After far too long, I have returned to Janet McCalman’s Struggletown (1984), a really wonderful history of Richmond, Melbourne, based on oral testimony from residents during the first half of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the turn to Struggletown was inspired in part by my upcoming departure for Melbourne. During the Australian Historical Association conference I will be staying with family in Richmond, in a yuppified converted silo (a long distance socio-economically from the period I’ve just been reading about). But I was also looking for evidence of larrikin life early in the century in MacCalman’s book, and I found it.
In 1910, MacCalman tells us, Richmond’s Rowena Parade Rats sported slouch hats and loud neckerchiefs, wearing much the same costume their flash forebears had worn in the 1880s. ‘They broke dances and in 1920 police had to be engaged to protect the respectable patrons at vaudeville concerts in the [Richmond] Town Hall. They vandalised the parks the Council tried to “make nice” for the nice people at Richmond; they jeered at churchgoers and leered at unobtainable girls; they harassed and threw stones at boating parties on the river; they commandeered the best swimming sports; they outraged the Wowsers by playing cards in public and two-up on Sundays.
“They were also capable of viciousness. In 1924 larrikins attached children in a new Council playground in North Richmond, leaving one girl with a broken leg and other children with head lacerations”. And in 1926, “two members of the Hill Mob knocked a youth unconscious in Swan Street when he refused to give them a tomato from a bag he was carrying home”.
What strikes me here is the homogeneity and longevity of larrikin culture across Australia. A lot of historical commentary on larrikinism talks about the fact that the larrikin figure became an object of sentimentality and nostalgia during the first two decades of the twentieth century. In the work of C J Dennis or Louis Stone, we hear, larrikins were portrayed as good ‘uns underneath, rough blokes who would morph into loving family men if given half a chance. Regardless of this shift to the romantic in literary portrayals of larrikins, however, the intractable lairishness and violence of larrikin culture continued at the street level well into the 1920s, and arguably intensified during the Depression that followed.
Janet McCalman, Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965, South Melbourne: Hyland House, 1998 (first published 1984), p 132
cf Hugh Anderson, Larrikin Crook: The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor (Jacaranda Press, 1971).