Fresh look at perth’s underbelly

Leigh Straw with her book Drunks, Pests and Harlots. Picture: David Baylis www.communitypix.com.au d427319
Leigh Straw with her book Drunks, Pests and Harlots. Picture: David Baylis www.communitypix.com.au d427319

Local resident, historian and historical fiction writer Leigh Straw wrote Drunks, Pests and Harlots: Criminal Women in Perth and Fremantle 1900 – 1939 and will give a talk on the book this Saturday as part of Perth Heritage Days.

‘This book in fact started with a murder in Collie in 1929,’ she said. ‘The murderer is my husband’s great-great uncle.

‘In looking through the Police Gazette issues for 1929, trying to find a reference to Andrew Straw, I found myself drawn to the mug shots of female offenders. I didn’t know a great deal about these women in WA history and wanted to know more.’

Dr Straw said she decided to write the book after talking with a great-granddaughter of one of the women featured in the research.

‘She brought Mary Ann Sweetman to life in a deeply personal way and showed incredible gratitude that a historian would choose to write about her family member,’ she said.

‘It was this genuine interest in the research and encouragement that finalised my decision in my mind to write the book.’

Dr Straw said crime history had always interested her.

‘At one level, like a lot of people, I am drawn to crime stories, wanting to know more about crime and criminals, which is an aspect of life that I am not directly involved in but find interesting,’ she said.

‘I enjoy engaging with the criminal past as I think it allows me to broaden my personal perceptions of crime and criminals.

‘Researching the lives of people repeatedly charged and convicted with committing a criminal offence has allowed me to more fully understand the cycle of offending that impairs so many lives, even today.’

The book looks at women such as Esther Warden, who was arrested more than 200 times for crimes including drunkenness, assault, vagrancy and soliciting.

Rather than being hardened criminals, most of the women were imprisoned for public order offences.

Dr Straw said at a time when Perth was establishing itself as an Australian city, these women were singled out for giving the city a bad name and failing to conform.

‘In essence, many were imprisoned for simply being poor, alcoholics or homeless,’ she said. ‘They were also punished twice, first by the justice system through imprisonment and then by society.’