Trove on the beat in Brisbane

Trove on the beat in Brisbane
Arresting display shows colonial capital was a tough town to police
15 May 2017

men standing outside building

Police officers and civilians at Fortitude Valley Police Station; 1880. Queensland Police Museum.  

A policeman’s lot was certainly not a happy one in colonial Brisbane, a rough frontier town with an exploding population and alcohol fuelled violence.

Trove did much of the leg work for the Queensland Police Museum’s current display Policing Colonial Brisbane – the Good, the Bad and the Ghastly, and the book by historian Dr Anastasia Dukova, Policing Colonial Brisbane, to be published by University of Queensland Press next year.

It also aided the research for Dr Dukova's web project, Digital Colonial Brisbane, funded by Brisbane City Council.

Curator Lisa Jones said the Museum used Trove extensively, especially the digitised newspaper collection, to collect and check information for the display.

Titles included the Brisbane Courier, Telegraph, and the Truth.

Starting with a list of police names, researchers would scour Trove for news clippings detailing their duties, work and life on the mean streets of Brisbane.

Always a risky profession, police would regularly lose skin, their uniforms and their health.

After drunkenness and common assaults, offences against the police were the next most frequent cases tried at the Police Courts.

Digital Colonial Brisbane, drawing on the court report in the Courier,  says that “on the night of 16 February 1880, Constable Elliot had occasion to arrest George Hawkins in the centre of Caxton-street, opposite Caxton Hotel, a landmark notorious for overindulging and disorderly behaviour’’.

Hawkins "resisted the constable,’’ reported the Courier, “striking him on the face and other parts of the body. He also bit the constable and tore off a portion of his whiskers. The constable’s face still bore evidence of gross ill-usage. The bench found the defendant guilty, and fined him £3, to be recovered by a levy and distress, or in default of distress, one month’s imprisonment. A cross-case arising out of this, in which Hawkins charged the Constable with assaulting him, was dismissed, after several witnesses had been examined.’’ ('City Police Court', Brisbane Courier, 26 February 1880

Court reports were a rich source of information about the range of cases that came before them – assaults, larceny, drunkards, wife deserters, forgeries.

“We used clips from the police courts. You get all the detail. Newspapers these days are really dull; back then they said everything,’’ Ms Jones said.

The Museum also used Trove to expand the field of inquiry to other sites, publications and collections. 

“You can always count on a newspaper report, and that will give you some other clues that’ll allow you to go sideways and point you to another publication, or something else online that you can look up,’’ she said.

For example, early images of Brisbane, and Queensland before separation from NSW, have been obtained from libraries across Australia.

Digital Colonial Brisbane includes an interactive Historical Crime Map of the city that “takes visitors along on a beat and lets them experience the bustling, and not always salubrious, street life through the eyes of an ordinary city patrol Constable and an average city dweller’’.

For the book, Ms Jones is writing a chapter on one of Brisbane’s notorious law-breakers of the time, Charles Durrant aka the Tool Stealer and several aliases, who was arrested 64 times between 1888 and 1915.

“There are quite a lot of police references but there were a huge number of newspaper references with all of that court reporting.  After a while he was so well known in the court system that they would write about how many times he’d been caught,’’ she said.

From The Telegraph, Thursday 14 January 1892.

Ms Jones is also gathering information on all the police officers in Queensland before separation from NSW, almost exclusively from Trove, by using the search word ‘constable’.

She has already found about 200 names of officers, which will be added to the more than 30,000 entries held in the Museum’s data base.

 “I don’t know what we did before Trove. We use Trove every day for everything, whether we’re researching police officers, police stations, criminals , crimes, or early policing,’’ Ms Jones said. “[Before Trove] it took a lot more time and we didn’t have as wider breadth of information to choose from.’’

The Trove Roadshow rolls into Brisbane on Thursday, when you can learn how your collection can join millions of others in the treasure that is Trove.

Find out where the Roadshow is heading here – and book in to join in if we are coming to a town or city near you.