… the phenomenal increase in serious crimes since the termination of the war, and the position is made more difficult owing to the considerable shortage in the numerical strength of the police force caused by enlistment.

Tweed Daily, 20 August 1920

Sydney’s police force had lost many men on the battlefields of France during World War I and it took some time to rebuild; in 1920, the Commissioner of Police testified that the force was between 200 and 300 men short of the number needed to do the job effectively. With resources stretched, police struggled to maintain law and order in an environment where criminal behaviour was evolving.

Rapid changes in society created opportunities, especially for the criminal elite, and generated new challenges for police on the beat. New illicit markets emerged in the Roaring Twenties that could generate unbelievable wealth. The highly profitable sale of illegal alcohol (‘sly grog’) attracted international organised-crime groups to Australia, with members of the Mafia-like Camorra involved in the trade alongside home-grown cartels. Policing unlawful drug use was also a growing problem in Sydney, although it was not until 1928 that two officers were assigned full-time to the Drugs Bureau. The growing number of vehicles on city streets created more work due to an increase in vehicle theft, joy-riders and speedsters. Dishearteningly for officers, the law did not always keep pace with the changes in criminal behaviour.

Gold painted plaster bust of William John Mackay, Commissioner of Police

Big Bill MacKay

William John MacKay (1885–1948), known as Bill, was a Scottish-born police officer who played a major role in policing Sydney’s underworld during the 1920s

Black and white image of man. The words

NSW Police ‘Specials’

People in the Specials photographs were yet to have their day in court. The lack of signs that the person was in custody, such as handcuffs, meant the images could be shown to a witness during a criminal investigation without prejudicing the person against the suspect

Howard Family photographs

Police photographer George Howard

George B Howard was a prominent police photographer in Sydney during the 1920s

Dual black and white mugshot, man standing with hat on (left) and seated (right).

Special uses

Police used Specials photographs in different ways

A man stands looking at the camera with a large black bag next to him.

The photographer’s bag

Little personal relics of the man behind the camera make many cameos in the Specials

William John Mackay, NSW Police Commissioner

Central Police Station – a policeman’s critique

Most of the Special photographs were taken in the yards at Sydney’s Central Police Station, located in the central business district next to the Central court complex

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