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Examining local history via the Victoria Police Gazette

Dr Ian Warren received a small CCH research grant in 2023 to undertake a joint research initiative with the Geelong Chapter of University of the Third Age (U3A). Members of U3A globally are retirees picking up study on a voluntary basis, often covering areas they were unable or had no time to pursue during their adult lives. Ian and several other members of CCH have had a long history in sharing their knowledge on a range of topics with the Geelong Chapter.

The starting point for the 2023 initiative was a 3.5 hour induction session (held 31 Aug 2023) attended by 19 U3A members interested in examining local history via the first digitised edition of the Victoria Police Gazette, originally published in 1855. The recorded induction with U3A went through various online and text sources that might be useful for members to spark their interest either in a specific area of family or personal history, or more general cases involving homicide, child destruction, and various minor offences.

Screen shot of zoom session covering the Police Gazettes as a primary source.

A follow up session in December 2023 checked in on the progress of six members who had varying interests, including a homicide that affected a family member, to various cases of missing or suspiciously deceased children in the Geelong region.

Screen shot of zoom session covering secondary sources.

Loretta Winstanley documented her thoughts about these sessions.

I started looking at the Eureka Stockade and the high rate of desertions by police officers. I then wondered why none of the Chinese miners became embroiled in the ongoing unrest at Eureka, along with childhood memories of living in Bendigo near Chinatown. This personal experience became the driver for me to try to understand how and why the old Chinese men were still there in the Bendigo region.

Lower order offences, often involving stealing and assault, were commonly pursued against Chinese in the early goldrush days. Through this window I have been able to piece together a more detailed understanding of the history of Chinese experience in Bendigo despite the widespread legal and social discrimination against the largely male Chinese community.

Loretta pictured (somewhere in the throng of school children) with the first Chinese primary school principal in Bendigo, Mr Tongway, circa 1956. This photograph is taken from an original at the Golden Dragon Museum, Bendigo.

This became the start of exploring the patterns of importing Chinese “coolies” as pastoral workers from the Shanghai Amoy port and the linguistically and culturally different Cantonese immigrants heading for the Goldfields.

The structural racial discrimination of Victoria’s restrictive immigration policies, the Protectorates that restricted physical movement and an opium import tax appeared to subtly reinforce the miners’ resentment and animosity towards the Chinese, who were extremely well organised along familial and Secret Society lines that allocated tasks for their teams of workers. Chinese work practices, such as paddocking and their seemingly wasteful use of scarce natural water exacerbated this ill feeling, and was reinforced by conversations with staff at the Bendigo Golden Dragon Museum.

Another U3A attendee, Mary Paul, has also offered her thoughts:

When U3A Geelong became a part of this project back in August 2023 it caught my attention.

As a family historian I was already fascinated with history and chose, out of the over 20 possible research subjects, a couple of areas to look at and quickly got side-tracked on the question of “how did they deal with Indigenous people charged with murder”.

I began the search through old newspapers, police gazettes, criminal trial briefs, handwritten criminal record books, the Register of male prisoners, and Minutes of the executive council, which also led to looking further into the background of Victoria’s British/European laws versus Tribal law. I also looked into records of presiding Magistrates and Guardians of the Aborigines.

Some of the interesting things I came across were:

  • Many Aboriginal people were known by a single or common first name (often given them by others (which is evidenced by the many Billys, Tommys, Johnny or John, Jemmys or Jimmys)  
  • A lot of Aboriginal witnesses, and in some cases the accused, could not be found so were not present in court. They were also considered unable to give ‘reliable’ evidence, either because they did not understand the oath or they were deemed to be ‘heathens’
  • With the variety of different ‘languages’ there was difficulty in finding interpreters
  • Most crimes were committed against other Aboriginals, and according to their laws were punishable by death inflicted by the family, or nearest ‘kin’ of the victim
  • One case in particular stood out when a verdict of not guilty was returned. One of the Aboriginal witnesses came “to see the prisoner hanged, and if he were not hanged he would be killed when he got home”.
  • In another case when two Aboriginal men were transported from Portland to Melbourne, and were later released due to insufficient evidence, they were reluctant to leave the gaol as they had to cross the territory of several hostile tribes, one of which was the tribe of the victim.

These vignettes reveal much about what criminal law meant in the colony in the immediate years after Victoria Police was established in 1853. The individual Police Gazette records offer a very brief initial insight into specific crimes, while various digitised primary and related secondary sources are giving life to these cases, and the learning about colonial statehood we are developing.

The broader aim of this initiative is to create a workbook for future U3A members interested in understanding more about local history. This will also be distributed elsewhere as we build our relationships with local museums, organisations with similar archives and the Office for Public Records Victoria. As we work through more cases in the Gazettes, which report about 8000 crime and missing persons incidents per year, this project will build a deeper understanding of how to utilise digitised and hard copy records to create meaningful stories about the people, places and governmental practices that make up our local policing and criminal histories in Victoria.