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Crime and Punishment in Early South Australia

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by Dave Walsh (subscribe)
I enjoy writing about Adelaide and its many attractions. If you think Adelaide is boring, the problem is not with Adelaide. adelaideunearthed.blogspot.com.au/
Published February 12th 2015
Even the Archbishop could be arrested
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The Perimeter Fence of Yatala Gaol


Life in Adelaide 100 years ago was very different from today. Without telephones and TV, radio or air travel, it's likely that Adelaide must have been more like a village.

While daily newspapers would bring news from far away places, not everyone was able to read. News would spread more by word of mouth, and attitudes were slow to change. Tradition was important, and the justice system was more about punishment than any attempt at rehabilitation. Crime and punishment were widespread in cities and country towns of early South Australia, with the old Adelaide Gaol a likely destination for lawbreakers.

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Juvenile Justice - Children Were Sometimes Kept in Old Adelaide Gaol


Juvenile Justice
Wives were treated as their husband's chattels, and children received little if any education before starting work (or a life of crime) at a young age. In 1916 two boys aged 10 and 11 were found guilty of stealing 2 shillings and 7 pence (about 26 cents), and six bags of flour from a baker in Petersburg (renamed Peterborough during World War 1). Juvenile justice was severe: their punishment was ten strokes of the whip each, and they were then placed into state care.

Twenty five years later two similar aged boys were charged with theft in Mount Gambier were luckier - one had the charge dismissed, while the other was sent to a reformatory.

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House Near Meadows Associated With a Boy Bushranger (Courtesy State Library SA)


Willunga boy Norman Wilfred Baker achieved notoriety as a 14 year old boy bushranger in 1922. After a short career he was captured and sent to the Magill Reformatory for 5 years in the juvenile justice system. The following year he escaped, and was recaptured by a police posse and blacktracker in Strathalbyn.

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Public Nudity - Unidentified Naked Person Diving Into Water 1924 (courtesy State Library of SA)


Public Nudity
Public nudity was a common theme in crime and punishment in early South Australia. Most houses had few bathing facilities, so washing in public wasn't uncommon. One youth found bathing naked in public told the Port Adelaide Police Court in 1917 "We have no baths in Port Adelaide", but he was nevertheless fined 5 shillings with 15 shillings costs.

Frances Welch of Portland apparently shocked men and boys on a passing cargo steamer when he swam naked (and drunk) at Outer Harbor. He was fined ten shillings for his sins.

Eighteen year old Thomas Healy was caught with his pants down, swimming in the Torrens Lake Weir in 1931. The "beak" fined him 5/- and one pound court costs for public nudity.

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Naked in Public Led to Citizens Arrest


A man found sunbathing naked in public in the sandhills at West Beach was arrested by three boys in 1951, and received a black eye and swollen nose when he attempted to escape their juvenile justice.

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Semaphore Police Cells


Another young man taking a naked midnight stroll on Semaphore beach in 1949 was quickly whisked off to the Semaphore police station cells while his clothes were retrieved. Hopefully he didn't have to share his accommodation!

City crowds were startled in 1954 when a young man rode his bicycle naked in public. Starting at Adelaide Oval, the 24 year old Englishman rode up King William Road, along North Terrace and onto Pulteney Street. On Rundle Street he was pursued by a policeman on a motor cycle before being captured near the City Watch house. After being found mentally defective, he was probably bundled off to Parkside Lunatic Asylum.

Illegal Drugs and Alcohol
Opium dens for taking illegal drugs weren't uncommon in Adelaide from the early 20th century. It seemed to have been largely associated with the Chinese population, with three shops being raided ten years later. Hindley Street seems to have been the most common place to find the illegal drugs in opium dens at least until the 1930s. While opium dens are no longer common Hindley Street hasn't lost its reputation.

Sly grog shops were also common from Port Adelaide to the city. In the latter case the constable was obliged to draw his revolver when confronted by patrons of the sly grog shop.

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The South Parklands, a Hotbed of Crime, and Punishment Usually Followed


Other Crimes
An Archbishop's dinner party was interrupted rudely by rozzers in 1924 as he sat down for a glass of wine at Vrachnas' Wine and Oyster Saloon in Port Adelaide. It seems that the licencees was serving outside permitted hours, but luckily police arrived before the Archbishop had a chance to sip any, and he was not charged.

Two boys aged 11 and 12 were charged with riding a cow in the South Parklands, but were lucky enough to escape punishment.

Labourer George Wallace, found eating mud in his underpants in the South Parklands was not so lucky - he was remanded in custody for sentence.

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Early South Australia Prisoners register (Courtesy State Records SA)


Corporal Punishment
Although corporal punishment for school children in the United Kingdom was widespread, by the 1870's there was a strong feeling against the infliction of corporal punishment in Australian schools under any circumstances. In 1890 the Reverend Moncrieff of Moonta was fined 2 pounds for flogging an 11 year old boy with about 20 strokes of the cane.

Prisoners in the old Adelaide Gaol were not so lucky. There were 24 offences which could warrant a flogging. The cane or birch were used on offenders under 18 while whips of very light whipcord soaked in water were used on adult offenders. Up to the end of the 1890's, a prisoner could receive up to 150 strokes. By the 1930's this was reduced to 25-30 strokes and in the final years an average of 8-12 strokes.

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The Penalty for Murder Was Capital Punishment in the Old Adelaide Gaol


Murder in Adelaide
The perception of murder in Adelaide in the last few decades has been strongly influenced by the The Family murders. Despite a million dollar reward the murders of these five young men has never been solved, leaving Adelaide sometimes slurred (inaccurately) as the murder capital of Australia.

But (as with any city) there has always been murder in Adelaide. Elizabeth Woolcock, the only woman to suffer capital punishment in early South Australia, was convicted in December 1873 of the the murder of her husband.

John Balaban was convicted of one of South Australia's most sadistic killings. He confessed to killing five people in as many years. He also savagely attacked a prison warden at the Adelaide Gaol, where he was executed on 26 August 1953. His body was interred in the Gaol between the walls in Murderer's Row.

Others guilty of murder in Adelaide were more lucky. There were a few cases where people were found not guilty on the grounds of insanity, imprisoned in Z Ward Glenside, then subsequently released.

Capital Punishment
A total of 45 executions were performed in Adelaide Gaol, although only the last four took place between 1953 and 1964 in the notorious hanging tower.

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Why? Commit a crime, and punishment in early South Australia could be capital punishment.
Where: Adelaide, SA
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Your Comment
this is such a fascinating article!
by Paula McManus (score: 3|2482) 859 days ago
Great review Dave of something that many of us wouldn't have known or seen
by Steve H. (score: 3|1224) 860 days ago
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