West End outlaws

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Have you ever had a complete brain snap, not the kind of psycho meltdown which is genuinely scary, more like one where logical thought and measured reason take a back seat to an over-riding feeling of ‘oh f*** it, let’s just DO it’? I don’t mean in any creepy way, like unpremeditated rage, more a ‘why the hell not?’ impulse, one which comes without a care for conventional social niceties. Those moments are really quite exhilarating.

I like to think that the West End has always been on Newcastle’s social frontier, our own Wild West if you like. Physically located on the outskirts of the city it is literally on the road into and out of Newcastle. Frontiers encourage outlaws, or so it seemed late on a Friday afternoon way back in 1878 when two men, who may have been having a joint brain snap moment, decided to shed most of their clothes and go for a walk through the West End.

You have to picture the scene. It was 15 March 1878 near the corner of Hunter and Wood Streets, in the vicinity of the old Castlemaine brewery. The traffic was busy going back and forth between Civic and Hamilton; it was a classic early Australian picture and I’m filling it in by imagining women in long dresses, men in waist coats, horse drawn carriages and carters with drays packed with goods and drawn by Clydesdale horses.

Into this typically busy Newcastle street scene came something unexpected. The Newcastle Herald reports that passengers on the road:…were greatly surprised at seeing two men taking pedestrian exercise on the main road…one of the men being naked, with the solitary exception of a small trunk around his loins and the other very little better. The Herald took it upon themselves to check whether this sort of thing was allowed and noted that many people passed strong comments about the indecency of the affair.

The two friends disappeared as quickly as they had appeared leaving in their wake more questions than answers. Were they Crossfit pioneers doing natural movement exercises, or just proponents of a healthy lifestyle who were striding the streets in a vigorous form of physical exertion? Maybe they were just over the onerous restrictions of Victorian clothing, or was it a drunken wager, along the lines of ‘how far do you think we could get along Hunter Street wearing as little as possible before we got caught?’

The Herald thundered: We trust that immediate steps will be taken by our energetic Sub-Inspector to nip this evil in the bud and so prevent a recurrence of yesterday’s proceedings, something which they described as a disgraceful exhibition.

I could go crazy trying to work out what drove them to abandon all decorum and let it (almost) all hang out. But whatever the reason I’m happy they didn’t get caught, so that to this day they remain West End outlaws and our own mystery men.


Images: Shirtless hairy man is from a lithograph from the journal Zietschrift fur Ethnologie 1877. Creative Commons via Flickr. The postcard is from the Hunter Photo Bank, Newcastle Library’s digital image collection. Image of the brewery is by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle. All images are used with permission.

The news article on the two men is from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate Saturday 16 March 1878.

Kimberly O’Sullivan

Have you chosen the West End as your home or as the perfect place to run your business? Do you have a West End tale which deserves a wider audience? What inspires or infuriates you about the West End? If you have a story to tell I would love to talk to you! Here’s how to find me: kimberly@netspace.net.au; 0413 250 155.


4 responses to “West End outlaws

  1. Choice slice of local history. I like the part about one of the gents protecting his modesty with a ‘small trunk” (!!)

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