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The Painters and Dockers, Victoria

written by Derek Philipson

The Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union existed in Victoria from about 1900 until its demise in 1993. From the 1950s until to the late 1970s, many of Melbourne’s organised crime figures were allegedly members of or connected in some way to the Painters and Dockers. There were many “colourful characters” among them, some with a lot more desire for fame and fortune than others.

My experience with the Victoria Police surveillance unit during the 70s and 80s meant I had the privilege of working with many of Victoria’s well known and most professional detectives on many cases involving the Union. There were some very tough characters who were part of the Union but, in turn, there were some tough detectives who could give them a run for their money. I might add, unlike some recent policeman who have fallen from grace, these men just enjoyed locking up a good crook and, for the most part, were not tarnished by corruption or ill-gotten gains.

Unfortunately, many of the Dockers members and associates who I had the pleasure of working on are now deceased. Some of them are still about and I’d love to share a few beers and a meal with them to hear their stories before they in turn meet their maker. That of course would never happen as the code of silence among this group was like that of the IRA in Ireland. They would rather die than snitch or tell tales about their comrades. If they ever did inform any information to Police, it was only information that they knew would ultimately enhance their chances of success.

I worked in surveillance during the 1970s with a Sergeant who used to be a detective attached to the Victoria Police Breaking Squad. Their main objective was to investigate robberies and safe breakings by many of Melbourne’s notorious underworld figures. I won’t name the Sergeant but he was a brilliant surveillance operative, a great teacher and well respected by the Police and in the underworld circles. He was a tough old bastard in his day and, like many of the old coppers from that era, did not take any nonsense from anyone.

One night shift, the Sergeant was called to a silent alarm at a post office in South Melbourne. A silent alarm is one where no one knows it’s gone off except the security company monitoring the alarm system. Unfortunately, by the time the Police arrived at the job, the crooks had already fled. Something must have spooked them and they had scampered away into the night without having being sighted. Upon inspection of the burglary scene it was discovered that the crooks had cut the safe, but to their misfortune, it was already unlocked and there had been nothing of value inside.

The other notable thing about the crime scene was that someone had left a pair of shoes next to the safe. Those shoes were a small size six and the Sergeant knew of only one crook in Melbourne who wore size six shoes and who indeed also had the habit of removing his shoes when doing a safe job. I can name this gentleman, because he is now deceased. His name was Graham KENT, alias Squirty Kent. He was nicknamed Squirty because he was only about 5 feet tall and wore a size 6 shoe.

Squirty was a well-respected crook. Most of the detectives at Russell Street knew him and they appreciated his talents in safe breaking and in other unscrupulous pursuits. Squirty and another infamous, but now deceased villain, Graeme KINIBURGH were renowned as the best safe breakers in Australia. In later years they would form the Magnetic Safe Gang with a few others from the Dockers. But that’s another story…

Considering the evidence at the post office crime scene, the Sergeant decided to pay an early morning visit to Squirty’s residence in Caulfield. Squirty was taken in to custody and subsequently interviewed at the Russell Street Police Headquarters. Being well-educated as to his rights when under arrest, Squirty would not divulge anything other than his name.

Anyway, about one hour into the interview with Squirty, the Sergeant was getting nowhere so he picked up the size six shoes he had found at the crime scene and said. “Squirty, try these shoes on for me will you.”
As quick as a flash Squirty retorted, “Who the f*** do you think I am, Cinderella?”

That’s where the interview ended. The Sergeant still laughs when recounting that experience with Squirty. When Squirty passed away there were numerous death notices placed by Victoria Police detectives who had had dealings with him over the years. The messages were genuine as Squirty had been a man that they always enjoyed interviewing, being a gentleman of the criminal underworld. He was a well-respected crook, very difficult to follow and a great character of Australian crime. May he rest in peace.

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