From stone-cold gangsters to wayward youth

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Welcome to the dark side of the Roaring Twenties. Descend into the seedy underworld where the only rules were never squeal to the police and always, always shoot first.

Criminals thrived during the turbulent 1920s when rapid societal change led to the opening up of new illicit markets for entrepreneurial felons. Sydney's police photographers captured the zeitgeist of the era in these unexpectedly candid mug shots of cocaine sellers and addicts, sly-grog purveyors and small-time criminals. Bosses, bruisers, plotters and petty criminals are captured by the camera as they stare down the lens and into history.

The stories of the suspects who range from stone-cold gangsters to wayward youth give a flavour of the strangely hierarchical criminal world. Fast times bred new crimes creating policing challenges ranging from reckless joyriders to the emergence of the Mafia and razor gangs. However the mugshots document more than just crime; they detail the rise and fall of trends such as the flapper and illustrate the post-war movement of people between Sydney and other cities such as New York and London.

Over 100 captivating images of suspects taken by NSW Police between 1920 and 1930, reproduced from the original glass negatives, will be on display in this touring exhibition from Sydney Living Museums. Known to police as 'Special' photographs they are unexpectedly raw and intriguing portraits of people in custody unlike any found elsewhere in the world.

Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties will be on display at the National Archives of Australia, Kings Avenue, Canberra from 19 June 2021 to 24 October 2021.

High-resolution images and video available on request.

Contact information

National Archives of Australia Media Team
Phone: 0417 247 157

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