It was just on five years ago that Peter de Waal published Unfit for Publication, a magnificent resource for researchers working in a variety of fields of history. While his prime focus was on court and other documents relating to male homosexuality, his work could be used by historians in the fields of law, social history, gender, and linguistics – to name but a few – as well as ‘gay’ history.
Now Peter has completed even more research and the new updated 2nd edition of Unfit for Publication is out. Its foundation is all the documentation that was included in the 1st edition. However, there is an addition of material from about 1,450 Quarter Sessions and Police Court (lower/inferior court) cases. Depositions for these Quarter Sessions cases have not survived but newspaper reports of the trials have. The newspapers’ details and quality of the Quarter Sessions trials vary, from just a short report (in mainly metropolitan newspapers) to more detailed reportage in rural newspapers.
There are some major changes in the 2nd edition. Some previous categories have disappeared, as the material has been integrated into the new configuration. In the 1st edition, a massive table (Appendix A) gave a summary of personal details of some 2,500 offenders who were not tried in the Supreme Court. This Appendix is now brought forward, and is the ‘doorway’ to this Aladdin’s Cave of Historical Treasures.
The 2nd edition also utilizes some of the latest technologies, with scanning allowing for the inclusion of images of court exhibits, of judge’s notebooks, of depositions, and of criminal records. There are nearly 600 gaol photos; there are also photos of important public buildings and of some crime locations, and of one handwritten page (of four) of an offender’s ‘love letter’.
The new edition is divided into four chapters: Chapter 1 being NSW Supreme Court, Quarter Sessions and Police Court Trials, 1727-1930; Chapter 2 is titled Cesspools of unheard-of vices: Molesworth, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land (VDL); Chapter 3, Peripheries, has, for example, material on Sydney Crime Statistics, Darlinghurst Gaol, the notorious Industrial Reform-School Ship Vernon, and a chronology of NSW criminal law from 1788 to 1930; while Chapter 4, Imposing Structures: NSW Colonial Courthouses, has photos – both contemporary and modern – of courthouses, and of newspaper reports of the opening of the courthouses. The new edition includes a greatly expanded index and a bibliography.
Once again, there are some gems that Peter has uncovered. There is the possible earliest use of the word ‘pouftah’ (although we await the last word on that from the august Oxford Dictionary); many sex offenders in the late 19th century went to Grafton Gaol (it seemed to serve a function similar to that of Cooma Gaol in the post World War II era); the 1911 case of Michael Meikelham, a conjuror, who lived in a boarding-house in Flinders St, Darlinghurst (which is now a gay venue), whose last performance was at a fund-raising event to raise money to build the current St Clement’s Anglican Church at Mosman – the church from which Peter’s own partner, Peter Bonsall-Boone, was sacked in 1972 for ‘coming out’ as a gay man!
And some things never change: there are examples of those charged with homosexual offences using the plea of alcohol as a mitigating factor. Not all judges were sympathetic to this plea, although some were (and some of the judge’s remarks have been included, although in many cases such remarks would be considered reprehensible in the 21st century).
And insight comes from some oblique sources: Peter has included several cases where divorce depositions indicate that the husband’s homosexual activities were a critical factor: here, court transcripts of seven divorce cases have been included .
Other aspects of social history are revealed; the shift in record keeping from script (not always copperplate) to typewriter has made the researcher’s job much simpler, and the first time a telephone number is recorded indicates a similar leap in technology.
Once again, it is my pleasure to recommend "Unfit for Publication" to you, in its latest manifestation: it is a wonderful resource, invaluable to numerous historians, not only those pondering the history of sexuality, its difference and its consequences in NSW ’s past, but also those in many other fields of historical research. Once again, we say a grateful “thank you” to Peter.
Garry Wotherspoon, April 2011