Text Size


Peter Trebilco OAM, ED, FACHPER
Peter Trebilco

" ... No label ... could be attached to close relationships ... " 


Peter de Waal: Peter, can you tell me how did you get involved in the project? And I gather it was around 2003?
Peter Trebilco 1 : You invited me to make some suggestions about some maps which you thought might be a useful way of illustrating the complete work, and I was very happy to do that because at that stage I knew that the Mitchell Library has a remarkable collection of maps of early Sydney and of early New South Wales. At that stage I had no idea what time period was likely to be covered in the work.

Q: What kind of maps are you referring to? Are these the maps of perhaps of where the crime was? Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
A: What you asked was maps that would show precisely where the various alleged crimes had taken place. As the very early bits of evidence that you had been able to accumulate were very much located within what is now called the City of Sydney, that presented no troubles at all. But quite soon thereafter you told me that you had discovered various country towns where allegations had been made about improper behaviour and so it became a matter then of finding what other maps might be available. Subsequently, of course, I discovered that the State Archives (State Records NSW) also has a quite remarkable collection of maps. These they have also reduced and placed on microfiche or microfilm, and this might serve the purpose better possibly, than the collection at the Mitchell, but we’ll see.

Q: Now, during your involvement with the project (and that’s been some three years now) did you have any doubts about the validity of the project?
A: No. In fact, the more I did look at the NSW Police Gazette, the Victorian Police Gazette and the reports from South Australia and from Queensland which were published in the NSW Police Gazette, the more significant the social patterns were that started to emerge. Also the change in community attitudes became quite apparent to my mind.

Q: So what do you believe the intrinsic value of the project to be?
A: I think there’s more than one; in fact I’m sure there are layers of values to this. The superficial one is the pure statistics of how many men were arrested, charged, tried and punished in each year, and for the range of offences that they were charged with. These often reflected the fact that the various pieces of criminal legislation changed. In point of fact it wasn’t until the late 1880s that the range of offences became more defined and this, I think, has probably given editing and indexing a much deeper pattern. The moment you start getting a deeper pattern in indexing you start to go below the pure statistics: you start to decide that bestiality may or may not be a crime representing any form of homosexuality. You may wonder about indecent exposure and what that actually meant – exposing his “person” obviously had some reference to possibly an erect penis. It’s only when you can get to the trial records that you’ll find out precisely to what the almost New-Speak of the period was actually referring.

Another layer is the whole question of entrapment, and this has become more and more blatantly obvious as the records were more complete and the details of the arresting officers and the location of where the arrests were taking place became apparent.

Q: During your involvement, can you recall any specific triumphs?
A: The records up to 1930 have been published on microfilm. We will go a little further than this to find out what happened to the men who were convicted in 1930 and sentenced to a period of years, and we’ll trace those down and find out when they were released and under what circumstances. But, I think before that the triumph probably was the fact that in going through the old indexes (and I must add a footnote here: indexing by the Government Printer’s Office was vague, to say the least of it. At least they got all the letter Bs together but not necessarily in any sort of running order so it meant endlessly chasing back up and down lists of surnames and discovering that if John Smith, for instance, was tried for an offence he may well turn up under Prisoners Tried. He may turn up again by Prisoners Discharged, but not necessarily, but John Smith may not turn up in the alphabetical list under Smith. There are some six groupings of these surnames in each year’s indexes, so the chase can take some time. This adds piquancy to the pursuit of the index).

But the success has been that I have very often been able to identify the nature of the crime that sent the man to gaol in the first place or to identify the details of the crime more accurately. It is sad that the initial court appearances, before what was then a Police or Magistrate’s court, in the early days were handwritten and at times sparse as to detail. Moreover many early Quarter Sessions papers were apparently destroyed in the 22 September 1882 Garden Palace (in the Governor’s Domain, Sydney) fire. The Garden Palace according to the NSW Police Gazette 2  contained amongst others “ ...Government Archives.”

Q: Now, similarly, talking about your triumphs, were there any or have there been any major disappointments? Perhaps in not being able to find records you would have liked to have found.
A: Oh, very definitely. There are two listings of ‘Prisoners Discharged Free’ – no parole in those days – and one would have thought that the list of Prisoners Discharged might have been in alphabetical order whether they were discharged from Darlinghurst or from Parramatta or from Bathurst, and then to find out some weeks later that there is another list of Prisoners Discharged Free, where their names do turn up under the requisite gaols, but sometimes they don’t. I don’t understand what was going on here. I still haven’t been able to sort out in my mind’s eye whether an offence that merited less than three months perhaps, only turned up in the little block Discharge Free lists but didn’t turn up in the very detailed list. Discharged Free lists sorted out by gaols and sorted out in running order with some details of the offence and of the offender, because those lists are quite fascinating. A native citizen, for instance, (NC is the abbreviation they use here) was different, apparently, from those people who had arrived by ship. The migrants were different types of people apparently. And arriving by a named ship could indicate that the person was an ex-convict.

Q: Peter, while you were doing the reconnaissance through the Police Gazette, can you recall any funny or serious anecdotes that you came across?
A: Well, there is a very famous army saying that time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted, and it’s not only the Police Gazette, but I’ve also been going through the NSW Government Gazettes and finding some interesting little sidelines. I find, for instance, that a baronet was one of the leading Police officers for a long time – he rejoiced in the name of Pottinger. He seems to have been remarkably incompetent. I found in going through the Police Gazettes all the bushrangers are named. There were incredible rewards offered, for instance, for Frank Gardner. The fact that if you read very carefully you’ll find that certain phrases are used which indicate that he may have been closer to some other members of his gang than was possibly altogether proper. But bear in mind that the word homosexual did not come into the English language until 1892 so there was no label that could be attached to close relationships unless it was ‘mateship’. Mateship had all sorts of tenors and very often you’ll find in references in the Gazettes that indicate that there may have been something going on but nobody knew what it was and nobody was going to ask any questions, because it may not have been quite nice.

Q: Now the period you’ve covered, or the documents have covered, is from 1852 to 1930, that is, the NSW Police Gazette. Have you any idea how many pages you might have examined in order to get this database together?
A: I think you’ll find that up to about 1860 or 1863 the Police Gazette consisted of four pages. Then suddenly everybody took the whole thing much more seriously. It was obviously a vitally important bit of information for the working Police officer, particularly in country towns, and particularly those country towns close to the borders of NSW and Queensland. There doesn’t seem to have been much trade between South Australia and NSW, but I think that’s largely because it was just a huge desert between the South Australian border and the Darling River before you have any signs of civilisation. The Darling River was heavily used for trade – it was one of the major sources of transport of the produce of inner NSW particularly wool; wheat, not quite so much. As soon as the railways arrived the transport went further from the river, but the Police officer, isolated in a country town needed to know what was happening in the big towns and the big cities. When you read, “A warrant has been issued for so-and-so said to have gone to ...” – now quite obviously somebody’s dobbed him in. The Police officer in that country town would find that a very valuable little hint to start looking around for somebody in the pubs and so forth, or who might have been living rough. These people were alleged to have committed all sorts of crimes, mainly theft. The Police Gazette, as I say, is expanded from four pages up to by the 1920s it was running to four to five hundred pages in a year. The indexing was still fairly vague, even then. So, I’ve read something like ten thousand pages.

Q: Finally, Peter, when I’ve looked myself at the Police Gazette and the work I’ve been doing with documenting the cases that actually went through the NSW Supreme Court I’m rather surprised, I suppose, that the variable age between the so-called perpetrator and the victim. That seems to be quite varied. I’m just wondering if you have any impression or any idea how this might reflect on our community once these documents are actually published.
A: “Our community” being the gay and lesbian communities? It’s very interesting that there are practically no cases of women offending that could be described as being a lesbian activity. I don’t think we’ve found a single one yet! It’s not to say that it wasn’t happening but, again, please bear in mind that until the amendment to the Crimes Act in Great Britain in 1888 offences between women didn’t exist at all and they didn’t become even vaguely apparent until the Crimes Act of 1901 in New South Wales. That wonderful story that Queen Victoria struck out the reference to women because women didn’t do things like that is probably entirely apocryphal. That was the Labouchere amendment that was slipped into a UK Act of Parliament when nobody was paying any particular attention. I think that the younger man and the older man relationship is a very European concept and it may well be that young men had in the back of their minds the thought that they did find the companionship with another man more attractive that with a woman. It was more readily easily done when you saw the incredible disproportion between men and women in the Australian colonies up to the beginning of the Great War. It is still the case there are more men resident in New South Wales than there are women. The older man who “knew” sexually what his orientation was may have found that a younger man, who wanted to learn what this was about to start to understand himself, was more amenable to being approached. I don’t know; this is something that there are endless articles about in all the better journals but I think we tend to look at a public health issue when it’s actually a matter of an awful lot of individual people.

Q: Might it also be that the database we’ve put together from 1852 to 1930, might it also be a challenge to or for the heterosexual community to do a similar analysis and just look at, perhaps, how many rapes there were, of males raping females, young females, sexual assault on young girls. Just your final comment.
A: Well there is absolutely no doubt that every single copy of the Gazette from 1863 onwards there are offences against women. The women’s ages range from little children up to mature women. The mature woman was always noted as a married woman, which seemed to make the offence even worse somehow. I’m not sure what that was about. She was respectable, I suppose. I think that if anybody wanted to analyse the sexual offences against women of all ages, by men, the data would be much more horrendous than it ever is between offences between men of any age. However, men who were risking arrest and sentencing to death or a very long gaol sentence might have been very careful.

Peter de Waal: Thank you very much, Peter.


1  Peter McDonald Trebilco, OAM, ED, FACHPER, 1927—, interviewed 19th March 2006.

2  NSW Police Gazette, 11 October 1882, p.396.