Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties

15 Sep 2018 – 24 Feb 2019

Sydney’s police force had lost many men on the battlefields of France during World War I and it took some time to rebuild; in 1920, the Commissioner of Police testified that the force was between 200 and 300 men short of the number needed to do the job effectively. With resources stretched, police struggled to maintain law and order in an environment where criminal behaviour was evolving.

Rapid changes in society created opportunities, especially for the criminal elite, and generated new challenges for police on the beat. New illicit markets emerged in the Roaring Twenties that could generate unbelievable wealth. The highly profitable sale of illegal alcohol (‘sly grog’) attracted international organised-crime groups to Australia, with members of the Mafia-like Camorra involved in the trade alongside home-grown cartels. Policing unlawful drug use was also a growing problem in Sydney, although it was not until 1928 that two officers were assigned full-time to the Drugs Bureau. The growing number of vehicles on city streets created more work due to an increase in vehicle theft, joy-riders and speedsters. Dishearteningly for officers, the law did not always keep pace with the changes in criminal behaviour.

Meet the law

Big Bill Mackay

Bust of Commissioner William John MacKay, c1940.
Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums.

William John MacKay (1885–1948), known as Bill, was a Scottish-born police officer who played a major role in policing Sydney’s underworld during the 1920s. Affectionately known as ‘Big Bill’, he was 6 feet (183 centimetres) tall and weighed almost 100 kilograms. He was not afraid of a fight, and was said to have used his large fists to great effect during violent skirmishes with criminals. He joined the New South Wales Police in 1910, and after a period on the beat and then as a detective he became the Commissioner of Police in 1935.

MacKay kept up a sustained offensive against criminals, disrupting illicit businesses through targeted police attention. In 1927, when tasked with cleaning up crime in Darlinghurst, he sent officers out to pick up suspects and bring them back to the station for questioning. If the suspects were seen loitering on the streets again they would be brought in for more questioning. This relentless pressure led some criminals to leave Darlinghurst and set up business in nearby suburbs outside MacKay’s jurisdiction. He also allegedly encouraged officers to harass suspects he believed to be involved in crimes the police could not prove. One method he apparently advocated was to place police officers outside premises used for sly-grog or drug distribution or illegal gambling to discourage customers. On one occasion the occupants complained; the official explanation given was that police were aware that razor-wielding gangsters wanted to harm the building’s residents and the police were there for their protection. The criminals soon moved out.

MacKay could be brusque, petulant and politically naive but no-one doubted his effectiveness in keeping the criminal underworld on its toes.

Police Photographer George Howard

Constable George B Howard, photographer unknown, c1910. Courtesy John Howard.

George B Howard was a prominent police photographer in Sydney during the 1920s, when the use of photography was emerging strongly as an aid to identification and the investigation of crime.

Howard was born in Crookwell in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales on 15 June 1889. On joining the New South Wales Police Department, he was identified as a labourer, 5 feet 10.75 inches tall, with blue eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion. He graduated from the New South Wales Police Depot in 1910 and took up various posts in northern New South Wales.

Photography at this time was far from the point and shoot cameras and instant digital images of today. While photographic technology was becoming more automated, a police photographer in the 1920s needed the photographic skills to operate a large-format camera with manual focus and exposure settings. Knowledge of chemistry and darkroom processing was also required.

Howard was likely kept busy in the studio and darkroom and on the streets of Sydney, photographing everything from fingerprints, documents, handwriting samples and items of evidence to accident or crime scenes and suspects in police custody. His photographic work was reported to have ‘earned the commendation and applause of many a well-known judge’. Of his surviving work in the archive, the Specials negatives are the most celebrated. The photographs taken in the 1920s have a distinctive, arresting visual style that we believe may be attributable to Howard. During this time, too, more Specials photographs were taken, and by 1930 about 2500 suspect portraits had been created.

Police ‘Specials’

Around the world, police forces followed established conventions when taking mugshots. But Sydney police in the 1920s did things differently. Suspects hold handbags, papers, cigarettes and conversations. This deviation from protocol creates images suffused with the suspect’s personality, not unlike a commissioned studio portrait – if you ignore the backdrop of cell doors.

The people in the Specials photographs were yet to have their day in court, and some were never found guilty. Most of the Specials were taken outside the holding cells at Sydney’s Central Police Station. The police photographer positioned his camera to make the best use of available light and placed a bentwood chair in the frame to give an idea of the suspect’s height. The lack of signs that the person was in custody, such as handcuffs, meant the images could be shown to a witness during a criminal investigation without prejudicing the person against the suspect. Information, including the date, the suspect’s name (occasionally misspelt) and references to previous convictions, was sometimes inscribed onto the negative.

How to read a ‘Special’

  • 1

    Name or alias

  • 2

    Date photograph was taken

  • 3

    Special photograph number

  • 4

    Fingerprint classification

  • 5

    Reference to any previous criminal conviction

  • 6

    Name pencilled onto or scratched into emulsion by police photographer


Richard Dennis, 31 May 1928

The Photographer’s Bag

The images captured on the glass-plate negatives were intended to be printed as closely cropped identification mugshots showing the suspect’s face and build. Knowing this, the police photographer often did not bother to move his bag and occasionally his hat out of the frame. These little personal relics of the man behind the camera make many cameos in the images.

FJ McTague, 8 January 1929.

Albert Edward Benson, 28 May 1925.

John Frederick Taylor, 15 August 1923.