Creating a scene: Fitzroy and Collingwood Police Courts, 1880

2 Jan

In October 1880, thirty people were charged in Collingwood’s Police Court. The charges were the usual motley: vagrancy, theft of boots and German sausages, foul language, drunkenness, neglect of children, &c. The court (wrote a reporter for the local Observer) was packed to suffocation with sympathisers of the accused. 

Not long after this (the morning Ned Kelly was killed) a drunk woman caused a ruction in Fitroy Police Court. “Bridget Campbell delights in the sensational”, wrote the court reporter that day (11 November 1880). Every time she put in an appearance in court, she created “a scene”. Sometimes she arrived as “drunk as a piper”, and fell hilariously over the people seated in her row. Other times she orated loudly to those assembled, or shouted at the police to remove her if they dared.

Another regular at Fitzroy Police Court was Elizabeth Munro, apparently once a member of “the highest society”. She was charged for swaggering around the streets, half in drag, a man’s hat upon her head. On another occasion, she had apparently paraded Fitzroy’s streets “with a hideous Guy Fawkes face on, the sport of a crowd”.

Elizabeth Munro’s drunken eccentricities were said to have impressed “the more callow section of the audience” in Fitzroy Police Court when she appeared before the judge that morning of 11 November. The way she acted indeed made the Observer think of “Miss Merton’s portrayal in ‘New Babylon'”, playing an aristocratic woman turned to spectacular public drunkeness.

The playing of drunks and vagabonds was standard fare for music hall stars and blackface comedians in the 1870s and 1880s. It thus seems that there was a blurred line between what happened on the variety stage by night in inner-urban suburbs like Fitzroy and Collingwood, and then in the police court the next day. What strikes me here is the extent to which the audiences for court proceedings are likely to have overlapped with popular theatre, and to have brought similar expectations to the court as they did to a minstrel show. 

 

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