Painting by ST Gill, courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.obj-134655773)

Painting by ST Gill, courtesy National Library of Australia (nla.obj-134655773)

Sydney thrives on crime stories and today on 2SER Lisa thought she’d share a unique dossier held in the State Archives that gives a special insider’s view of law and order in Sydney in the 1840s.  

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The dossier is called the Registry of Flash Men (State Records NRS 3406) and it was compiled in the 1840s by the superintendent (later commissioner) of police William Augustus Miles (1798-1851).

The Registry is a vital record of the seedier side of Sydney as it shook off the shackles of transportation and a erected a more gentile facade over the Georgian town. In it we learn not only the names and behaviours of Sydney’s criminals, but also the language they (and Sydney’s lower classes) used every day.

Sydney’s crims spoke a ‘flash language’, or cant, a code amongst criminals. It was a marker of the convicts and criminal class, inherited from 18th century England. If you were a flash man, you were on the dodgier side of the law, using slang to communicate with other flash men to do your dodgy deals.

Miles decided that it was important to know Sydney’s underworld and this was his official surveillance record. He kept tabs on known criminals and their associates, making connections and observing behaviour. This is detailed policing and investigative police work at a time much earlier than we might expect.

Cover of the Registry of Flash Men, courtesy State Records and Archives NSW (NRS 3406)

Cover of the Registry of Flash Men, courtesy State Records and Archives NSW (NRS 3406)

The notes seem to cover the period 1841 to 1846. The registry is formed at a time when there is growing public concern over criminal behaviour. Miles’ surveillance may have been covert, but it was not a secret; Miles publicly acknowledged it as part of his policing work in 1844:

I have a great number of thieves under my eye in the town, who occasionally do a day’s work, and idle, gamble, and thieve, the rest of the time … I have taken great pains to inform myself how these men form themselves into gangs, and I keep a book relative to their movements, the parties who are their companions, and such other information as I may obtain respecting them …
(NSW Votes and Proceedings, 1844, Vol 2, Report from the Select Committee on the Insecurity of Life and Property, p 383)

Second page of the Registry of Flash Men, courtesy State Archives and Records NSW, (NRS 3406)

Second page of the Registry of Flash Men, courtesy State Archives and Records NSW, (NRS 3406)

Miles and his collaborators recorded aliases, appearance, ‘modus operandi’, known associates, places of residence, occupation, their character or temperament, sightings of them, details of previous convictions, incidents in which they were known or suspected of being involved, their circumstances, and information collected about them including quotations or comments from those who knew them and newspaper clippings.

The alias of a man named Hyams  was, for example, “Hoppy my Heart” and the police superintendent notes that he had had his eye on this “rascal” for a while.

Various phrases are also recorded, such as “sell a man”, meaning betray a man, or “Oliver is in town”, meaning the moon is full. Others include:

hocus pocus man” – meaning trickster or swindler,

pigs”, “grunters” – meaning police

A “flash cove” – a thief or a fence.

An “exquisite around town” – a dandy or a fop

You could be arrested for being a rascal or a rogue, as you were assumed to be loitering and causing trouble.

The information in the Registry paints a picture of life in Sydney, predominantly around the Rocks, where people would form gangs and pushes and life was much harsher than in the classes whose records are usually kept in our major collections. .

To experience more of the Registry of Flash Men, take a look at this video on State Records’ website or go to their catalogue record here.

This is not the only record of Flash Language in Australia. “A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language” was written by James Hardy Vaux, a convict in Newcastle in 1812, specifically for magistrate in order that they could understand those appearing before them. It was published in London with Vaux’s memoirs in 1819 and is also believed to be the very first dictionary compiled in Australia. You can read it online on the Internet Archive here.

A new and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, written and compiled by James Vaux 1812, via the Internet Archive

A new and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, written and compiled by James Hardy Vaux in 1812 and published in his Memoirs in 1819, via the Internet Archive

Further reading:

Explore the Dictionary’s content on Crime via the Subject listing here.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre’s blog Ozwords also has some great entries related to this topic, including one on James Hardy Vaux’s Vocabulary by Mark Gwynn,  and another on Cornelius Crowe by Judith Smyth.

 

 

Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.

Listen to the podcast with Lisa & Nic here, and tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Nic Healey on 107.3 every Wednesday morning at 8:15-8:20 am to hear more from the Dictionary of Sydney.

 

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