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UNDERWORLD: Delve into the dark side of 1920s Sydney at Newcastle Museum

Picture: NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive. Sydney Living Museums

The dark underbelly of 1920s Sydney is being uncovered in a recently launched exhibition at Newcastle Museum.

Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties investigates the life and times of Sydney during a time that most associate with jazz, art deco, glitz and glamour.

However, as this exhibition demonstrates, this era had a much more sinister undertone, when gangs, guns and violence loomed large.

While the exhibition details the Sydney criminal underworld, there are strong links to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

Criminal Rose Engebritsen, it is understood, worked in Newcastle as a singer. Although ‘Deported from America’ is noted under a photograph of her kept by police, a woman with the same name was advertised during a film screening in Newcastle.

Further, Snowy Cutmore, who had connections with horse racing in Cessnock, was a gunman, a sly-grog seller and housebreaker with multiple convictions for assault.

Details of Cutmore’s death at the hands of another gangster, Squizzy Taylor, were chronicled in The Cessnock Eagle and South Maitland Recorder in 1927.

Picture: NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive. Living Sydney Museums.

Newcastle Museum director Julie baird said these local examples of life in the ‘Roaring Twenties’, as they were known, where part and parcel of the brave new world many people were living in post-World War One.

“These fascinating tales of real-life events occurred during an era of lax law enforcement and a rise in criminal activity,” Ms Baird said.

“Each of the 130 candid and compelling mugshots taken by NSW Police between 1920 and 1930 offers its own poignant look at a period which saw criminals cash in on illegal markets thanks to advances in new technology.”

“The photography in this exhibition is amazing. The mugshots taken by Sydney police are unlike any you’ll see anywhere in the world”

Exhibition curator Nerida Campbell

“The striking detail and expressions present on the faces of the photographed, the clothes they’re wearing and the locations they’re shot are so different to any mugshot taken today. It’s a fascinating exhibition and one the museum is excited to display.”

Exhibition Curator Nerida Campbell added the exhibition explored the dark side of the era where “you’ll meet the bosses, plotters, bruisers and petty crims who ruled Sydney’s mean streets.”

“The photography in this exhibition is amazing,” she said.

“The mugshots taken by Sydney police are unlike any you’ll see anywhere in the world – they’re candid, and compelling, and the stories behind the people in them are amazing.

“Stories of people struggling with bad choices, stories of people possibly in the wrong place at the wrong time and the dyed-in-the-wool criminals who wouldn’t change even if they could.”

Reproduced from glass plate negatives, the images retain a high-quality level of clarity almost a century after they were taken.

The exhibition will be on display from today until Sunday 9 June. For more information on the exhibition, visit the Newcastle Museum exhibition page at

Party time!

As part of the exhibition, the Museum will also be hosting the NM:PM Ratbags and Razors Party on Saturday 6 April from 5pm.

Dress up in your 1920s glad rags, dance your way through the evening, grab a drink from a pop up speak easy, courtesy of Coal and Cedar, and meet the bosses, grifters and petty crims in the exhibition.

Entertainment will be provided by Half Nelson, while the Big Al’s food truck will also make an appearance.


Friday 15 March – Sunday 9 June

Newcastle Museum – 6 Workshop Way, Newcastle

Tickets: Adults – $10/Concession – $7/ Children (0-12) – Free


Saturday 6 April from 5pm

Newcastle Museum 6 Workshop Way, Newcastle

Written by Newcastle Live

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