Discovering the ‘Mess and Stink’ of Romeo Lane

Romeo Lane (now Crossley Street, between Bourke and Little Bourke) in the 1850s and 1860s became the haunt of Vandemonians, expirees and escapees from penal servitude in Van Diemen’s Land. It was condemned as the lowest of all enclaves in Melbourne’s red-light district. This paper will discuss the challenge in tracing people of the underworld, who changed their names – often – and what sort of ex-convicts were drawn to the city streets. Who were they? Where did they come from? What were they like? How did they end up this way? What happened to them in later life?
It will also discuss the methodological and theoretical questions involved in understanding prostitution, alcoholism, child abuse and violence in the lives of the outcast and the impact on subsequent generations. It will conclude with some new perspectives on the convict and criminal history of Australia derived from the mass demographic prosopography in the Founders and Survivors Ships Cohort Study of around 30,000 convicts.

Professor Janet McCalman presented this talk to the SHAPS Fellows & Associates seminar on 28 July 2021. A video recording of the talk can be accessed below.

The book on which this presentation is based, Vandemonians: The Repressed History of Colonial Victoria will be published in September 2021 by Melbourne University Press.

Janet McCalman is known for her award-winning books, Struggletown, Journeyings, and Sex and Suffering, all published by MUP. She co-edited, with Emma Dawson, What Happens Next: Reconstructing Australia after COVID-19 in 2020. For over twenty years she taught and researched interdisciplinary history at the University of Melbourne. In 2018 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

Feature image: The King of Terrors and his Satallites [sic] (detail), ST Gill, pre-1880. State Library NSW, DG SV*/Sp Coll/Gill/11