Kernel Fiona reviews WATERFRONT from investigative journalist/ ex-detective/ ex-PI Duncan McNab. One of McNab’s previous books OUTLAW BIKERS IN AUSTRALIA was a record breaking wonder. Where “Bikers” delved into the bike world WATERFRONT looks at the history of the docks, wharves and ports of Australia, a place not known for its honesty and moral ways back in the day. WATERFRONT released at the end of July from Hachette Australia, it should be available from most good bookstores or you can obtain it from HERE. Enjoy Fi’s review……….all the best………..JK.





Former police detective, Duncan McNab examines the criminal underbelly of Australia’s ports from the time of the First Fleet to now. Having grown up in Port Kembla I am familiar with the colourful characters that are to be found on the wharves but I wasn’t aware that the strike of 1938 by waterside workers was at its most aggressive at Port Kembla, once the location of the vast BHP steel plant and the major exporter of iron. Nor was I completely aware of the seething mass of felonious goings on in my neck of the woods.

Since the arrival of the First Fleet, the wharves have been a breeding ground for dodgy deals and dirty deeds. This book is more of a journey into the heartland of Australian organised crime than anything else and for someone who is thrilled by a villain’s story and escapades, thoroughly enjoyable. Because Australia is founded on a criminal under class, the convicts were the first to bring coordinated criminal operations to the wharves with the off-loading of rum and the ensuing Rum Rebellion.

On 26 January 1808, the Australian government was over thrown by a military coup when officers and men of the NSW Corps marched down to Government House in Sydney and arrested William Bligh. The ousting of Bligh became known as the Rum Rebellion because the NSW Corps, with the help of convict labour, were known for trading in rum in the colony. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Bligh, who inherited a whole host of problems when he set foot in Australia. Philip Gidley King wasn’t entirely up front in his summary of the status quo when he handed the baton to Bligh. That is, he hadn’t given Bligh the full picture regarding the troubles he was experiencing with Macarthur and his cronies and their virtual monopoly of the waterfront and the import and export trade.




The Rocks of the early 1800’s was essentially a collection of tents and makeshift dwellings that had expanded around the waterfront soon after Philip’s arrival in 1788. Lachlan Macquarie described the set up as “ruinous and unfit”. It was certainly the epicentre of the colony’s night life and shenanigans, filled as it was with prostitutes, thieves and full of liquor supplies. Working on the docks was ideal for criminals who could easily steal tobacco, grog, clothing or barrels of salt pork from the warehouses and sell them on the black market.

By the 1830’s Melbourne had its own waterfront crooks that operated an efficient little business of theft and on-sale. Things became even more lucrative when the jetty at Williamstown was built in 1839, shortly followed by proper wharves which meant goods were ripe for the taking. By the 1840’s, Melbourne’s dockland criminal activities easily rivalled those in Sydney.

During the gold rush era, while demand and supply was increasing spectacularly for things like alcohol and prostitution, soon to arrive was Australia’s first recreational drug – opium. This was a habit introduced by the Chinese gold prospectors and consumption took off like wild fire. Eventually laws had to be passed to rein in the widespread drug abuse.

The wharves had now become a desirable place to work because of their reliability and high pay. From these conditions and ensuing strikes for wage increases, the Union movement was born. As time passed and Australia became a solid exporter of wool and while there was strong investment in the country following the Gold Rush, the wharfies were starting to work increasingly long hours and the suburbs they lived in were rapidly deteriorating. This predicament only served to increase the fledgling power of the Unions. Clashes and the social stigma and consequences of being known as a “scab”, kept the wharfies in the papers.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of this book are the back stories of well-known crims whose connections are to the docklands and other networks of crooks that either worked on or frequented the wharves. The skulduggery surrounding such identities as Squizzy Taylor, Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh make for interesting reading. By the time the 1920’s were drawing to a close, the waterside communities were excelling at organised crime while the work of the wharfies was often back-breaking, dangerous and filthy.




Fast forward a little further in time and McNab discusses other Mr Bigs like the Morans, Neddy Smith and Lennie McPherson. McPherson was a hard nut and an old school crim who according to the NSW Police, would “take the fillings from your teeth if he had half a chance.” Leonard Arthur McPherson took advantage of his family connections to the docklands and scored his first real job as a driller at Mort’s Dock situated in Balmain. An added advantage was that he was also exempt from military training and could concentrate on making valuable criminal connections at Mort’s. Having inside intelligence on pay-day or shipments, McPherson was able to build a thief’s empire.

Adding to the plethora of illegitimate activity was the Painters and Dockers. Disbanded in 1993, they nevertheless played a role in the disappearance of Griffith anti-drugs campaigner, Donald Mackay. One of their own, James Frederick Bazley was convicted in 1986 of conspiring to murder Mackay. Bazley was a former dock worker at Williamstown. During his time on the wharves, he was shot twice and ambushed by gunmen. He was later found to be associated with the Mr Asia Syndicate and drug trafficking.

McNab ends the reader’s dockland journey with the sacking of 1400 of Patrick Stevedore’s permanent and part time workers on 7 April 1998. This incident is clear in my mind as I was working at a law firm at the time that represented the unions. Slogans and chants of MUA – Here to Stay, abounded and colleagues took food parcels to the picket lines. I had a couple of friends who worked as wharfies and Patrick’s actions spelt certain economic disaster for them. Finally on 4 May 1998, the High Court gave Patrick’s a substantial serve by ordering them to reinstate the union workers. Two days later it was back to work, business as usual.

While current day criminal connections to the wharves now include outlaw bikie gangs and drug traffickers, the beat goes on, so to speak. Perhaps it will always be the case that the docklands of Australia and criminal enterprise goes hand in hand. McNab’s coverage of this relationship as an investigative journalist and former member of the fuzz is both insightful and intriguing.


3 and a Half Pops


Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then.