There is an unusual collection of photography at the Justice and Police Museum unceremoniously dubbed the, “Special Photographs.” They were taken by Sydney police photographers between 1910-1930 using glass plate negatives.
These “Special Photographs” were mostly taken in the cells at the Central Police Station, Sydney and are, as curator Peter Doyle explains, of “men and women recently plucked from the street, often still animated by the dramas surrounding their apprehension”.
Doyle suggests that, compared with the subjects of prison mug shots, “the subjects of the Special Photographs seem to have been allowed – perhaps invited – to position and compose themselves for the camera as they liked. Their photographic identity thus seems constructed out of a potent alchemy of inborn disposition, personal history, learned habits and idiosyncrasies, chosen personal style (haircut, clothing, accessories) and physical characteristics.”
In every sense of the word, these photographs are unique. Even the identification details are yet another flourish of the photographer as they were hand-etched, backwards, onto the glass plate negative.
When you compare these Special Photographs to the ones taken at the State Reformatory for Women, the difference is intriguing. For although the reformatory mug shots possess a weird melancholy beauty, compared to the ‘other work’ being produced at the ‘more experimental’ police stations in Sydney, the reformatory is decidedly restrained.
Mary Harris, criminal record number 589LB, 15 August 1923. State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, NSW.
Jean Wilson had numerous convictions for housebreaking and theft. She preferred stealing jewelry as it could be easily pawned for money. She also robbed her employer. Wilson was charged with larceny, for which she served a 12-month sentence. Aged: 23 in 1924? DOB: 1904.
Convicted of stealing. Eileen O’Connor first appears in police records as a ‘missing friend’, or missing person. She is eventually arrested for stealing a wallet and is described by police with the odd epithet ‘inclined to be weak’. Aged 17.
Nellie Cameron was one of Sydney’s best-known, and most desired, prostitutes. Lillian Armfield, Australia’s first policewoman, said Cameron had an ‘assured poise that set her apart from all the other women of the Australian underworld’. Aged 21.
The subjects in the Special Photographs seem to transcend their circumstances. Perhaps, even though they had run afoul of the law, the novelty of being photographed was a welcome distraction.
When this photograph was taken Alfred Fitch was a car thief. His entry concludes:
8. … may be described as an unscrupulous criminal, who will lend his hand to any unlawful undertaking, irrespective of its nature, and invariably assaults, or endeavours to assault, police effecting his arrest.
9. Addicted to drink, a constant companion of prostitutes, frequents houses of ill-fame, wine bars and hotels in the city and its immediate surroundings, generally Surry Hills and Darlinghurst particularly.
Barbara Turner was a ‘confidence woman’ who operated in Sydney, Newcastle, Brisbane and Perth from the 1890s until the 1920s, and possibly beyond. This photograph was taken after she was arrested for defrauding one Henry Placings in Sydney of 106 pounds, by borrowing against a forged cheque, for which she received a year’s imprisonment.
Ellen Kreigher was one of four people arrested and charged over the murder of Gertrude Mabel Heaydon. In October the previous year Gertrude Heaydon had been taken to the Coogee flat of a woman known as “Nurse Taylor” to procure an illegal abortion. She died there in the flat.
Police later claimed she was murdered by Nurse Taylor, at the behest of Heaydon’s husband, Alfred. A team of low-lifes was eventually assembled by Taylor’s husband Frank to remove the putrefying remains in a horse and cart, and their somewhat farcical progress across Sydney was later recounted by numerous witnesses.
An entry in the NSW Police Gazette, 5 May 1920 lists Flood as one of two men arrested over the theft of 400 blouses from a Kent Street merchant. Both were sentenced to two years hard labour.
Murray/Williams’ entry in the NSW Criminal Register, April 30 1930 describes him as a housebreaker and thief, whose MO includes ‘[breaking] leadlighted door or windows or [forcing] the fanlights of dwelling houses during the absence of tenants’. He ‘disposes of stolen property to patrons of hotel bars or to persons in the street … professing] to be a second-hand dealer’.
Although he ‘consorts with prostitutes’ and ‘frequents hotels and wine bars in the vicinity of the Haymarket’, he is described as being of ‘quiet disposition’.
The quartet pictured were arrested over a robbery at the home of bookmaker Reginald Catton, of Todman avenue, Kensington, on 21 April 1921. The Crown did not proceed against Thomas O’Brien but the other three were convicted, and received sentences of fifteen months each.
The NSW Police Gazette 29 October 1930, p. 827 lists Blake as ‘charged with having cocaine unlawfully in her possession.’ She was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and fined 250 pounds.
Valerie Lowe and Joseph Messenger were arrested in 1921 for breaking into an army warehouse and stealing boots and overcoats to the value of 29 pounds 3 shillings. The following year, when this photograph was taken, they were charged with breaking and entering a dwelling.
This picture appears in the Photo Supplement to the NSW Police Gazette, 28 July, 1926 captioned: ‘Opium dealer./ Operates with large quantities of faked opium and cocaine./ A wharf labourer; associates with water front thieves and drug traders.’
The police files tell one story and the mug shots another, for the toughest faces could be blouse thieves and the most lighthearted could be accessories to murder. There is something so oddly beautiful about these photos and it’s not just nostalgia at play.
How to get to the Justice and Police Museum: Corner Albert & Phillip Streets, Circular Quay, Sydney NSW 2000