Coo-ee: Past Benalla crimes

By Meg Saultry

Despite our fears, present-day Benalla is a city with little crime.

In general, crime is limited to street offences and the occasional opportunistic breaking and entering.

This was not always the case.

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In the early 1950s, professional thieves from Melbourne appeared to target Benalla and District.

In 1952, a utility with false number plates stolen from a car in Benalla was found abandoned and empty in Port Melbourne.

Earlier that day, it had been used by a Melbourne gang to carry away $4000 worth of clothing that the gang had stolen from Millers Store during a break in.

The gang had been busy in the Benalla area.

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Police believed the gang was responsible for a series of other robberies in Benalla and Euroa earlier that week.

The gang does not appear to have been caught.

The previous year, suits and suiting material valued at $2000 was stolen from the shop of Bird, a tailor on Bridge St.

Like the later robbery, it occurred after closing time.

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Around the same time, a gang committed five robberies on Benalla business premises within one week.

In these five cases, the robbers sought only money.

Police believed they too were committed by a Melbourne gang.

They also do not appear to have been caught.

Safecrackers, or "tankmen" or "petermen" are regarded by criminals as the most skilled of all their number.

Astonishingly, in 1909, a tankman operated in Benalla - once.

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The safe in Messrs Moodie’s in Carrier St was cracked.

Because each safecracker has a distinct method of operation, their style and method are hard to conceal.

For all their skill, tankman seldom remain at large for long.

That same day Benalla police went to Wangaratta where they arrested George Lakeman in connection with the safe cracking.

Later that day, Benalla police arrested George and Henry Meakin, brothers-in-law to George Lakeman.

It is not clear why tankmen persist in acquiring their skills when their own work identifies them.

Earlier times also saw a surprising number of cases involving sexual misconduct.

In 1904, Percival Hocking was convicted of sexual assault on boys he had been teaching at the Swanpool school.

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Incest cases, involving father-daughter and brother-sister sexual misconduct in isolated farming families also regularly came before the Benalla courts in the 19th century.

As was common in Victorian courts at the time, judges were reluctant to convict in sexual assault or misconduct cases without hard-to-obtain evidence from corroborating witnesses.

If convictions were obtained, sentences were almost ludicrously light by today’s standards.

On most occasions, the newspaper reports dismissed the evidence given in such cases as "totally unfit for publication".

“Riding furiously", fracas by drunken housewives, pilfering from hotel rooms, the occasional passing of a fraudulent cheque, usually on a publican, and breaches of the Licensing Act rounded out Benalla’s usual listing of crimes.

Only a murder or embezzlement by a trusted employee garnered much more than a terse newspaper report.

- John Barry, Coo-ee