Murder in colonial Sydney was a surprisingly rare occurrence, so when it did happen it caused a great sensation. People flocked to the scene of the crime, to the coroner’s court and to the criminal courts to catch a glimpse of the accused. In nineteenth century Sydney, when health was precarious and workplaces and the busy city streets were often dangerous, witnessing a death was rather common. And any death that was sudden or suspicious would be investigated by the coroner.
Henry Shiell was the Sydney City Coroner from 1866 to 1889. During his unusually long career he delved into the lives, loves, crimes, homes and workplaces of colonial Sydneysiders. He learnt of envies, infidelities, passions, and loyalties, and just how short, sad and violent some lives were. But his court was also, at times, instrumental in calling for new laws and regulations to make life safer.
It was a chance conversation with a colleague in the History Department at the University of Sydney which inspired Dr Catie Gilchrist to research her latest book. Catie explores the nineteenth-century city as a precarious place of bustling streets and rowdy hotels, crowded harbourside wharves and dangerous industries. With few safety regulations, the colourful city was also a place of frequent inquests, silent morgues and solemn graveyards. This is the story of life and death in colonial Sydney.
Catie Gilchrist is a Research Affiliate in the History Department at the University of Sydney. She has a PhD in convict history from the University of Sydney. In 2014, Dr Gilchrist wrote a new syllabus course for the Department of History at Sydney entitled ‘Sin City? A History of Sydney’. It has proved surprisingly popular with students. She has published many articles for the Dictionary of Sydney and various academic publications.
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