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A Policeman's Lot


The Catchlove diary paints a picture of a boring, uneventful life for the most part. Much of the time the police were engaged in searching for fresh food to supplement their diet. ‘Stretton and Masson left 4 am, for the Jungle Creek and Knuckey’s Lagoon to shoot some Geese. Returned at 8.30 pm with twelve Geese and four black duck’s [sic] which were a great treat’. Only very occasionally did police undertake policing duties, such as Catchlove bringing ‘Spench up before J.S. Millner J.P.’ The fact that was so little true policing duties to undertake suggests that the European population was largely law abiding and that the police had to be gainfully employed on other tasks. During these early years of settlement the fact that there was a heavy workload for the majority of the Europeans and the limited crime suggests that, amongst other reasons, there was little time for crime. The lack of sophistication of the population and limited number of possessions which might be stolen also influenced the small crime rate. Conversely, the fact that the drunkenness was the most significant problem to be policed is also understandable in light of the heavy work and hot, humid climate. Apart from the occasional police duties, almost all the tasks police were engaged on were related to building the settlement, hunting for food or standing guard at night. One duty, which the police undertook and disliked intensely, was acting as orderly to Captain Douglas, the Government Resident. The orderly was required to wear full uniform, as was common practice by military orderlies elsewhere. In the case of police, this meant wearing the heavy southern serge, complete with helmet and long leather boots, regardless of the weather. Police officers were also required to escort the Government Resident’s daughters around the camp and when they went riding. They also built makeshift rifle ranges at which the girls could engage in target practice. Catchlove recorded in his diary how ‘it goes much against my grain doing this kind of work for them’.

Police helped in building their station, their quarters and a house for Inspector Foelsche. In July 1870, the troopers cut poles for buildings for up to three miles around the settlement, which were conveyed back on drays. According to Catchlove, Corporal Drought detested the hard labouring work and used to avoid the work by feigning illness or other schemes. The troopers worked long hours; after finishing a hard day’s work labouring under the sun, they were then expected to perform guard or stable duty most nights of the week with an occasional night off duty. Occasionally police were detached to accompany parties exploring the area around the new settlement. Police who were not selected for such duties were envious of their fellows who succeeded in being selected. The opportunity to participate in these expeditions broke the monotony of life in Darwin. Some evidence of the life of a police officer in Darwin shortly after the turn of the century can be gleaned from the letters written by Constable Miller to his fiancée in Adelaide. These depict Miller as a lonely, sensitive man, in an unfamiliar land, pining for his girlfriend. Miller writes of a dull, boring life, interspersed with bouts of frenetic activity. The mail service is a major topic of his letters, no doubt because his correspondence with Eleanor was a most significant aspect of his life. Miller, when writing about his being orderly to Lord Kitchener during a state visit to Darwin in 1909 was concerned about the duty. He observed, ‘Do not know how things will go it will be…hot wearing the southern blue and white stripes and top boots, and I know the horses are not used to carrying swords so I’ll have some fun’. This confirms that the police had ceased wearing uniform for all except the most formal occasions. It is also confirmation that police were still used as orderlies to visiting dignitaries much as they had been used as orderlies for the Government Resident in the early days of South Australian settlement of the Territory. Police undertook the orderly’s role because there were no regular military units stationed in the Northern Territory. A constable’s routine duties are occasionally mentioned in Miller’s letters. He was bored in Darwin, noting in 1910 that, ‘we are doing night patrols from 3am to 6am. M.C. Reed and I take it in turns about. Will be jolly glad when I get out bush.’ Indeed, Miller appears to have led quite an easy life for a police officer; very few incidents of note appear in his letters. In April 1910, one task allocated to Miller was to travel to Pine Creek, supervise the electoral process in the town for the South Australian election and then return to Darwin with the ballot boxes. On another occasion Miller lamented, ‘Being the only working John in Palmerston I have a lot to do & have 3 days races this week and two young horses to handle next week’. Looking forward to a transfer to a remote station, Miller ‘bought a riding saddle yesterday in anticipation of getting a shift soon. The saddles which are issued are big unsuitable things for the long journey’s [sic] like we have to undertake’. By early April, he was even more certain of a posting, ‘Don’t know how much longer I will be in Darwin’. In August 1910, Miller was transferred to Borroloola. We then gain an insight into life at a nascent community shortly after the turn of the century. Almost immediately he arrived at Borroloola, Miller was left on his own for three months. He was initially not able to patrol the district as three prisoners were serving sentences in the gaol. His quarters were in the courthouse, next to the library of 2 000 books. Miller soon became bored. He wrote that ‘this last month there has been nothing to do and I am getting sick and tired of this enforced idleness’. He complained that there was often nothing to do except read books and shoot a few crows. In the wet season, patrolling came to a complete standstill in the Top End as members became confined to their stations by wet conditions. The enforced time at the stations was often put to good use in undertaking maintenance such as fencing or repairing stockyards. The wet season would also make life almost unbearable due to the mosquitoes and other insects which forced the police officers into bed under their mosquito nets before sunset. Later Miller noted, ‘Since I wrote everything has been very tame’. This validates many of the police station day journals that have numerous entries which suggest that police officers did little or nothing for days on end. Life was not only boring, it was lonely for police officers stationed on their own in remote areas of the Northern Territory. Constable Miller at Borroloola, for example, noted revealingly that his puppy was ‘the only trustworthy friend I have here’. The records held at police stations identify many of the factors that influenced the development of policing. Originally, research in police station day journals appeared to indicate that the members were generally lax in writing up much of their routine activity. This was certainly true, when viewed with a modern police eye. After careful examination across a range of day journals and an examination of Miller’s letters and Catchlove’s diary, it seems that there was probably little to write. The members appear to have spent much of their time undertaking maintenance of the station and its buildings or coping with routine paperwork. Although there were undoubted bursts of frenetic activity, such as investigating a murder and the subsequent tracking of the suspects, life on remote stations was routine and boring. The station locations were initially selected because of either cattle killings or mining activities in the region. When the mining ceased or cattle killing was reduced, the stations were left open, but the work lessened considerably. In other cases, police stations were located where police officers could act as stock inspectors. The Anthony’s Lagoon Police Station, for example, opened in 1890 to check horse and cattle movements between Queensland and the Northern Territory preventing stolen stock moving across this border. Again, the police activities were routinely boring,punctuated by occasional busy periods of work related to stock inspections. Other police stations opened to be both close to Aboriginal populations and to serve as bases from which the police could act in a multitude of roles as public servants. By 1905, police officers in South Australia and the Northern Territory were required to act as clerks of courts, bailiffs and assistant bailiffs, clerks of the licensing bench, registrars of births deaths and marriages, registrars of dogs, commissioners for affidavits, labour bureau agents and issuers of miners rights. Police also undertook duties as fisheries inspectors, issuers of Aboriginal rations, inspectors of brands, stock inspectors, slaughterhouse inspectors, inspectors of public houses, customs and excise officers, wide tyres inspectors and rabbit act inspectors. Police were also public vaccinators, gaolers, crown lands rangers, electoral registrars and destitute department officers. In the early twentieth century, police were also security officers on the Darwin wharf to prevent the pilfering of cargo. Police in charge of stations had many of these titles but they were meaningless. The reality being that, except in a crisis or work related to stock movements, there was little for police to do. Police undertaking such a broad range of duties was not unusual, police elsewhere in Australia undertook similar duties. In remote areas, police attended to sick and injured people. Their treatment was rudimentary, but the station owners and their workers still sought help from the police. In December 1920, for example, the manager of Wave Hill Station was reported to be sick. Mounted Constable McGrath travelled to the station and remained with the owner who had influenza, complicated by having been gassed in World War One. McGrath remained with the owner, G. McQuinn, overnight, but he died the following morning. In another incident at Wave Hill, a stockman who had fallen off his horse and was bleeding from the nose and ears was kept at the police station for over a month before he was returned to his home. Policing was often boring. The opportunity for undertaking police work per se was limited to the few occasions that presented themselves when serious crime occurred. Patrols of the district also allowed police to escape the monotony of station chores. The fact that police had little real policing to undertake influenced the force’s development. Police officers became used to undertaking a wide range of duties and were often close to the community because of the wide range of tasks they performed. Instead of being seen as mere law enforcers, police officers worked alongside the community in a wide range of tasks. The station journals disclose the contents of the mails received and these provide an insight into station life. A sample mailbag contained: A list of articles for use at this station. Recd with same 30 1p and 30 2p postage stamps. Receipt received for amount £39-9-6. Information re appointment of Messrs Biondi, Holt and Lowe as Justices of the Peace. Memo instructing purchase of 2-cwt local salt for Anthony’s Lagoon, memo re repairs to Anthony’s Lagoon Police Station,…. The record of mail received continued by listing receipts received for dogs registered and cartage accounts paid. Finally, the list mentioned a few police activities such as sly-grog selling, inspection report for the Tattersalls Hotel and cattle depredations at McArthur River. In another sample of mail, there was news of leave applications being approved, repairs to the station premises, approval to purchase cement, requests for information about water tanks at the station and a list of legislative amendments. Nothing in this batch of mail related to offences reported or suspected to have occurred. A similar pattern can be located in every station journal with very little mention of police patrols or offences reported. Other tasks undertaken on a regular basis were the building or maintenance of stockyards, looking after sick horses and camels, registering miners’ claims and general cleaning and maintenance of the station area. Mounted Constable Johns, whilst at Brocks Creek, recorded that being ‘In charge of an inland station means much responsibility. One had to shoe all police horses and attend to all police saddlery, packbags, etc., make new hobble chains and so on’. Once he had become used to the life Johns considered that he was a real bushman. The officers in charge of a remote station were financially rewarded because of some additional duties undertaken by police. At Borroloola in 1910, for example, Mounted Constable Stott was ‘Clerk of Court, Postmaster, Keeper of the Gaol and other offices, all of which he is paid extra for besides drawing 6/- per day for two trackers’. The additional money brought with it a never-ending series of monthly, quarterly and yearly returns to be completed. The money was yet another demonstration of racial factors inserting themselves into everyday life. The additional money to support the trackers and their families together with the financial rewards as keeper of the gaol were both linked to race. Aboriginal prisoners often occupied the gaols and the trackers were always Aboriginal males.


Then there were the patrols which took members away from their stations for considerable periods as they patrolled the districts assigned to them. The length and duration of patrols varied according to the size of the district and places to be visited. Invariably a patrol lasted for at least a week and often longer. The Borroloola journal provides some clear examples. On 21 July 1911 Mounted Constable Miller, accompanied by Tracker Fred, left Borroloola to patrol to O.T. Station. Taking a horse plant of five horses, the two were away for 11 days. The total distance covered was 213 miles. The Alice Springs station journal lists even longer patrols. One undertaken by Mounted Constable Willshire from 15 July 1888 to 30 August 1888 lasted 47 days and covered 489 miles. Another lengthy patrol saw Willshire with two native constables patrol from Alice Springs from 14 October 1888 to 20 December 1888. Despite the time spent on patrol, only 359 miles were covered and four horses were used. In a marathon patrol, Constable Heathcock from Wave Hill and two trackers covered 586 miles between 5 June 1923 and 7 August 1923. These patrols were dangerous. In 1883, for example, Mounted Constable John Charles Shirley, with five men and 18 horses, was engaged on a search for a suspected murderer near Brunette Downs when all perished from thirst.

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