In the past, as in the present, there were those who made a living outside the law. Many such ‘occupations’ still exist: thieves, fences and pickpockets abounded in Melbourne in the past, just as they do now, though their booty and their methods may have changed. The predecessors of the drug dealers of today were the opium dens of nineteenth-century inner Melbourne, or the morphine and cocaine suppliers of the inter-war years. But other illegal activities have simply vanished as legal and social change rendered them redundant.

Gamblers and Wowsers

Illegal gambling was once widespread. Street gamblers bet on card tricks, or ‘pitch and toss’ (later known as two-up), while clandestine gambling in pubs and clubs was common. Police raids were largely ineffective. One of the most lucrative forms of gambling was off-course betting on horse and dog-racing.  This continued until the introduction of the TAB in 1961 (and perhaps thereafter). John Wren ran his famous Collingwood Tote in the teeth of determined police opposition, from 1893-1906, making a fortune in the process. His business employed a complex network of agents and spies to warn of police raids.

Drinking, gambling and prostitution attracted determined opposition in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, with successive attempts at repressive legislation by social reformers known popularly as ‘wowsers’. None of these activities was ever suppressed successfully.


Sex and secrets

Other clandestine activities were largely the preserve of women. Until the 1960s single, pregnant women were in an invidious position, condemned by double standards of sexual morality to bear the shame of their condition alone. In such circumstances abortionists found a ready market, despite the dangers to themselves and their hapless patients. It was not until 1969 that abortion law reform at last put the backyard abortionist out of business.  Also lurking in the shadows of Melbourne’s poorer districts were the ‘baby farmers’ – women who took infants into their ‘care’, sometimes with the expectation that the babies would die. Many did. The execution of one infamous baby farmer in 1894 helped put a stop to this particularly-horrible business, though not to the alternate strategy of simply abandoning newborn infants in secluded parts of the city, or drowning them in the Yarra.

A raid on a Chinese gambling house, 1872
Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia

Melbourne’s Chinese attracted particular attention from police waging war on all illegal gambling.

‘The Gambling Evil’, Melbourne Punch, 3 August 1905
Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia

A public campaign against gambling, excessive drinking and prostitution flourished in the early 1900s. It involved churchmen, social reformers and elements of the press. They achieved some successes. Legislation aimed at prominent transgressors like John Wren and the notorious brothel keeper known as Madam Brussels passed in the Victorian Parliament in the years around 1906, forcing both to ‘retire’ from their illegal activities.

‘Wren, Cock of the Walk’, Melbourne Punch, 12 October 1905
Reproduced courtesy National Library of Australia

By 1905 John Wren’s famous ‘tote’ in Collingwood had made him immensely rich and he seemed unassailable. The police tried repeatedly to infiltrate his organisation and successive attempts to raid his premises in Collingwood failed. In the meantime his legitimate businesses flourished alongside his illegal betting shop. In this set of caricatures Melbourne Punch pokes fun at the extent of Wren’s commercial and (assumed) political influence. One year later Wren closed his tote after the passage of the Lotteries, Gaming and Betting Act (1906) finally gave the police the powers they needed to shut him down. By then a millionaire, he diversified into legitimate racing, trotting, boxing and other interests (including newspapers). His family lived in splendour in Studley House in Kew, a far cry from his Irish Catholic origins. Studley (or Wren) House is now part of Xavier College. On Wren’s death in 1953 he left a huge and complex estate.

Central Register of Female Prisoners – Frances Knorr, the ‘Brunswick Baby Farmer’.
Courtesy Public Record Office Victoria

In late 1893 Frances Knorr was convicted of the murder of three-week-old Gladys Crighton, found buried in the backyard of a house Knorr had rented. The bodies of two other infants were found behind other houses she had rented. Detailed reporting of the case in the newspapers prompted a public outcry against the inhuman trade of baby farming, and calls for the death penalty to serve as an example to others. Frances Knorr was duly found guilty and sentenced to hang, despite the fact that the trial judge expressed doubt about her guilt.

Frances Knorr was just 26 years old when she was convicted. Her husband had been gaoled for theft, leaving Frances with a toddler to support and another infant, born two days before her arrest. Like many poor women, she had few options. She always maintained her innocence of the death of baby Gladys, but on the eve of her execution confessed to the murder of two other infants, who were never identified. Poor mothers who needed to work had very few care options at this time. There were licensed establishments for babies, but their fees were high and there were never enough places. The Victorian authorities refused to fund a Foundling Hospital, believing that this would only encourage immorality and vice.

‘Sly Grog Shanty Victorian Gold Fields’, by S. T. Gill, artist, 1852-3
Reproduced courtesy State Library Victoria

On the goldfields, tents selling coffee or meals often functioned as fronts for sly-grog selling. In this S. T. Gill picture, a woman serves grog to two men from the rear of the tent, while others keep a look out in front.

In the 1850s the sale of spirits was restricted to licensed premises. An annual licence cost £100 – a very large sum at that time. Owners of shops caught selling ‘sly grog’ (illegal alcohol) had their stock confiscated and were ordered to pay a fine, or face seven months in gaol. But selling sly grog was so lucrative that many were prepared to take the risk.

In this petition Henry Thompson, the owner of a licensed premises in Rushworth, complained that stores, restaurants and tents where spirits were ‘vended in the most open manner’ even in the presence of police, had been erected close to his premise,.

Thompson claimed that he had ‘strictly’ obeyed the law, and demanded that the laws relating to sly grog selling were enforced properly.

Central Register of Female Prisoners – Isabella Elizabeth Downey
Courtesy Public Record Office Victoria

In 1910 Elizabeth Downey, also known as Isabella Allinson, was convicted of the murder of Isobel McCallum, a young domestic servant from Geelong. The court found that Isobel died from peritonitis, caused by injuries inflicted by Downey, a registered midwife, in performing an illegal abortion. Although her sentence of death was commuted to life imprisonment, Downey died of a stroke in Pentridge Prison less than two years later.

Elisabeth Downey had a long career as an abortionist and this was by no means her first appearance on a murder charge. In 1897 she was charged with performing an abortion on 24 year-old Mary Jane Harry, but was eventually released for lack of evidence. She was tried on three separate occasions in 1900 after the death in Melbourne Hospital of Ellen Butler. In her dying deposition Ellen Butler admitted that Downey had used an instrument on her to perform an abortion, but Downey was eventually acquitted at the third trial. There were subsequent murder charges in 1905, 1907 (two separate charges) and 1908. Remarkably none of these charges appear to have dissuaded either Downey, or her desperate patients. The police believed there were many more deaths in which she was implicated. They also reported in 1910 that she had been drinking heavily, which they thought had ‘something to do with her unskilled criminal work of late years.’

It was notoriously difficult to secure a conviction in abortion cases at this time. Abortionists like Downey took elaborate precautions to avoid the presence of witnesses during illegal operations and worked through small networks, often with close family connections. Isobel’s fiancé was told that ‘thousands of cases had been through her [Downey’s] hands and she had never had one failure’, a statement that was patently untrue. But her business was certainly profitable. In 1910 the police noted that despite spending some £2,000 on legal expenses in the previous ten years, she had still purchased valuable land and a farm at Bunyip. On her death she left assets worth £3,318 in value.

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