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COWLE, Charles

Typical of the early members of the force who served in the bush was Mounted Constable Charles Ernest Cowle. He was born on 2 October 1863 in Launceston, Tasmania, the second son of Charles Tobin and Margaret Cowle (nee Lewers).


Cowle’s father had worked as an accountant in Launceston but soon turned to banking. Cowle senior opened agencies for the Bank of New South Wales on the Victorian goldfields and acted as a gold broker. His mother was descended from a French Huguenot family who had been granted land in Ireland by the British monarch.


John Mulvaney’s research indicates that Cowle had a solid ‘scholastic experience’, achieving better results in the classics than the mathematics side of the curriculum. Little is known of Cowle’s life from the time he left school until he joined the South Australian Police Force.

His obituary mentions a career in banking, a profession he must have entered on leaving school. His service record shows his previous occupation being that of station manager, so at some stage, he must have considered that banking held no interest for him and left to pursue a life in the bush, the place where he was to spend the majority of his adult life.


Cowle joined the South Australian Police Force in February 1889 at Alice Springs as a Mounted Constable Third Class immediately after leaving a station manager’s position. This suggests that he had been managing a station in the far north of South Australia immediately before his enlistment. An examination of other service histories suggests that his appointment to Alice Springs was unusual as almost all members commenced their police careers in Adelaide or Darwin. Mulvaney has speculated that this unusual appointment took place because his education standard was above average, or, because an

additional trooper was urgently required at Alice Springs.


The high workload at Alice Springs in 1889 supports the contention that an additional member was required urgently. His fortuitous arrival in Alice Springs at the time a member was required no doubt also affected the decision to recruit him. Whatever the circumstances, Cowle, the bushman, avoided the barracks life and foot patrols of Adelaide and instead was able to put his skills to use in the bush he so loved. He transferred to Tempe Downs (or more correctly, Illamurta) police station in 1893. Mounted Constable Daer opened this station in 1893 following its relocation from Boggy Hole, which was closer to the Hermannsburg Mission and the scene of friction between missionaries and police. Situated on a tributary of the Finke River in the James Ranges, the Illamurta police station was surrounded by the rugged central Australian landscape with ghost gums and red sandstone cliffs, poignantly painted years later by Albert Namatjira. This was an ideal remote location for a loner such as Cowle. His letters to Baldwin Spencer, the renowned anthropologist, whom Cowle met when acting as a guide for the Horn Expedition in 1894, suggest that he was a gregarious, eccentric character. His education level surpassed most other police officers of his era, he craved solitude, was a hardened drinker and neglected his own comfort. Frank Gillen, telegraph stationmaster at Alice Springs, remarked how Cowle ‘never uses more than one blanket when camping out in the coldest weather’. His drinking was subject to comments from his friends. Gillen wrote to Spencer that Cowle, having arrived in Alice Springs, ‘bitterly regrets the collapse on the first night here’ Gillen also wrote that he ‘limits his Nipping to three doses a day’. In his own correspondence, Cowle writes of copious quantities of port, rum and whisky being consumed by himself or his circle of friends

He was sympathetic towards Aboriginal people, but was also a strict police officer who was relentless in his pursuit of cattle killers and thieves. Despite his apparent enlightened views of Aboriginal people, Cowle was also, no doubt, influenced by Gillen who referred to Aborigines as ‘niggers and darkies’ and Spencer who ‘seemed to regard them as a somewhat more interesting species of Australian fauna than the platypus or kangaroo’. His reputation was that of a hard, firm but fair, police officer who attempted to educate the Aboriginal people to respect the non-Indigenous law. He served at Illamurta for ten years, retiring on medical advice in 1903. He soon became bedridden, suffering from severe arthritis and rheumatism until he died in Adelaide on 19 March 1922. He was a sad, lonely man, who epitomised the bushman turned police officer located at many of the smaller Northern Territory police stations. Such men were in some ways reminiscent of the mercenaries of the French Foreign Legion, seeking adventure far from their homes, some of them running away from events in their personal lives.

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