"Melbourne - Queen City of the South"

Melbourne Gay & Lesbian History series



listen: LAWRENCE & WILSON - 03:47 minutes



Late in the evening of 10th October, 1863 a police constable from Fitzroy approached a man and a woman who were engaged in conversation in Victoria Parade, near the corner of Brunswick Street. The policeman who was acting on a tip-off and, believing that his suspect was attempting to persuade the man to pay for sex, he yelled out for her to stop where she was. Instead, she picked up her crinolines and ran off down Victoria Parade, screaming as she went. She turned into George Street and then into a vacant block where the policeman pounced on her, threw her to the ground and arrested her.


On the way back to the cells at the Fitzroy Police Station the prisoner made several attempts to escape, but according to the policeman, eventually gave up and said: "My name is John Wilson - I am a man, I may as well tell you. " Wilson then gave the policeman a key to his house and asked if he would mind going round there and giving it to a man called "Moody", who Wilson lived with, and who would be lock out of the house when he returned home.


Wilson was charged with sodomy, a capital offence and police gathered evidence from seven local men who claimed they had sex with Wilson, all the while under the impression that he was a woman! Wilson was found guilty of the "abominable crime of buggery" which carried the death sentence. Wilson's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He served six years in Pentridge, before dying of kidney disease at the age of 43 in 1969.


Twenty-five years after Wilson was caught on the streets of Fitzroy, a young Fitzroy actor, George Lawrence, was arrested whilst dressed as a woman at the 1888 International Exhibition at the Exhibition Buildings in CarIton Gardens.


Lawrence, in company with another woman, was promenading in the Avenue of Nations at the Exhibition, when approached by a policeman who arrested him. Whether the policeman knew he was a man in drag, or thought he was arresting a female prostitute is unsure. But in the scuffle, Lawrence's wig was knocked askew and he was revealed to be a man. He was originally charged with Insulting Behaviour, but following a police investigation, the charge was upped to Vagrancy, which carried a six month prison sentence. Which is exactly what Lawrence got.


These two cases from the files of the Supreme Court of Victoria, just touch the tip of the iceberg that is the queer history of nineteenth century Melbourne. Because gay history is a hidden history, it is often only through court and criminal reportage of those unlucky enough to come to grief on the rocks of the law, that we begin to get an understanding of what life in queer Melbourne was like over 100 years ago.

  © text copyright Lucy Chesser, Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives 2002





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images: State Library of Victoria