Tag Archives: Larrikins

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

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Larrikins: an interview

16 Jun

Last week I talked to Richard Adey on Radio National’s Life Matters about Larrikins: A History, the book due out with the University of Queensland Press early next yearHere is what the program’s website says about it:

For more than a century the term ‘larrikin’ has played into the myth about what it means to be an Australian male.

Melissa Bellanta traces the term larrikin from its derogatory meaning in the late 1800s, through to its positive reinvention in World War 1, to its heyday in 1970s Australian cinema.

But Dr Bellanta, from the University of Queensland, speculates the term may die out with the last of the baby boomers.

Here, too, is a podcast of the interview: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2011/06/lms_2

Knife culture, or Australia’s lack of it

11 Jun

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald today discusses the culture of knife violence in Glasgow.

Endemic to the problem is the fact that so many of those involved valorise the carrying of knives and bearing their scars as a sign of tough masculinity. So too is the fact that gang-fighting has been normalised within certain Glaswegian neighbourhoods: either accepted fatalistically or actively lauded as a way of life.

The degree to which street violence can be seen as ‘cultural’ has long been controversial in debates about gang violence and juvenile delinquency. At worst, it becomes a way to lay all of the blame for the problems associated with street fights on the communities in which it takes place, ignoring the other ‘social’ factors at play (unemployment, badly-resourced schooling, poor public amenities and housing, etc).

From my perspective as an Australian historian who has researched urban youth gang fights in the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, it is striking to note the cultural differences with Glasgow. The most notable of these is that comparatively speaking, knives have played so little role in street violence among Australian youth.

Small numbers of organised criminal gangs fought with razors in late 1920s and 1930s Australian cities, especially Sydney, just as they did in Glasgow. Among the youth gangs called ‘larrikin mobs’ or ‘pushes’, however, many of which skirmished over territory, knives never played a significant role. There was a short-lived spurt of gun-fighting just after the First World War, particularly in the inner-Melbourne suburbs of Carlton and Fitzroy, but it never lasted long enough to become a part of those districts’ culture.

Glasgow’s Community Initiative to Reduce Violence thus seems to be on the money in directing itself chiefly at tackling knife culture before anything else. Its chief aim (apparently) is to not to stamp out youth gangs or turf wars per se, but rather to convince those involved to do away with the knives.

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.

Sources

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 www.cyberboxingzone.com.

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.

References

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.

The Georgia Minstrels in Queensland, 1878

16 Mar

Last Friday I was looking at Queensland’s reception of the Georgia Minstrels, an African-American minstrel troupe managed by the impresario, Charles B Hicks, who toured Australia in 1877-79. They were sensations for the first eighteenth months of their tour, performing to packed houses around the colonies (Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland) and attracting a certain celebrity.

When the Georgias arrived in Brisbane on the evening of 27 February 1878, a crowd gathered at the wharf to see them disembark. In their advance publicity, they had billed themselves as ‘The Great American Slave Troupe… Composed of Colored Men’. Evidently, then, there was a good degree of racial if not racist curiosity among the Brisbanites gawping at them as they hauled their belongings on-shore. (Perhaps people were interested in what the Georgias looked like sans make-up, as they blacked-up on stage in the same way that white minstrel performers did, covering their skin with burnt cork or greasepaint). And that curiosity of course played into their popularity in Brisbane, Toowomba, Warwick and Ipswich over the following weeks.

DON’T BE DECEIVED

We are not a party of White Men with Blackened Faces.

THE ORIGINAL GEORGIAS

are composed of

AMERICAN CITIZENS

of

AFRICAN DESCENT,

And are, therefore, the only exponents of the Native Humor of the Colored Man that have ever visited Australia.

The Georgias attracted a broad popular audience when they were in Queensland. They gave matinee performances towards the end of their tour, and entreated would-be patrons to bring along their children for a ‘thorough treat’. They also performed in the Botanic Gardens on a Saturday afternoon a couple of times. One of these occasions was for a celebration of St Patricks’ Day, however, which I imagine was a dog-whistle to the more rumbustious among their audiences, for an afternoon of al fresco revelry under the sign of Erin’s Isle green. And apropos of my previous post about larrikins’ attraction to blackface minstrelsy, there is an indication that a few larrikins were among their audiences in Ipswich:

‘Those in the back seats were unable [to hear] at times – through the noisy and disgraceful conduct of a number of ill-mannered youths – who seemed to have enteted the building for no other purpose than to make themselves obnoxious’.

Billy Kersands

(An image of famous African-American minstrel, Billy Kersands, who was managed by Charles B Hicks in the mid-1880s. He didn’t come to Australia with Hicks’ Georgia Minstrels, but a performer called Billy Wilson did, and the two seem to have had similar performance styles. Wilson’s Australian performances attracted a great deal of commentary about the way he used his mouth and its size, as did Kersands’ in America).

References

Brisbane Courier, 28 February and 4 March 1878.

Queensland Times (Ipswich), 16 April 1878.

Richard Waterhouse, ‘Antipodean Odyssey: Charles B Hicks and the New Georgia Minstrels in Australia, 1877-1880’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, v.72, no.1, June 1986: 19-39 (fabulous, closely-researched article).

The coster and the larrikin

16 Mar

sentimentalbloke0.jpg

Last post I wrote about the larrikin Bill in C J Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke (1915). Even though he had grown up a pugilist in a Melbourne slum, this Bill was famous for his romantic longings and penchant for reverie. (That’s his wedding scene from the 1919 Raymond Longford silent film based on Dennis’ poetry).

Dennis’s bloke Bill shows us that the Australian larrikin was able to be imagined in bewilderingly different ways by the early twentieth century. In 1870, Marcus Clarke had decided that the larrikin was much the same as Sam Hall, a rough music-hall character who went to the scaffold for murder, shouting ‘damn your eyes!’ at all society. In The Sentimental Bloke, however, the larrikin was a bovver-boy given over to a desire for domesticity. It was extraordinary that this sentimentalised view of the larrikin was possible, given that only a few decades before, larrikins were the subject of a moral panic in Australia over street youth and their gang-raping propensities. There was still concern about the degeneration of urban youth in the early twentieth-century, mind you, as well as the survival of early negative views of larrikinism. But these were no longer the only perspective available on Australian boys from the push.

The Australian larrikin’s progress from Sam Hall to Sentimental Bloke in C J Dennis’ poetry (and its filmic and theatrical spin-offs) almost exactly mirrors the characterisation of roughs in the English music hall. As historian Peter Bailey sees it, anyway, the quintessential music-hall character in mid-century England was none other than the murderous Sam Hall. The leading character in the 1860s and 1870s was the heavy swell: the plebeian Champagne Charlie who whooped it up in even higher style than his betters when out on the town. By the 1890s, however, the coster singer a la Albert Chevalier predominated, dressed in a pearlie-stitched velvet suit singing sweetly of “my old Dutch” (his wife; rhyming slang with Dutch fife). This shift in music-hall characterisation represented a movement, Bailey says, from class culture to mass culture – from popular resistance, through emulation of the upper class, to domestication.

There’s a lot to mull over in Bailey’s conclusion that coster singer of the 1890s represented the triumph of sentimental mass culture over the oppositional class culture of old. Since there are so many correspondences between the coster and the larrikin, this same argument might well also be applied in an Australian context. Nonetheless, I find it hard to accept the implicit judgment in the view that popular culture wrought a transition from an insurgent class identity to sentimentalised domesticity. Anyone brought up on feminist critique would surely blanch at the suggestion that representations of rough costers and larrikins are to be preferred over sentimental ones on the basis that the latter are inauthentic and that in any event sentimentality is undesirable. What Bailey is essentially doing via this argument is pitting a positive masculine notion of authentic toughness against a negative feminine one of overdone sentimentality – an old old trope by now. And this view can also be seen in Australian discussions of Dennis’ Bill. The Sam Hall-style larrikin is seen as a heroic figure, of sorts, while the Bloke-style one is considered an absurd fabrication, born of Dennis’ own middle-class fantasy.

I guess for my own purposes, what I am interested in why a sentimental vision of the larrikin gained such currency and popularity in the first decades of the twentieth century. I’m interested in explaining the shift from bad boy to sweet one rather than passing judgment about it. At the same time, I’m aware that the bad-boy vision didn’t disappear. In the 1920s, for example, the vaudeville comic Roy Rene gave his own spin to a raffish larrikin-figure on the popular stage. His Mo character was a Jewish boy from the slums of Woolloomooloo: frequently drunken, leery, and full of double entendres, a larrikin of a very different mould to Bill from Dennis’ poetry.

(Roy Rene as Mo)

mo.jpg

The coexistence of these two larrikin figures suggests that there wasn’t some overall debasement of cultural attitudes in early twentieth century Australia, in which tastes otherwise attuned to the oppositional and carnivalesque turned instead to the sentimental. What seems to have happened is that the sentimental developed alongside a continuing interest in the raffish, anti-bourgeois larrikin type. Views of the larrikin diversified, in other words, rather than changing neatly from one thing to the other. So far as I know the same thing happened in England: the sentimental costers of Albert Chevalier still competed for room on the music-hall stage with more rebellious and gritty personae.

Ultimately, I suspect that recognising and interpreting the development in views of the larrikin/coster will require a less judgmental perspective on what was taking place in popular culture than the one offered by Bailey. It won’t be possible to explain the emergence of sentimental figures as part of an overall feminisation of Anglo culture. And nor will it be possible to simply equate mass culture with a syrupy domestic sensibility, imagined as something insincere and bad.

References

Peter Bailey, ‘Custom, capital and culture in the Victorian music hall’, in Robert D Strorch, ed., Popular Culture and Custom in 19thC England (London: Croom Helm, 1982): p. 198.

Suzanne Clark, Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991) (on the denigration of sentimentality and mass culture as feminine).

Marcus Clarke, ‘Australian larrikins’, Australasian, 19 March 1870.

C J Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915).

Jonathan Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), pp. 198-218 (on Roy Rene as Mo).

Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mass culture as woman: modernism’s other’, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (London: Macmillan Press, 1986), pp. 65-81.

John Rickard, ‘Lovable larrikins and awful ockers’, Journal of Australian Studies 56 (1998): 78-85 (on sentimental visions of the early 20thC larrikin).