The Justice And Police Museum Today
Sydney's Justice and Police Museum is made up of a pair of two former police courts and a former police station, on Albert Street, not far from the city's historic port. Together, these once formed one of its busiest legal hubs.
Today, the museum features exhibits on famous crimes and criminal cases from New South Wales' history, collections of weapons and other items taken from arrested felons, and a courtroom, charge room and cell made to look the way they would have done back in the 1890s when the complex was at its busiest.
The History Of The Justice And Police Museum
In the 1850s, Sydney's waterfront was a thriving place full of life, and equally full of crime. The recent discovery of gold in NSW had lead to a rapid influx of people arriving from Europe and across the world in the hopes of getting rich. Some of them probably did, but at least as many ended up in drunken fights and dodgy scrapes instead. The local Water Police Force was suddenly very busy. It was soon clear they needed a base for their operations.
Water Police Court
In 1856, Water Police Court was completed (the first part of what has today become the Justice and Police Museum). It was a stuffy building, poorly designed and poorly ventilated, but it served a purpose. By 1880 it was attending to 17,000 cases a year.
For the most part it dealt with petty crime, but the early hearings of some more serious cases were heard there too. Most famous amongst these was that of Henry Louis Bertrand, 'The Mad Dentist.'
Betrand was accused of killing his lover's husband by yet another one of his lover's lovers. He took his accuser to court and had them sentenced for blackmail. Later, however, it transpired that he had in fact killed the husband. He was found guilty and insane, and spent many of his remaining years wittling mementoes out of animal bones. His creations can still be seen on display at the museum.
Water Police Station
Another building was completed shortly after Water Police Court, Water Police Station. From here the local police force monitored the local laneways, warehouses, pubs and brothels.
To begin with they were unarmed but, in 1894, this began to change thanks to the infamous Bridge Street Affray. The affray started in an attempt to apprehend a trio of armed thieves and ended in several injured policemen and only two arrests. On fleeing the police the thieves had split up. Two had made the mistake of heading directly for Water Police Station where they were then, after a fight, arrested. The third however had bolted into the botanical gardens never to be seen again.
The injuries the policemen sustained sparked a public outcry and, shortly after, they were given license to carry arms.
A second police court was added to the complex in 1886. This was in part needed because of the old court's bad design. Having learned from past mistakes, the architects of this new build made sure to add enough windows for good ventilation, as well as a maze of corridors to keep the public, the magistrates and the convicts separate at all times.
The Justice And Police Museum
The courts were used for their intended purposes up until 1979, and the police station up until 1985. At this point plans were made to convert the complex into a museum. Confiscated artifacts were collected into exhibits and the old courtroom was made to look older, back the way it used to be.
The museum is an NSW Heritage site and is open to visitors on weekends, free of charge.
Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Sydney Scavenger Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Sydney.
Or learn more about historic courthouses around the world in our articles on Old City Hall Toronto and NYC's Jefferson Market Library.