Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter VIII page 2

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)

LICENSING COURTS IN THE FIFTIES liquor laws and their administration have always been a difficulty, and it may be worth while, before closing this portion of my career in Melbourne , to say a few words on the subject:-

The Licensing Act 13 Victoria No 29 was in force when I was first called to perform duty in Melbourne in 1854. This Act contained many strict provisions for good order to be maintained in all places where the sale of liquor was permitted. It may be that these provisions were somewhat ahead of public opinion - at any rate, they came to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance - and there were many public houses in Melbourne, at the time I speak of, and indeed for some years yet to come, into which no decent man could safely enter. I do not know that the police were altogether to blame for this. The most they could do was to summon the licensee before the justices. But a licensee who could turn over fifty or a hundred pounds in one day’s sales cared little for a fine of a few pounds so long as he felt that his license was not in danger. It was not until many years later that the powers of the police were made effective, when cancellation of the licence followed repeated convictions, and when the licensing courts were no longer conducted by honorary justices but by special officers.

I think it was in 1855 that I first witnessed the proceedings of a licensing court under the old Act. It was in the old Police Court in Swanston Street , at the time when every honorary J P had the right to vote. The whole thing had become a scandal. The bench was crowded with honoraries; some overflowed into the body of the Court and into the corridors, until there was scarce room for the lawyers and officers of the Court. In the centre was E P S Sturt, Police Magistrate, like Lot in Sodom , his righteous soul vexed at the whole proceedings.

I do not assert that the honorary justices, or any great proportion of them, were corrupt, but it is a fact that very many of them never made their appearance in the Court except on the occasion of the Annual Licensing. These proceedings were the great harvest-home of the lawyers. The late Albert Read has told me that he came away from a single sitting with seven hundred pounds in his pocket as his share of the gleanings of the rich harvest, the moneys that he did not spend in securing votes. Probably the late Frank Stephen, senior, Read’s chief competitor in the Court, made an equally good haul.

Of course, under such a system, the fitness of the applicant was not considered, neither was the public interest or convenience. Every man whose house stood at the corner of two streets considered that he was entitled to a license, and were it not that a bitter strife existed between those who already held licenses and those who did not but desired to obtain them, the Licensing Reduction Board of the present day would have a much bigger job on its hands.

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