You can get all excited about the latest, contentious, revisionist contribution to those ‘big’ historical questions (those questions that somehow fail to capture the public interest!). My wordy, I know I do! But there’s something quite humbling about the labour-of-love, extended type of research that provides the building block foundations for this other more controversial, more debated but somehow more ephemeral work. I’m thinking about the edited series of documents, the painstaking deciphering of a diaries, the compilation of administrivia into a logical process after it has been distributed across multiple bureaucracies. There’s a danger, of course, that it can descend into mere list-making, and the hunt become more seductive than the actual capture. But thank you to those historians who share the nuts and bolts of their research with others.
In relation to my own research, I’m thinking of A.G.L. Shaw’s Gipps-La Trobe Correspondence with its wide-ranging footnotes that make me realize I’m following a well-trodden path. I’m thinking of Ian D Clark’s persistence in deciphering George Augustus Robinson’s diaries- ye gods: that handwriting! I’m thinking of Paul de Serville’s typography of Port Phillip ‘gentlemen’ before and after the gold rushes. And now, too, I’m thinking of Judge Paul R Mullaly’s book Crime in the Port Phillip District 1835-51.
This is a big book- 763 pages- so big in fact that the subject and names index has to be downloaded from the publisher’s website separately- a costly compromise when dealing with such an exhaustive work. The author, a judge and Q. C. with a long history of involvement in the Supreme Court of Victoria, undertook this huge endeavour in his retirement, drawing on material at the Public Records Office of Victoria, newspapers, and both Redmond Barry’s and Judge Willis’ own case books. Here is where his experience comes into its own. For the non-lawyer, many of these documents are fragmentary and utilitarian, and all too often opaque. But Mullaly can cast his legal eye over them, piece them together into a narrative and contextualize them into a standardized legal process.
The book is divided into three themes, although the table of contents doesn’t reflect this. He starts with a snapshot of Port Phillip itself and its legal system, with an emphasis particularly on the status of Aborigines under colonial law. He then moves to a step-by-step description of the legal process, from arrest through to sentence, highlighting along the way where practices differ from those today. Finally- and this is the largest section of the book- he analyses different types of offences e.g. those against the person, against property, against justice, miscellaneous and sectarian offences, with a selection of chronologically-presented vignettes of particular cases. The regularity of his structure was helpful. I was concentrating on judgments between 1841-3, and the chronological presentation made it easy to locate the material I wanted.
There is not an argument as such in this book, beyond his long-held belief expressed in his introduction that “the elite in society tended to be far too ignorant of the realities of much criminal activity and were much too judgmental in attributing a high degree of moral culpability to many offenders” (p. vii). This is, instead, a descriptive work, focussing on the administration of the criminal law, which he hoped would “help the present community understand many aspects of our present culture and give many citizens an insight into the community in which their ancestors lived.” (p.viii). Perhaps because of its descriptive intent, the ending of the book felt a little abrupt. I found myself wishing that he’d made an overall assessment of crime at that particular time- was it any more or less violent then? did the nature of crime change? was society well served by its criminal justice system? I really enjoyed the parts where he tried to explain some anomaly that he had detected, or fill in the gaps that had been left in the documentary record.
There’s just so much that can be done with the material he has assembled here. I’ve been frustrated by the elusiveness of women in my study of Port Phillip but here they are- not just as victims but also as witnesses, neighbours, people just going about their lives. There’s a fascinating study of childhood glimpsed in these cases; there’s a geography of the streets and pasttimes. There’s another economy here- not that of the Blue Books or Select Committees into Monetary Confusion, but the economy of buying and selling and just getting by.
This book provides well-dug, solid foundations. Thank you.