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David Conolly
David Conolly

" ... A rich vein of history ... "


Peter de Waal: I’m talking to one of the contributors, David Conolly,  1  and I’m very keen to know what his impressions were of being involved in the project. Actually my first question is, David, how did you get involved in the project?
David Connolly: >Well, Peter, you told me that you were embarking on it and said that one of the problems was that a lot of the judges’ notes from way back over the years needed to be transcribed and would I be prepared to spend some time doing it. I was only too happy, I’m retired, and so only too happy to do it.

Q: Now, you’ve been involved, I think, since about September 2003, which is well over two and a half years ...
A: Goodness, really!?

Q: Have you had any doubts about the validity of the project?
A: None whatsoever. As a matter of fact at first I didn’t quite understand the implications of it. I knew broadly what you were attempting to do but I didn’t quite know what this would mean, but the more I was sent cases to transcribe from the judges’ notes, the more I began to discover that here was a rich vein of history of the whole strata of society and experiences of human beings covering a long period of time that many of us, well, hardly anybody in society, ever knew about, so it became fascinating to read these documents and try to put them in some legible order and I was learning as I went along.

Q: What in particular did you learn, David?
A: Well, I suppose I always assumed that the law had forever been against gay people or people of any kind of, er, different kind of sexual expression, and that somehow or other it was simply a matter of crime and punishment; whereas over the years that I’ve been doing this work for you I’ve discovered that even the older nineteenth century people in the law, judges and barristers and police were themselves sometimes not so much confused, but confronted with issues that they had to deal with, and that their initial pre-judgements weren’t necessarily exactly what they thought they were going to be.

Q: Now, there is a significant period in the years we’ve covered from about 1830 to 1930 so it’s about a hundred years and that included well over two hundred cases for which you have transcribed the judges’ notes. There is a period where it’s quite evident that we have about ten or a dozen Chinese perpetrators (as we call them) although they’re not always perpetrators – there were willing parties, but we’ll use that as a label. Do you see any significance in having that large a number involved in the overall numbers? Do you think there might be something to do with, er, masculinity, or ...
A: Well I’m not sure about that, with the Chinese, in particular. I do think it’s interesting that the Chinese involvement in many of these cases seemed to flourish over a period of time and then seemed to diminish later. I noticed that the Chinese participation in the cases tended to be mostly rural cases rather than urban cases. I suspect that both with market gardening and with the kind of gold mining and other rural activities of the mid to late eighteen hundreds it would be more normal to find Chinese people in rural areas than in urban situations. But it is interesting that they were so involved, and I wondered whether (I have no evidence to back this up) there was an element in which for the Chinese males in particular, leaving China to come to a totally alien context here, was particularly depriving in terms of intimate relationship. Perhaps in China things might have been different if they’d stayed. But when they came here not only did they come to a land far away, but they came to a land where they were totally alien – language and custom and background – whereas other people involved in some of these cases who had come from England, say, or Ireland, or wherever, at least had the advantage that they came with the same language and the same general customary backgrounds. I wonder whether there was a certain sense of alienation or loneliness – it’s only a speculation on my part – but I suspect that maybe by the end of the period where Chinese cases come to be prominent (and they eventually fade out) maybe the Chinese were beginning to assimilate enough into the community, or at least learn how to deal with their surroundings. So they were able to avoid being caught up in some of these legal processes.

Q: Uh, huh. Can you give me some idea how you perhaps perceive, perhaps not individual cases, but an overall perspective of – men needing other men for companionship and for sexual gratification. I guess in terms of what we today look at the re-interpretation of masculinity?
A: Yes, I think this is very important. And I think that while it’s still a huge issue, even in today’s society, a long time ago, going back to the eighteen thirties for example, where all sorts of issues had not been explored about gender and relationships – it must have been very hard for males to work out how to relate to each other in the light of their need to relate to the rest of the community as well. That doesn’t mean to say that in my view they were all latently gay or anything of that sort, it’s just that traditionally, it seems to me (maybe sociologists would be able to tell the story better) that women have found it easier, on the whole, with their particularly circumscribed situation to relate to each other freely and in a more relaxed fashion; whereas males have always felt this notion that they needed to somehow not let down their masculinity in any way. So that any sign of tenderness or warmth towards another male would have seemed threatening to their self-image. So if there was any situation, even where a heterosexual male might have been in desperate need for some kind of warmth and even sexual expression on a one-off basis, that it needed to be very, very secret and very, very private lest somehow he would be further branded, and that his masculinity would be called into question.

Well now, I find it interesting that in the process of all these cases, although again and again and again there were males who were trying to defend themselves against accusations, there were many cases where reading between the lines both parties in the case, the so-called perpetrator and the so-called victim, were in fact clearly willing partners, at least at the time, and that when the case was uncovered by police or other people who revealed what was going on, they began to scurry into their respective corners. The so-called victim to say “I was led into this”, and the so-called perpetrator saying all sorts of things to justify the events. Whereas in fact you don’t have to read too many of these cases to see that, in fact, in many of them it was a case of mutual need. Mutual desire sometimes, but mostly mutual need – a desperate loneliness that says “I want to reach out to someone” and that a fellow male is very often the person who would be more likely to understand me more, or with whom I might feel more at home – just even for companionship, very often leading to sex. Leaving aside, of course, those cases that involved liquor and other things.

Q: It’s perhaps not evident to the reader of the documents that the ones you have transcribed were in fact, and still are, all hand written, so these notes would have been taken by the judges while the case was on. Now I gather there was one judge, in an early stage, who invented a form of shorthand and we were very worried about this aspect because such valuable information was contained in these documents and yet at that stage you were unable to transcribe it. Can you just describe what I think was an amazing triumph, how you got to do that.
A: Well, it’s interesting. I’m not an expert on the history of shorthand. I imagine that such an expert would be able to document the progress of shorthand in the public domain over a long period of time, but it was clear to me in some of the very early documents that one or two judges in particular began to replace their longhand with some kind of shorthand. At first I was worried because I had never studied shorthand – I didn’t know Pitman’s or any of the other forms of shorthand and I was sure that I could never transcribe these squiggles and signs. Over a period of time I thought this is a bit of a challenge and so I decided to work with the page as best I could and act something like, I suppose, an early archaeologist might act in digging little bits out and trying to make sense of them. At the same time I began to discover that certain little squiggles and signs repeated very often, so they must have been common words such as “the” and “and” and various pronouns and prepositions and then I began to discover that you could create – decode some of this stuff, reading it in its context. If a certain sign appeared more frequently within a context of a sentence which included, let’s say, ten words in English and ten shorthand signs, you could probably work out the meaning of the sentence, and as time went on it became quite easy to read them. So I started to make notes of the signs. Different judges, to some degree, had different kinds of shorthand expression, but broadly speaking they followed a large pattern so that I was able to build up over a period of time a list of signs and symbols which were sufficient for me to be able to transcribe whole documents without any problem at all.

Q: Now, finally, what do you think is the intrinsic value of your contribution – for the whole project – sorry, I should rephrase that, actually. What intrinsic value do you think there is in the whole project?
A: Well, I’d like to answer both those questions ‘cause they’re both good questions. The first one I can easily answer by saying that I’m proud to have been involved in the project because I feel that it was necessary for these judges’ notes to be transcribed. So, if I had done them even partially successfully then that’s a matter of great satisfaction. But the actual value of the entire project, it seems to me, that there is a kind of hidden history to the entire subject of, particularly males being brought before the courts of justice over the centuries, but particularly within the last century or so, on charges of, in some ways, giving way to deep desires within themselves which were responses to either their sexuality as a fixed thing, for example homosexuality, or their sexuality just as a human being needing expression, as in the cases, for example, of bestiality from a shepherd way out in the bush, alone for long periods of time, and there are ways in which all human beings need to express themselves. Well now, traditionally I always knew in my head that such cases when they were found out or reported or whatever, were often brought before the courts and terrible sentences imposed – sometimes the death sentence and certainly long imprisonment and hard labour. It astonished me that this hidden history has never been examined as to how it came about or why; what the patterns of punishment and justice were and what the roles of various parties like the police and other people in the community were, in the uncovering of situations or events or to what degree there was blackmail involved or to what degree there was inducement involved, and what in particular a country like Australia back in the old days, loneliness and isolation caused all sorts of things to come to pass. I think the value of this whole project is that it will help to document a history that nobody has ever documented before.

Peter de Waal: Thank you very much, David. 


1  David Conolly, ThL, 1937—, interviewed 15th February 2006.