Crime History

For the past few weeks, I have been assisting the Local History department of the Woollahra Library in collating some research for an upcoming walking tour on crime in Vaucluse. Now I’m not sure Vaucluse is usually thought of as a hotspot for crime, with its sea views and the letterbox-numbers spelled out with words. But just like any area that has been around for a while, and that has had human beings living side by side, there have been some scuffles along the way.
In my research so far, I have started at the start. This, for the Vaucluse area, begins with Sir Henry Browne Hayes, a wealthy Irish convict who was sent over to NSW in 1802 for trying to forcibly marry a wealthy young woman to then claim control of her large inheritance. For some reason she wasn’t too keen on the idea and managed to escape and get the police on his case. After being on the run for two years, he eventually turned himself in and was shipped off to NSW. Hayes was a downright trouble maker. For one, he was an Irish Freemason and was intent on establishing Freemasonry upon his arrival in Sydney, contrary to the wishes of Governor King (who was already dealing with a few potential convict uprisings at the time). A bunch of convicts, banding together in a sort of secret cult? Not what you want. The story continues, and I have to find more information, but Hayes continued to aggravate the powers that were. This included being shipped off to Van Diemens land as a result of rebellious tendencies.
Interestingly though, he was one of a few convicts to be ‘well off’ and as such he suffered all the usual convict hardships: sailing around the bay in his boat, cultivating his garden, and building the beautiful sandstone cottage that he would name Vaucluse. Later the house was sold to W.C. Wentworth, a much more palatable character from what I’ve gathered, and has survived in good condition thanks to being State-Heritage listed.
I loved reading about this story but I can’t help thinking: would I enjoy this story if instead of a convict, this ‘Hayes’ was just another wealthy foreigner who wanted a sea view in Sydney’s East? What if he was a convict who got on just fine with local authority and just lived a quiet, law-abiding life? I think that history, or rather the passing of time, can cull large proportions of the human experience away from the story that I (or anyone) could construct around someone like Hayes. He is in danger of being summed up by a culmination of birth dates and death dates, of signed land agreements, of Gazette reports, and inevitably the ‘humanness’ leaches out of his story. I am not sure that this is unavoidable, but I find it interesting how easy it is to forget the emotional landscape that a person, much less someone deemed a ‘criminal’, can have in his/her life. It is hard to imagine, because obviously I was not there to experience it. And so my point about crime (if there is any), is that maybe part of the allure of crime history is its ability to make those darker parts of ourselves – those angry, rebellious, unfair, criminal parts of ourselves- more palatable as we look at them in the form of another, safely removed from us by time.
This is another reason why I respect the ideas of walking tours, because just like the one we undertook at the Parramatta Female Factory, the spoken word and the physicality of a tour can help to convey some of these stories with a more emotional touch, with more imagination coming into the history-making process.
For now, I continue gathering evidence of those sneaky members of Sydney’s dodgiest neighbourhood: Vaucluse.

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