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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

On Bowery Gals &c

17 Aug

In her now-venerable book, City of Women, first published in 1986, Christine Stansell writes about the emergence of an ebullient young workingwomen’s culture in 1840s New York. This young womanly culture was expressed most vibrantly in the figure of the Bowery Gal, she tells us (otherwise known as the Bowery g’hal). This Gal was easily distinguished by her in-your-face sartorial dash and brash ways, and by her tendency to hang out in the cheap theatres, dance halls and on the pavements of the Bowery after-hours. ‘George Foster, the would-be Dickens of the New York scene, noted how such young women emerged in a crowd at the end of the workday, streaming towards the east side’, Stansell writes, ‘”all forming a continuous procession which… loses itself gradually in the innumerable side-streets leading thence into the unknown regions of Proletaireism”‘.

In Cheap Amusements, another now-venerable work, Kathy Peiss looks at what happened next. Writing a kind of turn-of-the-century version of Sex and the City (but without all the fawning over designer labels, thank God), she explores young workingwomen’s visits to dance halls, nickleodeons and cheap vaudeville between 1880 and 1920. Young single working-women used these places of leisure to express themselves at the turn of the century, she says. They paved the way for the changes which would take place in American youth culture more generally in the 1920s and beyond. Some of the more audacious girls danced ‘tough dances’ in low halls, shimmying up against the bodies of their partners in a way that we would well recognise now. Some, too, became known as ‘charity girls’, so-called because they picked up men prepared to treat them to a good time in exchange for sex. And then there were the girls drawn to rides at Coney Island which sent their skirts flying or their bodies falling crazily across those of men nearby.

City of Women and Cheap Amusements are each fascinating studies of past women’s lives, full of fine-grained and evocative detail (such a relief after reading abstract analyses of gender discourse, with their endless genuflections to Joan Scott!). I’ve just read a perceptive critique of Stansell’s work in particular, however, which notes that her discussion of Bowery Gals is very unclear about how they related to New York workingwomen’s culture at large. When Stansell wrote about the girls with their mischievous gait and ostentatious hats on the Bowery, she was really talking about a particular sub-culture of young New York workingwomen, and she needed to be more explicit about this fact. Stansell was also unclear about how much the phenomenon she was describing was specific to New York. Was there an equivalent of the Bowery Gal in Chicago, for example, or Philadelphia – or, indeed, one might well ask, in Johannesburg, or Sydney, or Auckland?

From my research thus far into Australian larrikin girls, it seems that there certainly was an Antipodean equivalent to the Bowery Gal: if not in the 1840s, then certainly by the 1880-90s. Accounts of smart-mouthed ‘rough’ girls hanging out with ruffians, dressed in violently-coloured cheap finery, were part of the social concern voiced about larrikinism in Australian colonial cities at the end of the century. These women were very much a subculture unto themselves, however, and for this reason I am planning to start reading into the work on subcultures first developed by British cultural studies scholars in the 1970-80s: the work Stansell would have benefitted from reading when she wrote City of Women.  So many titles scrawl across on the screen as soon as one starts searching for them, however: Beyond Subculture, After Subculture, The Graffiti Subculture, Inside Subculture, Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Resistance Through Rituals… Am feeling both a sense of exhaustion and of possibility just thinking about tackling the field.


Faye E Dudden, Review of Christine Stansell’s City of Women, American journal of Sociology, vol. 93, no. 4 (Jan 1988), pp.1010-1011.

Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Temple University Press, 1987).

Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (University of Illinois Press, 1986).

Sleepless in Smith-street

17 Jan

You hear plenty about how chronically underslept the kids are these days, compared to some unspecified days of yore – sometime before social networking sites and PSPs, presumably. But go back a little more than a century, and outside polite society there wasn’t a lot of early-to-bed going on. No doubt I have a skewed vision of this, having read police courts for inner Melbourne’s seamy Fitzroy and Collingwood during the 1880s so recently. The knockabout demographic in those places was hardly representative. But still, it’s astonishing to think of how many young children and teens wandered the streets there in the small hours.

What about Thomas and Walter Cahill, for example, two waifs who were picked up among a swarm of ‘little outlaws’, crouching in an outhouse sometime around three in the morning? Or the four larrikin boys caught throwing stones at the market-gardener, Joshua Ah Ken, around four in East Melbourne? And the eight year old hauled away by police after stealing a pitcher from a back lot at 3.30am? And then there were the kiddie labourers – like Albert Facey in A Fortunate Life – who worked twelve hours or more a day, or who were performing nights before the theatre industry was regulated, as dancers and conjurors’ assistants. It makes SMSing your friend some hours after dinner a little less drastic, no?


Butchery in Smith-street, Collingwood, with kiddies & others loitering outside (SLV, 1860s).


Bourke-st 1860s, and latter-day Fortitude Valley

6 Nov

Out in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley last weekend I got to thinking about the fascination I’ve had lately for accounts of mid-Victorian street-culture. Melbourne’s Bourke St seems thrillingly eclectic in the slummer-journalism of the late 1860s, with its ballad-sellers and telescope man, its factory girls and colonial braggarts too big for their patent-leather boots. (Well, it does when Marcus Clarke writes about it in his nasty-funny and mannered prose, anyway; misogynistic but horribly seductive, damnit, as that man must have been).

It’s easy to allow such descriptions to inform everything one thinks about Victorian cities, as if Bourke-street might somehow stand in for all Melbourne, Soho all of London, the Bowery all of 1830s New York. Such places weren’t representative then, however – and that’s what I was thinking last Saturday night, out in the Valley.

All of Brisbane CBD’s clubs and bars are squashed into a couple of blocks in the Valley, it seems. Past midnight the mall is rampant with bodies, and with people running pellmell through the traffic on the roads at either side. I stood for a while in an ATM queue while a busker played blues-lite before an audience of maybe eight or nine escapees from a nearby bar, standing unsteadily in front of him. I was thinking how normally I wouldn’t think of this as remarkable. Scenes of happy drunks  in the street hardly create the bohemian thrill, the self-conscious air of being a participant observer, that Clarke felt on his exploits in Bourke-st. It was only having read his work so recently that I took on that self-consciousness myself, noting a forty-something punk in greying mohawk, and a twenty-something Jim Morrison-cum-John Lennon wannabe, decades out of his time (round sunglasses, black denim, ostentatious joint, long hair), walk past. Mostly, of course, there were teens and those not long out of their teens, lots of girls in fake tans and potato-sack minis (what is it with all those baggy empire-line tops masquerading as dresses?) and boys with oversized biceps and colourful Ts.

One wouldn’t try to make such scenes stand in for ‘urban life in Brisbane’ in its totality today. But somehow for me – and not just me, I think – descriptions of the devil’s own nights in Manhattan, or the Moulin-Rouge in Paris, or Henry Mayhew’s darkest London, or the Rocks in 1880s Sydney, come to inhabit a wider terrain when it comes to imagining cities past.


(Gratuitous latterday Bourke St shot from Julia Shiels’ fab blog City Traces:

A diaspora of fruit and fancy-goods

1 Nov

In a short-lived little paper, Society, published in Sydney in 1886, the editor describes a city teeming with street-commerce and promenaders: omnibus boys with ‘diabolical’ whistles, an army of ‘peripatetic fruit shops on wheels’, pretty girls to sigh over, boys with lawn-tennis racquets, a great miscellany of hawkers, and ice-cream carts trundling by. (Query: how did the ice-cream stay cold, and where was the lawn tennis happening?) One couldn’t pick flowers or smoke in the Botanic Gardens, this editor observed, with his characteristically doleful air, but there were plenty of passing vendors with goodies to buy.

Chaotic descriptions of Melbourne’s Bourke Street similarly abound in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1887), a novel by Fergus Hume, and in Marcus Clarke’s slummer-journalism from the late 1860s. A restless crowd ‘jostles and pushes along the pavements’, Hume wrote, notable chiefly for its griminess, as also for the vivid dresses of the prostitutes milling about the street corners. ‘Round the doors of the hotels a number of ragged and shabby-looking individuals collect, who lean against the walls criticising the crowd… Then here and there are the ragged street Arabs, selling matches and newspapers; and … further up, just on the verge of the pavement, a band, consisting of three violins and a harp, is stationed, which is playing a German waltz to an admiring crowd’. Clarke offered up other characters in his sketches of Bourke-street by night. A street preacher, hand upraised, singing a hymn as passers-by stopped to join in the chorus. A peddlar of ballads, calling out the titles of his ‘noo and fav’rite’ melodies. And ‘the man with the telescope’, evidently a Bourke-street fixture, ‘who shows Saturn’s rings for a penny and describes Jupiter’s moons for a glass of gin’.

These sources amply bear out what I’ve just been reading in Andrew Brown-May’s, Melbourne Street Life. This wonderful book is all about the vibrancy and jangle of the street in this period – buskers, newsboys, shoppers, workers, and hawkers combing the laneways ‘in a diaspora of fruit, fish, flowers and fancy-goods’ (157). The book is also about the progressive removal of this enterprise, the progressive attacks on all its noise and clutter and debris. Boys used to line up on the footpath in Swanston Street with armfuls of daffodils and wattle blossom, he wrote. In 1901, the District Court fined them for getting in pedestrians’ way. Also gone by the turn of the century were the men selling monkeys and the occasional kangaroo, and the cockatoo hawker from the late 1880s. (‘In one hand he holds two caged birds, while with the other he thrusts out a stick on which a melancholy cockatoo sits and surveys the passers-by’).

Brown-May ends the book with a call for the revival of city streets as democratic spaces, ‘providing optimum opportunities for the freedom and accessibility of all classes of people’. Mindful of the history of the street, he says, we should recognise ‘the significance of public space to the renewal and conviviality of cities and to the practice of community and citizenship’. Having just moved to a fast-yuppifying suburb of Brisbane, and having seen far too little of the city’s pavements and outdoor life,  this plea strikes almost too close to the bone.

On nineteenth-century blogging

30 Oct

The detritus of little newspapers begun in a bedroom or tiny office downtown is everywhere in the historical record: flotsam and jetsam of political fervour and voices striving to be heard. Reading some of Sydney’s late 19thC examples, I’m struck by how much they functioned like blogs – that is, as a diaristic commentary on their editor’s daily life and proclivities.

I’ve already written about the Truth, for example, which included accounts of the unsavoury Bob Avery on his visits to theatres and bars. Another example is Society, another easy-come-easy-go Sydney offering with a theatrical bent. Wish I knew what its editor looked like. He inhabited a very similar oeuvre to the owner-editors of the Truth, but in a more benign and charmingly lugubrious way. ‘The other night our Ed was mournfully perusing copy under the somnolent effects of whisky and tobacco’, he wrote in Feburary 1886. And elsewhere: ‘One of my idiosyncracies is to want refreshments. Wherever I go I have a morbid longing for tea, and cakes, and lemonade and ice-creams, little things like that. And I note that whenever ladies condescend to overlook my repulsive personal appearance… they develop an appetite for ice-cream’.

Larrikin theatricalities

24 Oct


So recently I finished a piece about larrikin culture, and its theatricality, in late-19thC Australia. Larrikins were renowned for loitering in the vestibules of colonial theatres, and afterwards packing into the galleries to amuse themselves at everyone else’s expense during a show. They were also among the mob at the back of smaller suburban venues of a Saturday night. Sometimes they hung about grabbing the top-hats of the dress-circle crowd, crushing them beneath their high-heeled boots. But larrikins also specialised in sartorial pretensions of their own – not just the fancy boots, but bell-bottomed trousers, coloured neck-ties, and jauntily-tilted hats. They walked with a swagger, set their faces with a leer; all in all, a  self-conscious mode of self-presentation. The same could be said of larrikin women, who dolled themselves up in flounced dresses and brazen face.

The theatricality of larrikin identity has  often been observed in accounts of them making a nuisance of themselves in colonial cities during the 1870-90s. But I haven’t read anything about the role played by popular theatre – about the way that larrikins used it as a resource upon it when styling their street persona. Hence my paper. It looks at the role of coon songs from American minstrel-shows, and coster swell songs from English music halls as inspiration for Australian larrikin culture. Who would have thought that blackface ‘coon’ characters would have had such an influence on what it seen now as such an ocker cultural identity? But it seems to me that this was the case. 

Larrikins and ‘coons’ were both reviled as savage and oversexed at the end of the century, for intimidating people in the street, for thieving and living the fast life. Little wonder, then, that dance-mad larrikins would have kicked up a storm to songs like I’m a Hot Thing or Darktown is out To-night, feeling a sense of gleeful recognition in the words and the toe-tappin’ beat:

Warm coons’ a-prancin’s, swell coons a-dancin’
Tough coons who’ll want to fight;
So, bring along your blazers,
Fetch out your razors, Darktown is out to-night.

On Nights at the Circus

7 Sep

It isn’t easy to forget Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Well, actually I’ve forgotten a whole lot about it, in the same way that I forget most of the fiction I read. But the taste of the book comes back whenever I think of it: a taste of blood, old cooking-oil, sawdust, pancake-makeup, champagne. (In the end, that kind of sensory imprint is what remains the most significant part of a novel for me – not its plot or its characters, but rather a vague sense of the colour or grain or smell or taste of its prose). The readiness with which those flavours come back makes me wonder how much my understanding of late-Victorian London is informed by Carter’s book. The feeling that comes to me whenever I think of the late-Victorian era is saturated in the febrile mix one finds in her work of the scatological and sublime. And that also makes me wonder how much Nights at the Circus has played a wider role in informing historical renditions of the period.

‘Angela Carter has influenced a whole generation of fellow-writers towards dream worlds of barbaric splendour’, the blurb says on the back of her book. I agree that her velvet-spattered-with-effluent oeuvre has influenced the way urban life at the end of the century is imagined. What’s the bet Baz Luhrman read Nights at the Circus before he made Moulin Rouge? That Judith Walkowitz was a Carter fan before she read ‘The Maiden Tribute’ and wrote City of Dreadful Delight (1992)? And what about other historians (like me) with a penchant for freak shows, ‘mystic vaudeville’, the Victorian circus, and burlesque? There are plenty of people influenced by Fevvers, I reckon, the feather-backed foul-mouthed trapeze artist featured in Carter’s book. Plenty of people who imagine the end-of-century era inflected with the kind of Gothic kitsch depicted in her work. And while I love that kind of kitsch opulence, it makes me realise I have to be careful not to be too much in its thrall. To give that overlay to everything I read at the moment will surely restrict its possible range and meaning.

The Truth on Sydney’s CTB

21 Aug

When I was last at Mitchell Library, I went back to an 1870s newspaper I’d encountered briefly before: the Truth. What a nasty little paper. It’s hard to imagine an offering more different in tone and content to the upstanding goldfield-town papers I’ve been reading from the same period (papers such as the Ballarat Courier and the Mount Alexander Mail). The latter wrote consistently of temperance meetings and school concerts, exuding throughout the earnest fragrance of shoe-polish and altar flowers. The Truth was an altogether more malodorous creature, reeking of the gutters and hotels of Sydney’s CTB (central theatrical district). Its proprietors were W Drysdale and Bob Avery, neither of whom I’ve come across before.

Most of the Truth‘s copy seems to have been written by Avery: a grubby, misogynistic anti-semite, who wrote (among other things) of punching a Jew in a late-night cafe, and being rebuffed by ‘prudish’ barmaids. Not surprisingly, given his penchant for theatres and nightlife, Avery was as contemptuous of provincial society as he was of conventional morality. The sanctimony of the events reported in the Ballarat Courier would have drawn either a snort or tirade from this self-proclaimed provocateur. Witness his attack on a ‘puny country rag’ (the Cumberland Times) which dared to criticise the Truth:

‘As a general rule, I do not trouble to jump on worms, but the cool effrontery of the scurrilous newspaper abortion that vomits its filth and nonsense upon the few residents of the Cumberland district, tempts me to mildly rebuke a drivelling, struggling journal that generally only merits a pitying smile’.

The Truth gives us a window into Sydney’s seamy side in the 1870s, delivered in a darker voice (it seems) than the muckraking papers Kirsten McKenzie writes about: the Satirist and the Omnibus, published in mid-century Sydney.  Bob Avery’s editorials were unashamedly urban in their character and mode of expression – not for him the elevation of bush life or rural simplicity that would later characterise Australian bohemian writing. ‘I don’t often hanker for mild enjoyments – something fierce and thrilling usually suits me better’, he wrote. Like the 1890s bohemians, however, the city life he depicted was modelled very obviously on overseas examples: on the New York depicted in James Gordon Bennett-style sensational journalism, and the London of the slum exposé.

What happened to the gin and the mayhem?

12 Aug

I’ve just finished a paper based on research I carried out before beginning my postdoc here at UQ. It’s about masculinity: well, actually it’s about the late nineteenth century equivalent of the masculinity you find in Rotary Clubs in country towns or middling suburbs today. In the paper I look at William Guthrie Spence, one of the key players in the New Unionism and the growth of the political labour movement in 1890s Australia. For all his blather about mateship and the heroic qualities of Australian bushmen, Spence was a provincial father-of-nine who believed that civic service and religious feeling were all-important for a man. For most of his life, he lived in the Victorian goldfields town of Creswick, arriving there as a boy from Scotland in the 1850s. By the 1870-80s, the town was full of civic institutions: churches, mutual improvement societies, choirs, citizen militias, friendly societies, temperance groups, trade unions – and Spence was involved in a goodly number of them. Spence’s sense of what men should be had exactly that earnest, striving, morally serious air you associate with provincial progress societies or Lion’s/Rotary Clubmen, admixed with the more openly devout language of a lay preacher from the mid-nineteenth century.

I find it hard to reconcile this god-fearing, provincial picture of 1870s Creswick with the one I’ve encountered of goldfields society thus far in 1850-60s theatre memoirs. All those descriptions of street-hawkers, of miners with their guns in red sashes at the hip, of candlelight flickering in gin-bottles of an evening, of drunken hijinx on horseback in the wee hours – how does this marry with the life Spence knew as a preacher-unionist and family man? These towns were places of extraordinarily rapid cultural change, is all I can say. In two decades they went from the raw tents and elbow-jostle of the goldfields to places of a multi-layered civic life, complete with public monuments in the streets and earnest plaques on the communal buildings. Women were hugely outnumbered there in their first years, as you’d expect, and yet by the 1870s they were more or less equivalent in numbers to men in at least some goldfields towns. But was there still a street culture trading in echoes of carnival and excess in the Creswick and Castlemaine and Clunes, all Victorian goldfields towns, in the 1870-80s and beyond? Was there still evidence of the gin and the mayhem of not-too-much-earlier years? I need to find readings soon which give me some sense of this.