As a writer I resemble Jane Austen in one single important way, viz: I am deeply interested in exactly how much money everyone makes and where it comes from.
To this end I've spent some time on the Australian Newspaper Archive, which in searchability, clarity, and free-ness is superior to any other archive I know. To express currency in modern terms I'm using the MeasuringWorth site, which gives values from purchasing power, relative wage, share of GDP, and all sorts of measures. Time-travel currency conversion is not easy!
For context: thank you to the Brisbane Courier for the very useful guide of £800-£1500 as a ‘middle class’ salary in 1930. This is in modern money between 40-75,000 USD by purchasing power, 80-150,000 USD by relative wage, which sounds bang on the money in terms of what ‘middle class’ meant then and now. Essentially, things cost about the same, but fewer people could afford them, because the very poor under-class was larger than it is today (so far), which is where servants came from. The middle class as the bulk of the population is a largely post-wwii phenomenon.
Phryne Fisher, Dot, Mr. Butler
We have one hard figure for The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher: the £10,000 she gives her father to wire to her mother. This is nearly 750,000 modern AUS dollars or over half a million USD, going by purchasing power (or 3 million AUS, 2 million USD, going by relative wages). When this money appears lost she looks about as annoyed as someone who has lost half a million bucks, but far from their only half million bucks.
She employs two full-time staff, a maid and a butler. Ads in The Age put maids at between £70 and £120 a year, with room and board. I couldn’t find an ad that gave the salary for a butler, but Mr. Butler is also a cook, and a private cook goes for between £150 and £350 with room and board. I found a few ads for a ‘live-in groom and cook’ married couple for £200-£400 the pair. Help also from a literary source—in 1923’s Whose Body? Lord Peter Wimsey pays his invaluable manservant Bunter £200 a year (in the UK, but UK and Aus inflation calculators seem to agree on what a pound was worth, so I guess they were the same currency practically speaking—though colonial wages seem quite a bit higher on avarage, which is why people went there to Make Their Fortunes).
Phryne is a generous soul and also doubtless Equal Pay for women’s work, and Dot and Mr. Butler are both high-end hires. I’m going for £150-200 for Dot, and £300 for Mr. Butler (mostly because of the cooking), putting her staff expenditures at £455-£500.
She also has Bert and Cec on some sort of retainer I guess? This number I’m pulling out of thin air… £100 a year for both? and then bonuses for watching over contortionists etc? Plus danger money? Ok who knows on that one!
Phryne also funds an annual research scholarship. A quick search between 1925 and 1935 turns up “research scholarships” for between £250 all the way up to £1000 for ‘original chemical research’. For medicine, maybe £500 a year? More?
In terms of capital outlay, she’s bought
--a house --a six-bedroom house in St. Kilda with two maid’s rooms advertised at £6800
--a brand-new Hispano Suisa
(cars are surprisingly cheap—this was one of the most expensive cars in the world, and even so sold for £420 or between 20-40 thousand USD depending on how you calculate it); HOLD THE PHONE- I got this number completely wrong, which goes to show you how little you should trust random fan-fact authors for your citations. A Hispano-Suiza of the type Phryne has is actually well north of £2000 (150,000 AUS) which makes a LOT more sense. Phryne's attachment to the Hispano brand btw may be because they built some of the finest engines for WWI airplanes.
-an airplane (a Tiger Moth sold for £785 new;
a used one is, uh… £300? [--EDITED TO ADD: the second-hand Moth used by Amy Johnson on her 1930 Australia flight cost £600; so that's probably a good estimate! Also re Phryne's flight, one thing that was much more expensive in the '20s was fuel. I've found a costing of 4.5 pence to the mile, so a bit under £170 for fuel to London).
--Also a lot of clothes. Famous divorce suits are really useful for knowing how the ultra-rich were living— the Mackay divorce in 1933 cites Mr. Mckay’s capital of £150,000, an income of £4,400, and a demand of £2500 a year in alimony for Mrs McKay to keep herself in the style to which she has become accustomed. Part of her expenses are a chauffeur and £600 annually on clothes. £600 is 50,000 AUS or 35,000 USD! Is Phryne spending that much? Maybe…another divorce suit claims the wife spent £200 for four dresses. The sticker shock on dresses vs cars and houses goes to show how hard time-travelling currency conversion is!
So: In the course of the series Phryne’s spent something like 20 grand in capital and has annual expenses of about £2000 a year? Ish?
ADDENDUM: I completely forgot Phryne's ward Jane! shipped to France (£140 return passage) to go to boarding school (I can only wildly guess at this... £200? £150? £400? I feel like I'm on the Price is Right). And I'm assuming she's put Jane's mother up in a nice sanitarium? Or am I forgetting something about her? This adds at a wild guess some £500 to her expenses, which makes me think Phryne can fairly casually add large amounts to her expenses without blinking. I also didn't put on anything for charity, and Phryne drops an eyebrow-raising cheque on the Adventuress Club. With Jane + charity, is her annual outlay more at £3000?
Phryne Fisher’s income and capital: unknown, but surely £50,000 at a minimum to blithely spend that much capital (if she's meant to be good with money--she could just be profligate, but I don't think that's how she's supposed to be). This would bring several thousand a year from interest alone these were glory days of high-interest passive income.
Miss Fisher would also bring in some hundreds as a detective, but I would really count her as a Lord-Peter-Wimsey type society amateur detective than a professional, at least until she starts taking insurance and divorce cases for the the cash.
Where does all this money come from? Assuming the chain of deaths that led to her father’s inheritance went through without a will, I don’t see how a child, never mind a daughter, would inherit anything outright herself from the estate. Surely everything would automatically go to the next Baron? I can’t see ex-Baron Fisher voluntarily showering money on Phryne even if he hadn’t run through his fortune on blackmail, gambling, nerve tonics, women, and failing magic acts (aside—I’m assuming he’s an ex-Baron now as the cousin is back in the lineage unless he’s hanged for murder?).
Possibly Phryne inherited something from her wealthy mother’s side, on coming of age. By the 1880s married women retained their property rights* so Phryne’s mother could legally, but would she have practically have kept money from her husband? Lady Fisher is a Woman of Mystery so it’s impossible to say. I can see Aunt Prudence settling something on Phryne outright to avoid it winding up in her father’s hands.
However Phryne has serious cash, not a modest settlement. I would guess Phryne is a financial wizard along with her other accomplishments and made her own money in investments, seeded from what she inherited on her mother’s side, and possibly initially using those emeralds (her mother’s??) as collateral. Even better, given her social skills, vast web of connections, love of risk, and booming innovation of the ‘20s: venture capital. We actually do see her investing in a film production, which is about as literally having money to burn as one can get!
D.I. Jack Robinson, Constable Hugh Collins
Jack’s beautiful clothes and beautiful manners seem to vaguely place him in the comfortable middle class. But my instinct is that a policeman in the ‘20s, even a Detective Inspector, is working-class, not middle class. Source: every Inspector in a Golden Age mystery with a cockney accent and a chip on his shoulder (if hard-boiled) or an amusingly servile manner (if cozy). Detective Inspector Parker in Whose Body? is on a ‘modest but adequate wage’ and lives in an ‘inconvenient flat’ where ‘the bathroom is also the kitchen’ (uh...I hope the water-closet is separate, because, ew).
I am thrilled to be able to put an exact figure on Jack’s salary: £430 a year for a Melbourne Police Inspector in 1929. This is about 30,000 a year AUS or 22,000 in US dollars in terms of purchasing power (or $40,000 USD if calculated by relative wage—a toe-hold on lower middle class).
(Aside: my sadly materialist outlook on life is why I seem to be the only viewer whose reaction to “Come after me!” was not ‘aw, she has finally allowed herself to love!’ but, ‘what in the HECK, Phryne, he’s a ‘20s policeman and you’re literally standing next to your private airplane’. )
For comparison, Jack could triple his salary in the private sector— a cattlemen’s association has £1200 a year to offer to a detective prepared to deal with rustlers (episode idea!!!). A detective for an insurance firm is offered £1400 a year --it’s hard to think of a more thumping demonstration of a police detective’s social standing than his own boss describing him as ‘bettering himself’ by going to work in insurance. Way to build morale, guy! This puts a rather different complexion on Jack’s frequent threats to resign.
Hugh as a constable starts at £225 a year (see the above article), he’s probably at somewhat under £300 as a Senior constable — 16,000 USD purchasing, 30,000 relative wage (small quibble with the show—when Hugh is kicked out of his house, he is appropriately flat broke, but Melbourne actually had a barracks for unwedded officers, so he could have slept there). He will have much cause to be grateful to Dot for sticking to her guns on keeping her job!
These numbers are actually rather worse than my already pessimistic expectation. But as the above article points out, Melbourne police are far more badly paid than in any other Australian city—Jack would be at £550 a year in Sydney, for instance, and at £530 in Perth with money for accommodation and ’boots’ (though ‘working all hours of the 24’ and with a phone in his bedroom) . And there is a reason for this: the ’23 police strike.
The strike (extensively and fascinatingly covered by the newspapers) was broken by the sacking and blacklisting of over 600 policemen- one third of the force of 1800 men. There’s newspaper articles all the way up to ’27 on petitions to parliament to allow the re-hiring of the strikers, more than half of whom were still out of work. No wonder Jack is suffering from survivor’s guilt! The chief complaint was actually not salary, but the ‘spook’ system, in which cops on the beat were spied upon by plain-clothes men to make sure they were on the job, a situation they found degrading, and I can certainly see Jack finding it an intolerable attack on the dignity of his work.
With no union protection, conditions for the Victorian police were, well, victorian. Constables had only one Sunday off a month, not sure if Inspectors got any more (moral: take a moment to thank the labour movements of the late ‘30s for The Weekend). Other complaints were that they were expected to act as debt collectors in addition to their other duties—poor Hugh! and the arbitrariness of promotion, which would explain why every Sergeant in the show older than Jack gives him a dirty look.
Unsurprisingly by 1927 the Melbourne police were in a shambolic state, corrupt, discontented, and violent- that article directly attributes this to the sacking of '500 picked men' leaving only men of bad character (and Jack :-( ).
Alas Jack’s and Hugh’s situation is about to get worse, as police salaries, along with all public servants, were slashed by 10% in 1930 and a further 20% in 1935, by the Salary Reduction Act during the Great Depression. (paging John Maynard Keynes! Austerity is counter-productive reaction to economic contraction!). Also of interest is a 1935 piece on Melbourne police detectives, the inadequacy of their training and pay, and you can just make out the 20% cut of the “Financial Emergency Act” (this puts an inspector at £465 pre-cut btw, so Jack would be on £372, assuming he's not chucked it to fight cattle rustlers or marry a fabulously wealthy adventuress).
Jack’s expenses: Food, clothes, and most consumer goods were rather more expensive then than now. Bicycles were about the same, relatively, between £5 for a basic model all the way up to £30 for the very latest Raleigh geared road racer (2,200 modern AUS). On the bright side, a little bungalow in Richmond can be had for between £1,300 and £1500 (100,000 AUS in purchasing terms, 300,000AUS relative wage, dramatically cheaper than current Melbourne housing costs). A bachelor would almost certainly have some older woman to ‘do’ for him, as housework and laundry was a hugely time-consuming chore. Going back to Whose Body? Detective Inspector Parker has a woman who comes and burns porridge for him every morning. Jack likely has the same, I would guess at around £50 a year.
Of course at the top of Jack’s mind would be the price of a passage to London. On the Orient Line in 1929 passage Melbourne-London was £144 return for standard class (10,000 aus or 7,500 USD, purchasing) or he could save and go steerage in a shared bunk for £68, a decision he would no doubt agonise over as someone poised between lower-and-low-middle social classes. More worrying I think would be all that time off, it really doesn’t sound like accumulated paid leave was a thing in the Melbourne police. IF however he’s been on the force 25 years he might be up for six months long-service paid leave, this seems to have come and gone in Melbourne and be a subject of much dispute.
Finally, not to be depressing, but is Jack paying maintenance to Rosie? Who knows what her present circumstances are… a police sergeant up in Perth was paying £72 a year in alimony to his ex around this time. There's also 4% being deducted from his salary towards pension, and careful Jack is probably trying to save more. Does Jack have ageing parents to support? Nieces or nephews to put through college? Man of Mystery…
George Sanderson- might as well throw him in as the police commissioner's salary turned up all the time in searches of police salaries, as it was the subject of a bit of a row in 1930 Melbourne. Sanderson would have started at £1500 as Commissioner, plus £250 in rent allowance (a common perk in higher-end jobs), before being knocked down to £1250 in 1930 as part of the cuts in public service salaries brought about by the Depression. The actual Commissioner at the time, General Thomas Blamey, quit at this cut, then had to crawl back a few months later, reapplying for his own job on discovering that it was the Depression and he couldn't just get another job. He'd have to face a further cut to £785 a year later. Incidentally police commissioners at this time seemed to be usually from the military, not the police, as policemen were too working class for such a job and din't have an 'officer class'. General Blamey was later involved in a scandal when his badge was found in a brothel, so an obvious inspiration for Miss Fisher plots!
Dr Elizabeth Macmillan
Frustratingly hard to pin down is Mac’s income, as doctors in ‘20s weren’t normally salaried but brought in income from a variety of clients. Mac conforms to this, working at the women’s hospital, lecturing at university, and also taking on wealthy private clients as well as low-income ones. In season 3 she becomes city medical examiner, either on top of or instead of these.
To start with medical examiner--I was annoyingly unable to find if this was even a thing in Melbourne, but the Northern Territories (evidently the Wild West of ‘20s Australia) advertises for a ‘second medical examiner’ for £600-700 a year, plus £100 car allowance—a part-time position as they are also ‘expected to carry on a private practice’ in the area. A medical examiner for immigrants is offered at the curiously specific £1378, a medical officer for a local health board at £950-1150.
A hospital surgeon-superintendent is advertised at £1000 a year, plus accommodation and a months paid holiday. A doctor in Brisbane was hauled up for tax evasion for claiming an income of £2756 when he actually was making £5145 (the extra was from rental properties).
As a highly distinguished practitioner I’d put Mac easily well over £1000 a year, except she’s woman and women were routinely paid quite a bit less than men for the same position. Still, she’s probably at a comfortable £700-800 in season 1 and gone up to say £1000 in season 3.
MISCELLANY of AMUSING LINKS
Morals of the Melbourne Police...gifts of expensive underwear from ladies in St. Kilda, dear me!
Here’s a plotline…in what seems to be a seriously exciting story, a police detective gets accused of bribery, goes on the lam, is ‘dramatically acquitted’, then triples his salary by going to work as a bank detective.
Some more salaries: an average factory worker was at £200 (£99 a year for women!); Clerks between £220 and £460; Telegraph operator £250 (£208 for females, yes, the ads specify the different rates for men and women); female public schoolteacher £250, male £300 (DAMN teachers were badly paid!) Rat control officer of Brisbane, £400, architectural draughtsman £300-450; firemen £300-400, ‘second class federal employee’, £420-£500, town clerk and health inspector £430; railway station manager £430. Jack should seriously consider moving into cattle as stock inspectors were at £600 a year (with a veterinary degree?).
On the higher side and more into middle class (and involving a university education)- engineers assistant, £450, bank accountants £525, museum curator, £700, Senior electrical engineer £750, a ‘federal inspector’(?) at £800, dockyard chief accountant £925, civil engineer £1000. On the upper-middle class— magistrate- £1000, district-court judge £1600 (this from an article lamenting it as a sacrifice compared to what a lawyer could make in practice), chief engineer £2500, managing director of Amalgamated Freezing, £2,500, head of the motion picture distributor’s society £2500, director of Postal Services £4000. (Aside: now I know why Rising Young Men in 20s novels generally go to be engineers in the colonies).
* Married Women's Property Act of 1880, (with some legal complications in terms of using property in contracts--in Australian law, married women’s contracting ability was completely severed from their husband’s in 1925, the interested can read an extensive paper on the property rights of married women in Australia).
Chapter 2: The Victoria Police at War
Not money, but an amazing and moving window in the past--a list from the Victoria Police Museum of all the Victoria/Melbourne police officers who served in WWI (PDF).
-From the Victoria police force, 138 men joined, and 27 died overseas—1 out of 5, matching to a disconcerting exactness the average mortality rate for WWI combat troops (the AIF had an overall death rate of 1 in 6.5- but that number includes transport and staff etc).
-They were largely constables who joined as privates. I had a vague notion that policemen, being already quasi-military, would be likelier to be promoted than most enlisted men, and this list more than bore out my hunch: of the 137 enlistees, two made it to Major, six to Captain, and eleven to lieutenant. Most of the rest were NCOs by the end of the war, with a whopping 27 Sergeants, four being Sergeant-Majors. I couldn’t give you an exact stat of the army’s average for comparison, but one in seven men being commissioned as officers is a huge number for a working-class cohort in this period.
-An intriguing glimpse of a story: Angus Gillies, lost an arm in France and became the police librarian on his return. Several of the men who returned badly injured rejoined the police as clerks.
-They brought back 2 Military Crosses and 11 Military Medals. The two MCs, both Captains, were amongst the nine men who didn’t return to the police force on demob, I would guess because they had better prospects than policing.
Intelligence and Police Detectives
I'm especially delighted to find that Australia sent 12 police detectives to Egypt and the the Western Front for staff Intelligence work, mostly counter-intelligence (finding spies, basically). There's even a picture! Jack would be much too young to be one of them, it looks like. The Australian Newspaper Archive also provides an obit for Faig Nassoor, a Lebanese-Australian who had been an Intelligence Officer in North Africa and was 'recommended for detective or police work' on account of his shrewdness (I chased him up in the archive, and it turns out he was too shrewd to go into policing on his return, he ran a hotel/pub, which honestly sounds like a better career choice now that I know more about '20s police!).
The show has dropped a few scattered hints that Jack may have been in intelligence in some way, and as a police detective that would certainly not be unusual—the Intelligence Corps in 1914 was drawn from an appealing odd-couple mix of Oxbridge cosmopolitans and Scotland Yard detectives. And I for one will be most disappointed if a German-speaking, invisible-code-finding police detective in a Golden-Age-inspired mystery series, was not a WWI Intelligence Officer! To start with, it’s traditional: Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Wimsey, Agatha Christie’s Tommy of Tommy and Tuppence, Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn, and Margery Allingham’s Campion were all WWI Intelligence Corps (they also all ended up in idyllic marriages with fiercely independent women, but that’s probably another set of notes).
Like most people my first image of intelligence work is secret-service-type derring do, but WWI intelligence, at least on the Western Front, was part of trench warfare and more likely to involve maps, scouting, and report-writing than undercover missions. Intelligence Officer was also more of a role than a rank (such as you might have a Transport Officer, Works Officer, etc), and the battalion Intelligence Officer would also act as a normal combat officer in raids and battles.
Two of Australia’s most famous WWI soldiers served as Intelligence Officer—Albert Jacka and Hugh Knyvett, the ‘Australian Galahad’. Both were promoted from the ranks having been lance-corporals at Gallipoli (Jack would have to be commissioned to do Intelligence work, as the Adelaide Register confirms for me in a letter, fortuitousy, to 'Jack' - "There are no privates in the corps, which is comprised solely of officers.." --a Lance-corporal is the lowest rank of NCO and still technically a private). It's mildly unusual that Knyvett and Jacka were Captains--the IO was more typically an experienced lieutenant. The Australians liked their intelligence officers to be ‘all-rounders’ not much distinguished from other infantry, and Knyvett preferred the humble term ’scout’.
The Australian Newspaper Archive, as always, turns up a trove of interesting stuff: a summary of the duties of the Intelligence Officer , including drinking whiskey with the toffs; another roundup features decyphering, interpreting, and riding a horse, and a lament on their chief duty—writing those endless reports. Some of those describe Intelligence as a ‘cushy’ job and it doubtless for some it was—much of Intelligence work was basically clerical.
But the classic image of the WWI Intelligence Officer is the deadly duty of reconnaissance of No Man’s Land, described in lurid detail by Captain Hugh Knyvett. That piece includes something I've never encountered before, but that couldn't possibly be more WWI in its imagery: "The officer during his course of training stood blindfolded before a camera for an hour, and the film when developed failed to register the slightest movement." Knyvett’s 1918 memoir is readable online (with photographs!), and provides tons of vivid detail into the life of an Australian Intelligence Officer on the western front, not only on reconnaissance but capturing spies, decoding messages, and even flying in observation planes (though the reader should bear in mind that it was partly written, or possibly ghost-written, as a propaganda exercise to encourage American recruitment--NB--I should also add that Knyvett's memoir is unusually racist and bloodthirsty, even for a work from the 1910s, so be braced for that).
And finally, from the Australian Newspaper Archive, a little Intelligence Officer comedy:
The Gallipoli campaign does not often provide laughs but a cute gag on a New Zealander’s intelligence report:
News for the Intelligence Officer
A young New Zealand farmer, while doing his bit of fighting against the Turks, was ordered by his officer to find out what sort of country lay at the back of the enemy tenches. Away he went, and at the end of three days, as he had not returned, he was marked down, "either prisoner or dead."On the fourth day he returned to his own lines, quietly saluted his officer, and reported: "That country, sir, if properly worked, ought to carry three sheep to the acre!"
Of course the biggest clue that Jack was in Intelligence is that he speaks unexpected German. So here's another bit of military comedy- also a swipe at a 'temporary gentleman' officer up from ranks, going by the accent-
He was a shining light of the Intelligence Corps, and before he arrived in German East Africa his abilities were spoken of with bated breath. To him there came the captain. “Glad you've come, Jones,” said he. “We need a man who speaks German. We captured a Hun officer yesterday, and I want you to take a file and go down and tell him that I’ll give him his parole, but if he attempts to escape he'll be shot.”
Off marched Jones, full of the Importance of his task.
“Sprechen die Deutseh?" he asked the prisoner, to the great admiration of the onlookers.
“Ja, ja!” said the big German eagerly, glad to find someone who understood' him at last
“Oh! yer- do—do yer?” said Jones. “Well, Old sauerkraut, the captain says as 'ow ,’e’ll give yer yer parole, but if you jolly well tries to 'op it there's a bullet for, yerl—see!”
(thank you for your indulgence in these disconnected bits of research to never-written fic! In these stressful times I find writing footnotes soothing, even if I don't have the energy to write fics to go with them!)
Chapter 3: Marriage and the Law
What rights exactly would Phryne lose on marriage in the 1930s? read on...
That marriage was a bum deal for women in the '30s generally speaking is a given, but: specifically how exactly?
Oh, the hours I spent on the Australian Newspaper Archive instead of researching what I'm supposed to be doing...
Very important caveats:
--I'm a sort of historian, but this not my period, subject, or area in any way. Please do not cite this
paper fic as a source or in a legal case, tons of it is definitely completely wrong.
--this is nothing more than an exercise in obsessive procrastination, probably because it has nothing to do with my actual subject. Also because the Australian Newspaper Archive is a joy to use. Links are chore so I'm only give the occasional source, but if you're particularly interested in something just leave a comment I'll chase up a link for you!
--Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries obviously does not take place in the actual 1920s, but in an alternate universe in which Melbourne has a medical examiner (they didn't until the 1990s, they had a corner, which is a different system, that's another chapter, yes my procrastination activities are of an epic scale). It is also a universe in which people can be murdered by blow-darts fired from trumpet mutes. Therefore they can and do invent whatever laws, legal or of physics, that they like.
--Fanfics set in the MFMM universe obviously take place in alternate-alternate universes and can further invent whatever laws they see fit
--it would be amazing if anyone has anything to contribute to this, feel more than welcome to put additions in the comments
SO, onto the FAN-FACTS!
First things first: money.
EDITED TO ADD: A woman's husband did not--repeat NOT--gain legal control over her property on marriage in 1920s Australia (or the UK or most of the US). A surprising number of fics make the assumption that a woman’s property became her husband’s, so it's worth restating clearly. The wife legally kept all her own money and property both in marriage and all her earnings during it; she could own her own house and charge her husband rent if she liked. Phryne is perfectly entitled not to want to marry but not for this reason!
—A married Australian or British woman could own property, hold a bank account, transact business, and keep anything she inherited or earned, in her own name and right, since the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Before that she would have fallen under laws of ‘couverture’, meaning husband and wife were one person under law, and that person was the husband, so he owned everything she had. That sort of law was long gone in Australia at least by the time of the show (it was even longer-gone in the US, where most states had passed similar laws by the 1850s). The main problem I could see or invent financially with Phryne marrying is if she has business arrangements in countries that still held a woman’s property to be her husband’s, like France, which had couverture laws until, amazingly, 1938. How such a country would treat the legal situation with a foreign national is beyond me though!
—The more recent financial discrimination of married women under law was in the taking on of debt, and using property as collateral in debts—a wife couldn’t legally take on debt without her husband’s consent in Australia until 1924. After 1924 she was legally able to but might find it difficult to get a bank to agree. If Phryne has complicated business arrangements involving debt this could definitely be an irritation.
(this concept still lingered in the well-known case of credit cards in the 1960s, which banks were leery of providing to married women without their husband’s permission and was the locus of legal challenges. Banks discriminating against married women in providing credit was outlawed in the US in 1974, I gave up on finding out when this was outlawed in Australia.— (Aside-there a lot of sloppy language used in internet stories on this, which tend to say women weren’t ‘legally allowed’ to hold credit cards in their own name. There’s a difference between being discriminated against by the law, and not being protected against discrimination by the law! And there is also a big difference between property and debt.It might be difficult to find a bank that would provide a service but that isn’t the same as a ban. Wrong both ways but it’s an important distinction!).
It has never actually been a legal requirement in Britain for a woman to take her husband’s name, although it was so customary that a woman wanting to keep their name had to expect a wearisome series of battles with bank clerks etc. In the US the Lucy Stone League was formed in the 1920s to fight for the right for women to keep their maiden names; this actually sparked legislation in several states to force women to change their names when it was realised they didn't have to. For the interested, it's worth reading this op-ed from 1926 Adelaide on Vera Brittain, a WWI memoirist and notable activist for married women's rights, on the difference between legal and customary expectations on maiden names.
Thousands of a married women continued to run their businesses under their maiden names in the 20s and 30s, particularly in the arts and literary worlds. My favourite fictional example is Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy, married to Detective Inspector Alleyn in the mid 30s but still a famous painter and called ‘Troy’ by pretty much everyone including her husband. People who don’t know her call her “Mrs Alleyn” and she doesn't correct them, so I'm not sure if she changed her name legally or not.
Married British women gained the right to an independent passport in 1925, in their maiden name if they liked (ditto US visas for British nationals). This right was won by the efforts of Helena Normanton, the first female barrister in the UK who also clarified her right to practice law under her maiden name in 1921 (she is referred to as ‘Miss’ in articles, so a married Miss Fisher could stay Miss Fisher, before the invention of Ms!) Up till then they appeared as ‘wife of’ in their husband’s passport. By 1929 the Brisbane Telegraph could say that married women travelling on passports under their maiden names ‘did not attract much attention in this country’ in a fascinating piece on the state of the feminist movement in China
Mind you this then opened up the new difficulty of convincing hotels to let a couple with different names in their passports share a room, as most decent hotels didn’t! I guess they would carry around a marriage certificate as well.
(Aside- I was fascinated to learn that passports had only existed in their modern sense since 1915, brought in as a war measure, and stuck—they were still complained of as a novelty in 1926. A ‘passport’ used to be a document declaring the bearer a person of importance under the protection of their government, while the masses just got on a boat and hoped they got let in on the other side.)
There’s an interesting hitch in early 20th century Australia for a married Phryne—a husband could prevent a wife from leaving Australia—and, refreshingly—vice versa. To obtain a passport (which counted for one trip abroad at the time), the government asked the permission of both your spouse and your bank, to be sure you weren’t fleeing a marriage or a debt. That this worked in practice is demonstrated by a divorce saga in which the wife had prevented her husband from leaving Australia for years by continually refusing her permission for a passport.
This one is a doozy: British women lost their citizenship if they married foreign men up till 1948 (they gained the right to regain their citizenship on widowhood or divorce in 1914, but this was lengthy beaurocratic process). This was because Britain then did not recognise dual-citizenship—if a British national took up say US or French citizenship they lost their British one—and a woman was assumed to follow her man but not vice versa. This was one of the longest-lasting and most serious legal disadvantages for British women vs men, and it was ferociously fought in the courts for decades.
However this does not affect Phryne’s status practically speaking, as Jack and Phryne were both Australian nationals and so both British subjects, sharing the same citizenship status as any UK-born Briton. (For those who need to know everything, like me: this situation held until 1948, when Canada’s overruling of British nationality laws to allow Canadian women marrying foreigners to keep their citizenship eventually sparked the overhaul of Commonwealth citizenship in general. Australians and Canadians did keep their right to live and work in the UK without a visa up until 1962).
By far the most common and serious issue for married women were so-called ‘marriage bars’, where women had to leave their jobs on marriage. This affected most professions by custom and the most important ones for women—teaching, nursing, and the civil service—by regulation. Marriage bars increased massively in the ‘30s as a reaction to the Depression—The Married Women Teachers Act of New South Wales for instance was passed in ’31, suspended for part of WWII, and was repealed in 1947. Italy was the first country to make marriage bars illegal, in 1931, followed by Sweden in 1939. Australia doesn’t seem to have made discrimination on the basis of marriage illegal until the 1980s (as far as I can tell).
This was a huge hardship and an agonising choice for legions of women (and is a plotline in at least one Golden-Age mystery, Gladys Mitchell's Death at the Opera). Newspaper articles tell us that in fact hundreds of women in Australia simply didn’t disclose their marriages and kept right on working, while their bosses, one imagines, looked the other way.
I'm overjoyed to find an actual statistic re women's employment: 1 in 25 married women in Australia declared an employment in the 1929 census , a number that strikes me as very low--I wonder how many agricultural wives declared themselves as 'farmer'? Not many I'll bet.
This is another one that doesn't affect Phryne directly as she is self-employed. As in the maiden-name situation though she'd have to cope with the rip-tide of society expectations. (I can highly recommend a recent book and total hoot The Adventures of Maude West, Lady Detective, on a married woman running a prominent business in the 1920s).
A POLICEMAN’S LOT
Turning now to Jack, because by far the most serious problems to either a married or unmarried Phrack union are presented by the fact that Jack is not a writer, bohemian anarchist, philosopher, or labourer, or other category that would make an unmarried partnership in the 1930s a thing. He's a policeman.
[edited to clarify--It's the 1930s. Unmarried partnerships in Melbourne for civil servants are not A Thing. Ex-civil servants maybe. Clandestine affairs definitely are, exactly how clandestine they have to be is the interesting question!]
Policemen were under a large array of restrictions on their private lives, because it was thought that keeping the confidence of the public required an aura of moral authority from the police personally--the aura we would now associate with the nostalgic neighbourhood Bobby (this aura broke down dramatically in 20s Melbourne, stay tuned). For the super-obsessive there is a whole book of social-history on the lives of policemen in the 20s and 30s, Invisible Men, covering Liverpool UK, but a lot of the things it talks about are reflected in what I've read in the Australian archives. It remarks that not only were policemen meant to be moral exemplars in their private lives, but it was also ‘one of the few working-class jobs in which a man could be sacked for his wife’s behaviour’.The Australian archives back that up with a handful of stories on policemen resigning on account of drunkeness etc of their wives, and in a short story from 1926 which paints a vivid picture of 20s Sydney constables and their 'Rules'.
Policemen couldn't marry without their superior's consent (so Hugh would have needed to ask Jack to marry Dot), and Superintendents also had to approve loans and place of residence, to be sure they lived in ’respectable accomodations’ and did not take on unnecessary debts (I actually recently came across a ‘20s memoir that makes a passing mention of a police sergeant ‘checking up on the home arrangements’ of constable). They or their immediate family could not participate in politics in any way (restrictions which still hold today btw).
Most catastrophic for a status-quo Phryne-Jack marriage is that it came with its own marriage bar: policemen’s wives could not hold most employment, as this was considered to open them to conflict of interest. (I’m pretty sure a police detective married to a private detective today would face a serious conflict of interest hearing if they worked the same cases, because of exactly what we see in the show—the private detective insinuating they have official authority and the DI using the private detective to get around warrants and other protections. Dear MFMM show I love you but this is incredibly unethical!)
UPDATE!! Policemen's wives barred from work debated in 1927, A 1945 Melbourne article gives some nice specifics-
War work Is not included In an order promulgated by the Chief Commissioner of Police (Mr Duncan) that departmental regulations do not allow policemen or their wives to engage In any trade, business or occupation without the Chief Commissioner's permission. The instruction has been In existence for 70 years.
The exception is a startling one that opens up possibilities. The one job a policeman’s wife not only could, but was expected to hold, was that of: policewoman! Wives of Australian police sergeants answered station phones, searched female suspects, kept the lock-up, “often did actual police work”, and in a case that no doubt everyone dined out on for years, arrested murderers. I found complaints of wives and daughters being expected to ‘man’ (as it were!) country stations right up to 1949. What on earth they did with any kids in the meantime is unanswered! A smattering of articles throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s have motions brought up in police association meetings that they should at least be paid for this, but that never seemed to happen
(one of the excuses for not paying wives was that they were in a sense paid already- it was common practice in the police service to give the salary check directly to the wife, as she was the ‘homefront’ manager and it was her job to do all the budgeting and spending. I can definitely see Jack handing his paycheque to Rosie. I did come across an intriguing story about policewomen marrying policemen in London in 1921, and keeping on their jobs, for which 'married women were particularly suitable'- I guess because dealing with children and prostitutes was a big part of policewomen's work.)
Fic-wise for me this opens up a world of Police Sergeant Dot Collins (and husband) tales where they move to an adorable small-town station and solve crimes…
A quick aside here away from the subject of women's rights to talk about class--a working-class man in this era would have to put up with many infringements on their freedom as well, if they wanted to eat-- in the era before the welfare state and most definitely in the 1930s unemployment was a terrifying prospect. Jack is on the modern-day equivalent of about $22,000 US a year, which will be cut by 25% over the course of the Depression (see chapter 1). He’s also working a seven-day week—Victoria police had only one Sunday a month off until 1939, then one day off every 14. They didn’t get a regular six-day week until 1945, and Jack won’t see a 2-day weekend until 1949, long after it was standard for most of the working classes. Under this gruelling regimen it's gloomy but unsurprising to be informed by the Melbourne Age in 1945 that "policemen seldom lived more than three years after retirement"
And on that cheery note--
COMING NEXT: D-I-V-O-R-C-E
Chapter 4: D-I-V-O-R-C-E
Divorce in '20s Melbourne
Disclaimer: this is the deep weeds of law and social history, do not cite this it could all be tremendously misleading, etc...
IF there’s one subject newspapers in the 1920s were happy to cover in exhaustive, overwhelming detail, it’s divorce. All divorce cases were reported in the papers, many with transcribed court testimony—if you want to form a picture of how people actually lived at the time there’s few better ways than browsing over the details of divorces.
Of course we’re really interested here in one divorce: Jack Robinson V. Rosie Robinson in 1929.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that this was 50 years before no-fault divorce, so: in court, one or the other party had to be at fault. Husband and wife agreeing to divorce was used as in itself proof that they shouldn’t be allowed to, as they agreed on something… this was called ’collusive divorce’ (example) and could lead to dismissal of the case and even prosecution for fraud. Even more bizarre— if a spouse sued for divorce on the basis of adultery, the divorce could be annulled if the petitioner had also committed adultery, because then no one was at fault! Unsurprisingly this led to a great deal of deception, with judges complaining that half of divorces were collusive.
The petitioner- the one seeking a divorce--had to prove cause against their spouse in court in a public trial before a judge. Causes varied in each Australian state. But they all came down to: adultery, desertion, cruelty, habitual drunkenness, imprisonment and insanity.
The social stigma of divorce in this period is well-known, but you can see how it makes a very big difference which party was fault, and published in the newspapers as being at fault, in terms of how that stigma was shared!
In Victoria in the 20s, there was only adultery, desertion, and cruelty (the latter three were added in '35), and it was the only state to have different rules for men and women--one act of adultery was sufficient for the wife, but a wife had to prove multiple acts of adultery on the part of the husband.
Divorce cases could be defended, in which the spouse fought for the right to stay married (surprisingly common until you think about the money and social-stigma angles), or undefended. I think whatever else with Jack and Rosie we can assume that the case was undefended, whichever was 'at fault' in court.
An early script apparently has Jack lying in court about an affair, to nobly set Rosie free, which was a common tactic (and the plot of The Gay Divorcee, which is a great movie). He'd have to lie about more than one affair, but in any event, as in the case of marriage in Chapter 3, the difficulty is that Jack is a policeman, which complicates everything.
First of all this would be asking Jack to lie under oath and participate in a fraud—something the courts might wink at in a Ginger Rogers but probably not in a police inspector. Jack has a bit of a martyr complex and might well have done it but I don’t like to think poorly of Rosie and that is a huge ask from him. There's also the problem that Jack being at-fault at all would seriously risk his job.
Amply documented is that a policeman named as a co-respondent in a divorce case (that is, having an adulterous affair with one of the divorcing couple) was expected to resign as having brought disgrace on the force (low-key example). The reason for this, as the commissioner in an 1940 case tells us (sounding as if he desperately wishes PR departments had been invented) is that while irregular living arrangements don’t necessarily disqualify a policeman, they do if they turn up in the newspaper. Unfortunately divorce cases were a staple of 1920s newspapers and public humiliation part of the whole divorce experience; tabloids took particular glee in dragging immoral policemen (that the point was staying out of the papers is depressingly shown by the fact that many policemen living apart from their wives after they had complained of cruelty, were only asked to resign on being served with divorce papers--because that's when they would be in the news). I can only assume that this rule also applied to policemen at-fault for adultery in their own divorce. This seems confirmed by the fact that every divorced policeman I could find in searches as the at-fault party was described as an ex-policeman.
This leaves desertion and cruelty. Cruelty was the rarest official cause nearly always involving violence and I think neither Jack nor Rosie would dream of filing for this reason. Desertion on the other hand was the simplest route and grounds for over two-thirds of divorce cases in Victoria in 1930 (thank you Melbourne Herald!). Desertion in Victoria required a withdrawal of ‘society and support’ for a period of three years.
In an interview Nathan Page gives us the startling information that Rosie left him to go to her family in England. This may have been worked out as a backstory because that would certainly make Jack a case for desertion. In the show he says Rosie has been living with her sister for ‘quite some time’ and I’m guessing that time is three years.
(This is a brief but extremely interesting interview, which also confirms Jack is working-class and not some slumming gentleman-detective, and that policemen are as shockingly overworked and underpaid in the Miss Fisher ‘20s as they were in ours. Mind you he also describes himself as being ‘drafted’ into the army, not sure if this is a slip of the tongue, method acting around Jack having some sort of amnesia, or an alternate universe thing, as Australia did not have conscription in WWI!)
Rosie semi-colluding with Jack for him to file for divorce on that basis, which she would not contest, is probably the least-bad, most honest and honourable for two honourable people, and most historically plausible route they could take out of a bunch of terrible options. Rosie would have to cope with being the one at-fault, but could comfort herself with her blissful new marriage...argh, poor Rosie... Rosie could possibly have sued Jack for desertion, and so kept her good name, with a sympathetic judge arranged by her father; as he didn't go anywhere this might prove tricky, desertion on a man's part usually involved them vanishing and not paying support-another reason divorced policemen were usually ex-policemen.
But there's no need to be complicated here, if Rosie went to England and refused reconciliation Jack would have a cut-and-dried desertion case and could get away with a small paragraph in the papers (if a little collusively, as he would never file for divorce in a million years unless Rosie asked him I'm guessing).
If there’s one thing to come away with form this is that we should all, divorced, married, or single, breathe a sigh of gratitude for everyone who fought for no-fault divorce!
--A fascinating little blackmail case in which an ex-police inspector was threatened being named as coorespondent in the blackmailer’s divorce gives an illuminating little picture of the disgrace of adultery
--Desertion was a super-fuzzy concept and led to some weird cases, which however give some fascinating social history. Essentially wife or husband had to ‘desert’ for 3 years (but not both! If both deserted each other, as in the case of adultery, no one could be ‘at fault’ and thus they couldn’t divorce..), but what ‘desert’ meant had no exact definition. There's a nice 'wacky divorces' article that describes some cases--If the husband went away for 16 years but wrote her ‘friendly’ letters to which the wife did not reply- this was NOT desertion. On the other hand a man married his next-door neighbour; they continued in their separate houses, and the husband declared he did not have to live with her or provide her with support—this WAS desertion (then there’s the case in which, in cartoon-fashion, a husband drew a line down the middle of the house, and the wife succesfully sued for desertion!). A great back-and-forth on what was and wasn't desertion can be read in a divorce where the husband tried to get his wife to sign a paper saying ‘she had not been a wife to him’ for 3 years. (I pounced on this for giving me the salary of a Professor of Botany at the University of Melbourne in 1929: £1100, plus an apartment, which is a pretty sweet salary!)
-- Get a load of this for a sample of how baffling, perverse, and socially informative 1920s and 30s divorces were, this one has it all-- police constable and wife in counter accusations of adultery, shown to have colluded, and ended up still married...the policeman husband gives the summary quote: "he started to talk about a divorce, saying that a policeman couldn't get a divorce on anything less than adultery... and he would lose his job if there were a scandal about him.")