In 1921, Sydney poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor convinced police to let him spend a night in the cells at Central Police Station as part of his research for a newspaper article. In writing about his ‘arrest’, Slessor provided insights into the conditions experienced by many of the suspects who appear in the Specials series of photographs.
The article below was first published in The Sun (Sydney) on 10 September 1921 and is available to view on Trove.
Night in the cells
Police Court Adventures
Seventeen stone of mysterious avoir-dupois jumps on behind, and the motor begins to drum. Away you rumble on a trip which has no return ticket. You can’t tell where you’re going, in the dark, but pretty soon there is no need to guess – you’re there. To put it more vulgarly, you’re jugged.
Your limousine deluxe pulls up in the flagged courtyard of the Central Police Station, in front of a high door framed with long iron rods. From the step of the patrol van to the footworn doorstone, over which so many soles have, reluctantly shuffled, is only a few yards, and as you traverse this gap the space on each side is obstructed by two solemn policemen. From a room on one hand, a worried woman peeps out, and then sinks back again on a shiny leather couch. Not for you, O, miserable male offender, are the comforting persuasions of the matron of the cells; you are hurried off, first to be charged before a bewhiskered sergeant, and then down a long, painted corridor, the high road to the cells.
Bang! The door has been bolted, that almost legendary door of padlocks and iron bars which is brandished as a sort of adult bogey at so many grown-ups. You are rather surprised to find that prison is so picturesque, conforming so delightfully in this respect to the confused imaginations of childhood and those infantile visions of iron bars. But where are the black holes and spider webs, the cannon-balls on chains, and the thousand rats which have figured so thrillingly in your nursery-tales? Gaol, it becomes manifest, has retained all the bars and bolts of our earliest beliefs, but except in this regard is not in the least like the lurid pictures limned by suburban nurse-maids.
For gaol, as typified by the cells of the Central Police Station, is a clean, airy room, its walls lined with gleaming white tiles, its floor scrupulously cleaned and quite devoid of the traditional rats and cockroaches of baronial dungeons. In one corner, a wooden plank leans on the wall, and if it is not stuffed with feathers it has, at any rate, been scrubbed until it almost shines. You sleep on it.
Through the grille
A tap and a dripping hose-pipe in another corner serve as clues to the cleanness of the cell, and it is amongst this unexpected hygiene that you pass the night. There is nothing to disturb you, not even a comic opera turnkey, and the only sign of the garrison outside comes when the little grille in the door slides up, and two casual detectives eye you for identification purposes; they do it with something of the air of a professor and a microscope. Towards morning the lunatic in the padded cell next door begins his matutinal outbursts; a confused uproar begins also in the distance, from the communal cell which is now noisy with the earliest oaths of half-awakened drunks. Dawn has come to the Central Police Station, and in five hours time your fate will have been decided by an old gentleman behind a wooden counter.
As 10 o’clock approaches the door to your cell flies back with a clang, and you are herded with the rest of the night’s harvest into a sort of antechamber across a long passage, with a police court on each side of it.
In the ante-room
Next to you is an old man with thin white hair and a yellow skin, crouching over his stick, and apparently saying his prayers in a hoarse undertone. On the other side you become aware of a stout red-skinned bottle-oh, who has pursued his study of bottles with too much zeal; he has a battered mouth-organ in one fist, and is eyeing it contemplatively, as if about to purse his lips to it and burst into rebellious music.
Across the room sits a middle-aged man with a wispy beard, demanding his ‘’at’ in a querulous baritone, and at his elbow a tall, mysterious foreigner in a black overcoat, who has remained contemptuously silent for reasons of his own – perhaps because he cannot speak the language. The ‘ladies’ are on a separate bench, some of them to all appearances as youthful as the seminary-damsels of a musical comedy. All of them are scented, some coated with day-old rouge. They converse in coy screams, interrupted periodically by adjurations from a constable standing moodily at one of the doors, and lost, apparently, in soliloquies of his own. The chief topic of conversation is found in the various offences which have landed their perpetrators in the police court, and the whole room is silent with breathless curiosity as each newcomer is asked in husky tones, ‘What’re you up for?’.
One by one the congregation diminishes. A name is called, and its owner makes his exit, sheepishly or defiantly as the case may be, swallowed by the sliding doors which open on the courts. At last your turn arrives. You, too, stumble past the waiting rows, and are escorted from the ante-room into the dock.
As you make your way to the railed seat you become aware of a high, panelled hall, very much crowded at one end and occupied by one solitary being at the other. The crowd is composed of people as ordinary as yourself, and in many cases they look far more villainous. Police courts are always crowded, but the habitues of this kind of drama are generally of the lowest type, and more often than not play a leading part themselves in the performance which they are so fond of watching. You feel glad that there is a wooden screen placed around the dock, which (much to the chagrin of the spectators) hides you from their view. The court is colored in chestnut and yellow, and in one corner a fire is flickering, its ruddy reflections trickling all over the polished panels and the carved wooden canopy under which sits the magistrate.
He is a very solemn magistrate, ambushed behind a rampart of sombre volumes. Beneath him there is a clicking typewriter and a uniformed clerk, and beneath the clerk is the press table. Further back still is another long table, which the solicitors pattern with their papers.
The clerk reads out your name in a sepulchral voice, and follows it with an involved precis of your offence, ending with the incantation: – ‘Howdierplead-guiltyornotguilty?’ You answer, according to your respective modicum of prudence or craft, and before you know it there is a large, newly-washed policeman in the witness-box, telling his story impersonally, almost apologetically. He does it in curt snatches, pausing with practised precision for the convenience of the typist. After he has finished you are allowed to put any questions you can think of to him, and he answers them, or not, without even glancing at you.
Then follows more evidence, witnesses come and go, you enter on your defence, answer questions, evade references to your past career as diplomatically as possible, fix the magistrate with a winning beam, and step back to the dock again. There is an almost inaudible murmur of anticipation from the audience in the background. The magistrate takes off his spectacles, puts them on again, flicks some leaves, dips his pen in the inkwell, and stares at the ceiling.
From somewhere a voice says, coldly and distinctly, ‘£5 or a month.’ Jugged again!