Australian History through a crooked lens

Mark Twain once said, ‘Australian history… does not read like history but like the most beautiful lies… but they are all true, they all happened.’ I discovered this for myself several years ago and decided to write up a collection of these stories which I would call Scandals and Sensations. They would not only be titillating, but give an insight into Australian society, culture and politics of the time.

Of course, there were lots of stories I had already heard of, but I thought I might try finding some more obscure ones. I began my search in my local library’s reference section where I discovered a large tome called Chronicle of Australia which covered our history year by year in newspaper format.

I found well over 100 potential stories in that first perusal, but the one that caught my imagination was a small item from 1822, a single paragraph about the confrontation between a panel of magistrates and a convict girl called Ann Rumsby. It took a bit of digging online and in the La Trobe Reading Room under the State Library of Victoria’s celebrated dome to flesh out the story of The ‘Flogging Parson’ and the Convict Girl, but I’m sure you’ll agree it was well worth the effort.

In 1934, the body of a young woman who had been brutally bashed to death and then partially burned was discovered just outside Albury. As she couldn’t be otherwise identified the newspapers dubbed her the ‘Pyjama Girl’ for the scrap of yellow silk pyjamas which clung to her body. It would be ten years before the case was closed with the conviction of Italian immigrant, Antonio Agostini. However, in The ‘Pyjama Girl’ Mystery: case closed or forced shut? I investigate whether the NSW police had really got their man.

You may have heard of Australia’s infamous White Australia Policy which used the crude but effective instrument of a dictation test to exclude undesirable immigrants. Although it was designed to exclude immigrants on racial grounds, the government soon discovered it could be used to exclude politically and socially undesirable entrants without the need for any real explanation. In 1936 the dictation test was used to prevent a British woman from entering the country for no apparent reason in a baffling case I examine in Dictating Morality: the exclusion of Mrs Mabel Freer.

On New Year’s Day in 1963, in the respectable Sydney suburb of Chatswood, on the banks of the Lane Cove River, the bodies of an adulterous couple were found dead in flagrante delicto. Thus began one of Australia’s most intriguing and still unresolved murder mysteries, the deaths of Dr Bogle and Mrs Chandler. But is it really still unsolved? In A Fatal Tryst: The Bogle/Chandler Mystery I examine the possibility that the culprit may have been discovered.

If you have any friends that like to read about true crime and political intrigue, give them a thrill and pass this roundup on to them.

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