Cornelius Crowe: a dictionary maker in the cause of justice

by Judith Smyth*

In a previous blog Mark Gwynn looked at the first dictionary produced in Australia, A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, written by the convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812 to provide the court with a translation of the slang used in the colony by convicts and criminals. The perceived need to translate the language of criminals continued throughout the nineteenth century. An interesting example of this phenomenon is a dictionary compiled by Cornelius Crowe in 1895 entitled The Australian Slang Dictionary, containing the words and phrases of the thieving fraternity together with the unauthorised, though popular expressions now in vogue with all classes in Australia.

Cornelius Crowe, one of 15 children, was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1853.  While most of his siblings migrated to America, Cornelius and three others moved to the colony of Victoria. He joined the Artillery Corps in Victoria in May 1877 and became a member of the Victorian Police Force in 1880. He remained in the force as a constable until his retirement in 1897.

In a period known for widespread corruption in the Victorian Police, Crowe was at odds with many members of the force. His interest in the work of Michael Davitt, an Irish social reformer imprisoned in England for his political activities, is evidence of his dedication to law and order and social reform. Davitt was on a lecture tour of Australia in 1895, the year The Australian Slang Dictionary was published, and it is likely that Davitt’s tour prompted Crowe to compile the dictionary. Crowe’s intention was to aid police in fighting crime.

The Australian Slang Dictionary is part of the worldwide genre of crime lexicography. It is significant because it is a unique record of the language of criminals in Melbourne in the 1890s, a fact that has not previously been recognised. Lexicographers and writers on Australian English have often misunderstood the nature of Crowe’s work. They have relied on the title of the dictionary, and assumed it to be primarily a source of Australian words. But although it contains some Australianisms it is not simply a record of new Australian words. Rather, Crowe’s dictionary records a wide range of the language of criminals in Victorian underworld circles. In a later blog I will look closely at some of the terms Crowe recorded around Fitzroy and Collingwood in the 1890s.

After Crowe left the police he spent his time fighting corruption in the Victorian police force and parliament:

When I resigned from the Police Force … I started a Night Patrol, and in the pursuit of my duties I discovered a half-dozen policemen in league with burglars robbing stores I was paid to protect. This resulted in one policeman’s house and a burglar’s being found stocked with stolen property. The burglar got six years, but the policeman was not prosecuted, and the five other policemen were not interfered with at all. (C. Crowe, The Inquiry Agent: A Drama of Real Life, Melbourne, 1909)

Crowe campaigned to get an inquiry into the matter and as a result he was forced to close his private investigation firm that operated in Fitzroy and Collingwood.

John Wren: Melbourne underworld figure

He later attempted to bring John Wren, a Victorian gambling and underworld figure, to account for his many alleged crimes. Part of his strategy was to inform the public about corruption within the Victorian Police Force by producing pamphlets. These pamphlets, particularly one entitled ‘Wren and his Ruffians: a notorious bird of prey’, were published by Crowe at some personal risk. (It is interesting to note that in 1951 John Wren brought a case for criminal libel against writer Frank Hardy over Hardy’s novel Power without Glory, based on the life and crimes of Wren.)

Crowe published nine other pamphlets and booklets between 1903 and 1921. All of these publications were aimed at uncovering corruption in the police force, the judicial system, and in the Commonwealth and Victorian Governments. Crowe’s pamphlets did have some effect upon the legal system. A report in Lone Hand on several Royal Commissions into the Victorian Police Force stated that the 1905 Royal Commission:

… was in a measure forced upon the Bent-Gillot Government by the pertinacious pamphlets of ex-Constable Cornelius Crowe, a man whose personal grudge against chief Commissioner O’Callaghan and Detective Macmanamny is quite consistent with an honest desire for a reformation of the police system in Victoria. Crowe issued pamphlets in which Wren, O’Callaghan, Macmanamny and Boardman [Wren’s employee] were equally attacked. His hand was against them, and theirs against him. His pamphlets challenged prosecution for libel, but an action was never dared. And it is undeniable that the people more powerful than himself, whom Crowe denounced as conspirators in law-breaking, were always deeply interested in ‘shutting him up’ if he spoke the truth. (Lone Hand, 1 February 1909)

On 12 December 1904 Crowe was bashed with iron bars by two men. Two days later two men told him that Chief Commissioner O’Callaghan wanted to imprison him. After he reported this incident to the police and no action was taken, he wrote to Premier Bent and told him about the ‘criminal conspiracy’ against him. The Premier responded that he believed Crowe’s statements were exaggerated.

Thomas Bent, 22nd Premier of Victoria

Although Crowe failed to bring Wren, Bent and others to justice, there is a substantial body of evidence that supports his allegations of their corrupt behaviour. His crusade to improve the judicial system in Victoria by campaigning against corruption lasted until he was sixty-eight years old. He died in Melbourne in 1928, at the age of 75. Crowe’s determination to win the battle against crime is first apparent in his effort to translate the language of criminals and produce a dictionary as a tool for the police force, but his interest in language was ultimately secondary to his aim to improve policing in Victoria.

* Judith Smyth is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National Dictionary Centre. She was awarded a PhD from the Australian National University in 2006 for her work on Australian lexicography (1880-1910). She is a former staff member of the Centre.

2 thoughts on “Cornelius Crowe: a dictionary maker in the cause of justice

Comments are closed.