1851: The Sydney sailors' riot

A history of the violent clash between Australian sailors and police after officers attempted to arrest a sailor dressed as a woman.

Submitted by Ed on September 8, 2006

On Sunday August 23rd 1851 a hard fought riot broke out in Sydney. Whilst such disturbances were common place at the time this particular riot is interesting in that it was sparked by the arrest of a sailor for wearing women's clothing, was led by military men and involved attacks on a number of police watch-houses. Despite police and newspaper reports of the incidents being confused and often contradictory the riot tells us much about attitudes of Sydney's population towards cross dressing, police and the law.

Eight o'clock on the evening in question a Constable McEvan had been called out to Church Hill where two men were acting disorderly. One was dressed in "female apparel" which legally was an offence at the time. Arriving at the scene he was advised that the men had gone on to the Black Boy pub. When McEvan proceeded there and attempted to tackle the one in women's clothing he found himself in trouble and the two exchanged blows. The crossdresser, to the cheers of civilians and sailors standing by, got the better of him, knocking him down and running away.

McEvan ran for help and mustering six other constables returned to the area. By this time, the man, a sailor named Michael Knight had moved on to St Philip's Church where he wandered in disturbing the service and abusing the parishioners. McEvan and company found him and overpowered him. They then dragged him to the watch-house in Cumberland Street from where he was sent on to the main watch-house in Druitt Street.

On hearing of their friend's arrest several sailors from the military ships Caliope and Pandora raised a crowd of a few hundred and marched on the Cumberland Street watch-house attacking police along the way. The crowd obtained entry to the watch-house after overpowering one of the gaolers who had foolishly opened the door. Armed with bludgeons and iron fence palings they demanded the release of all prisoners. As the gaoler Sergeant Palmer later stated "They threatened that they would pull down the watch-house and knock out my brains... I could offer no resistance, and therefore unlocked the cell." The only prisoner present, another sailor, Anderson, was freed.

At this point some police arrived, but it appeared they could do little. Constable Smith explained that one of the crowd's more vociferous members Down had threatened "You (deleted) you had better keep back or we'll cut the (deleted) heads off you." Constable McEvan hearing the disturbance ran in and was smashed in the head with a paling. The crowd now made their way at the behest of the women present to the female watch-house in Clarence Street. More people joined along the way with numbers swelling to around 600.

Arriving at the Clarence Street watch-house the crowd demanded the release of all prisoners. Sergeant Moss who was on duty "perceived that they (the mob) was bent on mischief, (due to) several persons being armed with bludgeons" and quickly ran inside the gaol securing the door. Despite the crowd threatening him and battering the door for 15 minutes he was successful in keeping them out and preventing the rescue of 14 prisoners. In the meantime the police had regrouped and despite coming under a hail of stones and sticks, distracted the crowd's attention. Moss held that that had they not arrived the prisoners would surely would have been rescued.

Fighting with the police ensued for only a short while as they withdrew to their barracks. One constable related that "The civilians present were far worse than the seamen, inciting the latter as much as possible against us- many saying "Go at them- we'll take your part- we'll stand with you." Leaving the barracks the crowd then proceeded down to the Central watch-house at Druitt Street. There they rang the gate bell and rushed in demanding entry to the gaol and the release of Knight and all other prisoners. A number of police however secured an inner gate and prevented them gaining entry.

With the crowd assembled outside one prisoner, Kidney, tried to escape. Having left his cell he tackled one of the constables at the gate in an attempt to get outside to the crowd. He was knocked down by another constable who claimed that he had been forced to continue hitting Kidney on the ground as "he was very violent after he was knocked down." Kidney was in a bad state when he fronted court with his head bandaged, clothes saturated in blood and his arm in a sling. A number of the rioters attempted to break the gates and hit the police, but met with little success.

In the meantime the Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police had been tipped off and ordered out a number of mounted police as well as other reinforcements. Upon their arrival they forced their way through to the front of the crowd ordering them to disperse in the name of the Queen. When they refused the police attacked, this time successfully driving them back . Driven out many members of the crowd threatened to return, but did not.

It was only after the crowd had been dispersed that the arrests began. Many of those arrested seemed to have been randomly grabbed from the streets adjacent regardless of whether they had been in the riot or not. Some resisted arrest bitterly. One policeman Sergeant McGee reported that "I apprehended the prisoner Wakeman, armed with a paling with which he struck me two or three blows". Another, Constable Couch related that "I saw Stewart get over the wall near George Street (after escaping the scene) and took him into custody; he bit my hand most severely. I was knocked down by someone and lost my gloves and the key to my handcuffs." Stewart later denied the claims.

Despite the crowd having been repulsed the gaolers were still in for a rough night. One prisoner (not involved with the riot) complained of being attacked and arrested by jumpy constables after he rushed from his bed to check out the source of a noise. Badly injured, he was told in court by the Police Magistrate that "You should have stayed in bed and you would not now have been here." Other prisoners were so troublesome that the Provincial Inspector ordered them all to be put in leg irons. All in all many injuries had been incurred on both sides and the Police Surgeon, Mr Rutter, reported that he had spent most of Sunday night and Monday morning attending to police and prisoners' wounds.

The next day saw sailor John Down causing trouble again by raising a small group to go and free prisoners. Having run into a ship's officer and a constable collecting stragglers from the ships, Down and the others, armed with bludgeons, exhorted the prisoner to escape and began harassing his keepers. Hotly pursued, they ran down to Circular Quay where they escaped onto a ship. Down and company then made their way through the rocks to the Clarence Street watch-house where they "endeavoured to force in the door... (and) demanded admittance." Demanding the release of the imprisoned sailors the group attempted to attack the police present who had secured the door and hidden inside. Within a short time reinforcements arrived and again drove off the gathering crowd before arresting Down and a number of others.

On that same day as well as the next, twenty two men, many of them described as "clerks of respectable appearance", were brought into the central court. Nearly all of them disputed police evidence and complained of having been beaten and arrested for no reason. Despite a lack of evidence proving many of the prisoners' involvement they were all found guilty of charges including drunkenness, disorderly conduct, incitement and assault. Knight was fined for wearing female apparel and disorderly conduct. Most of the sentences only amounted to a small fine or a caution with the more serious cases receiving fines of up to 5 pounds or one month in gaol. One of the magistrate's main complaints was that none of the ships officer's whose men had ignited the riot had bothered to attend the hearings.

This series of incidents lead us to a number of interesting conclusions. Whilst little research in Australia has gone into the sexual mores and general attitudes of the sailors who visited these shores, it is clear that transgendered behaviour and anti-clericalism was condoned and indeed supported by them. It is also clear that they held civilian authorities and society in contempt and were willing to defy them to the point of freeing prisoners. It should also not be forgotten that a sizeable number of Sydney residents were also willing, and indeed, raring to get involved in such disturbances.

Provided by the Question Mark Collective as part of a forthcoming anthology on Australian Troublemakers to be published by Melbourne based Scam Publications. Taken from http://www.takver.com/history/riot1851.htm



6 years 11 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Steven. on March 19, 2017

Somehow I've never seen this article before. Amazing stuff!