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Susan West, Bushranging and the policing of rural banditry in NSW 1860-1880.

Susan West, Bushranging and the policing of rural banditry in NSW 1860-1880, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, ix + 376 pages; ISBN 978 174097 166 9.

In many ways this book opens up the question of the place of bushranging in nineteenth century New South Wales by addressing it from the perspective of Eric Hobsbawm's concept of social banditry. It also reflects some of the problems raised by Hobsbawm in any analysis of rural criminality when it runs up against middle-class views of Australian history, in which the rural criminal is still often seen as some sort of threat.

The irony remains, of course, that the bushranger was hardly a threat to urban New South Wales. At the same time the bushrangers were receiving hostile attention from government and press, the larrikin gangs in Sydney were being born.

One of the major strengths of this book is the way it examines, unpacks and identifies the dynamics of a European colonial society that was clearly in the process of transition from a frontier community to a more settled society. The inherent tensions between a metropolis and its hinterland are often more suggested than analysed, but they are clear in the chapters on policing, the magistrates and the people. The development of the notion of an elite in bushranging, and the status it could bring, is deftly argued.

The ability of the author to reach deep into the social dynamics of a society now long gone is clearly seen, for example, in the story of Edward Locke. Indeed, there were elements in the story of Locke--an irritated publican who had been held up too many times by locals the city would deem to be larrikins--that had moments of humour, but also moments of one individual's sense that enough was enough.

As the author notes in the conclusion, both Locke and his foes, like the bushranger Cummins he challenged to a fist-fight in 1867, lost in the contest between 'an unruly frontier and the progressive entrepreneurial future'.

Chapters 3 and 4, that look at the supporters of the bushrangers and the cultural milieu of what West calls a bushranging class, are well worth the read. Their interest is not only because they reflect the complexities of a changing society mentioned earlier but also because they raise issues of gender and masculinity that Hobsbawm would never have considered. The author sounds exactly the right note in her argument that the deep-seated alienation and discontent that translated into support for the bushrangers cannot be described as a form of class uprising, because it involved only one section of the working class and there was no clear political agenda and certainly no political leader. How could there be?

What remains odd in this book, however, is the literature review that begins the book. It does not really engage with the rest of the work. This reviewer had expected to see some broader conclusions drawn from the study, as the introduction covers the literature that has examined bushranging outside New South Wales and there are common strands identified in the main study that demonstrate links between the men in New South Wales and bushrangers in other states, especially the Kelly outbreak. Perhaps that is a book yet to be written.

Overall, though, this is a book that deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in rural crime and banditry in nineteenth century New South Wales.

No doubt it will ruffle the feathers of those who believe that crime is crime and that its perpetrators should do the time.

John McQuilton

School of History and Politics

University of Wollongong
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Author:McQuilton, John
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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