In the 19th century the best place for connoisseurs of salacious sensation was the Police News. Not to be confused with the Victoria Police Gazette this newspaper had nothing to do with the police. It was a scandal sheet doing the rounds of the courts to find tragedy, murder, adultery, misery, suicide and crime.

It was at one time called the Banner of Truth Police News, a distant antecedent of the major Melbourne 20th century scandal sheet The Truth.

At a time when the respectable illustrated newspapers boasted beautiful artwork, the Police News depicted the reported crimes and incidents with the most rudimentary images.

Curious freaks of a cranky cook, at St Kilda picture; Violent assault, under the very nose of justice; Police News 15 July 1876

Some of the headlines give a clear flavour of the content:

‘Lively scene in a Flinders-Street Hotel – thrashing a traducer.’

‘Delightful dissipation- the ladies’ opium-smoking club.’

‘Ben Judkins threatens to blow out George Coleman’s brain.’

‘A plucky young lady, of Carlton, horsewhipping her dastardly traducer.’

To give some idea of the reliability of the reporting of this journal is a story under the headline: Frightful occurrence at a football match in Carlton.

Police News, 5 August 1876 p.3

According to the Police News:

‘a game of manly play becomes lowered to the level of brute ruffianism. One poor fellow of the Melbourne club, named Longden.… sustained life-long injury inflicted by the rowdy violence…of one of the Carlton Imperial team, his eye being literally kicked into his head, and serious permanent injury inflicted on the brain.’

Despite the dire prognostications, Longden took the field the following week.

In October 1876 The Age delivered a withering attack on the ‘foul and unblushing scurrility and lewdness….filthiness and immoral tendencies of the literary garbage which [the publisher] Mr. Lee served up to his readers’ [i]

Lee responded by describing the criticism as ‘Pecksniffian hypocrisy’, assessing them as cowards who ‘cringe, toady, and eat dirt’ rather than upset the rich and powerful. [ii]

Deftly dodging various legal stoushes Lee published to a significant circulation. In exposing the ugly underbelly of respectable Melbourne Lee took credit for:

‘recent heavy defalcations of men in high positions of honour and trust….We will never cease to denounce the sham morality that pervades the vulgar rich, until a manly, healthy, just rule of social ethics shall be substituted for the fraudulent imitation.’[iii]

The relish and hyperbole that he applied to his reporting obscured any social purpose. Indeed his attitude was often unsympathetic. The item A fanatical fool saws his right hand off gave an account of a young man who, having read in the bible, ‘If thy right hand offend thee cut it off and cast it from thee’, promptly sliced off his right hand. Lee concluded that, ‘our own opinion is that in this case medical and surgical treatment should be accompanied by a long course of severe one-handed labour, to bring the filthy fanatic to his senses.’ [iv]

Police News, 18 March 1876

It had not always been thus. Lee started the Police News at the of age 67, but prior to this he had been a more serious and high minded journalist, publishing The Tasmanian Athenæum, a journal of science, literature and art. Unfortunately sensation proved much more lucrative than art and literature.

The Tasmanian Athenæum struggled on for two years and six volumes with low circulation. The editors, Lee and William Coote, found that in Tasmania there was ‘so little to stimulate intelligent interest we need not wonder at the lack of intelligent enquiry.’ Rather wounded, Lee and Coote felt their efforts to cultivate science and literature were met with the ‘sneers of supercilious ignorance, the opposition of angry and affrighted incompetency’[v]. In Melbourne, 20 years later, Lee had learned his lesson. He aimed low and hit the bulls-eye.

In 1878 his young wife Elena, died aged 35. There followed a year later their infant son and then Richard Egan Lee himself. Even in death the ‘snobocracy’ were unforgiving.

Figaro, in the Telegraph, upon hearing of Lee’s death described him as the

‘proprietor and publisher of that vile print the Police News…. I may tell you that I scarcely ever felt more disappointed over anything than I did that Lee always managed to escape through the meshes of the legal net on the few occasions when it was cast to catch him….I will refrain from pursuing him beyond the grave, merely expressing the hope that the vicious mantle he wore when living has been buried with him. If this should be so, then I, for one, can heartily say, for the good of the community, that Lee’s’ death is not a matter over which I can mourn.’[vi]

The Library has digitised many images from the Police News and the entire paper can be browsed on microfiche in our Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms.


Footnotes

[i] The Age, 9 October 1876, p. 2.

[ii] Egan-Lee, R. (1876). Prospectus of a cheap and independent journal, for the people– entitled, The political budget Pecksniff was a hypocritical character in Charles Dickens’s novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

[iii] Police News 26 May 1877 p.2

[iv] Police News 18 March 1876 p.2

[v] Lee, R., & Coote, W. (1853). The Tasmanian Athenæum, Or, Journal of Science, Literature and Art.

[vi] In the barber’s shop. The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian 29 March 1879: p2.

This article has 8 comments

  1. I am sure the content of this scandal sheet would be fascinating. Are we going to see it in Trove? I can’t find myself overly fascinated in the pictures without knowing some of the names involved in the scandals

  2. It would be wonderful if this publication was fully digitised and placed on Trove. Terribly difficult to access and impossible to search on Ye Olde Microfiche. You need to know what you are looking for first.

    • At this stage I don’t think there are plans to digitise the full text of the Police News. Trove newspapers is an extraordinary world leading resource with over 225 million newspaper pages completed. The continuing program of digitisation focusses on more substantial runs of newspapers. Police News was a minor short run publication. A lot of stories in the Police News will also have been covered by daily newspapers, and as a historical record sometimes it is not helpful as the reporting doesn’t always include names or specifics (possibly partly because Richard Egan lee was often threatened by legal action). There is a facsimile of several years of the Police News, Richard Egan-Lee’s police news/Michael Cannon (editor) We hold a copy of this as do a number of public libraries. I hope this is helpful. Regards Andrew

  3. There are many short run newspapers included in Trove, and if the Police News was considered sufficiently worthy for a facsimile edition, then it is surely worthy of inclusion in Trove. The stories in Police News could be cross referenced with the same story in other newspapers, and most likely includes details the more conservative papers would not print. One of the best stories in my family collection was about a wife who assaulted her husband. I found two not very colourful versions in the Argus and the Age, but a more salacious newspaper, I think a forerunner of The Herald, contained additional details of how the wife kept her husband bailed up in his house for three days, while she pulled all the pickets off the fence, broke all his windows, rained bricks on his roof and caused him to hide in the chimney. THAT’s the stuff we want to know. Just because it is salacious doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. I’m getting the feeling that this newspaper has been judged unworthy. I feel we ought to be able to decide for ourselves. If we are talking about ‘Social Life and Customs’, this is it, this is the coalface.

    I also note that NSW has 479 titles in Trove, and Victoria has 368. Plenty of room for more titles.

    • No doubt Lenore, we’d love all of our papers digitised to Trove- however the State Library does not currently have the resources- as NSW does. One avenue to raise funds is to apply for a local history grant via the Public Record Office. Some patrons have also raised funds through their local council or private donations.

      Paul

  4. You could take something out of your building budget, and spend a bit on the collection. You’ve got a spare 15 mil.

  5. Nancy Marion Higgins

    A wonderful source when searching for family in early Port Phillip / Melbourne. Must be included in Trove surely.

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