The roaring twenties: glitz, glam, and criminal underworld

The Workshops Rail Museum is displaying a collection of more than 130 mugshots taken in Sydney during a golden era for criminals.
Curator David Hampton (above) has put together an intimate exhibition Glass Plates and Rail Justice which are local stories and photographs from The Workshops Rail Museum’s own collection to compliment Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties.

The mugshots convey a clear snapshot of the time, putting the attitudes and fashion of the illicit figures front and centre.

The Workshops Rail Museum Curator David Hampton said the exhibition focused on lesser known criminals of the time.

“The police already knew what the most notorious criminals looked like, so they were collecting pictures of the lesser known figures,” Mr Hampton said.

“These pictures were taken by a police photographer who had worked alongside a portrait photographer in Newcastle. So there is a level of composition and artistry that makes these image more compelling than your usual mugshots.”

Images courtesy of the NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Sydney Living Museums

Ipswich Railway Workshops had their own rail justice during this time.

The Railway Appeals Board was established during the 1880s to hear cases of appeal by Queensland Railway employees.

The board had two railway representatives (one from each side of the dispute) and a chairman, usually a magistrate independent of the railway.

Mr Hampton said the appeals board was used by employees against decisions they felt were unfair, usually staff promotions made ahead of others. It was also used for hearings for staff charged with offences against the Railway Act, such as misconduct, neglect of duty, carelessness and incompetence.

“One of the stories from the Ipswich Railway Workshops in the 1940s was a win for the workers,” he said.

“The senior manager on duty one Saturday shift, saw the man ‘leaning over a bench writing on the uppermost part of a number of pieces of paper’.

“The manager suspected he was writing down race betting odds.

“When asked if he was interested in betting the fitter replied, ‘like the average Australian, I am interested in horses.’ Do you do any betting? ‘No’ replied the fitter.

“The fitter’s appeal against the fine was upheld.”

The Workshops Rail Museum are turning back the clock with a monthly speakeasy. Revisiting the 1920s prohibition era with swing dancing, movie screenings and music. Entry is included together with the Underworld exhibition in a general admission ticket.

The next one is on Saturday, 3 November. Followed by 1 December and 19 January.

Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties can be seen daily at The Workshops Rail Museum until 24 February 2019.

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