A few hours after five Melbourne girls were arrested for vagrancy in late March 1928, the head-line of Melbourne’s Truth broadcast their misdeeds: ‘White Girls with Negro Lovers. Flappers, Wine, Cocaine and Revels. Raid Discloses Wild Scene of Abandon‘.
On the Sunday before this, the young women had been hauled out of a couple of apartments in Nicholson Street, East Melbourne, and taken to the local police lock-up around 4am. Both Truth reporters and the police had been watching them for hours before the raid took place, dancing and drinking before unshuttered windows with the African-American members of Sonny Clay’s jazz band. The scenes they had been forced to witness were so shocking, wrote the Truth, that they ‘cannot be described’.
When the five girls were brought to trial, more than seven hundred members of the Melbourne public tried to cram into the City Court. Plenty of those who tried to muscle their way in were turned away on account of the crush. Before this gawping throng, the girls were led into the dock: Ivy Day, Nora McKay, Dorothy Davis, Edna Langdon, and Irene Davis (not in fact their real names). Two wore dark goggles. The others faced the crowd bare-faced and ashamed.
So far as the press was concerned, the five girls on trial were ‘flappers’: the visible face of that jazz-addicted, dance-obsessed, cocktail-guzzling girl-multitude which acted as the focus for so much public angst at the time. Nostalgic reminiscences of the 1920s now tend to render this girl-multitude uniformly glamorous, as if they were all Irene Castles or racy Maud Allens cast in the elegant silver lucency of 1920s photography:
Maud Allen, c/o Arts Alive
According to the Truth, however, the reality was more mundane. The Melbourne flappers on trial might have been ‘drawn from an average gathering of shop girls and clerks… so far as outward appearance was concerned’. And more to the point, only one of them was comfortably off. The rest led lives of scrimping economy to pay for their Jazz-Age lifestyle.
Since the girls had been charged with ‘having no visible means of support’, their defence rested on proving that they had some means at the time of their arrest. Because of this, their testimony involved details of their work and wages, giving us a glimpse into the daily lives and income of the 1920s modern girl. Ivy Day, apparently, was a 22 year old nursemaid who lived in with a family in St Kilda and earned 30 shillings a week. Dorothy Davis had once been a waitress at the Coo-ee Cafe on the corner of Bourke and Exhibition Streets in Melbourne. At the time of her arrest, she had been earning a pound a week to cook breakfast and tea for Sonny Clay’s musicians, and sharing a room in Fitzroy with Nora McKay.
Nora McKay was the only girl with some income: she was a dressmaker who earned 2 pounds 13/6 a week, with an interest in her dead father’s estate which covered her rent and food. The Truth ensured that this ‘tall pale girl’ was more humiliated than any of the others. It published details from her diary, seized by police during the Nicholson Street raid. The diary contained an admission of a number of abortions, the Truth alleged. It also described the birth and adoption out of a baby girl, of amours with a local man, and of McKay’s ardour for the Sonny Clay musician (‘I love this black man…’).
Towards the end of the hearing, one of the five girls, Ivy Day, broke down uncontrollably and had to be escorted from the courtroom. Shortly after this, all five had their charges thrown out. It was apparent that none of them had actually been vagrants; the whole thing (as everyone would have known from the start) had been motivated by concerns about their sexuality rather than their means of support. ‘Because there is no Act which makes it an offence for a white girl to associate with a coloured person, police were powerless to convict the girls’, the Truth lamented. Readers need not despair of this, however: ‘…a move is now on foot to frame an Act which will give the police such power’.
Truth, 31 March 1928.
See other references listed in this post on the Australian tour of Sonny Clay’s Coloured Idea.