Law and Order in Sydney

Monday 15 June 2015 marked the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, or the Great Charter, which has been widely recognised as the most famous legal document in the world. With all this talk about Magna Carta, being the origin of the rule of law and an important step toward modern democracy, I thought I’d search the Dictionary of Sydney and find out about how Sydney established law and order from the early days of convict settlement. I spoke to Mitch on 2SER Breakfast


Academic Mark Finnane notes law and order was a feature of Sydney society from the days of convict settlement. Australia’s first criminal trial was conducted in February 1788, only a few days after the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove. Convict Samuel Barsby was drunk on rum when he assaulted a marine and yelled obscenities. At his trial Barsby said he could not remember anything. In the court minutes of proceedings, it ends with three simple words: ‘Guilty. 150 lashes.’

Norfolk Island flogging 1823, State Library of NSW
The arrest of Governor Bligh 1808, State Library of NSW

Floggings were one of the many punishments handed out to those who threatened law and order in the new colony. There was also hangings, and in some cases, people were nailed by the ear to a pillory post. In 1808, order was threatened when Governor William Bligh was deposed by officers of the NSW Corps forcing military rule during the Rum Rebellion. And in 1816, another Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, attempted to restore ‘the public peace’ by prohibiting Aboriginal people armed or in parties numbering more than six to enter Sydney other settlements.

During the 1820s and 1830s, the Sydney press asserted the rights of settlers in light of tensions with Aboriginal communities. Notions of law and order also saw challenges with the prominence of bushranging from the early days of the colony to the late 1800s. Bushrangers, the most of famous being Ned Kelly, were convicts who would flee to the bush from the authorities and live off the land and steal from settlements.

Capture and death of bushranger Ben Hall 1865, State Library of Victoria

But another feature which characterised these early concepts of law and order were the battles with and treatment of Aboriginal people. The Myall Creek Massacre in 1838 was an example of this. Ten white men and one African man shot and killed 30 unarmed Aboriginal people at Myall Creek near Bingara. In the end, seven of the 11 killers were executed for their crimes.

Other than disturbances in the outlying colonial settlements, the disorder in the streets of Sydney also made headlines. Public drunkenness was often attributed to the city’s convict beginnings. The Sydney Herald reported on the disproportionate high crime rate of Sydney compared to other countries, claiming ‘robberies and murders, increasing both in numbers and in audacity, infest our streets and beset our inhabitants’. In fact, the crime rate had gone down, but highly publicised crimes such as the murder of shopkeeper Ellen Jamieson by naval captain John Knatchbull in 1844, added to these sensationalist views.

The Labor crisis — the riot in George Street 19 September 1890, State Library of Victoria

Incidentally, a long-term study conducted during the 1970s identified three periods of major disorder in Sydney — the late 1880s, World War I up to 1935 and the late 1960s. These were times of protest, social change and political upheaval. Other examples of disruption in our city has often centred around celebrations and public events involving large crowds. It seems things were not so different over 130 years ago, when on Boxing Day in 1884, Sydneysiders witnessed alcohol-fuelled violence and riots at Bondi Beach. Larrikin gangs were also a prominent part of Sydney’s darker side. These were gangs of youths who wore flashy clothing and harassed people in the streets. Mark Finnane goes into more detail at the Dictionary of Sydney.


Listen to the podcast at 2SER Breakfast and read the original article at the Dictionary of Sydney. For other topics see my website.