Gang violence in Sydney has its nineteenth century counterpart, with the prevalence of larrikin culture.
The brutal gang rape of 16-year old girl at Mount Rennie in 1886, perpetrated by ‘larrikin’ members of the Waterloo Push, was emblematic of the changes taking place in Sydney at this time, with rapid urbanisation and unemployment. The crime, and the subsequent court case, put youth, working-class masculinity and violence towards women on trial.
It was the middle of the day on Thursday the 9th of September 1886, when hansom cab driver Charles Sweetman picked up Mary Jane Hicks for a fare on Sussex Street in Sydney. Hicks was 16-years old, an orphan and a domestic servant.
Although Hicks asked to be taken to nearby Castlereagh Street, Sweetman took her to isolated Mount Rennie, where he commenced to ‘take liberties’ with her in the front seat of the cab.
Mount Rennie was the name of an insignificant landmark, a sandy knoll, in the vicinity of Moore Park at Waterloo. By the late nineteenth century, this part of Sydney was a lonely area on the fringes of the burgeoning city. Waterloo had limited residential development at this time, but was ‘fast becoming an industrial centre’ with manufacturing works and noxious trades including a fellmongers, a pottery, a brick making factory and a rope works.
Mount Rennie was part of the sand hills to the east of the city. It was swampy, scrubby and ‘interspersed with streams’. As a home to industry, and as a dumping ground for rubbish generated by both local householders and factories, it was no place for an afternoon stroll. It was, however, a ‘lurking place of larrikins’, none other than the Waterloo Push.
In the late nineteenth century, moral panic abounded about larrikins and the prevalence of inner city ‘Pushes’. Larrikins were dissolute youth with no jobs and nothing much to occupy their time, and were very much a product of rapid urbanisation and mass unemployment in the late Victorian era. A larrikin was the nineteenth century equivalent of juvenile delinquent, while a Push was the equivalent of a gang.
Sweeetman’s assault on Hicks in the hansom cab at Mount Rennie was interrupted by members of the Push, some armed with knives, who were lounging around in the scrub. Mary Jane Hicks was dragged from the cab, on the pretext of being rescued from Sweetman, and was subsequently gang raped by upwards of twenty young men. As the area was isolated, there were few people to hear her pleas for help.
Eventually a passer-by confronted the gang, but was attacked with fists and knives. He ran to Redfern police station for help, but as there were no constables on duty, the Darlinghurst police had to take the call. They arrived at the scene at 5pm, finding Hicks on the ground in a dishevelled state, and perpetrator sitting nearby, boiling a billy to make tea.
The Mount Rennie Outrage and the subsequent trial created front-page news and fuelled public debate into a range of interrelated issues. These included the rise of larrikin culture and working class masculinity; gang violence; the rapid pace of urbanisation and appropriate use of public space in the city; female sexual mores; and the use and limits of corporal and capital punishment.
The trial of the eleven young men accused of taking part in the Mount Rennie Outrage, and the cabman Charles Sweetman, was heard before Justice William Charles Windeyer. He was coined the ‘woman’s judge’ because his wife Mary was a vocal early feminist, and later the president of the Womanhood Suffrage League.
The Mount Rennie case was notable for the speed with which it was conducted, and was controversial because of the harsh sentences passed down by Windeyer: this was the first case where there was a ‘full conviction of the defendants as charged’.
Although a conviction of rape was punishable by death, most cases were dismissed or never properly tried. For example, thirteen multiple rape cases were tried in the decade of the 1880s, including the horrific Mount Carmel Outrage and another attack on a woman in Waterloo, both of which resulted in murder. No one was ever indicted for any of these attacks.
It has been argued that the harsh sentence passed by Windeyer was a cumulative one, and that the defendants were being made an example of. Although nine of the eleven were sentenced to death, five of them had their sentences mitigated to life imprisonment.
The remaining four were hung by the neck at Darlinghurst Gaol, by executioner ‘Nosey Bob’, on the morning of the 7th of January 1887, attracting a crowd of up to 2000 people. Mary Jane Hicks reportedly moved to New Zealand, where she died within ten years of her assault, and the other five were released from gaol in the 1890s.