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Melburnians have recurrently worried about rising crime and law and order. The 1850s gold rush brought ex-convicts and runaway sailors to the hotels and boarding houses of the township. During the 1880s land boom, open flouting of liquor licensing laws by publicans, loud bands of larrikins on busy city streets and undisguised prostitution around the theatre district in Bourke Street inspired fears of a crime wave. In the 20th century, moral panics arose because of a police strike, organised crime and underworld shootings in the 1920s, in response to the apparent lawlessness of bodgie gangs in the 1950s, and in the latter decades of the century because of fears about new types of crime such as road rage and home invasions and an open market for heroin. Melbourne is certainly a more dangerous place than in earlier years of the 20th century or in some periods of the 19th century. Yet it has always been less crime-ridden than the American metropolitan centres with which it is automatically compared. As well, in recent years, crime rates in Melbourne and Victoria have been lower than in the rest of Australia and certainly lower than in Sydney.

But public fears of crime have been stimulated as much by a few sensational incidents as by a rise in the statistical rate of law-breaking itself. An exaggerated anxiety about crime seemed most widespread at moments of rapid population increase and changes in segregation patterns in the city. Thus the gold rushes, the 1880s land boom, and the postwar suburban expansions in the 20th century have all coincided with moral panics about distinct types of crime. Such changing sensitivities, especially to random and violent attack, can be traced, in part, to alterations in the perceived location, in particular, of violent crime.

In the 1850s the best pickings for thieves were concentrated in cheap boarding houses in the city and along the waterfront. The most spectacular waterfront crime occurred in April 1852 when a gold shipment on the ship Nelson, anchored in Hobsons Bay, was stolen by a band of 20 armed robbers. Popular fears were equally focused on the main roads which passed between scattered hamlets and goldfield settlements. Perhaps the first Melbourne crime scene to be recorded visually was William Strutt's painting of bush-rangers bailing up travellers along St Kilda Road in October 1852. Such law-breakers could feel fairly confident that they would not face trial. Many police had resigned to chase after gold and those that remained were plagued by fundamental inadequacies, among them drunkenness - in 1854 one in four of the Melbourne city police faced charges for drunkenness while on duty!

As the land boom of the 1880s transformed the city, popular fears about crime had become centred on the 'back slums', vaguely defined as the laneways, deteriorated housing, small factories and pubs, in the east of the city grid, and through which ran Little Lonsdale Street and Little Bourke Street. Here stood some of the city's best-known brothels and most disreputable hotels. In the slums, publicans were suspected, accurately as it turned out, of dealing in stolen property, and many let bars and bedrooms to prostitutes. Nearby, in the midst of the theatre and nightlife strip of Bourke Street, stood the Theatre Royal, with its notorious assignation bar. Police had generally endorsed the concentration of illicit activities in the back slums, partly as an aid to policing and more importantly in response to public outcries about prostitutes soliciting in principal city streets like Collins and Bourke Street East.

In the 1880s, rates of violent assault were frequently higher in inner working-class districts, in particular, South Carlton and Collingwood, than in and around Little Bourke Street. Pickpockets concentrated around theatres and pubs, at major railway stations, and recurrently at the bridges across which crowds walked into Melbourne. Other crimes were not tied to a particular place and varied with the seasons. Each Spring, Melbourne Cup Week and the Royal Melbourne Show drew card-sharps and yarn-spinners (magsmen) to the city. In 1881 these itinerant confidence men had played their three-card trick in front of Hosie's Hotel, across the road from Flinders Street Railway Station. A special police squad, recruited to deal with magsmen, hunted the smart-talking and deft-fingered crowd back onto intercolonial steamers and trains.

Hotels and brothels in the old city slum district were demolished in the first decades of the 20th century. Many prostitutes simply removed to places like Marion Street, Gore Street, or 'The Narrows', in the shadows of the Fitzroy Town Hall. As the use of the motor car became more widespread, and the Housing Commission of Victoria demolished the most feared criminal haunts in Fitzroy and Collingwood, such locations for crime could be distinguished less clearly. The boarding houses and flats of St Kilda were linked, by World War II, to prostitution, sly-grog sales, gambling, and cocaine deals. Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, retained an image of danger well into the last years of the 20th century.

Sensational crimes have often been known by their location. These included the Simpson's Road (Victoria Street) bank robbery in Richmond, the Windsor Murder for which Frederick Deeming (once suspected of being Jack the Ripper) was hanged, and the Gun Alley Murder (1921). Terrifying bombings and mass killings, unfamiliar to Melburnians before the last decades of the 20th century, are also known by their locations. The Russell Street bombing (1986), Hoddle Street shootings and Queen Street shootings (1987), and the Walsh Street murders (of two police officers in 1988), have brought death to prosaic urban thoroughfares, tragedy to survivors and relatives, and a new anxiety to the broad mass of city-dwellers.

A persistent and obvious connection has remained between areas of the greatest urban poverty, and highest rates of arrest. Similarly, crime has regularly been associated with marginal ethnicities. The reputation of the 'back slums' depended centrally on the neighbouring location of the city's most dense Chinese settlement, even though few of the Chinese residents figured in arrests for major crime. In statistics of crime and in public discussion, the Irish working class took centre stage. Among those convicted and often hanged for capital crimes, the Irish-born and immigrants from Southern Europe, the United States and Asia figured far more regularly than their numbers in the city's population would warrant.

White-collar crime has rarely given rise to the public fears associated with murder. In the 1890s bank and financial crash, however, anger about prostitution and petty theft was overshadowed by outrage at the commercial fraud of Melbourne financiers. Matthew Davies was among the more notorious of the land-boomers. In 1892 his Mercantile Bank collapsed and in 1893 he was committed to the first of many trials on conspiracy and fraud charges. Davies alone was responsible for losses to the public of over £4 million, an attack on property unmatched by any petty thief.

Official rates of crime suggested a major fall in most categories of offence between 1891 and 1921, a fall continuing less dramatically up to the end of World War II. Most spectacular declines were in rates of public drinking and drunkenness, linked undoubtedly to shorter hotel opening hours and to the efforts of the Licensing Reduction Board in reducing the number of hotels, especially in the inner suburbs. In part, however, this reduction depended on changes in the way the police recorded offences.

Illegal gambling, for example, expanded from the three-card trick and pitch-and-toss of the 1880s into a huge off-course betting market on horseracing by the 1930s. The most famous illegal betting shop, John Wren's Collingwood Tote, closed in 1906, following new legislation introduced into the Parliament of Victoria. The introduction of radio race broadcasts after 1930 spawned a renewed expansion of illegal betting in SP (Starting Price) bookmaking. After World War I, and through figures like Squizzy Taylor and Long Harry Slater, these illegal services could be linked to the sale of cocaine, morphine, and to prostitution. Attempts by Slater, Harry Stokes and Taylor to organise criminal services resulted in the 'Fitzroy Vendetta', which was only ended with Taylor's murder, probably at the hands of Sydney cocaine rings, in October 1927.

A startling new form of law-breaking in the early 20th century occurred in motoring offences. Despite considerable opposition, regulations governing the motor car were introduced in 1909. These immediately placed many Melburnians potentially outside the law, but even more so than in attempts to regulate gambling, the motor traffic regulations were regarded as more of a nuisance than a guide to behaviour.

Declining crime rates of the early 20th century must therefore be set against an observable but rarely analysed expansion in law-breaking in relation to alcohol, gambling, to a lesser extent in narcotics, and finally, in relation to motorists' defiance of the law. Spurred on by moral reformers, police occasionally acted against sly groggers and SPs, but few Melburnians saw these offences as serious enough to waste valuable police time. It took many years for this attitude to be reversed in relation to the motor car.

From 1950 onwards, rates for key crimes rose rapidly. In particular, crimes against property escalated. Motor vehicle theft, which stood at below 20 per 10 000 in the Victorian population of 1950, rose to more than 50 per 10 000 by 1985. Rates for all crime more than trebled between 1945 and 1985, with the most rapid growth coming after 1975. By the 1990s Melbourne was a far more dangerous place than in 1950 and, importantly, it was far more difficult for Melburnians to identify which were safe and which dangerous parts of the city. Deserted railway stations, automatic teller machines in quiet shopping strips, and the carparks of suburban hotels and clubs, all gave rise to justifiable unease. Yet educational buildings are more frequently the sites of crime than is the public transport system. The biggest fraud case in Melbourne's history has been mounted against contractors at a university and not workers on the wharves or in hotels. Theft of cars, and from cars, occurs randomly in city and suburbs. Almost any deserted city street has its threats and the apparent randomness of violence has raised fears in a manner quite unlike the earlier dread of the 'back slums' or 'The Narrows'.

The most dramatic change in crime since World War II has been in the flourishing of an open narcotics trade. Between the wars, Melbourne narcotic dealers sold morphine or sometimes cocaine almost as a sideline to the more lucrative illegal liquor trade. From 1970, heroin has changed the character of inner-city shopping strips, threatened the lives of users and their friends, and the property of Melbourne. While in the popular mind drug trading and its associated violence can be sheeted home to Asian Triads or Sicilian Mafias, the nationality whose over-representation in the prison population has coincided with the rise in the heroin business has been New Zealanders. Immigrants from the United Kingdom are also regular inmates of Melbourne prisons. The key location of street heroin dealing, while popularly linked to St Kilda, has moved recurrently between St Kilda, the city centre, Footscray and Collingwood.

At the same time some widespread forms of law-breaking go unremarked. Despite heightened public awareness of domestic violence, such crime rarely gives rise to the panic generated by violence in public places. Occasionally cases come to light which indicate persistent extortion rackets within ethnic communities, crimes that go unreported to police. At the beginning of the 1980s, the Costigan Royal Commission uncovered direct connections between the business community and the massive white-collar fraud of 'bottom-of-the-harbour' tax evasion. The 1987 stock market collapse ultimately resulted in prosecutions of well-known business figures for corporate fraud, although their commercial undoing remained less spectacular than that of their 1890s counterparts. Occasional rackets in faked motor vehicle injuries and in real estate swindles have created public interest and led to arrests. But this form of corruption, while rising at a rate similar to assaults and property theft, creates little popular fear.

Melbourne has had its share of criminal mysteries. The most daring, and to date unsolved, robbery in Melbourne remains the Great Bookie Robbery of 1976, when masked gunmen invaded the Victorian Bookmakers Club on settling day and made off with takings from the Easter race carnival.

In 21st-century Melbourne legalised late-night drinking spots, brothels and off-course gambling facilities, as well as changing enforcement practices in relation to drunken behaviour, are altering the pattern of what is labelled as crime. Women, for example, are more likely to lay charges for sexual assault than they were before 1950. In official figures however the typical victim of crime remains (with the critical exception of sexual assault) overwhelmingly male and most often juvenile. And while Melburnians have an understandable dread of personal assault and theft from the home, businesses are more often targets of crime than are individuals.

Despite the pride of Melbourne's image-makers in the city's generally safe ambience, moral panics do arise as a result of some sensational attack on person or property. Police and the courts seem incapable of controlling particular crimes, most obviously the drug trade and its associated violence and theft. Mobile phones, portable computers and CD players are making theft from the person, rather than from the home, an attractive option for the petty thief. The increasing anonymity and size of Melbourne, even after some years of stable crime rates, can still arouse, as these characteristics did in the 1850s and 1880s, a sense of foreboding among its residents.

Chris Mcconville