‘A rowdy gang meet their match’
Erskineville, May 1898:
The lower part of Erskineville, formerly known as Macdonaldtown, has long been troubled by a gang of larrikins known as the “Macdonaldtown Push,” says the Sydney Daily Telegraph of the 17th instant. The character of the suburban “pushes” varies a good deal, but this particular division of larrikins is described by the police as one of the worst of all.
Reports published on Monday 16 May 1898 and in the days and weeks that followed told the story of an ‘affray with larrikins’ on the streets of Erskineville, near the railway bridge at Macdonald Street. The disturbance is reported to have occurred at half-past 11 on the evening of Saturday 14 May 1898. Constable Daniel McKelvey, newly transferred from Redfern to Newtown confronted the miscreants, and ordered them to move on.
Other reports appearing on the day suggest that Constable McKelvey was stationed at Newtown Police Station as a consequence of the larrikin “Pushes” in Erskineville having been ‘a nuisance to the respectable portion of the population’ for some time. (The Age, Melbourne, 16 May 1898). A separate report identified the shot man, Thomas Howell as the group’s ringleader (Barrier Miner, Broken Hill, 16 May 1898).
In reports published by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Evening News the following day on 17 May 1898, further details of the night’s events are provided. The names and ages of the accused and the charges against them were detailed in reports of the proceedings of the Newtown Police Court:
This extract of a map of Erskineville published in 1895 provides an overview of the scene of the confrontation (for comparison: present day map):
The initial confrontation occurred at the intersection of George and Macdonald Streets and the attack on Constable McKelvey and apprehension of Thomas and Benjamin Howell occurred in the vicinity of the railway overbridge. A check of the Sands Directories allows for the identification of the Howell family residence, with William Howell, tinsmith, residing in Goddard Street from 1890 to 1899 (A Family History search allows for the identification of the parents of Thomas and Benjamin as William and Phoebe Howell). The close proximity of the family home might explain the haste with which additional enforcements were retrieved by Benjamin Howell!
In the report of the court proceedings published in the Evening News on the same day additional details of the occupations of the accused were provided: Thomas William Howell, Benjamin Howell and Phillip Howell as tinsmiths; and Michael Feeney as a blacksmith (also given as bootmaker). Thomas and Benjamin Howell were both reported to have been under the influence of liquor at the time of their arrest. The injuries sustained by Constable McKelvey; and the verbal exchanges between the accused and Constable McKelvey are also presented (Evening News (Sydney) Tuesday, 17 May 1898).
Also appearing in the Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 17 May 1898 was a report that the shot man, Thomas Howell had no idea that he had been wounded until two hours after the affray. This prompted a wag to suggest the following:
Over the following days several short articles appeared in newspapers around the country restating the events of the night. An extensive report incorporating much of what had been initially recorded appeared in the Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld) on Wednesday 25 May 1898, and was reprinted in The Capricornian (Rockhampton) on 28 May 1898.
Thomas William Howell, the 28 year old tinsmith shot in the thigh by Constable McKelvey and reported ringleader of the Push was discharged from Prince Alfred Hospital on 25 May 1898, and made his first appearance at the Newtown Police Court:
Unlike his fellow miscreants, when Thomas Howell reappeared in court the following week he pleaded not guilty to the charges. However, the determination of his fate was further delayed by the inability of his Solicitor to locate his fellow accused:
Ultimately, with his co-accused subsequently located and brought before the court as witnesses, Thomas William Howell was sentenced for his part in the affray:
Remarkably given the lengths of their sentences, just eight months later Thomas William Howell and his brother Benjamin would be sentenced to a further six months hard labour for the assault of a man in Newtown (Evening News (Sydney) 9 February 1899).
The story of Constable Daniel McKelvey deserves a mention, not only for his heroic efforts in single-handedly detaining two members of the Push whilst injured, but also for what appears to have been a policing career spent charging into situations without fear for his own safety. For this he received the love of the community, and several injuries. Mainly to the face. Here follows several mentions of Constable McKelvey that can be identified:
In January 1884 Constable McKelvey and another officer were struck more than once by stones thrown by a number of larrikins in Margaret Street (assumed to be Margaret Street Sydney), (Evening News Wednesday 2 January 1884). The following year Constable McKelvey was bitten by a man on the cheek and ear during a violent arrest (Evening News (Sydney) Tuesday 8 December 1885). At the subsequent hearing into the assault he narrowly escaped a large stone hurled at him from within the Redfern Police Court, the stone ‘narrowly escaped hitting his already much battered face’ (Southern Argus (Goulburn), Wednesday 9 December 1885). In 1893 a brief mention appeared of the assault of Constable McKelvey in the course of his duties (The Australian Star (Sydney) Friday 6 January 1893); and Constable McKelvey was assaulted again in 1897 in Young Street Redfern, during which his uniform cape was ‘maliciously damaged’ (The Australian Star (Sydney) Wednesday 2 June 1897). As we have seen above, in 1898 run-in with the Macdonaldtown Push Constable McKelvey dealt with several volleys of stones; was struck in the eye; and received punches and kicks to the legs and torso. He again lost his cape and had his trowsers torn.
Prior to his transfer to Newtown in 1898 Constable Daniel McKelvey spent 13 years stationed at Redfern. So well regarded was the officer that following his departure for Newtown the Redfern community made a presentation to honour (now Senior-constable) Daniel McKelvey’s services to the district:
The appearance of Senior-constable Daniel McKelvey in the Evening News (Sydney) of Saturday 7 April 1900 in relation to a burglary in suggests his posting to Newtown was short-lived, and that he was by that time stationed at Balmain. In 1907 he appeared as the arresting officer in the case of theft of a watch. In the course of the altercation ‘one of the crowd struck the Senior-constable a violent blow to the face, causing his nose to bleed freely, and the attack, which was followed up by some of the other men, resulted in McKelvey being knocked to the ground. While in that position he was kicked several times about the body.’ (The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate (Parramatta) Wednesday 9 October 1907 & Wednesday 16 October 1907). During his time at Balmain Senior-constable Daniel McKelvey was promoted to Sergeant (Evening News (Sydney) 24 February 1911).
Sergeant McKelvey returned to Newtown in 1911, appearing later the same year in an article seeking information from the public (The Sun (Sydney) Monday 3 July 1911). Sergeant McKelvey appeared regularly over the following years in relation to police activities connected to Newtown Police Station. His final appearance in relation to police activities appeares in 1918, with a reference to ‘Second Class Sergeant Daniel McKelvey, (retired)’ (Government Gazette of the State of New South Wales Friday 5 April 1918).
Daniel McKelvey features in the memoirs of Arthur James Colyer Ruffels, who was stationed at Newtown for 27 years from 1901. Whilst primarily a story about another police colleague, Daniel McKelvey is identified as a Patrol Sergeant who tore down a Constable ‘in several different languages’ for discharging their police revolver in a local street for a laugh; and used words ‘unfit for insertion’ when the Constable subsequently accidently discharged his weapon within the Station (The Newown Project –Arthur James Colyer Ruffles – memoir of his early days in the Police Force written ca, 1929-1932).
The obituary of Senior Sergeant Daniel McKelvey provides further insight into the character of ‘a man of striking personality and unswerving principle:’
Larrikinism in the streets of Erskineville had been a problem for some time by the time Constable Daniel McKelvey took on the Macdonaldtown Push in 1898. In 1886 two submissions to the Evening News called for action to be taken to address the nuisance:
Over the following years the matter was taken up by the council on a regular basis, with new by-laws proposed to prevent larrikinism in the Borough, and the Inspector General of Police written to regarding the nuisance in proceedings of a Macdonaldtown Council meeting published on 20 August 1887. Further consideration was given to correspondence with the Inspector of Police in proceedings of a Macdonaldtown Council meeting published on 3 June 1890; and the Council again took up the matter following ‘prevalent complaints’ of property damage by larrikins (and correspondence with the Police entered into) on 23 April 1892.
Many years later the reputation of the larrikin gangs of the district were recalled by retiring Police Inspector Joseph Charles Prowse of Paddington, reflecting on a 35 year commencing at Newtown in 1894:
Perhaps illustrating that the exploits of the Macdonaldtown Push lived long in the memories of the residents of Sydney, a confrontation in 1936 between ‘rival gangs of young hoodlums’ on King Street Newtown in which a boy was shot in the thigh brought comparisons with ‘memories of pushes of bad old days.’
In 1881 The Australian Town and Country Journal reported extensively on the scourge of larrikinism. Here follows an extract of the article:
Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney) Saturday, 2 July 1881 (extract)
(a continuation of a previous article published on Saturday 18 June 1881)
Our blackguards are better than your blackguards…
Some well-known descriptions exist of the appearance and attire of the larrikin. In Henry Lawson’s “The Captain of the Push” (1892) the attire of the Rocks Push is described as:
Let us first describe the captain, bottle-shouldered, pale and thin,
For he was the beau-ideal of a Sydney larrikin;
E’en his hat was most suggestive of the city where we live,
With a gallows-tilt that no one, save a larrikin, can give;
And the coat, a little shorter than the writer would desire,
Showed a more or less uncertain portion of his strange attire.
That which tailors know as ‘trousers’—known by him as ‘bloomin’ bags’—
Hanging loosely from his person, swept, with tattered ends, the flags;
And he had a pointed sternpost to the boots that peeped below
(Which he laced up from the centre of the nail of his great toe),
And he wore his shirt uncollar’d, and the tie correctly wrong;
But I think his vest was shorter than should be in one so long.
In Banjo Patterson’s “An Outback Marriage” (1906) the attire of those assembled at a ‘dancing saloon’ favoured by larrikins is described as follows:
wiry, hard-faced little fellows, for the most part, with scarcely a sizeable man amongst them. They were all clothed in “push” evening dress—black bell-bottomed pants, no waistcoat, very short black paget coat, white shirt with no collar, and a gaudy neckerchief round the bare throat. Their boots were marvels, very high in the heel and picked out with all sorts of colours down the sides.
The depiction of larikins in newspaper illustrations was unsurprisingly unflattering, with their appearance regularly caricatured. Common to many of these depiction are the flared trousers; thin neck-ties and high-heeled boots:
An article published many years later in The Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday 17 January 1953 provides some wonderful commentary on ‘the heyday of these wild youths of Sydney and Melbourne,’ identifying the principle gangs, their exploits and attire:
In full regalia, larrikins were a fantastic sight.
They wore a short cutaway coat known in polite circles as a ‘Seymore.’ The push, less delicately, called it by another and more descriptive name.
This coat had a velvet collar and was lavishly decorated with pearl buttons and braid. A red sash was worn around the waist, with tails hanging down the side. Some of the larrikins grew their hair long, reaching to the collar of the coat.
The trousers of the larrikin fitted like a second skin to the knees; then flared out wider than a sailor’s bell-bottoms.
But the boots! They had pointed toes with heels so high that the wearers minced with their knees thrust forward. Made of kid and patent leather, they were buttoned well up the calf.
As a final touch, the toe cap was covered with fancy enamel or carried a photograph of the gentlemen’s girl friend.
The larrikins usually wore small moustaches and smoked stumpy clay pipes.
Though a few favoured small round hats like inverted cones on their well-oiled heads, and others preferred low-crowned broad-brimmed “boxer” head-gear, the majority wore a black felt hat with a brim of enourmous circumference, adorned with a heavy black cord and tassels.
Well-preened hipsters of Sydney and Melbourne take note.
-as an aside, do read the article for the description of the Melbourne-based Push the ‘Crutchies’ or ‘Crutchy Push’ consiting of (with one exception) one-legged men.
For more on larrikinism take a look at the work by Melissa Bellanta at The Vapour Trail or check out Australian Larrikins at ‘Talking Australian – a blog dedicated to the origins of Australian English’