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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Melbourne Crime: From War to Depression, 1919-1929

by Chris McConville

for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify, not the real city, but the dangerous and sad city of the imagination…which is the modern world. The real city, one might say, produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster. (Robert Warshow 'The gangster as tragic hero' in The immediate experience: movies, comics, theatre and other aspects of popular culture, Doubleday, Garden City, New York 1962, pp. 183-184)

The tragedies and heroics of self-styled gangsters, including Squizzy Taylor, Long Harry Slater, and Henry Stokes, colour our imaginings of inter-war Melbourne. Yet in the real city, as Warshow suggests, there existed only criminals, and over the course of the 1920s, they grew more scarce. By the time of the Great Depression, Melbourne’s mundane law-breakers had been unable to measure up to the myths that had developed about gang wars and a virulent underworld. Their crimes fell far short of the violence and corruption of the booming 1880s. This contradiction, between a declining rate of crime and a popular panic about law-breaking, tells us a great deal about the modernising of Melbourne: a city emerging from the catastrophe of war and which, within a decade, faced the tragedy of economic depression.  In this real city, and despite our mythologising of all-powerful crime bosses, lived tragic criminals, and, as we can now see, not very many of them. Such a disjuncture suggests interesting questions about Melbourne, the city’s popular insecurities, and the misdeeds of its law-breakers. 

Crime Rates in the City

Speaking to the Victorian Legislative Council in 1924, Sir Arthur Robinson, who had recently left the position of attorney-general, reminded fellow parliamentarians of a terrible ‘crime epidemic.’ Principal of one of the most successful law firms in Melbourne, a patron of the city’s leading private schools, and one-time Ford Motor Company director, he announced that ‘the underworld has reared its head in an unmistakable way, more than ever before in my recollection in the history of this community.’[1] Yet despite Sir Arthur’s assertion, the most obvious characteristic of most common crimes in 1920s Melbourne is that they all but vanished. In the whole of Victoria offences against the person fell from 3.7 per thousand head of population in 1890 to 0.9 in 1929. By 1931 the rate had fallen further to 0.8. [2] Offences against property fell from 4.5 per 1000 in 1890 to 2.7 in 1929. A visitor who had seen Melbourne in the wild days of the 1880s land boom, and who returned in the 1920s, would have been immediately struck by this new sense of public order. [3] Fewer drunks could be found stumbling around city streets. Larrikin pushes (gangs) no longer crowded pedestrians into gutters, or smashed up city hotel bars. Police witnesses rarely spun lurid tales of prostitution and gambling in court rooms. 

Most startling of all was the decline in drunkenness. Measured again in relation to population, alcohol-related offences fell rapidly from the last quarter of the nineteenth century onwards. The men and women of 1920s Melbourne lived far more abstemiously than their parents or grandparents. Criminal statistics were collected differently after 1900, and police strategies in targeting law-breakers changed, but nonetheless, the evidence of a more law-abiding city is indisputable. This fall in crime could, at least in part, be traced to the introduction of early closing of hotels from 1916 and the activities of the Licensing Reduction Board in shutting down street-corner pubs in inner working-class suburbs. [4] Between 1910 and 1935 the Licensing Reduction Board closed more than two thousand hotels across Victoria, most of them either in the old gold towns or the inner suburbs of Melbourne. [5] Before the First World War a further two hundred hotels had been closed because of local option polls. [6]

 Local option polls allowed some suburban localities to ban hotels altogether. Best known are Camberwell and Box Hill. But the fall in drunken offences predated all of these events. Moreover, consumption of alcohol, especially in beer, did decline over the decade, but not with same rapidity as arrests of drunks. Taking the rate of drink-related arrests in 1874-1878 as a base of 100, the fall is clear, as is shown in Table 1. 

 Table 1: Drink-related arrests, Victoria 1874-1931

1874-78 100 1913-17 59
1879-85 88 1918-22 32
1886-92 106 1923-27 41
1893-97 65 1928 37
1898-02 84 1929 36
1903-07 77 1930 31
1908-12 66 1931 27

(Where: base years, 1874-78, rated at 100)
Source: Victorian Year Book, 1931-32, p. 106 

It may well be that police turned a blind eye to illegal alcohol traded once pubs closed at six o’clock. Offences that in the 1880s might have made it into criminal statistics were perhaps concealed by publicans and illegal liquor traders.  These possibilities, however, do not entirely account for the more sedate public conduct of drinkers. 

Sly Grog

Reading such statistics, temperance advocates would no doubt have felt satisfied with their several victories in restricting alcohol sales. Local option, licensing reduction and early closing had together induced a more sober and sedate populace. At the same time, fewer hotels and reduced trading hours initiated a ready-made and lucrative market for enterprising law-breakers. By driving beer barrels to pubs for out-of-hours sales and setting up drinking clubs in industrial neighbourhoods, a crime tyro could build a capital base from which to test other prohibited markets. By 1923 police were convinced that illegal liquor sales had never been as ‘rampant’ as had become the case over the previous year. [7] In the nineteenth century the Victoria Police Force had devoted considerable energies to catching out publicans who traded on Sundays, yet they were ill-prepared for the boom in illegal sales that followed six o’clock closing. As a result, newly-restricted alcohol sales across the 1920s created more rewarding and less dangerous opportunities for any budding criminal. 

There were egregious aspects to this business. One was sales from licensed publicans after hours through back lanes in the inner suburbs and in central Melbourne, an activity with which police were familiar from their long war against Sunday traders. [8] The second was the weekend get-togethers of young men being driven in cars to outer suburban or rural hotels, by touts earning a liberal commission from hotel-keepers. A more mundane and less visible sly grogging generally remained the province of small shopkeepers in working class Melbourne. In Fitzroy, Collingwood or Port Melbourne, confectioners’ shops, cafes, wine saloons, hairdressers, and grocers’ stores were routinely fined for liquor trading. Liquor was also sold from workers’ cottages across the inner suburbs. In these crumbling back streets the liquor sellers were poverty-stricken women rather than flashy young men. Among them was Caroline Farrell. Caroline appeared at the North Melbourne Court House in 1927, facing charges of selling liquor from her home. When police searched her cottage they found brandy hidden in the fireplace, money and wine under pillowcases, and the back yard littered with bottles. ‘Give me another chance, I will never sell intoxicating liquor again,’ she pleaded to the bench, as she was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. [9] Elderly women, like Caroline, argued that they had no way of making a living other than selling grog. Magistrates responded that sly grogging had become too ‘notorious’ to ignore and were rarely swayed by such pleas. Throughout the 1920s a sad, struggling procession of such back-street sly groggers appeared in local courts, to be fined and occasionally imprisoned. Decades later police themselves were struggling to respond to both to the illegal grog trade and the corruption it engendered in their own ranks. [10]

The Business of Snow

Having assured themselves of a reliable cash flow through illegal liquor trading, bright young toughs turned to experimenting with the novel trade in narcotics. In the nineteenth century opiates could easily be bought in city chemists. Opium smokers in Chinatown were discriminated against, but were, at least for several decades, doing little that could be classed as illegal. With the widespread medicinal use of morphine and other opiates during the First World War, along with experiments in refining cocaine, a new trade appeared. After the Treaty of Versailles Britain had signed off, on behalf of Australia, on laws prohibiting some drugs.  These laws formed an addendum to global controls to be supervised by the League of Nations. [11]  Ex-soldiers and army nurses were by then familiar with refined opiates.  Their demand, along with the new restrictions, allowed some sly groggers to diversify into drugs. 

This criminal business synergy, between sly grog and cocaine trading, seemed to take police by surprise.[12] A police guide published in 1924 included advice to young constables on how to deal with opium smokers but said nothing about refined powders or liquids.[13] In 1923 shocked journalists discovered that the ‘snow habit’ had reached the slum areas of Melbourne. At first confusing the effects of cocaine, or ‘snow,’ with the familiar influences of opium, police eventually found the dealer who worked Little Lonsdale St selling packets of the new powder. The snow seller, Henry McEwan, admitted that he had moved into cocaine after making money selling sly grog, and that he supplied women in the back slums, probably in brothels, for two shillings a packet. The drugs came from chemist shops.[14] By 1925 men like Lewis McNeil were dealing in cocaine and keeping guns handy so as to protect themselves from standover men.[15] Thieves had begun stealing cocaine from chemists’ shops, so that limits were placed on dentists using cocaine as an anaesthetic. 

Law-breakers found one of the more lucrative uses for cocaine in the racing world, and in 1923 a trainer and stablehands were arrested for this novel means of doping a horse, at Moonee Valley.[16] Valdoid had opened betting as the odds-on favourite in the Yuroke Handicap. As start time approached, Valdoid eased out in betting only to go on and win easily, before showing the effects of cocaine.  Usually a quiet horse, Valdoid became excitable and hard to control after the race. Police swooped, in one of their few successful counters to doping rackets on racetracks. 

Far from merging glamour, commercial efficiency, and easy riches, snow selling exposed even more tawdry living conditions than did illegal liquor. After one raid in North Melbourne in 1920, Gordon and Lilian Holmes were charged with vagrancy.[17] When police visited their house in Queensberry St they found all blinds down and an offensive smell. The couple was in bed, with their two daughters in bed near them, one with whooping cough and the other in filthy clothes, in the worst case of destitution one officer had seen in his sixteen years of policing. On the premises were a syringe, morphia tablets, and a capsule of cocaine. Before he could go to court Holmes had to recover his coat from a pawnshop. The two drug ‘fiends’ were referred to welfare agencies, Lilian to Abbotsford Convent and Gordon to Lara House, a rehabilitation centre. 

From these two markets, for after-hours alcohol and cocaine, a handful of Melbourne street toughs sought to create business-like structures in illegal selling. Their ambition, more than their actual achievements, frightened the wider community. Whereas moral panics in the nineteenth century had centred on prostitutes and larrikins, by the 1920s sly groggers and armed, mobile robbers both terrified and thrilled Melburnians. 


Where these crime entrepreneurs failed to secure any great success was in creating a structured market for gambling. Restrictions before the war had closed illegal totalisators.[18] Gambling continued in private clubs, and with little concern shown by police (journalists on popular papers such as Smith’s Weekly and Truth were certain that corrupt police were protecting gambling clubs).[19] For much of the 1920s police concentrated on petty street betting for which men were routinely brought to court and handed generally small fines. After 1929, as the Depression weakened trade and state taxation revenue collapsed, licensed bookmakers were hit with new taxes on turnover. Some, like Henry Hawkins, challenged the impost and its application to ‘laying off’, where bookmakers bet with one another to hedge against heavy losses.[20]

State cabinet approved new taxes on bookmakers in 1932, and these seemed to provoke a series of raids on suburban bookmakers operating from hotels and private homes, often in otherwise respectable suburbs. One such bookie was William Slack, whom police chased through Hawthorn Town Hall in October 1932. Slack handed his betting slips and account books to a friend as he ran. When he appeared in court his solicitor informed the bench that gambling ‘has been part of his life and is an inherited tendency,’ and that ‘his father before him was a celebrated bettor in this district years ago.’[21] Occasionally, enterprising bookmakers set up betting centres in private homes, often attracting wealthy clients from the new suburbs of the 1920s. One who did so was Frank Warren of Wellington Street, Kew. When Detective Burrows and a colleague visited his home, Warren welcomed them in announcing ‘yes gentlemen, come in, I am betting (and) in a big way.’ He had set up one room as an office with a bank of telephones on his desk. He was fined fifty pounds, probably far less than he took on Saturday races each week. In the 1930s, such starting price (SP) bookmakers were confronted not so much by the moralising crusades typical of the early twentieth century, but by the dire need for taxation revenue.[22]

Gunmen, no doubt in the pay of SP bookmakers, tried to shoot Phar Lap before the 1930 Melbourne Cup; the horse was shielded by stable foreman and strapper Tommy Woodcock, and went into hiding with jockey Jim Pike.[23] In the decade that followed, radio race broadcasts and easier telephone connections brought enormous wealth to illegal bookmakers and their minders. But these race broadcasts had not begun until 1926 and even then race clubs tried to ban the race callers (resulting in comical scenes of callers watching races from the backs of lorries outside the fence or renting apartments alongside racetracks).[24] In 1930, in a further narrowing of the market for illegal bookmaking, Victoria’s parliamentarians voted in favour of a legalised on-course totalisator.[25] The race-callers were warned against broadcasting odds in 1932.[26]

There is no doubt that illegal gambling on horse racing (and sometimes on dogs) expanded after 1930. Neither bookmakers nor punters emerged as beneficiaries of underworld connections, however. Instead, most gamblers took small bets with local bookies across Melbourne, a series of decentralised and almost amateur transactions. Licensed bookmakers, some of whom no doubt took bets away from the track, were preyed upon after the races and before they could deposit their takings on Monday mornings. A spate of bookie robberies ran through 1924, sometimes with shots fired and victims wounded. In the 1920s, the Bookmakers Association of Victoria clubrooms fronted onto Royal Lane, near to theatres and cafes, between Bourke and Little Collins Streets. When one of the bookmaker members was threatened in the foyer in August 1924 he managed to get a gun from his attackers, shoot one of them in the stomach, and flee upstairs. Prahran police were able to arrest one of the gunmen shortly afterwards, but attacks on bookies continued as an occasional hazard across the decade.[27]


In an expanding city, with debts paid anonymously across distant suburbs and through new bank branches, the passing of dud cheques opened up new lines of petty fraud. Routinely, such frauds were discovered and the small-time swindlers faced the courts. Motor cars also brought with them several small-scale scams. Car sales were often made to unsuspecting buyers, by men who rented rather than owned the car being offered for sale. One imaginative fraudster known as ‘The Petrol Man’, who was well-dressed, articulate, and confident, collected petty sums by going into city and suburban offices and telling  cashiers that his car was outside and had just run out of petrol. He then announced to office staff that, coincidentally, he just happened to be the son of a business associate of the firm, so they might like to advance a small loan. Once he had bought petrol, he would be back to reimburse them. On pocketing the money, The Petrol Man set off—on foot and not by car.[28] Whilst courts dealt with these petty schemers throughout the decade, and with occasional frauds on insurance firms and real estate buyers, the 1920s produced fewer fraudulent enterprises than were exposed as Melbourne’s 1880s land boom collapsed. 

Cars and the City

The motor car played a more prominent role in minor crime as the decade progressed. Weekend joyriders who ‘borrowed’ cars and stole petrol annoyed rather than terrified Melburnians. But cars also brought with them opportunities for more frightening crimes, for the automobile liberated the law-breaker from the inner city. Temperance campaigners might have excluded alcohol sales from dry areas, but they could not cordon off outer suburbs from newly mobile thieves. Legendary gangster Squizzy Taylor, one of Melbourne’s most well-known criminals and the central figure in the Underbelly: Squizzy series, relied on the car in his first major foray into armed robbery. Lacking the panache of Chicago counterparts, he and his associates had to hire a taxi to get to their target, a bank manager in the fruit-growing hills of Templestowe.  When the robbery failed, the men murdered the taxi driver, William Haines, and buried him in the grave they had dug for the bank manager.[29]

By the war’s end, the car was an increasingly common element on Melbourne streets, one used by criminals, if at first a little incompetently. The car was the basis for sly grog running and for transferring drinkers to outer suburban hotels. The gunmen who had shot at Phar Lap in 1930 had fired from the back seat of a car as they drove past his route to Caulfield stables. Taylor’s attempts to rob a bank manager were imitated by other car-based robbers, but often with no greater success.  While the car did provide imaginative law-breakers with a far wider field for crime, across the decade they were far less likely to engage in the sorts of car-based murders or truck-delivered illegal liquor supply favoured by Prohibition-era gangsters in North America. 

Cars also changed the relationship to the police of respectable suburbanites. Over 100,000 cars were registered for private use in Victoria by 1929.[30] Innocent citizens now ran the risk of death by misadventure at the hands of reckless car drivers. At the same time, the 1912 Motor Car Regulations gave police a whole new set of powers over the law-abiding citizenry.[31] They were slow to exercise these in the interests of public safety, so that over the following decade, the chances of being killed in a car accident had quadrupled. Indeed, in 1924 Squizzy Taylor was remanded on a charge of negligent driving, which had led to the death of twenty-two-year-old Daphne Allcorn. For most of the decade, neither police nor politicians were convinced about the difference between a tragic accident and manslaughter. Over time, however, the motorcar fundamentally altered the relationship between police and the middle and wealthy classes. [32] Cars, as members of the new traffic control branch were advised in 1930, took a ‘terrible toll of human life … each year.’[33] Robert Haldane noted that the motor car also spread a growing unease amongst an otherwise sedate suburban Melbourne: ‘to the policeman anyone who drove a motor vehicle was a potential law breaker and to the motorist all policemen were potential prosecutors.’[34]

Gangsters and Modernity

The motor car, then, was one characteristic of the modernising city which criminals used, albeit in a disorganised and inconsistent manner. Squizzy Taylor may have written daringly to the The Sun, the pioneering ‘pictorial’ daily newspaper, acted if not starred in a film, and modelled his courtroom dress on the style of American mobsters. But neither ‘The Turk’ nor other criminals were fully attuned to the structures and opportunities of inter-war urbanism. 

Rather than renting floors of a luxury hotel in fashionable city locales, as did Al Capone in Chicago, they drifted through the dilapidated Narrows of Fitzroy, the run-down cottages of Little Lonsdale Street, or the boarding houses of St Kilda. They had neither the insight nor the means to dress in cosmopolitan fashions, and no speakeasies within which to parade their new wealth. Instead they were simply the same flash larrikins who had terrified the pre-war city. Their erratic feuding and infrequent gunfights sprang from their limitations as organised criminals rather than from acumen and courage. As a result, their mythic status derives only occasionally from their own exploits, and more commonly from the misuses which politicians made of their law-breaking. 

Despite generally declining crime rates, it remains true that occasional and sometimes terrifying breakdowns in public order marked the inter-war years. Henry Stokes, Taylor, and other criminals beat and shot one another over the proceeds of a jewel robbery in 1919, the infamous ‘Fitzroy vendetta’. Then in 1923, police went on strike and the city descended, for a few days at least, into anarchy.[35] The sacking of familiar police figures, for no other reason than their membership of a trade union, and the appointment of a military officer (Sir Thomas Blamey) as Chief Commissioner, rather than a man from the ranks, did nothing to win back public support. Blamey’s problems in skirting around his or colleagues’ misdemeanours further unsettled the public.[36] Before the decade ended his police had fired on protesting waterside workers, killing one.[37] The bombing of immigrant boarding houses and the suburban home of a steamship owner, and then the 1928 attack on the Greek Club in Lonsdale Street, together coloured newspaper reports of this waterfront dispute. Along with unease about the convictions of the men charged with the bombings, sensational reporting only exacerbated the problem of a plummeting faith in police. All of these events seemed more threatening than might otherwise have been the case because conservative politicians deliberately played on fears about crime. 

A committed opponent of trade unions, Sir Arthur Robinson’s warnings about a crime epidemic were accompanied by his and his colleagues’ regular linking of their Labor Party opponents to crime. In a newspaper interview in 1924, Robinson referred to the direct line running from ‘crooks’ through the world of the pony track to the Labor Party—a barely veiled reference to John Wren’s Labor connections and a deliberate misrepresentation of his reform of pony racing.[38] The police strike seemed perfect proof of such murky connections, and Robinson insisted for years that the Labor Party in its support for the police union were simply ‘shielding the mutineers,’ those unionised police officers who had handed Melbourne over to criminals in 1923. Robinson had in fact presided over the cabinet meeting which decided to sack the striking police and commission General John Monash to recruit a para-military special constabulary.[39] Nationalist politicians proclaimed that weak laws exposed Melbourne to gunmen, even though new statutes in 1921 appeared to have reduced gun crime. When the Labor Party sought to minimise the range of offences for which the death sentence could be imposed, the conservatives again warned that the city would be exposed to an epidemic of crime. Finally, there was the 1928 waterside lock-out and the surrounding attacks on so-called ‘free labourers,’ the sequence of late-night bombings, and defiance of both court orders and shipping magnates’ threats by the unionists. Together these seemed to provide perfect evidence of a city in which criminals were out of control, and of a union-based crime wave, in which the ALP, so the Nationalists claimed with rising hysteria, was fully implicated.[40]

The King of the ‘Kip’

One man was able to make something of the opportunities opened up over the decade. If any one law-breaker did seem to have systematically integrated sly grogging, race fixing, two-up, armed robbery, and probably prostitution, it was Squizzy Taylor’s one-time associate, but more often rival, Henry Stokes.[41] Stokes converted a Richmond warehouse into a two-up school and barricaded it against police raids. When he was fined five hundred pounds for running a gambling venue in 1919, he promised never to do the same thing again.[42] Police had raided his Goodwood Street warehouse, where they found over fifty men in a state of ‘great confusion.’ In the ‘well’ in the centre of the floor they discovered notes, silver coins, and the artifacts for staging two-up games: a wooden ‘kip’ for throwing coins and pennies marked with ‘a black cross.’ Despite his client’s contrition, the barrister representing Stokes sought to redeem Henry’s reputation. The warehouse could never have operated as a gambling house, he announced, as it was recently converted into a garage, open to all day and night. No doubt this could have explained the presence of so many excited men, and the barrister, Larkin, went on to remind the bench that only in ‘certain hysterical quarters (is) Stokes … considered a deep-dyed criminal, a dog.’[43] True to his word, Henry Stokes did eventually turn away from back street two-up schools. He upgraded his gambling business to launch a floating casino in a former royal yacht in Port Phillip Bay and eventually made a fortune from baccarat schools. All the while, he maintained an interest in armed robbery, perhaps match-fixing in football, and occasionally betting scams on the racetrack. His yacht was eventually sold to fishermen at Lakes Entrance. When he died Stokes left an estate valued at 15,000 pounds, a solid fortune but not the vast wealth that such illegal enterprises might have amassed. A few years before his death, police had categorised the one-time two-up king as an hotel-keeper, a figure frequenting Richmond, South Melbourne, and other States, and with a ‘modus operandi’ as a gambler, conspirator, and firearms carrier.[44]

The Real and Imagined City

Stokes was an exception to the failures of organised crime, and a barely successful one at that. The motor car, the illustrated newspaper, and the reports of snow in London or bootleg in Chicago may have inspired Melbourne’s criminals. But Squizzy Taylor did not see out the decade.  He died after a squalid shoot-out with another underworld figure, John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore, in the bedroom of a Carlton worker’s cottage in 1927. Long Harry Slater, a protagonist in the ‘Fitzroy vendetta’ who had on previous occasions been shot by both Taylor and Stokes, survived through to 1940, and was shot dead at the La Perouse tram terminus, amidst tin and canvas shacks, on the barren southern outskirts of Sydney. He had been a standover man for gamblers, and perhaps that led to his death, mused Sydney journalists, most of them unfamiliar with Melbourne’s chaotic crime scene.[45]

The shootings and subterfuge in which these Melbourne crime figures engaged had almost nothing to do with establishing crime empires. The Fitzroy Vendetta was fought, not in order to co-ordinate different strands of crime but by robbers hoping to cheat one another of the proceeds of theft long completed. Taylor and Slater devoted much of their energies to avoiding imprisonment, through threatening witnesses and trying to rig juries, rather than taking up new crime markets. In most ways their world remained backward-looking, fixed on crime routines inherited from pre-war days. They stuck to the deteriorating cottages and warehouses of inner Melbourne. They robbed from punters on racetracks and threatened bookies. They failed to make full use of the motor car. Vast markets in illegal gambling were not tapped until after the Great Depression, and possibly not until after 1945.   When it came to recruiting those skilled killers returning with the First Australian Imperial Force from the Western Front, they were outmanoeuvred by the Victoria Police Force itself, which took on ‘Special Constables’ to replace strikers in 1923. Perhaps Stokes was an exception, but for the most part, the celebrated gangsters of the 1920s were unable to comprehend the commercial opportunities presented to them. 

The Melbourne gangster, that product of his own imagination, and his real city counterpart the criminal, were neither organised nor efficient. Yet in one way or another, even if criminals failed to grasp the spectacular offerings of modernity, they were, unavoidably, products of a modernising city. The car, the newspaper pictorial, the telephone, and the radio all played some part in criminal enterprise. In their own imaginations, and in the picture painted by journalists, and conservative politicians who cynically exploited them, these crime czars had risen to become men of style, wealth, and power. As the city expanded and new suburbs seemingly secure from crime were penetrated, very occasionally, by gunmen in cars, the city did appear at their mercy. But the new suburbanites, like the criminals themselves, were obsessed by the past. They could not grasp the nature of a union-based political party, and tended to equate social democratic goals with theft. After the 1918 Armistice, respectable, suburban Melbourne renewed old bonds of Empire, excluded liquor, and frowned on the modern, Americanised spectacles of the cinema, the dance hall, and commercial music. The 1920s suburbanites thus proved no more progressive than the criminals they feared.  For all that, their Melbourne, with its gardenesque housing estates and its degraded and over-crowded working-class zones, a landscape only reluctantly modernised, was a real city. Though often sad, dull, and only occasionally dangerous, it remained nonetheless a home, shared in its insularity by both tawdry criminal and solid suburbanite.

[1] Sir Arthur Robinson, Legislative Council, Victoria, Parliament,  Victoria Parliamentary Debates, vol. 167, 1924, p. 136.

[2] A. M. Laughton, Victorian Year-Book 1931-32. (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1933), p. 103.

[3] Chris McConville,  ‘From “criminal class” to “underworld”,’ in The Outcasts of Melbourne: Essays in Social History, eds. Graeme Davison, David Dunstan and Chris McConville (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985), pp. 69-90.

[4] Clare Wright, Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003), pp. 68-73.

[5] O. Gawler, Victorian Year Book, 1936-37. (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1938), pp. 112-3; Victoria, Licensing Reduction Board, General Reports and Statements of Accounts, 1920-1930 (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1930).

[6] A. M. Laughton, Victorian Year-Book 1919-20. (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1921), p. 309.

[7] ‘Licensing Police Active: Sly-Grog Selling Rampant,’ Argus (Melbourne), 9 January 1923, p. 7.

[8] Victoria, Royal Commission on the Police Force of Victoria, Minutes of Evidence (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1883), especially Chomley.

[9] ‘Sly Grog Selling; Woman Sent to Gaol,’ Argus (Melbourne), 17 May 1927, p. 7.

[10] See generally: Owen Roberts, Bullies, Bookies and Booze: The Short Life of a Policeman: An Autobiography, ed. Tony Pagliaro (Daylesford: Jim Crow Press, 1995).

[11] Desmond Manderson, From Mr Sin to Mr Big: A History of Australian Drug Laws (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993); John Lonie, A Social History of Drug Control in Australia (Adelaide: Royal Commission into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, 1979).

[12] ‘Women Drug Addicts,’ Argus (Melbourne), 30 May 1923, p. 9.

[13] A. Mackenzie, An Elementary Police Guide (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1924), p. 40.

[14] ‘Women Drug Addicts,’ Argus (Melbourne), 30 May 1923, p. 9.

[15] ‘A Dangerous Drug,’ Argus (Melbourne), 27 March 1925, p. 14.

[17]Drugs and Squalor,’ Argus (Melbourne), 29 September 1920, p. 8.

[18] On the closure of the best-known of these, The Collingwood Tote, see: James Griffin, John Wren: A Life Reconsidered (Melbourne: Scribe, 2004), pp. 111-128; ‘Judkins the Jackal. An Open Letter to that Holy, Howling Humbug,’ Truth (Melbourne), ‘conducted’ by John Norton, 8 December 1906, p. 1.

[19] Neil Gibson, Graft: Startling Disclosures of Corruption in the Victorian Police Force: Additional Startling Evidence by N. Ghurka (Melbourne: Searchlight, 1930).

[20]Betting Charge,’ Argus (Melbourne), 26 November 1932, p. 21.

[21] ‘Betting Prosecutions,’ Argus (Melbourne), 6 October 1932, p. 8; ‘Betting Tax Evasion,’ Argus (Melbourne), 26 November 1932, p. 28.

[22] ‘Illegal Betting: Elaborate Arrangements Described,’ Argus (Melbourne), 26 May 1932, p. 5; ‘Illegal Betting: Amending Legislation,’ Argus (Melbourne), 21 September 1932, p. 7; ‘Betting Prosecutions,’ Argus (Melbourne), 6 October 1932, p. 8;  ‘Betting Charge,’ Argus (Melbourne), 26 November 1932, p. 21; ‘S. P. Betting; Suggested Legalisation,’ Argus (Melbourne), 28 November 1932, p. 5.

[23] M. Cavanough, The Melbourne Cup, 1861-1982, 9th ed. (South Melbourne: Curry O’Neil, 1983), p. 207.

[24] See generally: Steve Cairns, ‘London to a Brick On’: A Salute to Australian Race Calling (Richmond: Australian Bloodstock Review, 1984) and ‘Broadcasting Races: Checking Illegal Betting,’ Argus (Melbourne), 4 November 1932, p. 8.

[25] Victoria, Parliament, Victoria Parliamentary Debates, vol. 182, 1932. Totalisator debated in Assembly, p. 299, pp. 419-424, Council, final reading, p. 450, Amendments, p. 905 and Victoria, Parliament, Victoria Parliamentary Debates, vol. 183, 1932, Victoria Racing Club Bill, pp. 2622, 2634, 2695, 2820.

[26] ‘Broadcasting Races: Checking Illegal Betting,’ Argus (Melbourne) 4 November 1932, p. 8.

[28] ‘The Petrol Man’, Argus (Melbourne), 19 June 1926, p. 12.

[29] Hugh Anderson, Larrikin Crook: The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor (Melbourne: Jacaranda Press, 1971), pp. 25-34.

[30] A. M. Laughton, Victorian Year-Book 1928-29 (Melbourne: H. J. Green, Government Printer, 1930), p. 501.

[31] Robert Haldane, The People’s Force: A History of the Victoria Police (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1986), pp. 137-140.

[32] Laughton, Victorian Year Book 1931-32, p. 91. 

[33] ‘Lecture to Traffic Constables’ (Melbourne: Government Printer, 1930), p. 1. 

[34] Haldane, The People’s Force, p. 140.

[35] Warren Perry, The Police Strike in 1923 (Camberwell: The Author, 1973); Newspaper Cuttings from the Police Strike Riots, 1923, Victoria State Library; Gavin Brown with Robert Haldane, Days of Violence: The 1923 Police Strike in Melbourne (Melbourne: Hybrid, 1998).

[36] Neil Gibson,  Jungle Justice: Victoria Police Scandals Exposed (Melbourne: Neil Gibson, 1933).

[37] Liam Brooks, ‘The 1928 Waterfront Strike and the Fall of the Victorian Government’ (Honours thesis, Victoria University Melbourne, 2008); W. J. Brown, ‘The Strike of the Australian Waterside Worker: A Review,’ Economic Record, 5, no. 8 (1929), pp. 22-33.

[38] ‘The Political Maze,’ Herald (Melbourne), 8 July 1924, p. 4 and Victoria, Parliament, Victoria Parliamentary Debates, vol. 167, 1924, p. 29.

[39] Leonie Foster, ‘Robinson, Sir Arthur (1872–1945),’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 March 2013.

[40] Brooks, ‘The 1928 Waterfront Strike.’

[41] Anderson, Larrikin Crook, 76-90. 

[42]Richmond Gaming House,’ Argus (Melbourne), 14 October 1919, p. 8.

[44] Victoria Police, Victoria Police Gazette (Melbourne: G.P.O, 1938) p. 599.

[45] ‘Murdered in Sydney; Ex-Victorian Criminal,’ Argus (Melbourne), 26 October 1940, p. 1.


Citation details

Chris McConville, 'Melbourne Crime: From War to Depression, 1919-1929', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 23 May 2013, accessed 21 July 2024.

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