History is such a core element in my design philosophy, and an excellent source of inspiration. When beginning an interiors project the first thing I do is dig up the past to find out as much as I can about the building or local area, as well as looking for historical characters to draw on and create a personality that encapsulates the project. So it’s no surprise that one of my favourite resources on the bookshelf is Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle. An absorbing and striking look at the underside of Sydney, the book features an extensive collection of portraits of crooks, scoundrels and rogues.
The book ties in with the City of Shadows exhibition at the Justice & Police Museum, also curated by author Peter Doyle. The raw and mysterious photo collection from the 1920s didn’t resurface until the 1980s, which meant that the original accompanying paper work was long lost. But with clues in annotations, old police records, newspaper articles and court cases, the stories and characters have been colourfully brought back to life.
The personalities in the portraits give the reader a direct gaze, a cocky smile, a relaxed stance. From light-fingered thieves to sweet-talking conmen to mob-style razor-men, from first offenders in their teens to well-rehearsed seniors. It’s the most haunting, diverse and extraordinary bunch to ever be pulled into the police station.
The stories range from the colourful and chilling reputation of Guido Calletti, to the somewhat amusing ‘Duchess’ Ellen Bell who had all the airs and graces of a Jane Austen grande dame. ‘Pretty Billy’, a pickpocket and international con man, is noted to have dressed very well and was exceptionally fond of horse racing. Thief Olga Solomon kept up a loud commentary throughout her court case proceedings, leading to a bottle of brandy being removed from her person. The stories are vivid and paint a fascinating picture of Sydney’s early crooks.
The rogues in Crooks Like Us also formed a large part in the concocting of the interiors at Palmer & Co, a location inspired by the underground bootlegging of the prohibition era. I lined its walls with photographs of the small time crooks, petty thieves & peoples of interest found in this book and at the Police & Justice Museum, who were often very well dressed & quite good looking.