not intend in any way to take away from the struggle which still exists for gender equality in the workplace today).
The photograph at the top of this article was reproduced with permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia. © State of Victoria through Public Record Office Victoria.
By Michael Shelford © 2016
Valentine Keating was the leader of the Crutchy Push, a standover gang which ruled the streets of North Melbourne from 1895 to 1905. The ‘Crutchies’ made their living by demanding drink, food and money, from pubs, shops and members of the public.
Gangs were called pushes in Australia at the time and to qualify as a member of the Crutchy Push you had to have a missing limb, a thirst for drink and a fighting attitude. Valentine Keating had lost his right leg from just below the knee and like most of his gang - he depended on his crutch as a deadly weapon when fighting pushes from neighbouring suburbs.
A Sydney Morning Herald article in 1953 reflected that:
“The Crutchy Push, with one exception, consisted of one-legged men. The exception was a one-armed man who kept half a brick in his sewn up empty sleeve. He led his followers into battle swinging the weighted sleeve around his head. Behind him came the men on crutches – each one expert at balancing on one leg. The tip of the crutch was used to jab an opponent in the midriff. With the enemy gasping for breath the crutch would be reversed and the metal-shod arm rest would be used as a club.”
Hailing from North Melbourne, the Crutchy Push were huge fans of the Shinboners: the North Melbourne footy team now known as the Kangaroos. In August 1899 the Crutchies travelled out to Footscray to see the North V Footscray game but their plans were stalled by a brave gate keeper who refused them free entry. Wearing top hats, and with blue and white streamers hanging from their drab suits, they paraded around the outside of the ground, swapping oaths with the officials and anyone who looked at them the wrong way.
It was when the Crutchies tried to scale the fence that the real trouble began. Officials moved to prevent their access and uniformed police began to arrive as backup. Blows were traded and it appeared that an all in brawl was inevitable. Fortunately the police presence increased to a point where the Crutchies realised that they were hopelessly outnumbered and opted to retreat.
Whilst on the subject of the North Melbourne Kangaroos, I’ll draw your attention to an analogy used by Senior Constable Healey to describe Valentine Keating in 1898. The Crutchies had been involved in a brawl at North Melbourne and whilst attempting to quell the disturbance, Constable Healey had been struck a blow by Keating. He tried to arrest Keating but could not catch him and testified in court that “he was off like a flying kangaroo – although he goes on a crutch!”
Keating became leader of the Crutchy Push in 1901 after the former head, George Hill, was battered to death with an iron bar during his sleep. The main suspect was also a member of the Crutchy Push and one of Valentine Keating’s in-laws. Other members of Keating’s family displayed a penchant for violence as well. In 1902, arresting officers found themselves under attack from not only Keating but his brother, mother and sister. Keating ‘s mother, Bridget Keating, saved the day for the police when she knocked out her son with a mistimed attempt to smash a chair over one of the constable’s heads.
In 1898, the same Bridget Keating laid waste to the abode of Mrs Walsh, the mother of another Crutchy member. First she entered Mrs Walsh’s house and broke four window panes. After surveying the damage she walked over to the dining room table, picked up a teacup and threw it into Mrs Walsh’s forehead. Mrs Walsh’s arm then received a nasty gash as she tried to prevent a plate coming down on her head. Not satisfied with this, Bridget grabbed hold of a burning kerosene lamp and hurled it at Mrs Walsh, hitting her on the back of the head. When questioned on her motives Bridget stated in court that Mrs Walsh “wants my daughter to marry her son, who is a cripple.” Regardless of her interference, Bridget’s daughter (Valentine Keating’s sister), would go on to marry David ‘Crutchy’ Walsh.
With pushes such as the Crutchies ruling the streets of Melbourne, a special task force of the ten burliest policemen in Victoria were assembled. The 'Terrible Ten’ were issued lengths of hose and sent out to beat the pushes into submission. South Melbourne had a push called the Flying Angels, Carlton had the Bouveroos (named after Bouverie St), North Fitzroy had the Freeman Street Push and so on. Whilst it was recognised that the Terrible Ten brought about the end of the dominance of the suburban push, the Crutchies remained unconquered until Valentine Keating, girlfriend Harriet Adderley, and fellow Crutchy member John Collins, were imprisoned for a murderous assault on Senior Constable Mulcahey in late 1904. . The constable was called out due to the Crutchies enjoying food and beverage as uninvited guests in a private home. In court, Keating was quoted as saying to the constable, “I always did as I liked in North Melbourne and I will show you that I’ll bloody well do so too. I’ll knock your bloody brains out you bugger”. After dragging the officer to the ground, Keating called on Collins to “crutch the bugger!” “Righto Val”, said Collins and cracked the constable over the head with the metal arm-piece of his crutch. Mulcahey complained in court that he was still picking pieces of skull from his fractured head.
On release from prison, Keating opened up an unlicensed beer house in Fitzroy and went on to be one of the most notorious sly grog operators in Melbourne. A brutal man, he was well suited to the job of keeping bar in an establishment that couldn’t and wouldn’t call for police assistance when trouble arose. Keating died of Tuberculosis at the not so gentle age of 50.
1878: Born at home to Irish immigrant parents in the heart of Melbourne’s Chinatown.
1890: 1st conviction at the age of 12 years, assault.
1898: Keating's 1st conviction for assault of a police officer. He would go on to be convicted for assaulting police on 7 further occasions.
1901: Valentine Keating and Harriett Adderley’s only child, (Valentine Jnr), dies aged 9 weeks.
1901: Victorian Premier leads deputation to increase police force “to deal with pushes such as the Crutchies and Flying Angels”.
1901: Keating’s in-law charged with the murder of Crutchy leader George Hill.
1904: 5 years prison for murderous assault on police officer. Harriet Adderley gets 1 year for the same attack.
1917-1919: 2 separate prison sentences for sly grog.
1921: Harriet Adderley dies from ruptured aorta.
1925: Charged with receiving stolen goods.
1927: 2 weeks prison for drink driving. When arrested the police note that he is drunk, covered in blood and probably on his way to seek revenge.
1930: Dies of tuberculosis, aged 50.
(The above article by Michael Shelford uses some excerpts from his original article ‘Bourne Identity: Valentine Keating, first published in Melbourne Time Out, 2012)
Photographs reproduced with permission of the Keeper of Public Records, Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia. © State of Victoria through Public Record Office Victoria
Captain of the Collingwood Magpies.
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.