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Larrikins: A History – Sydney launch on 26 April

22 Apr

Sorry about the extraordinarily long hiatus, everyone. Pleased to say, though, that one of the reasons for it is now out of the way. The book, Larrikins: A Historymy key labour for the past few years – has finally been published by the University of Queensland Press.

The launch is this Thursday evening, 6 for 6.30pm on 26 April, at Gleebooks (49 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe) in Sydney. If you live in the area:  I would love it if you came along and said hello.

I asked Mark Dapin, the novelist and recently sacked columnist and writer for the Good Weekend to launch the book. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time – his maverick humour, always underpinned by a quiet eloquence and genuine smarts – and felt like a nervous schoolgirl emailing him about the launch. This is the man who once edited the bloke’s magazine Ralph and wrote the confronting crime novel King of the Road, and whose sundry articles on the strange quirks of contemporary Australian society and masculinity are always worth returning to.

Lucky for me he said yes.

photo of Mark Dapin

Mark Dapin


Dead crook and running the rabbit: the larrikin vernacular

21 Jun

Trawling through local Melbourne newspapers from the early 1900s these past few days, I’ve come across a few suggestibve examples of larrikin slang:

Two teenage girls, Ivy Maine and a friend, were arrested for being drunk with a couple of so-called ‘buck larrikins’ in Yarra Park. A constable approaches them and asks if they’ve been drinking. The girls admit to quaffing some shandygaff, and that the boys have been ‘running the rabbit’. What does that mean, the magistrate asks? It means the boys have been bringing the girls beer in a bottle, Your Worship.

A young man called James Newbold comes into the Railway Hotel in Swan Street, Richmond, with a male friend. They’re barred from ordering drinks because Newbold’s friend has previously caused a rumpus in that same pub. ‘What sort of dead crook hotel is this?’ Newbold asks. ‘Come outside in the yard for five minutes, and I will put you in your place’.

Henry Mosley, an illiterate 17 year-old youth, is seen skylarking with a crowd of others his age in Green Street, Richmond, one Sunday night in 1910. A policeman once more approaches. ‘Cold pig to you!’ Mosley calls to him insultingly.


Richmond Guardian (Melbourne), 1 June 1912, 1; 1 April 1910, 2; 16 July 1910, 2.

Captain of the Push, and other embroideries

23 Apr

In the mid-1900s, any number of romanticised accounts of old Sydney were written by novelists or journalists trading in nostalgia for late nineteeth-century life. Isadore Brodsky, Ruth Park and Frank Clune were among the most popular of these writers, while the Saturday supplements of the papers were rife with lesser offerings.

A standard trope in these nostalgic accounts was the remembrance of the larrikin push (Australian for ‘hooligan gang’) back in the ‘bad old days’. Brodsky’s Heart of the Rocks of Old Sydney, Ruth Park’s Sydney, Kenneth Roberts’ Captain of the Push and other works all tell us that the inner suburbs and city-fringe neighbourhoods of Sydney were made into the fiefdoms of ruffian pushes, many of them ruled by larrikin ‘kings’.

In his more recent history of Sydney, for example, Geoffrey Moorhouse draws on this oeuvre to tell us that ‘the so-called Forty Thieves had the suzerainty of the Rocks, the Iron House Mob ruled Woolloomooloo, while Bristley’s Mob ran the show between George Street and Darling Harbour’.

Now it is the case that there were larrikin pushes in late nineteenth-century Sydney who got involved in street fights and were prosecuted for numerous other crimes. But there is also a great deal of exaggeration and in some cases downright nonsense about them in these histories. 

The idea that larrikin pushes made whole suburbs into their ‘peculiar kingdoms’ (to quote Ruth Park’s Sydney) is an obvious example. Even if unruly groups of adolescents and older rowdies were a routine feature of life in a particular neighbourhood, the use of an overblown imperial language to describe them is absurd.

Larry Foley

A case of outright misinformation also appears in Captain of the Push. Its author Kenneth Roberts claims that the bare-knuckle champion-turned-boxer Larry Foley was the leader of an all-Catholic larrikin push called Larry’s Mob in inner Sydney at the start of the 1870s. He says that Larry’s Mob did battle with the all-Protestant Rocks Push led by Sandy Ross at the time. On the basis of this, accounts in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and numerous other online sites erroneously claim that there were two larrikin gangs called the Green and the Orange which were once fought for supremacy of the Rocks.

No evidence I have seen supports these claims. For a start, the timing is wrong: there weren’t well-defined larrikin pushes in Sydney at the beginning of the 1870s. And the obituaries for Larry Foley that Roberts seems to have relied upon only suggest that there were loose Protestant and Catholic factions within Sydney’s bare-knuckle fighting fraternity, each of which urged Larry Foley and Sandy Ross to hold a prize fight in March 1871. The rest of Roberts’ story about the pair being the captains of rival street gangs seems to have been embroidered from poetry such as Henry Lawson’s ‘The Bastard From the Bush’ (in which the phrase ‘Captain of the Push’ appears) and other accounts of larrikin pushes from a period later than the 1870s.

The moral to this story is: beware accounts of a larrikin street gangs big on talk of kings and suzerainities and short of evidence to back up their claims. They tell us more about twentieth-century nostaligia for hard masculinity and the mean streets than they do about Sydney’s inner-suburban life in the late-Victorian years.


Isadore Brodsky, Sydney Looks Back (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1957).

Isadore Brodsky, Heart of the Rocks of Old Sydney (Sydney: Old Sydney Free Press, 1965).

W. M. Horton, ‘Foley, Laurence (Larry) (1849 – 1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, p. 193.

Geoffrey Moorhouse, Sydney (St Leonards, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999).

Ruth Park, Ruth Park’s Sydney, rev. ed. (Potts Point, Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1999, first published 1973).

Kenneth Roberts, Captain of the Push (Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1963).

Image of Larry Foley from

An 1880 art-and-obscenity trial: Ingres comes to Pitt St, Sydney

24 May

Hopefully, the Bill Henson imbroglio of 2008 is behind us in Australia now (for those who missed it: Australian police shut down the renowned artist’s shows at the rosylnoxley9 gallery last year, claiming that his photographs of teens sans clothes were child pornography).

I don’t have anything to say about that brouhaha that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. But I thought I would note an incident in Sydney in early November 1880, in which police once again stormed an establishment selling art, and in that case charged the dealer with obscenity.

The prosecution was for the exhibition of Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres’ La Source, a reproduction of which hung in the window of the dealer’s shop in Pitt Street, Sydney.

ingres_sourceThe Source (1856)

This painting had a ‘demoralising influence’, the prosecuting constable told the court, because ‘it represented the naked form of a woman’, and because it attracted large crowds of ‘the larrikin class’ – not only boys and young men, but ‘low, abandoned women and girls’ as well – who gathered to gaze at it on the Pitt Street footpath. This was, of course, the nub of the matter so far as he was concerned. The danger in 1880 lay with the inflammatory effects of female nudity on the lower orders, who would allow it to further demoralise themselves.

The charge in this case was roundly dismissed, you may be happy to know. Evidence in support of the dealer was given by a judge in the Art Section of the Sydney International Exhibition, who gave the usual testimony in such circumstances. He declared that ‘the indecency lay more in the mind of the critic’ than the painting itself, and that paintings of as much explicitness were available for view in the Art Gallery any day of the year. In spite of the contemporary panic about paedophilia and the very 1880s one about larrikinism, one is tempted to say, has really all that much changed?

The Territories of Youth

17 May

I will be adding a fair few titles to my bibliography on larrikinism shortly. This is largely because I have been working my way through a fabulous PhD thesis by Simon Sleight from Monash University, called ‘The Territories of Youth: Young People and Public Space in Melbourne, 1870-1901’, a work oozing research leads and suggestions for secondary reading.

‘The Territories of Youth’ looks at the way young people used the outdoor spaces of Melbourne in the late nineteenth century. It has a chapter specifically on larrikins (soon to appear as an article in Australian Historical Studies) called ‘Interstitial acts: urban space and the larrikin repertoire’.

Sleight essentially shows that larrikin used vacant lots, marketplaces and street corners throughout inner Melbourne for the performance of rebellious youthfulness – something that obviously complements my own work on their interaction with theatrical and other performance genres, and the way this played out in turn-of-the-century streets. The article when it appears in Australian Historical Studies will be worth a read. The broader thesis also maps the trajectories of many working-class children through the streets of Melbourne, providing an intimate glimpse into their city at the time.

gangs of manchester

The reason I came across Simon’s thesis was that I fortuitously met him at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London recently. He is planning future research looking comparatively at Melbourne and Liverpool delinquency at the turn of the twentieth century. And he has also directed me to the fabulous work of Andrew Davies, author of The Gangs of Manchester (the cover image for which appears above) and a soon-to-be-perfomed play on the subject, Angels With Manky Faces. (I’ncidentally, I’d never known until hearing this that the word ‘manky’, which I grew up using to mean ‘wonky’ or ‘wrong’, was an insult to the good citizens of Manchester).

Larrikins and blackface minstrelsy#2

12 May

My article on larrikins and blackface minstrelsy has finally appeared in the Journal of Social History. One of my aims in writing it was to provide an Australian perspective on debates about the relationship of blackface minstrelsy to race and class, given that those perspectives are usuallyoffered by American historians. But I was also keen to give a glimpse into male larrikns’ theatrical persona and everyday activities: their interest in performance in the street as well as minstrel performances and Ned Kelly-style melodramas.

Unfortunately, the Journal of Social History’s copyright restrictions say I can’t put it up online for some time, But anyone interested in a copy should feel free to ask for a pdf by email.

In search of the larrikin girl

12 May

Well, I’ve been very slow indeed since I got back from the whistle-stop conference visit to the UK. Am giving two papers over the next couple of days, though – here’s the latest for the University of Queensland’s history seminar later this week:

In Search of the Larrikin Girl: Rough Femininity and Street Subculture in Australia, 1870-1915.


The culture of young street toughs or ‘larrikins’ in turn-of-the-century Australia was unabashedly masculine in character. It revolved around the performance of a flamboyant machismo; around fighting, taunting authority-figures, and bragging about one’s sexual prowess. As with rough youth subcultures elsewhere, this has meant that the girls and young women who participated in the larrikin milieu have either been rendered invisible or else presented as the sexual dupes of men.

In this paper I discuss my search for the larrikin girl in the historical sources, along with my attempt to come to terms with her relevance to scholarship from cultural studies and sociology on girls and street subcultures. I argue particularly for a focus on the theatricality of the larrikin-girl persona, and consider the ways in which this allows us to understand these rough girls and young women as something more than the auxiliaries of larrikin boys.