Brisbane larrikins

23 May

According to the travel-writer Gilbert Parker in the early 1880s, Brisbane had no larrikins. There were abundant low characters in the streets, certainly. Brisbane’s rough boys didn’t wear a slouch hat set at a rakish angle, however: they didn’t have quite the right features and style that Parker had identified as ‘larrikin’ in Australian cities further south. A particular sartorial style was indeed highly signficant to larrikins: they formed a subculture with its own dress codes and distinctive pursuits as well as an example of violent dissidence in turn-of-the-century urban Australia.

Parker can’t have been looking all that hard for larrikins in Brisbane’s streets. Either that, or he visited the city just before the full development of  its larrikin culture. Certainly, by the late 1880s and early 1890s, there were plenty of reports in the Brisbane press of the ‘full-blown’ larrikin boy and girl.

‘The larrikin loves Saturday night’, wrote a journalist for the Brisbane Courier in December 1888, ‘and in all the glory of high heels – of the French pattern – bell-bottomed pants, and bobtailed coats, decked with many buttons, he propels himself against hotel walls … and bespatters the fooway with his copious expectoration’. The same paper wrote of pushes of larrikin girls in Woolloongabba after dark in the 1890s, wearing short skirts and behaving ‘suspiciously’. Some larrikin girls in central Brisbane were prostitutes (or assumed to be such), and were imprisoned in ‘Lock Hospitals’ under contagious diseases laws in the early 1890s. ‘Latterly it has become a custom for them to break out at night as soon as they get an opportunity’, wrote a police sergeant in 1891, to sneak off to ‘meet some of their larrikin acquaintances, get drunk and return before the matron is up in the morning’.

Other accounts of Brisbane larrikins document the same kind of anti-Chinese violence in which Melbourne larrikins were engaged in the 1880s. The Brisbane riot in Albert Street on an election-day in 1888 was spearheaded by a group of larrikins throwing stones and beating Chinese men, egged on by a drunken crowd spilling out from nearby polling booths. At least two women were among the larrikins smashing Chinese shopfronts – and two Anglo women were also beaten as they came out of a shop near Queen Street because they who presumed to be concubines of Chinese men.

Intriguingly, and horribly, too, larrikins at Goodna fell upon a troupe of Mexican fortune-tellers making their peripatetic way about the Queensland interior in April 1902, a long way from where they were born.


Raymond Evans, ‘Night of Broken Glass: The Anatomy of an Anti-Chinese Riot’, in in Brisbane History Group, Brisbane in 1888: The Historical Perspective (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group, 1989) pp. 47-60.

Rod Fisher, ‘Old Frogs Hollow: Devoid of Interest, or a Den of Iniquity?’, in Brisbane History Group, Brisbane in 1888: The Historical Perspective (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group, 1989) pp. 17-46.

Mark Finnane, ‘Larrikins, Delinquents and Cops: Police and Young People in Australian History’, in Rob White and Christine Alder, eds, Police and Young People in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp. 7-26.

Bryan Jamison, ‘A Great Social Forece Making For Order and Morality: An Analysis of Institutions for Rational Recreation in Late Victorian and Edwardian Brisbane’, PhD Thesis, University of Queensland, 2002.

                     , ‘Kangaroo Point, 1902’, in Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier, eds, Radical Brisbane (Melbourne: Vulgar Press, 2004), pp. 123-32.

Murray Johnson, ‘Leaning Against the Lamp-Post: A Study of Larrikinism in South Queensland 1880-1920’, B.A. Hons Thesis, Department of History, University of Queensland, 1998.

W Ross Johnston, The Long Blue LIne: A History of the Queensland Police (Bowen Hills, Qld: Boolaroo Publications, 1992) pp. 169-70.

Gilbert Parker, in Edward Morris, Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages (London: Macmillan, 1898) pp. 259-63.

3 Responses to “Brisbane larrikins”

  1. Lefty E 23 May 2008 at 9:57 am #

    Great blog Melissa! They still hang out at the cnr of Queen and Albert.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 26 May 2008 at 11:53 am #

    Ah, but not in bell-bottoms…

  3. Lefty E 26 May 2008 at 12:09 pm #

    Go back another 60 years and they were in Captain Logan’s semi-subterranean solitary confinement – same corner!

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