Flash Jim, Kel Richards

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

FLASH JIM is the story of James Hardy Vaux, writer of Australia's first dictionary and first true-crime memoir. It's kind of appealing to know the first dictionary came about as a result of the inability of colonial police and magistrates to understand the slang used by the criminal classes. I will admit to being somewhat startled still to discover the words and phrases that are particularly unique to Australian English (normally as a result of the utterly blank look on the face of the hearer from another land).

But the story of James Hardy Vaux is the main point of FLASH JIM, with a reprint of the original dictionary included at the end, entitled A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. This is the component of the book that I found particularly fascinating, with many of the words and phrases new to me, and many still in common use today.

The bulk of the biography by Richards uses for source material Vaux's own published memoir, entitled 'Memoirs of the First Thirty-Two Years of the Life of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported, For the Second Time, and For Life, To New South Wales. Written by Himself'. Needless to say Vaux seems like an unrepentant man, somebody very inclined towards being quite chuffed with themselves. Despite being born into a relatively well off family, with the offer of a good education and a long-term professional career, he took to crime at the age of fourteen starting out embezzling an employer, raising that to confidence scams, pick-pocketing and a range of other crimes designed to supplement that wage he was usually earning working as a clerk. Despite what was ultimately three transportation's to the penal colony in the end, nothing much seemed to dissuade Vaux from his preference for crime, and he developed a hefty ego and a sense of charm that he seemed to think would detract from the ongoing criminal behaviour.

Having said that, its hard to know exactly what to believe given the primary source is the subject's own words, and ego definitely appears to have been something he had in spades. And perhaps that's where my greatest doubt about FLASH JIM came from. Whilst very readable, there's something here that didn't flow quite right, for want of a better description, perhaps best described as a lack of connectivity between the story of the dictionary itself and the story of Vaux's own life. There's also some interesting gaps in the lifestory (questions never able to be answered it seems); two wives, fate unknown; and his own vanishing after being released from a third stint in a Sydney jail. No record of him ever found again, no idea where he died or how or when. Odd ending for a flashy, egotistical, centre of attention type such as James Hardy Vaux. Perhaps that's part of the reason for the dictionary and his own story being largely unknown. To rectify that, FLASH JIM, is well worth a read.


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The astonishing story of James Hardy Vaux, writer of Australia's first dictionary and first true-crime memoir

If you wear 'togs', tell a 'yarn', call someone 'sly', or refuse to 'snitch' on a friend then you are talking like a convict.

These words, and hundreds of others, once left colonial magistrates baffled and police confused. So comprehensible to us today, the flash language of criminals and convicts had marine officer Watkin Tench complaining about the need for an interpreter in the colonial court.

Luckily, by 1811, that man was at hand. James Hardy Vaux - conman, pickpocket, absconder and thief, born into comfortable circumstances in England - was so drawn to a life of crime he was transported to Australia ... not once, but three times!

Vaux's talents, glibness and audacity were extraordinary, and perceiving an opportunity to ingratiate himself with authorities during his second sentence, he set about writing a dictionary of the criminal slang of the colony, which was recognised for its uniqueness and taken back to England to be published.

Kel Richards tells Vaux's story brilliantly, with the help of Vaux's own extraordinarily candid memoir of misdeeds - one of the first true-crime memoirs ever published. Kel's book combines two of his favourite subjects: the inventiveness, humour and origins of Australian English, and our history of fabulous, disreputable characters.

With echoes of The Surgeon of Crowthorne as well as Oliver TwistFlash Jim is a ripping read - especially for those who appreciate the power of words and the convict contribution to our idiom.

Review Flash Jim, Kel Richards
Karen Chisholm
Wednesday, June 30, 2021

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