Friday, October 21, 2011

Colonial Brisbane’s Mean Streets

Albert Street is now at the heart of the Central Business District, lined with cafes and book shops.  In the middle of the 19th Century it was home to a different trade as the main red light enclave, frequented by prostitutes and street toughs, and largely tolerated by the police force.  Now and then the local press would receive correspondence from an outraged citizen.[1]


A movement is being set on foot to cleanse the city from the moral cancers which are eating away the very foundations of decency and respectability. The efforts of these good people will be utterly futile - or almost so - if they have not the strong arm of the law to aid them. Vested interests in some of the worst streets are so influential that even law can he made subversive to their powers.

Albert Street

The owners of property in - say Albert-street - are wealthy men; they derive large rents from brothel-keepers and others of ill-fame and it is a notorious fact that the tenants of these places are allowed to carry on their disgusting occupations right under the noses of the authorities, whereas in any other city in the colonies they would at least be sent to a suburb or a back street.

Another correspondent, signing himself “Ratepayer”, found the street scenes confronting for decent citizens and their families.[2]


Sir,-Let us invite the mayor and aldermen to the East Ward, and for the fair fame of the city there should be no delay. Let no personal motives stop them in rooting out this nursery of crime in Albert and Charlotte streets; consult with the Commissioner of Police; indict all the brothels, and scatter the whole mob. Look into these dens, and you may see fat, strong, defiant creatures.

The females are of the lowest, often in a semi-nude state, get drunk, and fight, using the most horrid language, and this, mind you, when people are passing to and from the Gardens.

Dining Rooms on Albert Street

The males are those rascals who hang about Queen-street, from Albert-street to the Royal Hotel, watching people in and out of the banks. These vagabonds say they follow a trade, and have a shop - so they have, but it is a mere sham as regards honest trading.

The worst feature in the case is that there are a lot of children about   these creatures. Only the other night two little girls not higher than my watch-chain tried to stop me. What may we expect as they grow, and what is the temptation to the youth of all classes?

An ugly confrontation took place a year before at the corner of Edward and Charlotte streets, which soon developed into a full scale riot.[3]


Caricature of a Larrikin

Brisbane, like some of the older cities of the south, is becoming notorious for larrikinism. It has its dens of infamy, and unless prompt and severe measures are taken, it will not be safe for respectable persons to walk its streets after dark.

 A most disgraceful affray took place on Thursday evening, at the comer of Edward and Charlotte streets, which makes one feel ashamed of our boasted civilisation. A constable had apprehended a fellow for creating a disturbance, and whilst leading him off to the lockup was set upon by a number of rowdies determined upon setting all law at defiance, and resolved at all costs upon rescuing the offender.

A large number of larrikins had assembled at the place above mentioned, it would seem by arrangement, and a row occurred such as has been seldom witnessed here. At first it seemed as if the rowdies were to have it all their own way, for the two or three policemen present were powerless, and received, some exceedingly rough treatment, one of them particularly, who laboured against fearful odds most pluckily, being treated in an unmerciful manner.

Queen Street from the corner of Edward Street looking south 1883

The telephone, however, was brought into requisition, and speedily a strong force of police arrived from the station, and after some desperate fighting succeeded in locking up about ten or a dozen of the ring leaders of the mob.

The locality where the affray took place is the lowest in the city, and is notorious for its brothels and its disreputable characters. The affair has of course given rise to complaints about the inadequacy of our police protection, and if reports be true that this consists of a solitary policeman for our principal streets it is high time that the matter was stirred up and pressure brought to bear upon the authorities.

Brothels were not the safest of places to frequent.  They were often the scene of robberies, the ladies taking advantage of drunken clients.  This often ended in violence.[4]

Police Courts on Elizabeth Street (note the telephone wires - one per subscriber)


Thomas Herd alias Simmons was charged with assaulting and wounding John Sheen in a brothel. Both men, however, appeared in the dock - one of the nymphs having given Sheen in charge for assault and battery.

Sheen deposed: Yesterday morning about 1 o'clock, a young woman came up to me in George street and asked me to go home with her; I went; defendant’s wife opened the door and we entered; besides Mrs. Herd, who lives in the adjoining house, and the girl with me, I saw a man and woman who were in bed; Mrs. Herd asked me for some money, but I declined, saying that I was going home.

I made towards the door but the girl who accompanied me pulled me back, she said, "Give the missus the money and it will be all right," I replied, "No I am going home," with that Mrs. Herd went out, I was following, when defendant entered at the front door, came straight up to me, and without speaking, stabbed me in the eye with a bread knife.

Defendant then made off, and I went towards the door to look after him, when a girl who was in the house got up and shoved me back into the room ; she then ran to the fireplace picked up either an iron bar or a stick, and came towards me, when I knocked her down, one of the two other women, I cannot tell which, got me by the scarf, but I made my escape, found a policeman in Queen-street, and gave defendant into custody.

Corner of Charlotte and Edward Streets

But then Sheen was also arrested - for assaulting the girl.

Sheen was given into custody by Mary Lee, whom found in the street looking for a policeman, her eyes were nearly closed, and her face was swollen and bloody, she was in her nightdress.

Mrs. Herd deposed: About one o'clock I heard Polly, who was in the next house cry "murder." I jumped up, and, with nothing but my dress on, ran into the next house, where the screaming came from. 

Polly was on the floor, and the man (Sheen) was  kicking her with the heel of his boot on the face and head, I pulled her from under him, and put her into Mrs. Herd's bed, in the next house;    

Mary Lee, who was next called, appeared with her head and face partially bound up; an ugly gash, however, was visible near one of her eyes, she said her face was nothing to her body, Sheen had been the assailant.

At this stage of the proceedings, Mr Inspector Lewis, who had come into Court only a short time before, said that, from inquiries he had made, he was satisfied that Herd did not strike the blow with the knife; he would, therefore, withdraw the charge, he thought there had been blame on both sides -Both cases were then dismissed.

Boarding House, Albert Street

Few brothel keepers were prosecuted but now and then, one was made an example of by the Courts.[5]


Robert Fitt, found guilty of this offence on the previous day, was brought up for sentence.
His Honour, in passing sentence, said the prisoner had been convicted upon the very clearest testimony of the offence with which he was charged.

He (the prisoner) had a business, and could have earned an honest livelihood; but he preferred to keep and harbor women leading the most abandoned life women could live. He had descended to the lowest and filthiest occupation a man could stoop to.

 Out of the miserable and abominable earnings of these wretched women he wrung large sums of money. In his hands they were white slaves, and he was their master.

The punishment which he should inflict should be a severe one, not so much to make the prisoner suffer - far from it. The object of the law was to repress such crimes as these, and suppress such houses as the prisoner had kept open.

The prisoner was then sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment, with hard labour.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.

[1] Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton 18.4.1882
[2] The Brisbane Courier 22.4.1882
[3] The Capricornian 29.1.1881
[4] The Brisbane Courier 22.9.1871
[5] The Brisbane Courier 7.3.1877

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