Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Talking Australian: Rodney Ansell and the legacy of larrikinism




Australian, Rodney Ansell died in 1999. To many his name means very little but the 44-year-old bushman was the inspiration for Paul Hogan's famous character, Mick Dundee. Tragically the Territorian met his maker in much and the same way as he lived his life, i.e. on the edge and he was killed during a shoot-out with Darwin police. Like Ned Kelly, the larrikin was part of Australian folklore but where did the term Larrikin, originate from.



The origins of the word larrikin remain unclear but many etymologists believe it came from a mispronunciation of "larking", as in ‘larking around ‘. It was first used in Australia in 1870, and referred to a group of wild, adolescents, from inner urban areas of Melbourne. It took another ten years before the term larrikin was officially used in police records. Defined as anti-authoritarian, the larrikins were compared to the London "Loafers"; New York "Hoodlums” and San Francisco "Corner Boys".



A characteristic of the youth culture was their dress. Described by the press in 1870 as "youths with a hang dog look and careless in attire" they were the great grandfather of juvenile delinquents. Contrary to their contemporary put down the original larrikin dressed in quite spectacular style. They would appear in the street wearing long frock coats made from dark or black material. The jackets were tailored with tight waists and velvet collars. Quite Spanish in style, the long fingertip jacket was similar in cut to Edwardian drapes, later adopted in the 1950s by the UK Teddy boys. Trousers were either bell bottomed or cut very tightly. The larrikin wore either a slouch or small round (like a bowler) hat which had to be black. To complete the outfit, they wore high heeled boots with extremely pointed toes. Loud silk ties and jaunty waistcoats would complement their sumptuous attire.



Larrikins were usually accompanied by young female companions called Cafe Belles. The girls were gaudily dressed to attract attention and in public displayed much irreverence by being loud (unlady-like) and smoking (usually associated with prostitutes). Larrikins were idle lads who often became involved in petty street crime much in the same way today's street kids can drift into crime by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.



There is no historic evidence larrikins were anything other than "naerdae wells" or “jack the lads". Whereas their North American counterparts i.e. Hoodlums and Bowery Boys (Soaplocks) eventually became the crime families we now recognise today as the Cosa Nostra (or Mafia).



The terms Bodgies and widgies were used to describe the youths of the fifties in Australia. Bodgies were the boys and the girls were known as Widgies. Again the origins of the terms remain unclear but the behaviour and clothing styles bare remarkable similarities to Larrikins and cafe belles albeit they were parted by almost a century.



Reference
Bellanta M (2012) Larrikins: A History St Lucia, University of Queensland Press
Manning A.E. (1958) The Bodgie: A Study in Abnormal Psychology A.H. and A.W. Reed, Wellington.


Reviewed 23/03/2016

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