The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s heralded the brave new world that emerged from the devastation of World War I

Vast social and industrial changes are coming, perhaps upheavals which may, in their magnitude and effects, be comparable to war itself.

J C Smuts, The League of Nations: a practical suggestion, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1918.

The 1920s heralded the brave new world that emerged from the devastation of World War I. Australia’s allegiance to the British Empire’s war effort had come at a high price: thousands of young men had been slaughtered, families had been dislocated, and returned soldiers often struggled to fit back into the rhythms of society. Similar stories played out in other countries around the globe. Eager to put the horror and drudgery of war behind them, people began rebuilding their lives.

The Roaring Twenties saw dramatic changes in technology, entertainment, architecture and society. Young women sought new freedoms, movies began influencing the way people lived, and technological developments such as faster, more reliable motor cars improved the lives of millions. Change brought opportunity, and criminals around the world found ways to cash in on developing illegal markets. Police forces, their numbers reduced by war, were caught on the back foot. Their work was made harder by the fact that laws did not always keep up with the pace of criminal evolution.

Stanley James Hay, Special Photograph number 167, c 1920, Central Police Station, Sydney
Underworld

Fallen soldiers

After the universal upheaval of World War I, many soldiers found it difficult to take up their former occupations and adjust to civilian life

Black and white image of a woman looking pensive to the side of the viewer. The words
Underworld

Flappers

The flapper was an alluring vision of sophistication and freedom for young women globally

Black and white image of a man in a suit. The words
Underworld

Gangs

The lure of easy money from the illicit alcohol, drug and gambling trades encouraged the formation of new crime gangs

Black and white image of man with thick curly hair. The words
Underworld

Joy-riders

From the beginning, young men and fast cars were a volatile mix

Dual mugshot in black and white; man seated and then man standing, with hat on.
Underworld

The Black Hand in Sydney

Restrictions on the sale of alcohol offered tantalising opportunities for organised crime groups around the world. A Mafia-style organisation known as the Camorra began to make inroads into Australia during the 1920s

Composite image showing black and white mughsots of Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine

Tilly Devine & the Razor Gang Wars, 1927–1931

Learn about the Razor gangs and their leaders Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh

Patsy Neill (or Niell), Special Photograph number D96, 12 August 1929, Central Police Station
For hire
Touring exhibition

Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties

This exhibition is available for hire