I went to a Genealogical Society of Vic seminar on Saturday where all four speakers were talking on the topic Crime in the 19C from their various expert perspectives. One was a retired judge who has done a lot of research from a legal perspective and entertained us with case studies from the period as well as the changing face of the law. A second talked from the perspective of police and policing in the period. He would have quite liked to tell us about his parallel passion – that of the aboriginal trackers who were employed by police. It was outside his brief but he did manage to slip in the odd comment or two. A third speaker spoke about the Public Records Office Victoria (PROV) and how to access documents relating to crime. The fourth described her presentation as fleshing out the skeleton provided by the other speakers. She talked about prisons, from a design and philosophy perspective and also took us in close for a look at daily life in a prison in the 1800’s.
The seminar was mainly targeted at those tracing specific people from early colonial Melbourne and included detailed insights into the vagaries of record-keeping. But it also gave a sense of life then, when women and children occupied the same jails as men, when weekly police gazettes included detailed descriptions of absconders alongside even more detailed descriptions of purloined trousers.
The period I’m particularly interested in is mid-1850s when Melbourne was a town undergoing adolescence…growing rapidly and struggling to cope with changes required, but also laying down the foundations of the Melbourne to come.
I came home with pages of notes in addition to the handouts. While I may not have fully grasped the Uhl index of criminal briefs, I do understand what a rich source of information the briefs are, reflecting much more than the crimes being tried.
There was something right too about the seminar being held in a basement, where the sights and sounds of today Melbourne could be filtered out to allow the echoes of that earlier town.