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Outcast women: offending the good order in Fremantle, 1900-1939

Leigh Straw

Straw, Leigh 2017, 'Outcast women: offending the good order in Fremantle, 1900-1939', Fremantle Studies, 9: 88-106.

Lilly Doyle was a well-known offender and regularly appeared before magistrates in Fremantle Police Court. In March 1920 she was charged with creating a disturbance in public and for her offence against good order was sentenced to three months in Fremantle Prison. It was her 159th court appearance. In the news report detailing her conviction, Lilly was labelled ‘A Police Court Identity’. 1 Lilly was one of a number of Fremantle women who were criminalised for a variety of offences against good order and faced anywhere from two weeks to six months in prison. They were the unrespectable women who, in public, deviated from the respectable ideals of the time and were caught in a cycle of offending and incarceration. In the first decades of the twentieth century, offences against good order were regarded as a serious social threat and women in particular were singled out as some of the worst offenders.

Within the business of the Petty Courts, Lilly Doyle and other female offenders were well known to magistrates, police and court workers. What made these women ‘court identities’ was the presence of court reporters and the stories printed about their latest antics and offences. The regular business of the courts provided reporters with a regular cache of sensational material. Cases were heard before the Police Courts six days a week, with individuals rushed through one after the other. From 1915-39 alone, over 40,000 female cases were heard before the Petty Sessions. This was just under nine per cent of all cases. 2

The regular business conducted in the Petty Sessions and combination of police, public and magisterial evidence led to a construction of female criminality that saw women committing offences against good order stereotyped as dangerous types who threatened the social order. In the Supreme Court, by contrast, female offenders were seen as tragedies. 3 Therefore, ‘a woman’s appearance at police court was a ‘staged event’, a social drama largely manipulated by police and judicial authorities? 4 Female offenders were repeatedly singled out in court for their female identities and magisterial comments reinforced a stereotype of the bad woman.

Petty Court Sessions provided ample opportunities for news reporters to focus on scandalous cases and the repeat appearances of individuals committing offences again good order. Women regularly appearing in court became household names through the frequent reporting of their appearances in the press. As a repeat offender, and by virtue of her deviance as a female offender, Lilly Doyle regularly provided tales of drunkenness, debauchery and idleness for the papers to use to full effect in entertaining and educating their readers about the bad women of the inner streets of Fremantle. In doing so, newspapers turned female offenders into publicly known ‘court identities’.

Despite their role in maintaining social order and efforts to titillate readers and sensationalise crime, when placed together, court reports spanning the course of each criminal life are important in telling the larger story of the effects of life on the streets. Brief moments of reporting the words of a female offender are important in tracing individual reactions to crime and punishment. With little or no personal records available for female offenders in the early twentieth century, snippets of testimony in the newspapers help to humanise female experiences outside of crime statistics and prison records.

Criminal Women

The majority of women charged and convicted in the West Australian courts from 1900-1939 were arrested for offences against good order. These accounted on average for around two-thirds of all cases before the courts, both Supreme and Petty. The police and courts had little tolerance for offences against good order. Around ninety-five per cent of public order cases ended in convictions compared with eighty per cent for property offences and fifty per cent for offences against the person. Women charged with offences against public order were almost guaranteed a conviction. In general they were sentenced to between three and six months’ gaol with hard labour. 5

Women criminalised for offences against good order were not expected to engage in crime. Crime statistics, historically, tell us that more men engage in crime than women. Within the broader criminal justice system in Australia even today, male offenders far outnumber females. 6 Women, therefore, are not expected to commit crimes so when they do their appearance in court creates a sensation. It was a gendered experience. The female in court was judged as in need of greater social control to reform her deviant behaviour. Men who engage in criminal activities are rarely questioned about the extent to which this represents a ‘fall’ from masculinity. Men do not suffer a ‘fall’ from masculinity; they enter into crime.

Female appearances in court on charges of drunkenness and idle and disorderly gained more attention in the press at a time when the state was already trying to address what it saw as a growing problem of habitual drunkenness and low morals within the population. The Police Act of 1892 (amended in 1902) was introduced to directly tackle the anti-social offences of drunkenness, idle and disorderly and vagrancy. Police were also able to use their powers under the Police Act to shift idle persons off the streets and out of public view.

Female experiences of crime and punishment reveal the ways in which social and gender transgressions overlap to create a double punishment for women. Female offenders are equally criminal and deviant women, suffering strict sentences for moral offences and a lack of conformity to ideals of female sexuality. They are punished with stringent sentences and also socially marginalised outside the judicial system. 7 When men engage in crime, their presence is largely understood in criminal terms. They have committed a crime and face punishment for that offence. When women commit crimes, they are singled out as females who have failed in their moral obligations to society. Women are punished for criminal activities as well as a supposed ‘fall’ from femininity, evidenced in the criminalisation of drunken women and street prostitutes in Fremantle in the early twentieth century.

A number of explanations were offered for a woman’s ‘fall’ in society and her need for reform. Refuges referred to the ‘sin of the cities’ as in part responsible for corrupting women. 8 Bad company was another explanation for women’s ‘fall’ in society, whether from neighbours, friends or people on the streets. 9 In Western Australia, Catholic Bishops worried about the impact the gold rushes had on the population and an increase in depravity. 10 Refuges were publicised as also protecting society by removing immoral women from the streets. 11 Eighteen year-old Ethel Cregan was sent to the Home of the Good Shepherd in 1912 after police arrested her for creating a disturbance and stealing from a man in Fremantle. Documenting her ‘fall’ in court shortly afterwards, police advised the magistrate to consider placing her in the Home to keep her away from ‘loafing about the streets in company with the worst characters in town’. 12

Women criminalised for offences against good order tell us much about social expectations of femininity in early twentieth-century Australia. Respectable and deviant femininities were closely monitored and regulated in public from the first years of colonisation in Australia and influenced by trends in Britain at the time. 13 As Penny Russell has shown, British manners were adapted into colonial Australian society to provide stability in a foreign environment. 14 Social codes ‘defined the proper young woman as a frail but appealing, intellectually inferior but morally superior being, whose duty it was to be passive, decorative and sexually pure’. 15 According to Jill Matthews, Australian women were expected to live up to particular ways of being, from speech and appearance to behaviour and thoughts that signified a woman’s place within the gender order and power relations. 16 This regulation of female behaviours aimed to limit any deviance.

By the advent of the twentieth century, the judiciary, police, press, churches, medical professions and social purity campaigners constructed the good Australian Woman as ‘domestic, home and family-bound, pure, clean and rationalised’. 17 Some Australian feminists also incorporated a maternalistic approach to their ‘new social order’ for the twentieth century, identifying mothers as key to the ideal of the moralistic female citizen. 18 While early feminists recognised the economic constraints on working- class women to extend their civic role beyond the home, working women were still expected to uphold a social ideal of ‘the reputable working class and the deserving poor’. 19

The feminine ideal, applied directly to monitoring working-class lives, accorded little attention to the realities of working-class identities where femininity was re-fashioned to suit the needs of local communities. As Rae Frances demonstrates, there persisted in Australia from the late eighteenth century acceptance in working-class communities of female sexual identities, prostitution, drinking and general rowdiness. Prostitutes in the first decades of the twentieth century generally lived and worked in their local communities and were not necessarily outcast as they were by middle and upper-class opinion. 20 Lilly Doyle was labelled a common prostitute by police in Fremantle and vilified in the press in the first decades of the twentieth century. However, Bill Marks, who grew up in South Fremantle at the same time, remembered a drunken Doyle walking the tramlines late at night and singing. For Marks she was one of the local characters with a feminine identity that was not entirely at odds with expectations of the local community. 21

Court Identities

People mainly learn about crime and criminals through media narratives. It remains the case today that most people understand crime through what they read and see in the media, though social media is increasingly gaining prominence in everyday communication of news. Mass media thus plays an important role in disseminating knowledge about crime in society. Back in the first decades of the twentieth century, West Australians primarily knew learned about crime from the newspapers. Named and shamed in the local press for successive years, Lilly Doyle and other women committing offences against good order provided sensational material for newspapers looking to educate and entertain readers. Much of what we can know about women appearing the Petty courts, in terms of available public sources, comes from newspaper reports. Court evidence books, for example, only cover the years from 1915 onwards, whereas press reports are available from 1900. They include evidence from police, witnesses and sometimes the accused, along with police and magisterial evidence. News reports offer valuable insights into police and court business.

News stories are shaped by news values whereby ‘editors and journalists will select, produce and present news according to a range of professional criteria that are used as benchmarks to determine a story’s ‘newsworthiness'. 22 Women committing offences against good order faced constructions in the newspapers conforming to particular news values. Their offences in public were deemed to have public appeal and public interest as far as the news values of the journalists and editors were concerned. Ultimately, newspapers use sensationalist headlines to accompany ‘stories about crime designed to shock, frighten, titillate and entertain’. 23

Newspaper history in Western Australia dates back to the first newspaper, The Fremantle Journal and General Advertiser, handwritten in the colony in 1830. The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, one of the first printed newspapers, is the forerunner of today’s West Australian and came into business in 1833, four years after the establishment of the Swan River Colony. 24 In the first decades of the colony, newspapers were produced on a weekly basis until The West Australian began its daily run. 25 In these first decades, crime was mainly presented in terms of overall statistics, outside of prominent manslaughter, murder or fraud cases. Regular crime reporting, using daily court appearances for information, did not become popular until the second half of the nineteenth century, due in large part to the convict transportation period from 1850-1868 and the population increase associated with the late-century gold rushes. Throughout the nineteenth century, serious crimes gained greater attention than the lesser crimes of drunkenness and theft. By the end of the nineteenth century, three newspapers — The West Australian, The Sunday Times, The Daily News — dominated in Perth and Fremantle, along with another popular paper, Truth. As it was across Australia, Truth was Western Australia’s ‘scandal sheet’ from 1903-1931. By the turn of the twentieth century, crime and court reports appeared on the first pages of the papers, signifying their popularity.

Regular court reports in the leading newspapers in Perth and Fremantle offer insights into characterisations of criminal women. The sensationalism of the stories is obvious but they are nevertheless useful in gauging what people thought was most scandalous in these years. All four papers were consistent in their objectification of female criminals as ‘bad’ women and rarely employed humour in dealing with their offences against good order. As crime historian Michael Sturma argues, newspapers are complicit in detailing and also shaping community perceptions of crime? 26 Media institutionalise crime through regular reporting for a mix of information and entertainment. 27

Using evidence from regular court sessions, mainly police evidence, newspapers affirmed a negative stereotype already conferred on women by the law, police and courts. Stereotyped as drunks, bad mothers, loose women and public nuisances, the activities of criminal women were publicised in regular crime stories by reporters aiming to titillate and condemn at the same time. 28 Women who committed offences against good order were marginalised through weekly and sometimes daily crime reports. 29 While they only committed ten per cent of the crimes against good order, women were over-represented in court reports because they were not expected to engage in criminal activities. Stories about women committing crimes make for good, sensationalist reading. Criminal women are thus fascinating for their novelty value. 30

Individual crime reports about women appearing before the Perth and Fremantle Police Courts ranged anywhere from thirty to a hundred words in length, depending on the evidence given in court and general interest around the case. A key part of my analysis of female offenders and the press is how they were constructed in court reports. It is in part informed by Ulrike Tabbert’s research considering the linguistic construction of offenders in the press. Corpus Linguistics — the interpretation of language for its perpetuation of ideologies 31 — can be used to reveal the frequency of words and phrases in press depictions of female offenders. Negative associations with crime are transferred to the offender in a manner that separates them from society. Language enables the press to construct offenders within the context of current ideologies. 32 In the case of the criminal women in Perth and Fremantle, newspaper reports constructed female offenders as something ‘other’ to their sex and challenging dominant ideologies of femininity.

Using a sample size of 1,000 newspaper court reports for both men and women — and compared with evidence gathered from court evidence books (1915-1940) — I have been able to identify the words most frequently used to describe women appearing in court for offences against good order. Most of these cases relate to women who committed offences in both Perth and Fremantle. Narrative analysis of recurring themes 33 in the portrayal of women in court reports reveals all leading newspapers employed key terms as sub-headings for individual cases involving women in the courts. At least a third of all court reports for women featured sensational headings employing key terms to distinguish the gender basis of the report. Story titles included: ‘A Violent Female’ 35, ‘Her Century“ (in relation to number of convictions) ‘A Female Vagrant’, 36 ‘A Drunken Woman,’ 37 a ‘negligent mother’ 38 and ‘A Dangerous Woman’ 39. Truth tended to be more creative with its titles at times, as in the case of ‘May and Her Mugs’, describing a soliciting case in January 1920. 40 The media was juxtaposing terms that were not socially expected of women. By comparison, men were generally not singled out in this way.

A third of all court reports featuring women used the standard form of providing the offender’s name, the offence committed, and punishment details. Aside from the use of names, no other language identifiers were used to distinguish the gender of the offender. By comparison, non-gender specific language was applied to over two-thirds of crime reports for male appearances in court. The most common words used to describe repeat female offenders were ‘dissolute women’ and ‘pests’ 41, ‘female nuisance’ or a ‘notorious female'. 42 Nellie Davenport, habitual drunk and idle and disorderly person, was described as both a ‘degenerate woman’ and ‘town nuisance’ in the one report in 1902. 43 Comparatively, men were portrayed as actively committing offences whereas women a public nuisance simply by their presence in the city streets. Such characterisations, through the use of specific language, demonstrate the ways in which the media allows society to measure itself against the outsider. 44 Female offending is seen in the media as something different and inherently deviant. 45

Newspaper reports repeatedly used moralistic language when describing the character of female offenders. More than men, women were singled out in reports as ‘immoral’, refused to take a warning, and disregarding chances offered to live a respectable life. Even when the language employed takes on a harsher tone, it contains moralistic undertones. Criminal women were portrayed as morally bankrupt. When Lilly Doyle appeared in court in July 1912, one sergeant gave evidence, subsequently reported in The West Australian, that she had been given ‘every opportunity to live a respectable life’ and yet she still continued to live about the streets and loiter for an immoral purpose. 46

While some women like Esther Warden and Alice Lawson were depicted as dangerous, nasty, terrors, most women were described in reports as troublesome, annoying, riotous, frowsy, dreadful, rowdy pests. It was their vocal and visible presence in public that was most worrying within the press stories than any criminal activities. Elizabeth Davey, used by the press as a key example of the vagrant nuisance, is portrayed in one report as frustrating to the police for her inability to stay off the streets. According to police she was always in about the streets and in bad company. 47

One-third of all Petty Session court reports for male and female appearances singled out previous convictions as away to construct offenders, particularly recidivists. Apposition is employed in these court reports to set up less debate about the background of the accused. By naming the individual and depicting them as ‘an old offender’ or ‘no stranger to the court’, the offender is characterised as a known criminal. Their appearance in court is, then, one in a list of many such appearances. For the reader, the language allows them to construct the offender as something of a court identity, as in the case of Cecilia Reilly (Riley) in 1910:

Her Seventieth Appearance—in tattered and much-soiled raiment, Cecilia Riley, an elderly woman, made another appearance in the dock of the Police Court, Fremantle, yesterday morning. It was not a new role for her, the “records” setting out that she had looked over the dock rails on 69 other occasions. It was said against her yesterday that she had no fixed place of abode, no lawful means of support, was idle and disorderly, and further had committed an unmentionable offence. 48

Habitual female criminals like Cecilia Reilly, Esther Warden, Mary Sweetman and Sarah Mattson were also singled out more often than men by demeaning language. They are referred to in reports as ‘undesirables’, ‘riotous’, ‘notorious’, ‘detested’, dreadful’ and the worst cases of women brought before the magistrates.

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Mary Ann Sweetman, Police Gazette Western Australia, 1911
(State Library of Western Australia)

Court reports also demonstrate the extent to which social order was maintained in the Petty Sessions by evidence from the arresting police officers. Police evidence was paramount in court decisions, particularly where they ran the prosecution. Attorney General Walter James said in 1902, in relation to the Police Act, that ‘[A] common prostitute would not necessarily be a notorious prostitute, but a person honestly believed to be a prostitute’. 49 Definition of a ‘common prostitute’ was therefore left to police discretion. Streetwalkers could be labelled ‘common prostitutes’ if police argued a woman had a reputation. 50 According to one police constable in 1919: ‘I call a reputed prostitute a woman who goes about with prostitutes, gets drunk, lies down somewhere’. 51

Police evidence was crucial in court proceedings due in large part to the nature of police work. Responsible for maintaining the social order through close surveillance of the inner city and port streets, police came to know repeat offenders well. There is an element in their court evidence of characterising women in particular ways after knowing them as regular offenders for a number of years. A third of all crime reports in the press featured specific police evidence. When habitual drunk Mary Ann Sweetman (a Fremantle resident) appeared in court in December 1914 on a charge of vagrancy, P. C. Ford deposed that she was a ‘menace to the East Perth neighbourhood’. Sergeant Smythe also gave evidence that he had known Sweetman for eight years and in that time had been ‘eight weeks out of prison’. 52 Female offenders also came under the scrutiny of other women in court. Evidence given by female police workers aided the characterisation of bad women, as in the case of Esther Miller, convicted for idle and disorderly largely based on evidence from ‘Mrs Dugdale [of the Women Police], who explained...‘This woman’s ideas of life are very degraded ... ’ 53

Newspapers often employed the words of an ‘authority figure’ as a means to convey opinions the papers were looking to publicise but showed greater clout with expert testimony. 54 Police evidence and statements and magisterial comments were utilised in a third of all reports for men and women. The press was able to use authoritative statements as evidence for the need to control women. Repetitive use of police evidence and magisterial comments allowed the leading newspapers to make judgements about women committing offences in a way readers felt was qualified by official views. When Esther Warden was arrested in January 1917 for vagrancy, the West Australian used police evidence to characterise her as ‘one of the most dangerous women in Western Australia’. 55 Much of what we know about Esther Warden comes from the words of magistrate and police, as quoted by the press in efforts to comment on deviant women. Once the magistrates and police had made up their mind about a particular offender, the press used court characterisations to maintain the image of the bad woman for public consumption. Esther Warden was known as the ‘terror’ of the West End in Fremantle. Policemen knew her on sight and publicans scrambled to clear their pubs of glasses before she descended on the premises. They could usually hear her singing along the street or if she was in her usual mood, hurling abuse at people walking past. Hotelkeepers, it was said by the Sunday Times, feared a visit from Warden. She ‘had a nasty habit when she was on the loose, of throwing glasses, bottles or anything she could place her hands on, at the frontispieces of the bar-tenders who refused her liquor’. 56

Characterisations of women in court news stories reveal unique representations of criminals when the offender is a female. The female criminal is depicted as the ‘Other' in society. She transgresses a ‘metaphoric womanhood, making her the lightning rod of social and cultural tensions of the period.’ 57 Newspapers encouraged the celebrated criminality of female offenders to legitimise ‘the practices and conventions of both domestic and public life’. 58 Celebrated criminality arises from a connection between the criminal and the public. Members of the public need to be able to relate in some way to the criminal — through fear, disgust, rebellion or sympathy — in order for the offender to resonate. 59 Resonance is effective when it stimulates a response or interaction. 60 A clear indication of this in Perth and Fremantle in the early decades of the twentieth century was the letters written to the papers by members of the public reacting to the regular news stories about criminal women. In one letter, a ‘subscriber’ to the Sunday Times wrote of their disgust at the vice and crime visible in the city and singled out women as the worst offenders:

It would give me very great pleasure to see a drunken woman bundled away into safety the moment she set foot into our public thoroughfares, instead of being allowed to spend the day lounging about the streets to the deep degradation of her sex. 61

The regularity of reports about criminal women, and the naming and shaming evidenced in characterisations of females in court, created a public distinction between the good and bad woman.

Newspapers framed stories about female offenders in particular ways to educate and entertain readers. However, my research reveals another aspect of newspaper reporting that can contribute to humanising female offenders. While most court reports used magisterial and police evidence to establish the details of the crime(s) committed, some reports included testimony from the accused. In these snippets of information — compared for their accuracy with the Court Evidence Books - we can hear the voices of the women appearing in court. In the absence of personal records for some of the most prominent female recidivists, quoted remarks from court sessions provide some insight into how the women understood their circumstances and whether or not they agreed with the negative stereotyping placed on them by the courts, police and press.

Some female offenders affirmed a bad woman identity in the evidence they gave in court and detailed their own fall from a good woman ideal. Charged with vagrancy in August 1908, Mabel Gilday told the magistrate: ‘It is only two years ago since I was a good woman.’ She then pleaded a case to be allowed to leave the city claiming ‘it’s hard to turn over a new leaf if one is kept constantly in prison for not getting work. I am no one’s enemy but my own’. 62 Mary Warnock pleaded with a magistrate to give her one more chance in April 1910. At her previous appearances she had declared how sorry she was to both the magistrate and police. However, this time the magistrate was having none of it. He sentenced Mary to over six months in prison. As the papers reported, she became hysterical and had to have first aid administered to her outside of court. 63 Mary Ann Martin also conferred a bad female identity on herself. In March 1911, she told the magistrate:

Your Worship, I am so bad now. Yesterday morning I was making for the hospital, and I was too late. I went down the street and met some of my friends, and I don’t remember any more. I am bad. 64

A greater number of women, two-thirds of cases where responses were recorded, challenged the institutional sexism of the time and negative police characterisation of their activities. Some responses show open resistance in the courtroom. One Woman in the Perth Police Court in April 1920 shouted at Policewoman Dugdale that she was ‘as good a bloody woman as any bloody woman around here’. 65 Susan Long contested police characterisations of her as a female drunk in August 1907. Long claimed she was not in the least bit drunk, saying it took ‘two bottles of whisky, a dozen bottles of lager, and a drop of vermouth, to get her "going."' 66 Mary Sweetman, appearing on a charge of using obscene language in August 1910, blamed both the police and her husband:

Accused: Yes - Them records have got me seven years in gaol. As soon as I get out the police get me agin, an’ I get no chance. It’s all me ‘usband's doin’; ‘e won’t keep me children; it breaks me ‘eart, and I takes to a drop of drink, yer Washup! I gets a job, then the police go an’ tell me missus that I’ve been in gaol an’ I’m done agin!“

Sweetman also asked a magistrate in court in January 1914: ‘During the last twelve months I have been only four Weeks out of gaol, so how can I be an habitual?' 68 Sweetman’s response demonstrates her mindset in relation to negative characterisations. Despite being regularly arrested for drunkenness when on release from prison, Mary Ann did not think of herself as an habitual drunk. Esther Warden also spoke out in court against police evidence. In October 1911 two policemen gave evidence in court that they had known Esther for some years and described her as a ‘menace to society’. 69 Esther, for her part, claimed the ‘police are all against me’. 70

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Esther Warden, Police Gazette Western Australia, 1911
(State Library of Western Australia.)

One of the best examples of open defiance in the courtroom comes from Cecilia Reilly. In the fifteen years that followed Reilly’s first conviction in 1898, she notched up over seventy convictions for neglect, drunkenness, loitering and soliciting. Born in either Victoria or New South Wales — her birthplace is given as both in the Prison Register — Cecilia became a known court identity through the reporting of her many appearances. She was not one to take sentencing lightly, however. When charged with leaving her child in a perambulator (pram) in the streets while she went drinking around Fremantle in August 1898, Reilly objected in court and argued she had only gone off to run a short errand. 71 She spent the next month in prison, depicted as a ‘negligent mother’ in the press. Over the course of the next decade, Reilly made frequent appearances in court. On one occasion she asked to bring in a witness to support her assertion that she was not a vagrant. In October 1903, Joseph Williamson testified that he had been keeping Cecilia for the last seven years and provided her with means of support. For his part, however, Williamson was negatively characterised as ‘untidy, unwashed and unshaven’. 72 He did little to help Cecilia’s case.

By 1910, much of the fight was gone in Cecilia Reilly. In January she appeared in court with an infant in her arms and was charged with drunkenness and neglect. 73 Sent off to prison for another six months and her child placed in state care, Reilly had now spent many years in and out of prison. For the most part, when on release, she lived on the streets and drank away the days. Charged with vagrancy in November 1910, Reilly pleaded with the magistrate to let her down lightly. According to the news story following her appearance, she broke down and said ‘everybody in the world had taken sides against her. No sooner would she finish one sentence before she was ‘run in again’ by the police.’ 73

The best evidence of Reilly’s defiance comes from her appearance in Fremantle Police Court in 1903 when using Williamson as her witness. By the stage, Cecilia had dozens of convictions and was well known to Magistrate Fairbairn. Charged with vagrancy and depicted as a woman who liked to drink ‘a drop too much’, Reilly was sentenced to six months in prison. Before she could be led away, Riley addressed the magistrate: ‘Thank you, your Worship. May you be stiff dead when I come out.’ 75

Other women shared Cecilia Reilly’s brazenness in court. Edith Barber, appearing in Fremantle Police Court in 1907, was charged with being idle and disorderly and using obscene language. Charged and convicted only months earlier as an idle and disorderly person, and in the habit of frequenting Chinese dens, Barber was sentenced to three months in prison. As she left the dock, Edith turned to the magistrate and thanked him: ‘Good: I thought you’d make it a sixer.’ 76

Vera Pearce, known in both Perth and Fremantle, openly challenged the judgement of police officers on several occasions in court. Regarded an ‘old offender’ for her many appearances in court, Pearce was known to police and magistrates for her long list of good order offences including drunkenness, idle and disorderly, and public disturbances. Charged with creating a disturbance in August 1910, Pearce claimed she was well within her right to abuse the arresting police officer. P.C. Robinson stated in court that he arrested Pearce for abusing him while he cycled by her on the street. Off-duty and not looking to make an arrest, Robinson claimed Pearce made a scene and continued to hurl abuse at him. When a crowd started to gather close to the offender, Robinson made his arrest as her antics were now in full public view. In court, Vera Pearce defended her actions: ‘I should just think I would. You took my child from my breast and gave it to the murderers to be murdered’. Robinson confirmed this had in fact happened but claimed the child was sent to the Children’s Home, where it died, to protect it from being carted about the streets by a drunken Vera Pearce. To the very last moment in this case, Pearce resisted the power of the authorities. When the magistrate told her she was ‘not fit to have a child’, Vera decided to take a gaol term over a fine, saying, ‘I wouldn’t pay a fine to you’. 77 In this one exchange we can see Vera Pearce contesting police and magisterial authority. For her repeated objections in court, Pearce earned the title ‘Police Court Identity’ one month later in September 1910. 78

* * *

Newspaper editors used regular sessions from the Police Courts to tell readers what happened when people broke the law. Within this reporting, newspapers were also complicit in creating moral panics about female engagement in illicit activities, particularly public drinking. Regular reporting of female appearances in court on drunkenness charges played into anxieties about the social order. Newspapers used cases of female habitual drunkenness as a form of social control, targeting a public world where ‘intoxication and drunkenness are firmly located in social spaces’. 79 While the press could not control society as such, it could nevertheless play its part in commenting upon society at the time, generating ideas about conformity within Fremantle and entering into debates about crime. This was particularly poignant in the first three decades of the twentieth century following on from the introduction of the Police Act of 1892. 80

Deviance is created by society and impacts on how criminals are perceived. Crime reports inform people about individuals within society who are acting outside the bounds of social expectations. 81 When female offenders challenged the courts, they were not praised in the press for acts of defiance, as the women may well have seen it. They were used as examples of the limited life chances available to a woman who fell from respectability. Readers were encouraged to place themselves in opposition to the crew of wicked, bad and immoral women imprisoned in Fremantle or sent off to a Home.

Offenders are ‘packaged’ in particular ways in the press. Newspapers create images of offenders that allow readers to construct them as something different and ‘other’ to mainstream society. In reading about deviant women about the streets of Perth and Fremantle, readers were able to form an image of the women through use of particular language in the news stories. They were ragged, filthy, offensive and degenerate. If they were recidivists, press reports created images of female offenders as conniving, overtly sexual and dangerous. It helps the reading public identify deviant women not necessarily as criminal types but as bad women. It was less a criminal lesson than a moralistic education to maintain the social order. To use Simon Adams’ argument on press reporting of female murderer Martha Rendell in 1909, female offenders seemed to represent an ‘inversion of everything a woman was supposed to be’. 82

Institutionalised sexism in the courts, police work and in the press had a debilitating effect on female offenders in Fremantle from 1900-39. By virtue of their presence on the streets and engagement in activities criminalised under the Police Act, women charged with good order offences faced a dominant public discourse that characterised them as ‘the worst female character’, 83 as in the case of Esther Warden with over 200 convictions to her name by 1939. 84 Negatively stereotyped in public, female offenders were thus largely confined to a cycle of offending, incarceration and marginalisation by a public discourse of respectability. Limited in their ability to challenge negative stereotyping, female criminal lives nevertheless provide subtle examples of the ways in which female offenders negotiated and understood their circumstances. Courtroom testimonies reveal examples of women affirming the public stereotype of the bad woman, but a larger number of women in fact rejected deviant characterisations. As Melissa Bellanta states in recent scholarship, ‘we still know comparatively little about the politics of unrespectability’. 85 Fremantle’s female offenders — outcast Women — demonstrate the need to further explore public and personal negotiations of female identity in the early twentieth century.

Fremantle Studies Day, 2014

1 West Australian, 17 March 1920, p. 8.

2 Rita Farrell, ‘Dangerous Women: Constructions of Female Criminality in Western Australia 1915-1945’, PhD Thesis, Murdoch University, 1997, p. 120.

3 Ibid, pp. 435-436.

4 Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1980, (2001 edition), p. 8.

5  J.S. Battye Library of Western Australian History, Statistical Register of Western Australia, Part 1 — Population and Vital Statistics, volumes 1900- 1940, Government Printer, Perth.

6 Emma Ogilvie and Mark Lynch, ‘Gender, Race, Class, and Crime in Australia’ in Adam Graycar and Peter Grabosky The Cambridge Handbook of Australian Criminology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, (2009 digitally printed version), p. 197.

7 I agree with recent research into women and crime in England. See: Shani D’Cruze and Louisa A. Jackson, “Afterword” in D’Cruze and Jackson (eds) Women, Crime and Justice in England Since 1660, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, 2009, p. 163.

8 Kellie Louise Toole, ‘Innocence and Penitence Hand Clasped in Hand: Australian Catholic Refuges for Penitent Women, 1848-1914’, Master of Arts Thesis, University of Adelaide, 2010, p. 63.

9 Ibid, p. 67.

10 Ibid, pp. 64-65.

11 Ibid, p. 79.

12 Daily News, 4 April 1912, p. 6.

13 D’Cruze and Jackson, ‘Introduction: “Vice” and “Virtue”? in Women, Crime and Justice in England Since 1660, p. 1.

14 Penny Russell, Savage or Civilised? Manners in Colonial Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, p. 3.

15 Mary S. Hartman, Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes, Robson Books, London, 1985, p. 2.

16 Jill Julius Matthews, Good and Mad Women: The Historical Construction of Femininity in Twentieth-Century Australia, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1984 (1992 edition), p. 88.

17 Ibid.

18 Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The history of Australian feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonard’s, 1999, p. 53.

19 Martha Vicinus, “Introduction: The Perfect Victorian Lady” in Martha Vicinus (ed) Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victoria Age, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1973, pp. x, xiii.

20 Rae Frances, Selling Sex: A Hidden History of Prostitution, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2007, pp. 29, 244-47.

21 Bill Marks, The Fall of the Dice, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, pp. 8-10.

22 Yvonne Jewkes, Crime and Media, SAGE, Los Angeles and London, 2011, p. 37.

23 Ibid, p. 3.

24 David Whiteford, ‘Newspapers, colonial’ in Jenny Gregory and Jan Gothard (eds) Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australian History, UWA Publishing, Nedlands, 2009, p. 632.

25 Ibid.

26 Michael Sturma, Vice in a vicious society: crime and convicts in mid-nineteenth century New South Wales, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, c. 1983, p. 4.

27 Ulrike Tabbert, ‘Crime through a Corpus: The Linguistic Construction of Offenders in the British Press’ in Christiana Gregoriou (ed) Constructing Crime: Discourse and Cultural Representations of Crime and Deviance, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2012, p. 130.

 28 Jock Young quoted in Chris Greer (ed) Crime and Media: A Reader, Routledge, New York, 2010, p. 208.

29 Julie Kimber, "'A Nuisance to the Community’: Policing the Vagrant Woman,” Journal of Australian Studies, 34.3 (2010): 281.

30 Jewkes, Crime and Media, p. 109.

31 Tabbert, ‘Crime through a Corpus: The Linguistic Construction of Offenders in the British Press’ in Christiana Gregoriou (ed) Constructing Crime: Discourse and Cultural Representations of Crime and Deviance, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2012, p. 131.

32 Ibid.

33 Pamela Davies, Peter Francis and Victor Jupp (ed), Doing Criminological Research, Sage, London and Singapore, 2011; Ian Marsh and Gaynor Melville, Crime, Justice and the Media, Routledge, New York, 2009.

34 West Australian, 2 June 1902, p. 7.

35 West Australian, 3 August 1917, p. 6.

36 West Australian, 9 February 1925, p. 9.

37 West Australian, 1 August 1900, p. 3.

38 West Australian, 1 September 1898, p. 3.

39West Australian, 1 October 1917, p. 3.

40 Truth, 3 January 1920.

41 Sunday Times, 9 October 1910, p. 5.

42 Sunday Times, 27 July 1913, p. 15.

43 West Australian, 16 October 1902, p. 2.

44 Jewkes, Crime and Media, p. 200.

45 Ibid, p. 109.

46 West Australian, 9 July 1912, p. 6.

47 West Australian, 9 September 1921, p. 8.

48 West Australian, 22 November 1910, p. 4.

49 Raelene Davidson, “Dealing with the “Social Evil”: Prostitution and the Police in Perth and on the Eastern goldfields, 1895 -1924” in Kay Daniels (ed) So Much Hard Work: Women and Prostitution in Australian History, Fontana Books, Sydney, 1984, p. 90.

50 Ibid.

51 Police vs. Winter, Perth Police Court Minutes, Acc. 1386/41, 10 July 1919.

52 West Australian, 31 December 1914, p. 4.

53 West Australian, 25 September 1918, p. 5.

54 Tabbert, ‘Crime through a Corpus: The Linguistic Construction of Offenders in the British Press’, p. 141.

55 West Australian, 8 January 1917, p. 8.

56 Sunday Times, 27 July 1913, p. 15.

57 Ruth Penfold—Mounce, Celebrity, Culture and Crime: The Joy of Transgression, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2009, p. 74.

58 Ibid, pp. 73-74.

59 Ibid, pp. 63, 68, 69.

60 Ibid, pp. 63-64.

61 Sunday Times, Sunday 9 January 1915, p. 7.

62 West Australian, 18 August 1908, p. 6.

63 Daily News, Monday 4 April 1910, p. 4.

64 Daily News, Friday 3 March 1911, p. 3.

65 Davidson,‘ Prostitution in Perth and Fremantle and on the Eastern Goldfields, 1895—September 1939’, MA thesis, University of Western Australia, 1980, p. 176.

66 West Australian, 6 August 1907, p. 7.

67 Daily News, Wednesday 31 August 1910, p. 6.

68 Daily News, Saturday 10 January 1914, p. 16.

69 Daily News, Tuesday 17 October 1911, p. 1.

70 Ibid.

71 West Australian, Thursday 1 September 1898, p. 3.

72 Sunday Times, Wednesday 21 October 1903, p. 2.

73 West Australian, Thursday 13 January 1910, p. 4.

74 West Australian, Tuesday 22 November 1910, p. 4.

75 The West Australian, Thursday 22 October 1903, p. 6.

76 The West Australian, Friday 28 June 1907, p. 4.

77 The Daily News, Monday 1 August 1910, p. 6.

78 The Daily News, Friday 23 September 1910, p. 2.

79 Kelly, Advocat, Harrison and Hickey, Smashed! The Many Meanings of Intoxication and Drunkenness, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, 2011, p. xvi.

80 Christensen, ‘Drinking’ in Gregory and Gothard, Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australian History, p. 287; Dianne Davidson, ‘Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’ in Gothard and Gregory, Historical Encyclopedia of Western Australian History, pp. 935-936.

81 Tabbert, ‘Crime through a Corpus: The Linguistic Construction of Offenders in the British Press’, p. 142.

82 Simon Adams, The Unforgiving Rope: Murder and Hanging on Australia's Western Frontier, UWA Publishing, Crawley, 2009, p. 217.

83 Description of Esther Warden in West Australian, April 4, 1918, 6.

84 Esther Warden’s record in the Fremantle Prison Register runs over four pages from the turn of the century to 1939. See: Gaol Department Western Australia, ‘F209 Warden, Esther Muriel’, Register of Local Prisoners (Female), State Records Office of Western Australia (herein SROWA), Perth, Series 678, Consignment 4186/1.

85 Melissa Bellanta, ‘The Larrikin Girl’, Journal of Australian Studies, 34.4 (2010): 509.


Garry Gillard | New: 13 August, 2017 | Now: 26 August, 2017