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WATERS, Nicholas Joseph

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

The following article is from 'A Force Apart?' by Dr Bill Wilson - p91. Direct link to the Thesis.

Foelsche was succeeded by the most enigmatic of the three leaders, Nicholas Joseph Waters, about whom few records exist. One of very few public servants to remain in position after the Commonwealth took over control of the Northern Territory, he was in charge during a period of stagnation. He was a man who, because he lacked the skills to be a ‘broker of dreams’, failed the test of leadership. His influence on the direction of the force was to allow it to drift and there is evidence that corruption flourished during his period as the leader. The blame cannot be solely attributed to Waters. Foelsche served too long in the one position and failed to groom a successor adequately prepared to assume a leadership role. His service record shows that Waters was born in Mallow near Cork, Ireland, in 1855. He immigrated to Australia as a youth and joined the South Australian Police Force on 14 August 1872, aged 17. He was stationed in Adelaide, rising through the ranks to become a First Class Foot Constable in 1880. A month later he was transferred at the same rank, to the Mounted Branch, again in Adelaide, but later, for a few months, in Terowie. At this stage of his career he was not an exceptional officer, when compared with members such as Foelsche. In June 1882, almost ten years after joining the South Australian Police, Waters was transferred to the Northern Territory as a First Class Mounted Trooper. Initially, he was stationed at Darwin, where he was to spend the majority of his career, apart from a year at Yam Creek in 1883. After his arrival in the Territory Waters achieved faster promotions, becoming Lance Corporal in 1885, Corporal in 1887 and Sergeant in 1892. When Foelsche started his pre-retirement leave in 1903, Waters was appointed Acting Inspector on Foelsche’s recommendation. He became the substantive occupant of the position in 1904. His promotions in the Northern Territory were gained because of his ability to undertake the routine administrative work which many of his colleagues either did not or could not undertake. Foelsche confirmed this in 1887; when forwarding a report to the Commissioner in Adelaide, in which he mentioned that Trooper Power was not being promoted, he wrote that Waters was carrying out the office work satisfactorily. This suggests that Waters’ subsequent promotions were all based on his administrative experience rather than his practical policing abilities. The fact that Power was not promoted was undoubtedly influenced by his earlier misbehaviour. In 1896, Waters became a Freemason. There is no obvious link between that fact and his subsequent promotion to Acting Inspector, however, a similar suspicion exists about this promotion because of Foelsche’s earlier promotions. Clearly, too, Waters had a very close working and social relationship with Foelsche which undoubtedly was responsible for his promotions after his arrival in the Territory. It is also interesting to compare the rapidity of his promotions after his arrival in the Northern Territory with those in South Australia. There is no record of his becoming involved in conflict with either his members or others in the non-Indigenous community in the Northern Territory. To the contrary, he is reported to have been very highly respected. Waters obviously impressed the Administrator, Dr. John Gilruth, because he was appointed a Government nominee on the Darwin Town Council from 1915 to 1920. He was less skilled than Foelsche in practical policing. His career was unusual for the Northern Territory, where most police officers spent considerable time at smaller stations. Indeed, when he was included in a party formed to explore Melville Island, his lack of experience outside the town of Darwin was a source of critical comment in the press. He was the opposite of Foelsche in his approach to discipline, being criticised in the report of the Ewing Royal Commission into the ‘Darwin Rebellion’ of 1918 for lax administration of the police force. The serious allegations made against Waters, which the Royal Commissioner upheld, describe a weak, vacillating person with limited abilities as a leader. His deficiencies were undoubtedly because his career was mainly administrative in nature. Despite his limited operational experience, he was considered an excellent prosecutor. An article in The Northern Territory Times and Gazette, soon after Waters was promoted to the rank of sergeant in 1893, noted that he had ‘christened his new dignity with becoming success as Crown Prosecutor’. His lack of knowledge of the geography of the Northern Territory prevented him from intervening when other agencies gave his members impossible tasks. In 1915, for example, the constable stationed at Bow Hills was asked by the Director of Lands to blaze a trail from Bow Hills to Tanami. The constable, responding to this directive, erected fingerboards as required but advised the Director that ‘it is rather impossible to blaze a good road to Tanami as there is no timber but bushes for a distance of 30 miles from Hooker Creek Well to Helena Creek and from Transfer Waters to Tanami a distance of 93 miles’. Waters’ ineffectiveness was demonstrated when, during the Ewing Royal Commission, he was asked about an incident in the Terminus Hotel in which Constable McGrath was alleged to have confronted patrons and threatened to shoot them. Waters confirmed that he had heard of the incident and conceded that none of the patrons or hotel staff had been questioned about the affair. Worse still, he gave evidence that it was not his role to investigate the incident. His sole action appears to have been to seek an explanation from McGrath and to send this to the Administrator. The only reason that he could give for not investigating the affair was that a report on the incident, submitted by the Supervisor of Hotels, Callan, had been forwarded to the Administrator. When asked if he had investigated Constable Richardson stealing seized opium for his own use, Waters replied: I did. The result was nil. I asked the constable and he said ‘no’. I asked several Chinese, but I could not hear of any opium being in the town. Constable Richardson is now at Katherine. Later in the proceedings, he was asked Richardson’s salary and replied that, as Acting Sergeant, Richardson would have received £380 a year. Waters was then confronted with the fact that Richardson had paid £298 into his bank account in a one-month period in addition to his salary. He suggested to Mr Justice Ewing, the Royal Commissioner, that he would ‘wire’ Richardson and ask him to explain how he came by the money. He was also asked why he always failed to investigate complaints lodged with him, instead attempting to pass them off onto other people. Waters denied doing so, but the evidence adduced in the Royal Commission suggests that this was indeed the case. He was also questioned about a raid on a sly-grog shop at Parap where it appears the suspect had been warned of the impending police action. Waters could only say that he had given some papers received from the Administrator about the sly-grog shop to Sergeant Burt. He sought to distance himself from the matter by claiming that he had no other knowledge of it after giving the papers to his Sergeant. Despite the raid clearly failing because a tip off had been given, Waters did not investigate the matter. In his report of the Royal Commission, Mr. Justice Ewing wrote: Mr. Waters, the Inspector, is an old gentleman who is very highly respected but does not exercise his powers over the men with a firm enough hand. The officer next under the Inspector I believe to be an excellent Clerk of the Court, but this position appears to take up most of his time. Judging, however, from his casual manners I am quite certain that from the standpoint of discipline and control he sets the younger men a poor example. Mr Justice Ewing, in commenting upon the calibre of the members of the police force generally, wrote, ‘I believe the men are of a good stamp, but they suffer from a lack of proper discipline and control’. It is accepted that the incidents discussed above demonstrating his failure to impose discipline are confined to a short period. Nevertheless, it appears likely, from the tenor of the questions asked of him, that Waters had failed to exercise appropriate discipline or demand that his noncommissioned officers set an example to junior members. Certainly Ewing, who had the benefit of hearing the evidence and seeing the demeanour of the witnesses, could have hardly been more derogatory about Waters abilities as a disciplinarian. Waters also failed to deal with the social problems of gambling and sly-grog shops that flourished in Darwin during the second decade of the twentieth century. When questioned about them during the Royal Commission into the ‘Darwin Rebellion’, Waters protested that he had done all he could to stop the practice. He suggested that he found it difficult to retain informers despite paying his own money to seek information. He did not offer any other suggestions as to how the offence might have been combated. The Royal Commissioner also found that gambling, in particular fan-tan and puckapoo, was prevalent, but Waters was unable to explain why he had failed to deal with the problem. His name does not appear as the apprehending officer in any major offences committed during his service before becoming the Inspector. This tends to confirm that he spent most of his time engaged on administrative tasks, rather than on practical policing. Waters was a bachelor when he arrived in Darwin. Initially living in barracks, there is no information as to how he passed his time whilst off duty during the early years. After a whirlwind romance, he married Anna Maria Woide when visiting Adelaide in 1892. There is no record about how they met and there is no mention in the family files of Anna meeting or corresponding with him before 1892. Waters and his new wife arrived in Darwin on 24 June 1892. He then became active in Wesleyan church affairs. Perhaps his new found involvement in the church was brought about because of his wife who appears to have been an active churchgoer. He was to become a member of the Wesleyan Church Parish Council and, with Foelsche and others, a trustee of Lot 639 on the corner of Knuckey and Mitchell Streets on which the Wesleyan Church was built. He, together with Foelsche, was one of the seven members of the Parish Council who resigned en masse in 1899 finding that they could not work harmoniously with the Minister, the Reverend S. Stephens. He enjoyed rifle shooting with the Darwin Rifle Club of which he became Secretary and Treasurer in 1900. He became one of the ‘leaders’ of Darwin society. In 1910 and 1916 he hosted dinners for senior staff who were leaving the Northern Territory. He was a foundation member of the ‘Northern Territory Battleplane Fund’ which was formed to seek funds for the purchase of an Australian plane for service in the First World War. At the first meeting of the Fund, Waters donated ten guineas, whereupon others followed suit. He was also a contributor to the Australian Red Cross during the War. His other passion was land speculation. Waters bought 30 lots of land in Darwin between 1896 and 1920. At the time of his death, Waters had sold most of the land, retaining only three Lots, 497, 501 and 504 Smith Street.122 One of the more prominent sales he engaged in occurred in December 1901 when Waters sold a block of land to the Anglicans, upon which they built a church, for £230. This latter sale suggests that Waters either had decided to leave the Wesleyan community or was engaging in land speculation. He appears to have been a philanthropist dedicated to using money made from land speculation to help others. John Mettam, in his thesis on Northern Territory administration, suggests that there is another explanation for the source of Waters’ fortune! the smuggling of opium. Mettam bases his views upon correspondence to a customs officer in which an informer mentions Waters. A detailed analysis of the relevant correspondence does not support Mettam’s conclusions. Waters was first mentioned in a letter signed by J.E. Rowlands which was written en route from Darwin to Thursday Island in June 1926, two years after Waters death. The letter was brief, reporting that: I am positive, but have no actual proof, that the Engineer of Government Launch Olga, in concert with 2 Govt. Officials, brings Opium into Darwin, which is thrown overboard from “Eastern” s.s in waterproof caseing [sic] and sunk with float attached; very cute, hard to catch them. Late Police Inspector left £42,000. My 3 suspects going to retire soon. A follow up letter, written while Rowlands was en route from Thursday Island to Townsville, gave more details as to how the smuggling occurred, but did not mention Waters. The Queensland Collector of Customs forwarded these letters to the Comptroller-General. The letters emotively included information that Rowlands had been in Darwin for some time but, having been suspected of watching ‘certain parties he had been starved out of the place’. The Collector of Customs, Robinson, also wrote: It is known that an Officer of Police, probably a Senior Sergeant, who died some months ago left a large amount of money – more than a man in his position should properly have accumulated at the Port. This information appears to have come to Robinson from Rowlands because there is no other evidence to substantiate the facts about Waters. Later, Robinson reported that he considered Rowlands to have been truthful.

Despite suggestions that external investigators from outside the Northern Territory undertake investigations into the allegations, no enquiry took place. The affair became academic in September 1926 when the launch involved, the Olga, sank whilst en route to Bathurst Island. The question therefore remains, was Waters corrupt? The evidence appears slight. Rowlands, the original informant, was probably Joshua Ernest Rowlands, who had lived in and around Darwin for many years. Rowlands, a Welshman, was a prolific writer of letters to the newspapers, usually complaining about aspects of public administration. There is no evidence to either support or refute Rowlands having knowledge of the activities of smuggling by Darwin officials. Waters’ estate was £22,349 and not the £42,000 alleged by Rowlands, a fact not checked by Robinson. Although the estate was large for the time, it is possible that Waters had made money from the sale of land. Waters was dead by the time of the allegations and it was only the value of his estate that caused him to be mentioned in a footnote of the original letter reporting the smuggling. No investigation was ever undertaken to test the veracity of the allegations raised by Rowlands. Conversely, there was his lack of action regarding Constable Richardson’s alleged stealing of opium. The unkind might say that Waters was protecting Richardson in order to protect himself. Again, there is no evidence that this was the case. It appears unlikely that Waters was corruptly involved in smuggling opium. Although it appears highly improbable that he was corrupt, it is not possible to conclusively refute Mettam’s suggestion. Waters retired in 1924 but, after only a few months, died on 8 March 1924 aged 69, survived by his wife. Following a large funeral, he was buried at Goyder Road Cemetery. The obituary published in The Northern Standard said of Waters ‘he leaves behind an unblemished record of integrity, good citizenship and work well done’. These comments overstate the case. Waters appears to have been content to let matters drift during his tenure. Admittedly short of funds, there is no evidence that he initiated any reforms or improved the standard of policing. He was not a broker of dreams. Justice Ewing, who harshly criticised Waters in his report, summarised his lack of abilities well. He was well respected but incompetent. He also has the spectre of corruption hanging over his administration; the toleration of gambling and sly-grog shops in Darwin together with Rowlands’ allegations that Waters was involved in the smuggling of opium. Waters was not an ideal leader and should be remembered more as a philanthropist and for his contribution to Darwin society.


Another biography for consolidation

Nicholas Joseph Waters

Nicholas Waters was born on 12th June 1854 in Mallow near Cork in Ireland. He came to Australia as a youth and joined the South Australia Police Force in 1872.

He came to Palmerston in 1882 and from that time spent his whole police career in Palmerston except for a twelve month period at Yam Creek in 1883.

He rose through the ranks and on the 1st July 1910 he succeeded Paul Foelsche with the rank of Inspector, as the head of the Northern Territory Police.

He retained his rank and position with the N.T. Police when the Commonwealth took over from South Australia in governing the Northern Territory in 1911. He did have he choice of returning to the SA Police but stayed on in charge of eighteen Police Officers, the Gaol keeper and the three warders

In his period in the NT, he was appointed the Crown Prosecutor in 1902, Inspector of Stocks and Brands, Assistant Returning Officer, Custom Officer, acting Government Secretary, Registrar of B.D.M., and Registrar of Companies

He was still serving as Police Inspector when he died suddenly at his home in Smith Street, Darwin on 8th March,1924 at the age of 69 years.

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