The Crimes of Outcast Women in Fremantle, 1900 to 1939

Leigh Straw

Leigh Straw

Esther Warden was described in court in 1912 as “a dangerous woman” and “an incorrigible nuisance”. By 1939, when she was in her late sixties, Esther had notched up over 200 criminal convictions, mostly for drunkenness and being an idle and disorderly public nuisance.

In Fremantle, she was one of the most notorious criminals of the early twentieth-century and known as the “terror” of the West End. Western Australia’s Police Act had been enacted in the late nineteenth-century as a means to monitor and punish criminal behaviour — mainly such offences against good order as drunkenness, vagrancy and loitering. But it was also used to control female behaviour.

The feminine ideal in the British world was then of a passive, chaste and moral woman who best contributed to society through respectable paid work or by upholding a domestic identity as a good wife and mother. Women who did not conform to this idea faced being outcast from society through convictions for good order offences.

When Perth’s Magistrate Augustus Roe sent Clara Bull to the Salvation Army Home in 1902, he told her it was a “chance to be a better woman”. His words, therefore, echoed the dominant public discourse about women who were charged with offences against good order. While they had committed crimes, their greatest offence was considered to be their failure to meet social expectations.

Beyond the local Fremantle context, drunken, loitering, vagrant and disorderly women were also outcasts of the British Empire. As the newly federated nation of Australia sought to embrace an imperial vision of order and moral citizenship, women who offended the good order were in direct conflict with expectations of femininity for British women.

Anxieties about the moral fibre of the empire placed greater emphasis on female service and duty and the moral role of white women in settler-societies like Australia. The deviant lives of criminal women in Fremantle reveal public battles with moral decency based on a public discourse enabling gendered experiences of crime.

Female offenders, knowingly or unknowingly, re-shaped the streets into sites of conflict as they contested accepted ideals of British femininity and constructions of “good” Christian women, often detailed in court proceedings. The female inebriate and street prostitute provide important insights into a public discourse constructed around good order offences as representing, for women, a “fall” from femininity.

Respectable and deviant femininities were closely monitored and regulated in public from the first years of colonisation in Australia and influenced by trends in Britain. As Penny Russell has shown, British manners were adapted into Australian colonial society to provide stability in a foreign environment.

Social codes “defined the proper young woman as a frail but appealing, intellectually inferior but morally superior being, whose duty it was to be passive, decorative and sexually pure”. According to Jill Matthews, Australian women were expected to live up to particular ways of being, from speech and appearance to behaviour and thoughts that signified a woman’s place within the gender order and power relations. This regulation of female behaviours aimed to limit any deviance.

Discourse on female behaviour in Australia by the early twentieth-century placed greater emphasis on female service and duty and the moral role of white women in settler societies. Women were depicted as upholders of welfare, development and domesticity within the nation, commonwealth and empire.

The dominance of “an ideology of maternalistic and reforming feminism” emphasised women’s moral superiority in the lead up to federation and in the first decades of the twentieth-century. In Australia, citizenship (of the nation and the empire) was constructed closely around distinct gender orders and respectable femininities.

Women who committed offences against good order in Fremantle in the first decades of the twentieth century were depicted in public discourse as having “fallen” from femininity and were thus outcast from respectable society. At a time when “women’s femininity was seen to derive in large part from their lack of physical prowess, their delicacy, and nervousness,” women like Esther Warden — who was charged with being disorderly and using obscene language after being tackled to the ground by police while trying to use a hatpin as a weapon in February 191212 — certainly challenged the authorities at the time.

The majority of women charged and convicted in the Western Australian courts from 1900 to 1939 were arrested for offences against good order. These accounted on average for around two-thirds of all cases before the courts, both Supreme and Petty. The police and the courts had little tolerance for offences against good order. Around 95 per cent of public order cases ended in convictions compared with 80 per cent for property offences and 50 per cent for offences against the person. Women charged with offences against public order were almost guaranteed a conviction. In general, they were sentenced to between three and six months’ gaol with hard labour.

When Cecilia Reilly was arrested on the Fremantle Esplanade in October 1910, she was sleeping on the grass, holding a beer bottle and sporting a black eye. With no means of support or a place to live, police charged her as a rogue and vagabond and the magistrate sentenced her to one month in prison. Like other men and women frequently coming to the attention of the police for drunkenness, idle and disorderly conduct and vagrancy, Reilly was arrested that evening under the provisions of the Police Act and made a criminal. Police targeted Reilly because she was found alone in the park and unchaperoned. Reilly was outcast from Fremantle society by a public discourse that singled out female drinkers ‘lounging about the streets [..] to the deep degradation of their sex”.

Convicted female drinkers, like Reilly, publicly displayed their deviance and were seen as a threat to gender roles. Women were expected “not to be seen in the principal streets, especially in broad daylight but confine themselves and their patronage to the low public houses in their own neighbourhood”. When found on the streets of Fremantle, drunk women sparked numerous commentaries in the press. In March 1904, Truth published an article under a partial heading of ‘Sickening and Degrading Sights’ in which the writer complained of the “very large number of women to be seen in our principal thoroughfares under the influence of liquor”.

The paper claimed drunken women could apparently be found in hotels drinking all day until closing time. One reporter told of four drunken women who “lurched” out of a city hotel in front of him. One tried to dance but fell over, giving her friends a good laugh. According to the report, these scenes were a regular occurrence in the city.

By the advent of the twentieth-century, the judiciary, police, press, churches, medical professions and social purity campaigners constructed the good Australian woman as “domestic, home and family-bound, pure, clean and rationalised”. Some Australian feminists also incorporated a maternalistic approach to their “new social order” for the twentieth-century, identifying mothers as key to the ideal of the moralistic female citizen. The drunken mother, therefore, represented a major form of deviancy from the domestic ideal of British women, and for their deviation from a domestic ideal, Cecilia Reilly and other intoxicated women were depicted as a public shame.

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