Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter XIII page 3

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)

THE THEATRE ROYAL CAFE The scenes in this cafe were often a very questionable kind that could scarcely be tolerated at the present day. The licensees of the Theatre Royal Cafe were Coleman and Thompson, and when after due warning the police took out summonses against them, a commotion was raised that in these more sober days in which I write can scarcely be imagined. I was pressed on every side to withdraw proceedings. My own superior officers - so I was told - also disapproved. My reply was: ‘If I receive written instructions I shall of course let the matter drop,’ but no such instructions were given. The proceedings were taken on reports from the police, who had begun to exhibit higher views of duty than had hitherto prevailed, and I could not lend myself to do anything that would tend to their discouragement.

In due course the matter came before the Police Magistrate (not E P Sturt) who presided. Again fresh difficulties were met. The Chairman knew the law well enough, but he was weak and irresolute; and the wiles of counsel for the defence, B C Aspinall, were too much for him. ‘Parson Sadleir was too good for this wicked world; and it was hopeless to make people moral by Act of Parliament,’ and the rest of it. The case was struck out with a mild warning to the defendants. The police, however, did not stay their hands, and offending licensees were driven to conduct their businesses with greater regard to decency.

Julian Thomas, from whose ‘Vagabond Papers’ I make the following quotation, was no plaster saint. Writing about the Theatre Royal Cafe, he says: - ‘I write of an immorality open as the day and known to all of the places where vice meets and chaffers and makes its bargains - the Theatre Vestibules. . . . Between the bar on the right and the entrance to the stalls the stranger will perceive two mysterious closed doors. . . . Curiosity will doubtless prompt him to enter, and he will find himself in the far-famed ‘saddling paddock’ of the Royal. It is a small bar presided over by a man. The proceedings here are too unpleasant for a barmaid to witness. Here the most notorious women in Melbourne nightly throng, and run in the companions they have caught . . . Poor devils! I have my eye on two, who, I am afraid, will become brother vagabonds before long.’

This is an expurgated version of what Julian Thomas wrote about the Theatre Royal Cafe and other like places.


When the news of the wreck of the ship Netherby in Bass’s Strait, about 1867, was received in Melbourne there was great excitement, for it was known that a great number of emigrants, male and female, were on board, bound for Brisbane. The Victorian Government acted very promptly in sending out assistance, and generously undertook to house and provide for the unfortunates until the Queensland Government could take charge of them. The trouble was to find a building large enough to receive them. The newspapers were full of letters suggesting various places, and at last the Old Exhibition Building in Queen Street was selected. Then there poured out more letters, warning the Government as to the impossibility of preserving decency, where so many men and women were to be collected in a building without separate compartments, and without means of securing privacy. The public mind was greatly exercised on these questions. It was resolved that screens in the shape of curtains should be supplied; and, as this plan greatly increased the risk of fire, it was arranged that a special staff of firemen should be employed, two of these men to be on duty outside the building; and that the police should be in charge of the entire arrangements.

In accordance with instructions a constable was placed in the porch at the entrance, within easy call of the female compartment, and with special orders that on no account was any person to be allowed to enter the building.

My amazement, when visiting the place with one of the sergeants, about midnight , will easily be understood, on finding the constable absent from his post, and hearing from within the noise of sobbing women and the sound of men’s voices. There was no response for a time to our knocking on the door. After continued knocking we heard the voice of the constable asking, ‘Who’s there?’ When told to open the door, the reply came - ‘It’s all right, Inspector.’ The order to open had to be repeated before the door was unlocked, and even then, it was only opened an inch or two and was still held firmly against us. However, the sergeant and I together put our shoulders to the door and sent the constable sprawling on the floor. A few steps brought to our view a tipsy fireman with a pannikin in one hand and a bottle in the other, trying to press the frightened women to drink. The poor creatures were sitting up with the bed clothes drawn up to their chins. The fireman was kneeling on a mattress while urging them to drink, and was too tipsy to notice the entrance of the sergeant and myself until he was dragged off by the collar. When Hoad, the Superintendent of the Brigade, to whom we had sent, arrived he dismissed his man on the spot.

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