Dark side of the city

OPIUM dens, brothels and mafia killings…

Perth journalist Sean Cowan is shining a light on Perth’s dark history in his new crime tours of Northbridge.

He’s well qualified to be a guide, having spent 14 years reporting on organised crime at The West Australian.

Mr Cowan says Perth’s seemingly morbid crime obsession is nothing out of the ordinary.

“Look at some of the most popular TV shows: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire… they are all based around shady, underworld stuff,” he says.

“People have this fascination with crime and crime investigation and when you pair that with places they know about, but didn’t know played a role in a crime that had real underworld tones, it is a logical thing that people have a real interest in it.

“I love history and write about crime, so for me, the two go hand in hand.”

Mr Cowan’s two favourite Perth crime stories are connected to Roe Street.

“It’s little known that down Roe Street was the hub of Perth’s opium dens at the turn of the century.”

He says it was “just like the American movies” and “people could walk in and get a feed of noodles, play cards, gamble, get a hookah and then at the end of the night they could lay out on a mat and smoke opium quite openly”.

“You smoked until you passed out and then a few days later you’d come to and move on, and someone else would take your mat and pipe.”

Mr Cowan says the early brothels on Roe Street laid the foundations for Perth’s prostitution scene in the 1970s, and the still unsolved murder of brothel madam Shirley Finn. She was found with four bullet holes in her head at Royal Perth Golf Course in 1975.

“Most people leave with a vibe of “wow, I didn’t know about that”, because this is the stuff you can’t just Google and find out about,” says Mr Cowan.

He says Perth’s crime scene is a bit less bloody than Melbourne or Sydney.

“In Sydney you had the razor gang wars of the 1920s, where people were killed left, right and centre, and in Melbourne you had all this underbelly stuff that has captured the nation and been made into a TV series.

“We had an underworld killing in the European Club when George Wallace was killed by a Perth man, and a mafia-style killing in Russell Square.”

The walks were organised by the Centre for Stories in Aberdeen Street.

by MOLLY SCHMIDT

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