The 1920s heralded the brave new world that emerged from the devastation of World War I. Australia’s allegiance to the British Empire’s war effort had come at a high price: thousands of young men had been slaughtered, families had been dislocated, and returned soldiers often struggled to fit back into the rhythms of society. Similar stories played out in other countries around the globe. Eager to put the horror and drudgery of war behind them, people began rebuilding their lives.
The Roaring Twenties saw dramatic changes in technology, entertainment, architecture and society. Young women sought new freedoms, movies began influencing the way people lived, and technological developments such as faster, more reliable motor cars improved the lives of millions. Change brought opportunity, and criminals around the world found ways to cash in on developing illegal markets. Police forces, their numbers reduced by war, were caught on the back foot. Their work was made harder by the fact that laws did not always keep up with the pace of criminal evolution.
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After the universal upheaval of World War I, many soldiers found it difficult to take up their former occupations and adjust to civilian life. To make ends meet, some ex-soldiers turned to crime, while career criminals simply went back to their old ways. Ex-servicemen received preferential treatment in the community as an acknowledgment of their service and sacrifice, and they were often shown leniency by police and the courts. Devious criminals, many of whom had not enlisted, took advantage of public goodwill with scams involving stolen medals and false tales of heroism.
The flapper was an alluring vision of sophistication and freedom for young women globally. She danced, drank to excess and smoked, drove cars, bobbed her hair and generally defied conventions of ‘modest’ feminine behaviour. After encountering these insouciant role models in magazines and film, some women turned to crime to fund their own pursuit of this exciting lifestyle. The Specials of female felons unexpectedly document the fashion of the times as hemlines rise, silk stockings glimmer in the sunlight and luxurious mink coats are caught on camera alongside less showy wraps.
The lure of easy money from the illicit alcohol, drug and gambling trades encouraged the formation of new crime gangs. Fierce rivalry between the groups triggered violent battles on the streets. Although Sydney gangsters had access to guns, many preferred cutthroat razors — inner-city vice hub Darlinghurst was nicknamed ‘Razorhurst’ by the press following a spate of razor attacks. Gangs from other cities, particularly Melbourne, attempted to break into the Sydney scene but were strongly repulsed by gangsters and police alike. International crime groups were also drawn to Sydney, such as the Mafia-style crime syndicate known as the ‘Camorra’.
From the beginning, young men and fast cars were a volatile mix. The irresistible lure of shiny new automobiles is reflected in the many Specials of bewildered, bruised and bandaged youths who in some cases had just been dragged out of a wreck. Offenders often argued in court that they had intended only to borrow the car, not to steal it. The courts initially saw joy-riding as a minor misdemeanour but came to treat it as a more serious crime, one that endangered public safety and destroyed private property. As car numbers in Sydney jumped from 33,000 in 1921 to 127,000 by 1926, traffic offences took up an increasing amount of the police force’s already stretched time.