Idle and disorderly namesake

At work the other week, my friend Kate was glancing over an index to the Argus newspaper, 1870–79, when she spotted my name – Catherine Styles – in relation to a court case involving Catherine and four Chinese men. The charge was “idle and disorderly”.

Intriguing! My Dad’s from Victoria. It’s possible this Catherine was my great great grandmother. What else did the paper report? Off I went to the National Library to learn more. Turns out she was Catharine, not Catherine like me. But the indexers got the rest right.

On 17 June 1872, the paper reported that in the city court, she and four others were “accused of being idle and disorderly persons without lawful means of support”. The house they’d been found in, on Little Bourke Street, “was the resort of Chinese and European thieves, who went there to sleep and smoke opium”. Hm… so she was in a house where people slept and smoked opium. And she had no lawful income – she was poor.

There was another other remnant of the life of Catharine Styles in that report. She was “going to be married to a Chinaman next week”. Well, that was if they set her free in time. The last line of the report states that she was remanded in prison until the case could be heard.

On 21 June 1872 Catharine Styles appeared in court again, along with Ah Quong, Ah Wan, Lun Tack and Ah Long. Ah Quong was charged with keeping a house frequented by idle and disorderly persons. All the others were accused of being idle and disorderly persons frequenting the house.

Apparently, the men had been found smoking opium in the house. But what did Catharine do to get arrested? A Detective Hartney ‘said that prostitution was carried on to a terrible extent in Little Bourke Street’. So my namesake lived on a street where prostitution happened. From the report, it’s not clear where the voice of a witness stops and the reporter’s own voice begins. But whoever is speaking, no one is saying that Catharine Styles was caught doing anything wrong. One witness was ‘astonished at the frightful immorality’ in the area, and the following sentence reveals something of the intersection between race, gender and class, but nothing of Catharine’s situation or actions:

The females, who were generally young, – some mere girls – got more money from the Chinese than they did from the Europeans, and were common to large numbers living in one house.

The next sentence of the report suggests that Catharine was one of these girls, but only because it directly follows on from the last:

The friends of this young woman Styles, who was living in Ah Quong’s house, had tried to reclaim her but without avail.

Maybe Catharine earned money for sex, or maybe she didn’t. Certainly, she was young and poor. Maybe she was happy, in love, her heart set on marriage to her Chinese lover. (Can you tell I tend to be optimistic?)

She didn’t marry the next week. Along with Ah Long, who had only been out of gaol for 15 months, she was ‘let off with three months’ imprisonment’. The others got six each.

We looked up the registers of marriage in Victoria, and found no evidence that Catharine Styles ever got married. Ancestor or not, it was nice to learn a bit about her – to attend to her. I hope she found happiness.

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