Historian’s book lifts lid on old-time crimes

Edith Cowan University lecturer Leigh Straw, author of Drunks, Pests and Harlots: Criminal Women in Perth and Fremantle 1900-1939
Edith Cowan University lecturer Leigh Straw, author of Drunks, Pests and Harlots: Criminal Women in Perth and Fremantle 1900-1939

A lecturer at Edith Cowan University, Straw has released Drunks, Pests and Harlots: Criminal Women in Perth and Fremantle 1900-1939, a book that is as much historical as it is a comment on today’s society.

‘It’s trying to humanise some of the stories of women who were criminalised in the early 20th century for what we would now see as quite trivial crimes,’ Straw said.

‘I was surprised by the fact that you could face up to six months in prison for drunkenness and what drew me in even more was to trying to figure out the kind of women they were.’

During this time, inner-city Perth and Fremantle had some of the worst slums in Australia, but while Straw found much had changed over the past century, she was also surprised by what hadn’t changed.

‘In the last few years, we’ve seen women glassing other women and I think some of the attention around that was that ‘this doesn’t really ever happen’, but in the early 20th century they were glassing each other and they could be quite violent,’ she said.

‘The one thing that is a constant is I think even up to the present; women are still seen differently by society.

‘They still suffer this double stigma of not only are they a drunk person, but they’re a female.’

Straw said she wanted people to not only understand criminals but understand the society that in part created some of that criminality too.

‘I think when people say ‘Australian history is boring’ it’s because they haven’t been told the really interesting stories.’

Drunks, Pests and Harlots: Criminal Women in Perth and Fremantle 1900-1939 is available at www.amazon.com.