City of shadows
Everyday mayhem in Sydney
… scandal sheets of the day titillated respectable Sydney with tales of prostitution, thuggery, drugs, gambling, gender-bending and illicit carousing.
Corner Harmer and Palmer Streets, Woolloomooloo, c1935, glass plate negative. Photographer unknown. Courtesy NSW Police Service
Then, most of the action took place in a crescent zone of jumbled streets, terrace houses, factories and warehouses running from Balmain through Pyrmont, Glebe, Annandale, Newtown, Redfern, Chippendale, the Haymarket, Surry Hills, all the way round to Darlinghurst, Paddington, Kings Cross and Wolloomooloo in the east. Taxi drivers used to call it ‘The Horseshoe’. It was where the population was most dense, where most business was conducted, where out-of-towners most often washed up, and where Sydney-siders went for their illicit pleasures.
‘The Horseshoe’ received consistently bad press; scandal sheets of the day titillated respectable Sydney with tales of prostitution, thuggery, drugs, gambling, gender-bending and illicit carousing. Much of it was tabloid hype, but it was not only that. The police-eyes only publication the NSW Criminal Register routinely detailed the habits and haunts of hundreds of criminals during the period, and the billiard saloons, dance-halls, wine bars, hotels and brothels – the ’traps’ – in the Darlinghurst, Newtown, Redfern and Haymarket areas recur overwhelmingly in these reports.
One particularly vicious murder from the war years tells us much about the inner city demi-monde of the time. On a Monday night in early May 1942, Ernst Hofmann, a chef at the exclusive Royal Sydney Golf Club, met up with a five feet tall, 13 stone prostitute who worked the area around Crown and Liverpool Streets in East Sydney. Unknown to Hofmann, the prostitute, Phyllis May Surridge (alias Stella Croke), had for years operated a notorious ‘ginger joint’; a back lane terrace house brothel where client’s wallets were lifted while they were amorously engaged. In this case though, the client raised the alarm, was beaten senseless and left for dead in a vacant lot by Croke and her cohorts. He died a few days later in St Vincent’s Hospital. Using crime scene photographs from the private archive of the late Brian K Doyle (who as a young constable played a key role in the case and who also happens to have been the author’s uncle), trial transcripts and other previously confidential records, City of shadows puts this bleak, brutal but fascinating crime under the magnifying glass.
In the 1920s police photographers began attending accident and crime scenes, and they have bequeathed to us, nearly a century later, a wholly unique view of inner Sydney, their Sydney – dark streets, back alleys, grimy corner shops, factories, stables, kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, sheds, backyards, dockland areas -- the sort of ‘anti-picturesque’ scenes from which more pictorially-inclined commercial photographers of the day averted their gaze.
Perhaps the most singular component of this extraordinary visual record is the mug shots. Between 1912 and 1930 police photographed, apparently on an irregular, ad hoc basis, around 3,000 actual and suspected criminals, and more than a few outright innocents. Most of us are familiar with the modern mug shot: a flat, harshly-lit view of a dishevelled subject, abjectly holding a slate identifying the charge they are to face. The Sydney police mug shots are something different, and perhaps unique in the world. In these we see an astonishing range of men, women and children of all types, photographed under natural light, apparently in whatever poses they chose. They scowl, grin, laugh, even, in some cases, almost playfully strike poses. We talk of ‘taking’ photographs, but these photographs in many cases seem in some way every bit as much ‘given’ by their subjects. The photographs are technically of a very high standard: in sharp focus, pleasingly tonal. Faces are often captured in ‘painterly’ detail. The photographers seem to have striven to record and reveal character and personal history as much as physical appearance. And the view of the subjects is surprisingly benign. There is an unexpected sympathy, even tenderness, in many of the photographs.
The negatives come to us unaccompanied by documentation. Many are a complete mystery. But by cross checking the names and dates on the mug shots with the police records and newspapers of the day the stories behind many of the mug shots and crime scene photographs come to life, mapping in great particularity the shadowy sides of everyday life – the mayhem, villainy, and plain bad luck – in the old Sydney Horseshoe.
Guest Curator & Crime novelist
Corner Harmer and Palmer Streets, Woolloomooloo, c1935, glass plate negative. Photographer unknown. Courtesy NSW Police ServiceIn the early part of the 20th century police routinely went to the places that respectable Sydney did its best to avoid, the dark places where bad things happened. They were just doing their job – asking questions, taking photographs, writing reports. But now, nearly a century later, the fruit of that footwork offers us the most extraordinary and intimate record of the more troubled sides of everyday life in early 20th century Sydney.
First published in Insites, Spring 2005
City of shadows: inner city crime & mayhem 1912-1948 was on at Justice & Police Museum 19 November 2005 — 11 February 2007