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McLAREN, William James

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

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EULOGY – WILLIAM JAMES McLAREN, AM - 13 October 1916 to 9 May 2000 delivered by Commissioner Northern Territory Police Brian C Bates, AM APM In the words of Simone de Beauvoir “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion”. We come here today to celebrate a wonderful life and in recognition of the fact, that one of the tallest trees in the Northern Territory forest has fallen. As with any significant loss we that remain are left with mixed emotions. Sadness and grief are of course at the forefront of these emotions but equally we have a sense of wonderment as to the magnitude, now more evident by his absence from this world, of the life and times of William James McLaren – Bill McLaren. A life of such magnitude is not easily seen or appreciated from a single perspective. John’s words have already conveyed a powerful impression of Bill’s journey from youth and hardship on an isolated Gippsland farm to maturity and fulfilment, in every sense, in this Northern Territory, a place that he loved. I guess I should start by stating the obvious, Bill McLaren is not a hard man to eulogise. There is no possibility that my words, or our thoughts, today will idealise him in death beyond what he was in life. His was a life not characterised by ego or flourish but was instead underlined by the qualities that were so evident to those that knew and worked with him. The tributes of the past week, many of them published in the newspaper all have a common thread and describe his gentleness, his decency, and his compassion. These tributes also reminded me that whilst Bill’s role as the Commissioner of the Northern Territory Police ranks high amongst his achievements he had many others both before and after that time. We shouldn’t forget that before becoming Commissioner in the Northern Territory, Bill had completed a 29-year career with the Victoria Police. He served with distinction in a variety of roles - John has already mentioned his role heading up the Stolen Motor Vehicle Squad – and I recall when, as a Sergeant in the CIB where I’m pleased to say he had a positive effect on a skinny young Constable. Well it must have been so because that young Constable, Brian Bates also went on to become Police Commissioner in the Northern Territory. Bill also served in General Duties as a uniformed Constable and a Sergeant and in 1956 was the Sergeant in Charge of the Olympic Village in Melbourne. John has also talked of Bill’s attendance at the Police College at Bramshill in the UK and his service on attachment to several British Police Forces. When he left the Victoria Police Bill was an Inspector and had been the Director of the Airlie Police College. I think it would be fair to say that many people would have been proud to list the achievements of these 29 years as a life’s work – but Bill was just getting started. Bill was appointed as the Commissioner of the Northern Territory Police Force in 1967. Think back to the Territory at that time and consider the arrival of the McLaren family through the eyes of a 12 year old John McLaren. John tells us how the family hitched a caravan to the family station wagon and drove up that narrow black ribbon of bitumen that was then the Stuart Highway. Along the way, Bill and Flora, Craig and John visited every police station. The McLarens from Victoria were agog at the sights of the outback, its inhabitants both black and white and the vitality of the land. The people they visited were equally enthralled by the pale skin and fair hair inherent in the McLaren genetic makeup and most of all by Flora’s stockings which at that time were not a regular part of Territory day wear. They drove and drove and when they were close to Darwin Flora who was at the wheel said to Bill, “You’d better drive – I’m not sure I’ll be able to manage all the traffic.” Ever considerate Bill took the wheel prepared to manoeuvre the family rig through the traffic of the teeming metropolis of Darwin. However, as John tells us, Flora may as well have stayed behind the wheel. They passed a minor intersection at a place called Bagot road – which seemed to be little more than a rudimentary track and continued on looking for signs of life. By this time it was about 10 o’clock at night and before they knew it they were at what we today call Brown’s Mart and what in those days was Police Headquarters. John clearly recalls the rhythmic clanking coming from the building next door. This turned out to be coming from the printing press in the old NT News premises that then stood between Police HQ and the original Anglican Cathedral. The family went from there to a house at Myilly Point where John remembers the sea roaring below, the sea breeze and walls of louvres. As the years progressed both John and Craig have memories of the sound of “singing sticks” coming up from the beach below at all hours of the night. They remember Bill coming home as red as a beetroot from sitting under a tree with tribal elders at remote locations. They remember Flora making morning or afternoon tea for the latest lot of police recruits – a kindness she carried on into the 1970s. Saus Grant, retired Assistant Commissioner gives us a further perspective of Bill as Commissioner of Police in a letter to John and Craig last week. He says, “Your Dad was a father figure, a man who inspired respect, a revered boss. I was proud of his leadership, knowing that he was always doing his best for the Police Force and he NEVER EVER grandstanded or attempted to improve his image at the expense of his staff or the department. If anything he was modest to a fault. He was the most honourable person I have ever been acquainted with.” Saus goes on to talk about Bill’s many achievements including:

  • Increasing the establishment of the force from 150 to more than 500 sworn members.

  • Building and staffing the first Police College and opening training opportunities both locally and interstate hitherto not available.

  • Providing genuine equal opportunity to women police and

  • Changing the culture of the job for the better, in so many ways.

He also mentions that Bill never wasted a dollar of Government money if he could avoid it and that although Police in the Northern Territory were paid overtime he doesn’t believe Bill ever really accepted the concept. Cyclone Tracy was a catastrophic event in the life of the City of Darwin and represented an enormous challenge to the Northern Territory Police. John has already quoted from a report compiled by a Canadian researcher, which highlighted the leadership role of the Commissioner. The police response to the disastrous effect of Cyclone Tracy was conducted in the finest tradition of the Northern Territory Police. The report, compiled for the Emergency Communications Research Unit of a Canadian University, also describes how the public turned to police for advice and information, how they poured into the station seeking help and how they also carried their dead to the police station for want of a better place to go. I add this information because I see it as important that the context and the grimness of those times be remembered when we talk of Bill’s role. It should never be forgotten that the first response to the devastation wrought by the cyclone came from the police and that its promptness and compassion were engineered and managed by the Commissioner. The Anglican Bishop of Darwin at the time, Ken Mason said, “Darwin was not short of its own heroes in this time and not least among them was our own Northern Territory Police, led by a quiet, gentle man, who is the Commissioner, whose calm nature gave such a quiet, confident and consistent leadership.” Bill’s subsequent investiture as a Member of the Order of Australia in 1976 recognised both the efforts of the Northern Territory Police and his leadership and management of the crisis. He was also the holder of the Queens Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and the National Medal. Bill represented Australia at two Interpol General Assemblies in 1971 and 1975. It’s not surprising given his Scottish ancestry and background that Bill was careful with a dollar. Throughout much of the time he was Commissioner the Northern Territory was an outpost of a federal administration based in Canberra. Reporting and acquisition mechanisms could best be described as convoluted and difficult. Against this background the growth and development of the Northern Territory Police Force under Bill’s stewardship was remarkable. Notwithstanding the improvements he brought about in terms of bricks, mortar and equipment, his most profound effect was upon the most essential element of the organisation – the people. He was widely known amongst the troops as “Silver Bill” and while that nickname arose from his distinguished head of hair it seems particularly apt to recall it today – he simply shone. Bill’s essential decency and compassion shone through every aspect of his day to day activities. Every graduation speech he made to assembled recruits included a segment on personal hygiene in the tropics and concluded with the advice to “Make sure you wear a singlet.” Over a number of years in Victoria and the Northern Territory Bill was responsible for the coordination of security at a number of royal visits – so much so that on one occasion the Queen looked at Bill, stopped and said, “Well I think I’ve seen you before.” On another occasion the Duke of Edinburgh was so impressed with the motor cycle escort he received that he asked Bill if he could personally thank the members concerned. Bill and the Duke approached the riders stopped in formation on the airport tarmac, engines idling. Concerned that the noise of the motor cycle engines might make conversation difficult Bill discretely motioned to the lead motor cyclist to turn off the engines. With the instant obedience and willingness to please, inherent in Senior Constables, the leader immediately interpreted Bill’s gesture to mean that they should leave. They did forthwith leaving behind a Duke with an outstretched hand and a bemused Commissioner. Bill retired as the Commissioner of the Northern Territory Police on his 62nd birthday in October 1978. At the time of his retirement the Northern Territory Police had evolved from an outback organisation run on a shoestring to a modern policing establishment well placed to serve the Northern Territory as it moved forward under self-government. Many of the changes and innovations that occurred in the years immediately following Bill’s retirement were the direct result of forward planning proposals he had put into place. Bill’s remarkable life contributed much to the Northern Territory and to Australia. Over this next phase of his life his level of contribution did not diminish and if anything increased. He became the inaugural Security Coordinator at Parliament House in Canberra from 1979-81 and later, on a consultancy basis, set up the security arrangements for the new Parliament House in Canberra. On his return to Darwin he served for many years as a Justice of the Peace including regularly sitting on the bench of the Darwin Magistrates’ Court. His involvement with community groups continued unabated. He was a member of the Road Safety Council of the Northern Territory and the Queen’s Jubilee Trust. He was member of the Royal Show Society for over 20 years and was actively involved in show administration and judging every year. He was a Freemason for 55 years and was at various times a Grand Master and Grand Standard Bearer and remained an active member of Lodge Foelsche until his death. His lodge activities included acting as Chaplain and involvement in the distribution of Christmas hampers supplied to the needy by the Masonic Foundation in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Bill also somehow managed to find time to accept a commission to write a history of the Northern Territory and its police forces. Bill was an active and dedicated Rotarian over many years and was a former President of the Rotary Club of Darwin. He was an immediate past president of the Northern Territory Council for the Aging and was actively involved in the activities of the Red Cross. Last, but not least, he served as a member of Neighbourhood Watch and Zone Coordinator over many years. I said at the outset that one of the tallest trees in the Territory forest has fallen. As with any tall tree a life of this magnitude is hard to fully see and appreciate from the ground. Perhaps it would be better to try and imagine how Bill would have summed up his life had he been asked. I think he would have said something along the lines of being grateful to have had the opportunity to do his best for his family and for the community. We should be grateful that the remarkable life of a fine and a truly gentle man has touched us all in ways only we as individuals can know. Bill goes home today in this church he has belonged to for over thirty years and on behalf of the Northern Territory Police and the community of the Northern Territory I thank his family for sharing this occasion. I extend our sincere condolences to John and Craig, Asha and Barbara and to Kiran, Taara, Robert and Peder. Pride makes us do things well. But it is love that makes us do them to perfection.


Another biography for consolidation

William James McLaren

William James McLaren was born on 13th October 1916.

He joined the Victoria Police in 1938 and served in most sections of the force. He attended at Bramshill (English Police College) and served on attachments to several English and Scottish Police Forces including Scotland Yard.

He was appointed Commissioner of Police of the Northern Territory Police in 1967.

The strength of the NT Police at that time was 159 men who were spread over 500,000 square miles in 26 Police Stations. During his eleven years, Mr. McLaren has guided the NT Police from carrying out a traditional frontier type Police role into a force able to fight successfully fight against the growth of modern crime.

Mr. McLaren attended an Interpol General Assembly in Ottawa, Canada, in 1971, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1975. During these overseas visits he studied Police administration and organization in Canada, USA, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

In the early hours of Christmas Day of December, 1974, Cyclone Tracy hit and destroyed Darwin. Mr.McLaren organized the local Police and Disaster groups in controlling the city in those first few hours after the disaster.

He holds the Queens Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, National Medal and is a member of the Order of Australia (AM).

Mr. McLaren has always been involved in community affairs and is a member of the Road Safety Council of the N.T. He is Chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Jubilee Trust, Past President and member of Rotary. He was the Honorary Correspondent for the N.T. of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia.

He married Flora on 13th January, 1953 and had two children.

William James McLaren died on 9th May, 2000.

From NT Police Records

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