Explosive excesses: New Year's Eve in Sydney

 

Sydney Harbour is the focal point of our celebrations to welcome the New Year, with carefully controlled fireworks demonstrations overseen by experienced safety officers.

The boom of fireworks echoing around the harbour is part of today's soundtrack of a Sydney New Year's Eve.

One hundred years ago the celebration had a very different sound which, according to contemporary newspaper reports, was enough to frighten old people and visitors from the country.

That sound was produced by a new ‘toy’ – the explosive stick. 

Explosive stick confiscated by NSW Police. Justice & Police Museum Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo © Jamie North  for Sydney Living Museums

A device designed purely to make a loud noise, the explosive stick was packed with material which would go off with an ear-splitting bang when dropped on the ground.  On New Year's Eve 1908, over one hundred of the sticks were confiscated by police, one of which was preserved and is now on display at the Justice & Police Museum.  

Many complaints were made about the sticks and the Inspector General of Police at the time, Thomas Garvin, became concerned that they might be a dangerous weapon in the hands of the ‘larrikin element’.  The Premier of NSW, Charles Wade, vowed to put an end to their use.

A crackdown on the importation and sale of the devices began and in February 1908 a case was heard in the Water Police summons court against Michael Albert, who had imported a quantity of the sticks from New York for sale in his King Street shop during the lead up to New Year's Eve. Although pleading that he thought them to be harmless toys, he was convicted over the illegal importation of the explosive charges used in the sticks.

The Water Police Court, now part of the Justice & Police Museum. Photo © Douglas Riley for Sydney Living Museums

Police continued to relentlessly confiscate explosive sticks from New Year revellers and their popularity quickly faded away.  

About the Author

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Nerida Campbell
Curator
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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