As Christmas approached, the Magistrates at the Water Police Court, now the Justice & Police Museum, were often faced with a very seasonal crime – the theft of Christmas hams.

Black and white photo of two half cuts of hams with evidence tags

[Hams]1 in police custody, 1945. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums.

Historically, the incidence of ham theft rose in November and peaked mid-December. Some crimes were small and only involve a single ham being stolen from a suburban shop. Others were much more targeted attacks on known ham repositories such as the Metropolitan Ice and Cold Storage Company which lost 126 large hams during a daring robbery in 1945.

Opportunistic ham heists also occurred, including the theft of a lorry containing 150 hams only days out from Christmas in 1931. The lorry driver had ducked into a shop to deliver some hams and then discovered his truck and its precious cargo had been stolen. The hams were never recovered.

The theft of a Christmas ham could be difficult to prove. In 1886 a case was heard before the Water Police Court regarding Louis Malcolm Keyzor who was charged with having, ‘by device and trick, feloniously stolen and taken and carried away 110 hams the property of William Ponder’. Keyzor had allegedly collected the hams on the 22 December but failed to pay for them. Ponder spotted his hams on display in a store in Haymarket and demanded they be returned. The case against Keyzor was eventually dismissed as Ponder could not provide an invoice or other documentation identifying the hams as his property.

Another case before the Water Police Court involved an allegation that Michael O’Brien stole a ham from an Oxford Street Grocer in 1884. O’Brien was observed looking intently at the hams on display and one disappeared around the time he left the store. The magistrate threw the case out, stating “that looking at a ham three or four times did not constitute a felony” a sentiment with which I heartily agree.

The theft of Christmas hams continues to be one of the less desirable markers of the beginning of the festive season.


  • 1. Editor’s note: in a case of ‘mutton dressed as ham’ it has come to our attention that the meat featured in this image is lamb and not ham… We are currently investigating this case of mistaken identity but in the meantime, please continue to enjoy our story about Christmas hams being purloined, as this is still very much a fact.

About the Author

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Nerida Campbell
Justice & Police Museum, Museum of Sydney, Susannah Place Museum
Nerida’s passion for history was influenced by childhood holidays spent at her grandmother’s farm, happily rifling through chests brimming with family photographs, generations of clothing and things she still can’t identify.

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