first mentioned June, 1860

We Are What We Steal.


In the era before mugshots, the gazette had to describe the suspects (if known) as accurately as possible, and some of the descriptions are almost poetic. But they also follow some conventions, so they usually start with the age and height, then their build, hair colour, eye colour, facial hair (if applicable), what they wore, and then any distinguishing features such as scars, tattoos, limps, manner of speech etc. By looking at the rate at which certain terms are mentioned over the years, you can see some of the changes that occur. Again, this method is not perfect: just because the description doesn't mention a striped shirt, the type of boots they wore, or the style of hat they were wearing, it doesn't mean they weren't wearing them, merely that it was not recorded.

Also, certain terms seem to wax and wane over time. For example, descriptions of people being of 'larrikin appearance' only occurred once before 1882 (in 1874) then became more common, and then started to fall away again after that.

The gender in the gazette skews male (see the graph under 'Gender' below), as did the population at the time (in 1860 there were 130 men to every 100 women), which in turn means that men's clothing and attributes are more mentioned than women's in the descriptions of the suspect(s).

So although there's all sorts of things that can be inferred from the data, without looking at other data sources and information, we can't be sure that what's being inferred is correct. And like any form of data entry, there's bound to be errors and mistakes in the descriptions, but my hope is that the sample size is large enough, and over a long enough period, that, especially for some of the more common traits and descriptions, what you are seeing is a genuine reflection of change (this applies to the sections on 'places' and 'things' as well).

from Issue #15
Offender is 22 years of age, 5 feet 7 inches high, medium build, sallow complexion, dark hair, light-brown eyes, long straight nose, moustache, indistinct tattoo marks on back of left wrist.

Albury, April 1887


The following section of this data visualisation contains content and data that may be considered offensive and confronting in today's context. It contains information relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which was collected by Police from c. 1860 to c. 1930 as part of the 'New South Wales police gazette and weekly record of crime'. The State Library of NSW acknowledges that this data is being presented as it was recorded at the time, and respectfully recognises the impacts of government/police violence on Aboriginal communities and the offensive historical language used in these documents.



Since its inception, white Australia has stolen from others - land, children, lives, autonomy, wages - aided and abetted by the law and the institutions that enforce it, such as the police. As part of the official - albeit internal - communications of an organ of government, the terms and language used in the gazette shows us some of the attitudes of the times. Given what we know about the period, it probably hardly needs pointing out that racist attitudes were held by many within the NSW police. If the gazette contains offensive descriptions and terms such as 'blackfellow' (32), 'the blacks' (49), 'Chinaman' (2,023), 'half-caste' (816), 'Kanaka' (23), and 'large Jewish nose' (6), it is reasonable to assume that these views were not out of step with many of its officers. As the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody notes, in the section 'The Importance of History':

"Police officers naturally shared all the characteristics of the society from which they were recruited, including the idea of racial superiority in relation to Aboriginal people and the idea of white superiority in general; and being members of a highly disciplined centralist organisation their ideas may have been more fixed than most" 2

After all, one of the first acts of the newly formed federal government in 1901 - led by New South Welshman Edmund Barton - was to pass the Immigration Restriction Act, better known as the White Australia policy, the legal embodiment of racist attitudes stretching back generations. It was Barton himself who said:

"The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman." 1

This racism was particularly evident in the descriptions and reporting of crimes that involved Aboriginal people. A whole range of offensive terms appear, especially in regards to Aboriginal women, such as 'gin' (17) and 'lubra' (4). Plus we know - as did many at the time - that massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children had been occurring since colonisation, including over the period covered by this project (1860-1900).

To take just one example of how these attitudes of racial superiority, and the lesser value put on the lives of Aboriginal people may have manifest themselves in the gazette, compare the number of murders reported where the suspect was Aboriginal and the victim was non-Aboriginal with the number of murders reported where the victim was Aboriginal and the suspect was non-Aboriginal. Here you see quite a difference, especially when considering the population composition at the time. The murders of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people were reported at around half the rate of murders of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people (see 'Selective Reporting' below). Given we know that there were entire massacres of Aboriginal people not reported, this suggests that individual murders of Aboriginal people by non-Aboriginal people were perhaps under-reported as well.

In addition to this, in cases where the suspect(s) in the murder of Aboriginal people were non-Aboriginal, 25% were acquitted or discharged (2 of 8 cases), and in 38% of cases bail was allowed (3 of 8 cases). On the other hand, in the 15 cases where the suspects were Aboriginal, there were no mentions of cases being discharged, nor any mention of acquittals, and in the sole case where it was noted that bail was allowed, the individual was later re-arrested and the initial charge upgraded from manslaughter to murder on the instructions of the Attorney General.

There were also at least 3 cases where an Aboriginal suspect was shot and killed by NSW police, shown by the blue circles in the graph below (the 4th in 1900 was when Joe Governor was shot by John Wilkinson after the government offered a £2,000 reward for their capture). In one case an inquiry was held, and the policeman in question was "charged with manslaughter, though this was later overturned in a subsequent inquiry, and the constable

"discharged from custody, with credit for his courageous conduct".

There were also an additional five incidents where the victim was Aboriginal, but the suspect was unknown.

1. Australian Parliament House
2. Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Selective Reporting

Each (non-red) circle below represents a report in the gazette involving murder in NSW, where all the suspects were Aboriginal and all the victims non-Aboriginal, or vice-versa. A single dot may represent multiple suspects and/or victims. Massacre information from The Guardian Australia's The Killing Times, which uses data from Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930

  • Aboriginal suspect(s), non-Aboriginal victim(s)
  • non-Aboriginal suspect(s), Aboriginal victim(s)
  • Aboriginal suspect(s) shot by police
  • Massacre of Aboriginal people (unreported in gazette)





Murders recorded:

Aboriginal suspect(s),
non-Aboriginal victim(s)
non-Aboriginal suspect(s), Aboriginal victim(s)

NSW population at the time*:

Aboriginal people
10,743 1.4%
non-Aboriginal people
748,922 98.6%

* population is the average for the period 1860-1900 and shown for comparison. Aboriginal population is the estimated minimum. Historical population data via the ABS (Tables 7, 8, & 9).

Descriptions of People

Select a category to see how they changed over the period (based on the number of times they're mentioned in the gazette by year). Graphs are scaled relative to the first term, which has the highest average rate over the period.

Note: some phrases are counted twice. e.g. a 'rather stout build' is also counted as a 'stout build'

The were


The graph below shows the ratio of one term in relation to the other for each year. According to the ABS, in 1860 the sex ratio in NSW was 130 men to every 100 women: NSW was 56.5% male (in June 2018, the sex ratio in NSW was 98.5 males for every 100 females: 49.6% male).





population data via the ABS: 1860-1900 and 2018

from Issue #101
Suspicion attached to a blind woman with a red face, accompanied by a stout girl with freckled face who came to the door begging.

Petersham, December 1860