Bearing the weight of all that interpretation: “Australia on Trial” on the Mount Rennie Case

I was aware of the Mount Rennie case well before last night’s dramatic recreation of the 1886 trial, but I hadn’t been aware of the weight of significance academia and others have put on it.

Mount Rennie bushland in December 2008

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Presented by historian Michael Cathcart, Australia on Trial is a thought-provoking three-part series recreating the historic trials that throw light on the Australia of colonial times.  These high‐profile and controversial court cases raised major issues of national identity at a time when Australia was evolving from the dominion of the British Empire into a more autonomous federated nation in the late 19th century.  But they also raised universal themes and concerns that still resonate in modern-day Australia. Each of the three episodes covers a separate trial.   

In Episode One, The Mount Rennie Outrage, we witness the 1886 trial of 11 Sydney ‘larrikins’ charged with a gang rape of a 16‐year old orphan, Mary Jane Hicks.  This horrific crime came at a pivotal point in NSW history, emblematic of the changes taking place in Sydney at the time with rapid urbanisation and unemployment.    The court case put Australian youth, masculinity and violence towards women under the spotlight as never before.

The episode made much of the ‘convict stain” as part of the reason for the moral panic among the respectable classes about the larrikin gangs – that there was a fear these “descendants of convicts” were becoming the beasts responsible for this and other outrages…

So I thought of you, Tom, seeing as how I actually remember you and you were the same age pretty much as the defendants in the Mount Rennie case.

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My grandfather Tom, 1867 to 1948

You had a bad case of (secret) convict stain, eh! So did heaps of others. The old lag’s son was certainly still alive when you were a kid so you must all have known… The family had escaped Surry Hills, though, and I’m not sure whether they had larrikins in Picton. And your (Protestant) Irishness was fading too. And your brother became a policeman…

Made me wonder about all those Irish accents last night. If they had Irish accents then chances are they owed no ancestry to any convicts, not if they were teenagers and 20-somethings in 1886. Sure, Waterloo, Redfern  and Surry Hills back then were very Irish – and Catholic. But I rather think the whole convict stain business is stretching things a bit in the case of Mount Rennie…

It was a fascinating episode nonetheless, with some fine paradoxes – such as the part played by J F Archibald and the curious case of Justice Windeyer. It was a strangely pressure-cooked trial.

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Left: Archibald (with Henry Lawson)

Right: Sir William Charles Windeyer

See also The Mount Rennie Outrage, Rethinking the ‘Mount Rennie Outrage’: White Savages and the Colonial Pursuit of Justice; Reading Rape in Colonial Australia: Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Tramp’, The Bulletin and Cultural Criticism PDF, "A Sunday Morning Outrage": Crime, Public Order and the Larrikin Push in Sydney 1880-–1900, and Larrikins.

…In the major conservative colonial newspapers (such as the Sydney Morning Herald,  the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and the Argus in Melbourne), Mount Rennie was seen  not as an exceptional event but instead as the apogee of a series of similarly appalling  crimes. In particular, advocates of this view drew a line from Mount Rennie back to  the Mount Carmel and Waterloo cases of 1883, in which the women involved had  been gang-raped and left to die of their injuries (Allen 55-6). Neither case had  resulted in a conviction, and it became a common-place of theorising about Mount  Rennie to argue that had the defendants in these cases been convicted and executed,  Mount Rennie itself may never have occurred. This argument was to be found in  letters and editorials, and most powerfully in Judge Windeyer’s judgment itself.  Mount Rennie was, he argued, ‘the outcome of the past’ (5). It was the result of the ‘immunity from the death penalty’  that  young men in larrikin gangs accused of
similar crimes repeatedly enjoyed. The only way to halt this sequence of barbaric acts, and reinstitute the values of chivalry that had been so grossly traduced was to punish  the defendants in this case with death. This interpretation of the crime included a strong endorsement of the character of Mary Jane Hicks, who was presented sympathetically as a very young, inexperienced woman who had been horribly tricked and abused by a gang who had behaved not like men but animals.

The  Bulletin  self-consciously shaped its narrative of Mount Rennie against this widely-accepted understanding of the crime. For more than ten years, it would contest its predicates, arguing that the trial process was unjust, that Mary Jane Hicks was a prostitute who had colluded in what had befallen her, and that the death penalty was an inexpiable wrong. The Bulletin’s editor through this period, J.F. Archibald, had attended the final days of the trial and was profoundly affected by it; Sylvia Lawson has written that he talked of the case to the end of his life. Not only did it preoccupy him in private—more importantly, ‘the  Bulletin’s readers were never allowed to forget’ (133). Archibald accused his opponents in the colonial press of using the Mount Rennie case in the service of their own entrenched social and class interests—such as demonising larrikin gangs (Bedrock, 5)—but his own copious writing on the subject revealed that  he too used the case to conduct sallies against his own longstanding antagonists. Across the bows of Mount Rennie, he could take aim at bourgeois culture, the conservative newspaper press, the much-hated colonial courts (and in particular the figure of Justice Windeyer) and even women’s suffrage.

But the  Bulletin under his editorship also produced a distinct discourse about rape itself, traceable through its writings on the case in diverse genres and modes. Rape was written in the  Bulletin through vituperative editorials on the rise of false rape allegations (‘The Tribe of Mary Jane Hicks’) and anonymous snippets of  ‘gossip’which satirised Mary Jane Hicks as a liar (‘Personal Items’); in chains of correspondence and vivid galleries of illustrations and cartoons which derided women’s fears of rape (‘A Few Safeguards of our Own’); and also in the critically neglected Bulletin pamphlets dealing with the Dean murder case (Stephens) and the Suffield rape case (Stephens), in which Mount Rennie was presented as a reminder of the danger of accepting a woman’s word about rape and as an exemplary instance of the injustice of colonial law…

— from “Reading Rape in Colonial Australia: Barbara Baynton’s ‘The Tramp’, The Bulletin and Cultural Criticism

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