© Meg Dillon 2008
Australian Colonial History
Who Were Convict Police & Were They Corrupt
Of all the groups of convicts in the Campbell Town police district in the 1830s, the convict police were the most visible. They had a greater impact on their
community than any other group of free or unfree workers but occupied an ambiguous place in colonial life. Dressed in their blue coats and drabs,
handcuffs jingling from their belts with sometimes a musket slung over a shoulder, they rode out to the remote police outposts and farms, and tramped
the roads delivering prisoners to Launceston or to a road gang. Some carried red truncheons inscribed with VDL in gold as they walked the village streets
Often they could be found at the local jail or watch house or attending the magistrate’s court, busy with police duties. On a Sunday they sat
in the front pews of the Anglican Church in Campbell Town with the police magistrate and his officers, their uniforms neat and clean, wearing their white
gloves. This sight infuriated at least one local observer who described them as “dressed in the first fashion”, a perfect example of “puppyism”.
Robson’s study of a 5% sample of all transported convicts found that most of the male convicts were aged between twenty and twenty four years when
landed, although English rural convicts were likely to be a little older, and at least half of the convicts were married.
Two thirds of them were English and
the remaining third, Irish.
Convicts were predominantly urban with over half of them convicted in counties where there were industrial towns and a
further 17% from London.
Most contemporary observers believed that the majority of convicts came from a professional criminal class, although analysis of the indents strongly
suggests that this was not the case. The majority of male convicts were convicted of relatively minor property crimes and just over 40% were transported
for either their first or second conviction, although there are some doubts about the accuracy of the number of prior convictions recorded for each
convict in both British and Van Diemen’s Land records.
Contemporary evidence from the London police estimated that thieves operated successfully for
an average of six years before being caught and convicted, so many who were transported for their first conviction may have had a more extensive
personal history of petty theft than their records reveal and may have started breaking the law as young as fourteen or fifteen years.
Very few (3%) were
transported for the more serious crimes of murder, assault, kidnapping or rape. A further 3% were military men convicted by courts martial for military
As subsequent historians have pointed out, however, it is easy to get misled by records of criminal activity and ignore other wider benefits that
transportation brought to the Australian colonies.
In contrast with earlier historians, Nicholas et al saw the convicts as Australia’s first working class migrants and part of the international movement of
labour in the nineteenth century. As the contributors to Convict Workers pointed out British convicts were young and fit and possessed relatively high
literacy rates and many had valuable trade skills. Ninety per cent of convicts were young men and this unique age/sex distribution contributed to the
rapid economic growth of the Australian colonies before 1840.
Although not all convicts could adapt to the tough conditions endured by workers in the
early settlements, most found useful employment while under sentence, and when freed found ready work.
This chapter will examine a unique group of convict workers: the colonial police. It will look at the ways in which the convict police of the Campbell Town
police district met or differed from the general profile of male convicts in Van Diemen’s Land and examine how perceptions about their backgrounds
helped influence contemporary opinion and helped fuel the increasing public campaign waged against the police establishment. Finally it will use the
magistrates’ bench book for 1835 to examine the charges and disciplinary actions brought against the district’s convict police to investigate whether or
not the general charges of corruption against police were warranted for this group of rural constables.
The Campbell Town magistrates’ bench book for 1835, recorded the personal identifying data of name, ship and sentence length, for each convict who
was charged and brought before the bench. Additional information was included about the convict’s current employment, usually with the master’s name
or the gang name (e.g. Spring Hill road party) or government employment type (e.g. carpenter on loan from the government). The charge or charges were
clearly set out, sometimes including information about the day, date, time, arresting person/officer and place of the alleged incident. If the prisoner
pleaded guilty, there were generally no further notes, and the sentence was recorded. If the prisoner pleaded not guilty, or if there were significant issues
about the case, the court clerk would write a summary of the case presented to the bench. The summaries varied in length from several lines to several
pages in a quarto volume.
The bench book records enable a working model of the convict police establishment in the Campbell Town district to be reconstructed for 1835. Around
forty-five men occupied positions under the leadership of the police magistrate in Campbell Town. His senior officers consisted of the chief district
constable, who had operational responsibility for the district police, assisted by two district constables: one in Campbell town and one in Ross. A settler’s
son was appointed clerk to the magistrate, and a district surgeon was responsible for the health of the district’s convict workers. An additional divisional
constable was attached to the executive group. All were free arrivals as was generally the case for the senior officer positions in the rural police
establishments. The police establishment consisted of three special constables, who probably also had duties as pound keepers, and between 28 and 32
field police or petty constables, some of whom had permanent duties as watch house keepers or javelin men at Campbell Town and Ross. Most of the
constables were convicts. Thomas Hughes, a married emancipist, was in charge of the Campbell Town jail and flagellators were located there and at Ross.
The petty constables were rostered for general duties throughout the district. Due to the dismissal and suspension rate, at least forty one different men
occupied the thirty two positions during 1835.
Campbell Town police had mostly been tried and sentenced in the area around London or the industrial counties of Northern England, as were the
majority of transportees.
Seventeen of the 41 Campbell Town district police had been tried in the south eastern counties of Middlesex, London, Surrey,
Kent and Sussex. The rest were scattered throughout the eastern and western rural counties. These were mostly industrial counties where the textile and
cotton industries, and the mining, metallurgy and cutlery industries were established and included Gloustershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Lancashire,
Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Glamorgan. One was sentenced in Rutland. But although a number of Irish and Scottish counties were also listed in the top
third of counties from which convicts were sentenced, no Campbell Town constables appeared to have been sentenced from either of these places. It is
worth considering that the counties of trial were not necessarily the same as the counties in which the convicts had been born or always lived in, as the
early nineteenth century workforce was relatively mobile and many working class men and women shifted round the country looking for work.
Irish and Scottish recruits were absent from the local cohort of police. As well, the composition of local police differed substantially from New South
Wales, where around 70% of the Sydney convict police were Irish, and in the rural areas where most police were recruited from amongst ticket of leave or
freed men up to the 1840s as they were considered “more under control” than migrants.
By contrast the police in the Campbell Town district included
only four ticket of leave men and one free recruit in their ranks.
The majority of the Campbell Town police had either been brought up in rural towns or counties or had lived or worked in them prior to being
transported, which gave them some affinity with the local rural community. Despite this, the irony of appointing convicted men as police was offensive to
the community, even though there appeared few other alternatives. They were in fact the only mechanism for social control that the administration had,
as both religion and deference had failed to create social order in the colony.
The offences for which Campbell Town police were convicted did not
differ from those which convicts as a whole were charged.
Seven of the constables received 7 year sentences for stealing goods such as a roll of silk,
linen sheets, 30 pieces of brass, a bed or stealing from the person. Those with 14 year sentences included some with convictions for housebreaking,
uttering a forged note, stealing slates, and stealing two donkeys. The larger number of constables with life sentences included convictions for sheep and
horse stealing (3 men), stealing a boat, stealing from the jail, stealing from the person or stealing wearing apparel (5 men), burglary or house breaking (7
men), highway robbery (2 men) and one for a military offence. No local constable had been sentenced for the crimes of assault, murder, kidnapping or
rape. However, the fact that many had life sentences and their felonies included animal theft, house breaking and highway robbery may have influenced
local people to doubt the wisdom of appointing prisoners convicted of serious felonies to the local police force, and fostered ongoing suspicions about
the probity of their behavior as police.
But there were also some differences between Robson’s general sample of male convicts and the small group of local convict police. Around 60% of the
police had life sentences, while only 25% of the general sample did.
There seemed to be a greater incentive for men with longer sentences to become
police, perhaps hoping to reduce their sentence with good behavior or even a pardon if they caught a bushranger or committed some other act of
outstanding service. Furthermore, only ten constables acknowledged they had been married in Britain but of these only four had their wives living with
them in Campbell Town after they were appointed as police. Predominantly the local police were men with life sentences who were single or separated
from their wives.
Arthur liked to imply that there were specific and perhaps rigorous, selection procedures for convict police in Van Diemen’s Land. He told the Molesworth
Committee that they tried to select men with the “best character, active, intelligent” from every transport who “generally know the characters of the men
who have accompanied them on the voyage.” He also argued that a key attraction of the job was that their conditions were “undoubtedly better than
others; if they do their duty well they are continually brought under the notice of the authorities.” However, despite his optimism about the superior
conditions of the job, he acknowledged that it became increasingly difficult to fill vacancies and so “some bad characters had to be appointed.”
in part caused by the need to reappoint some convict police from the large numbers who had been charged with misdemeanors and had been sentenced
to a road party. Although in the late 1820s, Josiah Spode, then assistant police magistrate, may have recruited convicts directly from the convict ships; by
1832 he believed this recruitment strategy had many defects.
If the 1835 recruitment data in Table 3.1 is typical, it would appear that by the mid 1830s
the practice of recruiting from amongst new arrivals had greatly reduced although Arthur claimed that the practice continued until he left the colony.
Table 3.1 (a): Selection criteria: All convict police appointments in Van Diemen’s Land in 1835, by the year in which the convict first arrived in VDL
Source: “Police Notices”, Hobart Town Gazette, weekly, 1 January to 31 December 1835. Also CON 31 and CON 18, AOT, for individual men in Campbell
Table 3.1 (b):The years in which individual constables of the 1835 cohort of the Campbell Town police first arrived in Van Diemen’s Land.
Source: “Police Notices”, Hobart Town Gazette, weekly, 1 January to 31 December 1835. Also CON 31 and CON 18, AOT, for individual men in Campbell
In 1835, only six convicts were recruited in the entire colony directly from transport vessels and only a further thirteen were appointed within a year of
arrival. Instead, there appeared to be a preference to appoint convicts who had between two and five years experience working in Van Diemen’s Land.
Table 3.1 shows that 125 of the 187 convicts, appointed to the position of constable in 1835, had arrived in the colony between 1829 and 1833. The
largest group within this cohort was the 42 men, who had arrived in 1833.
A small number were reappointed having been previously dismissed from the police, some having served a sentence in a road party or chain gang. It is
also likely that many among the 35 constable appointments who were free men were emancipists; although it was impossible to identify time served
recruits since the Police Notices did not record the ship and police numbers for freed men.
Of the twelve constables appointed to the Campbell Town police in 1835, none were recruited directly from a transport vessel. Eight had been assigned or
had worked in government jobs since they had been landed.
Four were reappointed after serving in gangs for previously breaking police orders, others
were old hands some having arrived as early as 1822 and as such, their collective knowledge of the convict colony was considerable. Within the force
there were six men aged between 37 and 44 who had worked in a variety of locations on the island, both in assigned service and in some cases in road
parties and penal stations like Maria Island.
Table 3.2 shows that the force also had a main spread of active men aged between 24 and 34 years, many
with colonial experience in other assigned or government positions.
Table 3.2: Selection criteria: the ages of men in the Campbell Town convict police in 1835.
Source: Con 18, Con 21, 22, 23. Description Lists, ATO. Note: Unable to determine age of 9 of the 41 men, ATO series incomplete or page damaged.
The oldest constables were Thomas Greenaway, a police clerk aged 44 years, who worked at the Campbell Town police office and Robert Fear, aged 41, a
ticket of leave convict. He was appointed directly to Richard Willis’s farm where there was a need for a constable to be stationed, because of the danger of
bushrangers and absconders. There was also a pound at the farm, which he may have overseen. These jobs and those of the watch house keepers would
have been seen as less arduous than the escort duties, night patrols and monthly rosters to remote police offices that most constables were expected to
As well as preferring to appoint active men in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, tall men and former soldiers were also reputedly sought after as recruits
for the convict police. Such men were seen as physically able to control convicts who could be drunk or fighting. While the average male convict was 5
foot 4 inches, almost one half of the Campbell Town police were taller than this, with at least ten of them either five feet eight inches or taller.
former soldiers were serving under the police magistrate in 1835. Terence Mcmanus was a constable who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1823 on the
Commodore Hayes. He received a life sentence for deserting from the 4th or King's Own Regiment in the West Indies, where he cut off two fingers on his
left hand, which made him unfit for further military service.
The other two had positions at the Campbell Town jail. Thomas Hughes, an older married
emancipist, was in charge of the jail. He had had arrived on the Medway in 1825. His flagellator at the jail, Thomas Woodley, was also a former soldier who
arrived in 1833 on the Circassion.
Because of the high turnover rate of convict police across the island, individual police offices were likely to experience disruption and difficulties in
managing a constantly changing parade of constables. Men tended to try and stay to earn an early pardon or ticket of leave and those who survived the
strict discipline without being dismissed, were lifers who became the longest serving constables. However most constables resigned when freed, which
suggests that few convict police regarded policing as a permanent career. In the first six months of 1835, 43 constables across the island resigned when
freed. By contrast only ten resigned when they received their tickets of leave perhaps because they had secured alternative employment or had a trade,
which could earn them better remuneration than policing. If so, this is in line with the way that working-class British men sought employment with the
Metropolitan Police. They joined during hard times but resigned to take up other employment when it became available. Some British occupation groups
such as agricultural labourers and gardeners tended to stay the longest, as policing offered them better conditions and was preferable to their former
employment or to Poor Law relief.
It appears that convict police in Van Diemen’s Land exercised a similar strategy of rational selection about remaining as constables, as did their peers in
the Metropolitan Police in Britain. Those who were not dismissed had to weigh the alternative forms of employment available to them, both while they
were still serving convicts, and after they had a choice of other employment through a ticket of leave or freedom. Constables could manipulate the
dismissal system, if they wished to, as easily as assigned convicts could attempt to change their master by being put on a charge and returned to the
Crown. As such, convict constables had considerable agency in choosing to leave the job, or stay till a time most suitable to themselves. In Van Diemen’s
Land in 1835, 125 men were dismissed from a total police establishment of 291 field police and constables.
The high dismissal rate amongst convict
constables may have not only been a product of the strict discipline under which they worked, but may have also reflected the deliberate flouting of rules
as a strategy to exit an unpopular job.
The high rate of appointments, dismissals and suspensions across the island was reflected in the Campbell Town district. Table 3.3 shows that there was a
net loss of seventeen police during the year with at least twelve new appointment and four resumptions.
Table 3.3: High turnover rate of convict constables in the Campbell Town district force in 1835
Source: LC83/1, Return of Cases Heard, Magistrates Court, Campbell Town, 1835, AOT
Only twelve of the constables, who could be clearly identified, worked for the whole year without a break in service. Whether Campbell Town had an
unusually high turnover of staff cannot be determined until staffing turnover in other rural police establishments is examined. It would certainly be
difficult to manage a turnover of one third of the complement, especially during 1835 when three different men occupied the position of chief constable.
It would have been a significant task for a local police office to absorb and train twelve new recruits in one year in an active contingent of just 36 men.
While physical characteristics were important for a physically demanding job, Nicholas et al. has emphasized the importance of convicts’ trades and their
contribution to the prosperity of the colony. Over 95% of them had an occupational status recorded on their indents, some with more than two
Nicholas found that the trades or skills represented a cross section of the British working class from both rural and urban areas and
in addition they had high rates of literacy. Up to 75% could either read or write, while up to 46% could do both.
Only one convict policeman signed the
Campbell Town bench book with a cross after giving evidence. Table 3.4 lists the sixteen constables who also had job or trade skills that could be desirable
for a self-sufficient police establishment in a rural area.
Table 3.4: Trades of Campbell Town Police- 1835.
Source: Con 18 and Con 21, 22, 23, Description Lists of convicts, AOT
The special constables were mounted but the other constables also needed to have this skill to be able to cover the distances required to deliver orders to
distant outposts like Fingal, Avoca or the Lake River.
It added to the unit’s self sufficiency to have metal workers like a blacksmith and brass founder
available for horse and harness work, as well as men such as grooms and ploughmen, who were used to stabling and working with horses or cattle and
could manage the pounds or supervise the government bullock carts and teach handling skills to other police.
A convict clerk was needed to assist the
paid clerk George Emmett, especially with the large number of reports and compilations that had to be sent to Hobart weekly and the documents issued
to convicts. Greenaway attended to a number of significant clerical tasks, including signing the pay orders for the policemen.
The kitchen gardeners
very likely produced much of the produce needed for the police barracks and jail, as well as tending the magistrate’s garden. One letter writer complained
about the use of constables for this purpose.
Likewise Smith, the miller/baker could have been employed in supervising the bakery for the barracks
The need for a shoemaker for the unit is self-evident.
With the continued expansion of buildings on the government compound in Campbell Town, it would be surprising if Christmas, the painter and glazier,
didn’t spend part of his hours at his trade. With the exception of Smith, the other constables with skills could be out posted if needed both for regular
police work, and to assist with their special skills. The work of a rural police unit consisted of much more than just street patrols and watching the
highways for absconding convicts. It functioned in some ways like any large residential closed community: the jails, hospital wards, barracks, watch
houses and police huts had to be serviced with food, clothing and other necessities; animals moved or housed and cared for; workshops were needed to
service carts, make and store building supplies and secure tools; stores had to be ordered and distributed; and accounts be managed. Three others ran
their own small businesses, in partnership with wives, while still serving as police. Charles Englebert and Robert Inglebert were brothers who managed
the Campbell Town pound and also ran their own butcher shop with the help of Ann, Robert’s wife.
Another married constable, John Duxberry, lived in
his own dwelling and took in boarders, including the local school teacher.
The skills range of the convict police in Campbell Town in 1835 appeared to
be varied and met many of the complex needs of a rural police district.
The complementary range of skills, spread of ages, and experience of the police was clearly not the product of the haphazard hiring of applicants by the
administration in Hobart. All police magistrates had the opportunity to review potential police appointments and recommend whether or not the men
should be appointed to their office. It is known that police magistrates made recommendations to Hobart for appointments to all government positions in
their districts, including police. For example, Frederick Forth rejected the reinstatement of a former constable when asked for his recommendation by the
chief police magistrate.
Potential local recruits would be well known to local justices of the peace in any rural district.
From this perspective, a whole
range of criteria may have been taken into account including steady behavior, the ability to command men, former trade experience, and knowledge of
the colony or particular cohorts of convict arrivals, in addition to the height and age criteria. By recommending particular local recruits and rejecting the
appointment of any they considered unsuitable, police magistrates may have had some influence over the composition of the establishment under their
control, even though most appointments may have been made in Hobart with minimal consultation with the local police office.
It is not surprising that settlers were uneasy and sometimes hostile about the use of convicts as police considering that their original convictions in Britain
and their reported suspensions from police work were well known through gossip and newspaper reports. The Cornwall Chronicle at first supported the
convict police and assigned blame for their inefficiency and petty corruption to the administration in Hobart. It was particularly scathing about the low
wages and poor conditions which contrasted unfavorably with those that private masters provided for their assigned servants.
The newspaper offered
constructive suggestions about how police standing orders could be improved to reduce vexatious arrests for drunkenness and bad language. In
particular it suggested that witnesses, other than the arresting police officer, should be required in court and that greater authority should be provided to
the officer in charge at the watch house, when men were brought in and charged. These changes could reduce the allegations that police frequently made
false arrests to increase their incomes by obtaining a portion of the resulting fines.
Colonial newspapers reported many claims of assault, bribery, false arrest, corruption, and unwarranted surveillance mostly perpetrated by individual
police against ticket of leave men and emancipists.
By mid 1835 two new themes had emerged in the reporting of police behavior. Clashes between the
convict police and the free working class emigrants, who were not easily distinguished by dress or manners from working class prisoners or emancipists,
were said to be on the rise. In addition there was general outrage when respectable middle class settlers were rounded up by police for transgressing
against the new Town Planning Acts or the unpopular Dog Act and Impounding Act. The two issues united both middle class and working class letter
writers. Sturma saw this as part of a competitive struggle between the colonial middle and working classes to define themselves separately from convicts
and lay claims to their own class concepts of respectability.
Although newspapers complained about attempted false arrests by police, some incidents they described showed that the system recognized the
problem and punished police for unlawful behavior or made restitution. A young free emigrant woman was arrested by a “drunken” constable in
Launceston, despite witnesses telling him she was a free woman. She was rescued from the constable by a baker who took her into his shop. The
constable was charged and sentenced to a road party for twelve months.
A letter writer reported a case from Campbell Town of a constable who
removed a traveler from the bedroom of a local inn on the pretext that he was drunk and disorderly, when in fact he was asleep. The man was kept over
the weekend in the local jail and illegally charged three shillings for his board by the jailer. When he was brought before a magistrate on the following
Monday the case was dismissed. Later it was reported that the police magistrate wrote to Hobart to have the money refunded to the traveler.
The Colonial Times claimed it did not object to well behaved prisoners being made police, but argued that twice convicted felons should not be
It is shameful as respects the prisoner population, it is bringing men who have been unfortunate, into collision with the Colonists, by which feelings
and antipathies of the most unpleasant and injurious are called into operation, and besides look at the number of well-behaved men, who have by
good conduct obtained their indulgences – and are such not more fitting to be appointed peace officers, than twice convicted felons?
Newspapers sometimes failed to acknowledge the responsibilities of citizens to comply with the unpopular acts. The Colonial Times complained about a
free man who was charged with assaulting a constable when he struggled with the constable to try and release his dog and the constable hit him with his
baton. What the paper failed to point out was that the man should not have allowed his dog to be loose in the first place.
Another paper complained
about the arrest of a pie seller who illegally sold a half pint of gin from under his cart and was prosecuted under the Licensing Act, hardly a victim of two
constables trying to entrap him.
In other reported incidents it appeared that some citizens were sharp enough to deflect foolish attempts by convict police to ensnare them. One
newspaper recorded the scarcely believable incident of a policeman attempting to charge a publican with infringing the Cart Act, which required all
commercial carts be registered and have their registration number clearly painted on their sides. When the publican accompanied the constable into the
inn yard to inspect the offending cart, he immediately noticed that the cart number had been obscured by freshly applied black paint.
The Colonial Times complained about a man being fined twenty shillings for putting rubbish out on the road in Macquarie Street, Hobart. He pleaded that
he had intended to remove it later in his cart. His arrest was the result of a complaint from the Surveyor’s Office and not initiated by a constable.
middle class acted as “moral entrepreneurs” shaping the concept of respectability to conform to their values and expressing outrage when charges were
made against them.
While they did not quibble about those of low rank being issued with a summons and taken in front of a magistrate, but they
thought it unacceptable for “a respectable well dressed person” to be marched “through the streets with prisoners in irons.” For them a police summons
was a “painful ordeal” and a “humiliating interrogation from the magistrate” was unnecessary. Rather than have the issue decided by the magistrate, the
Hobart Town Courier opined that somehow the “knowingly culpable and the unintentionally negligent” should be treated differently, although how the
offenders could be easily differentiated by police without creating more problems of alleged corruption was not suggested.
Undoubtedly there were convict police, who made false arrests, attempted to bribe citizens and were drunk on duty. However, the increased reporting of
questionable incidents of police corruption in the mid-1830s was also influenced by political factors.
In mid-1835, Van Diemen’s Land became fully
responsible for paying for the high cost of the police system, over ₤100,000 per year, out of colonial revenue. There was substantial popular opposition to
this as the large numbers of police were needed to enforce the convict system, and many argued this was reason enough for Britain to continue to pay
for this service. Settlers also argued that the failures of the police system to deliver an adequate service, due to the use of convict police, was another
reason for them to reject having to pay for police services.
But although newspapers could be overly strident in reporting a case, they saw themselves as watchdogs for the public good and were the only form of
effective public dissent available in Van Diemen’s Land in the absence of an independent Legislative Council.
Reporting incidents of alleged police
abuse sent strong messages to the administration in Hobart and to local magistrates informing them that they were being watched and needed to keep
strong control over the police. Some papers also published articles suggesting reasonable changes to improve unpopular acts or administrative
procedures and provided a genuine public forum to explore reform agenda issues that more liberal settlers of all social levels were keen to see
On a wider political level, an attack on the police was one way of attacking the administration of Arthur which became increasingly unpopular towards the
end of his second term, largely the result of his refusal to support the introduction of liberal reforms such as trial by jury and a more representative
Legislative Council. Arthur argued that his police force was instrumental in keeping Van Diemen’s Land a safer place with less crime than Dublin.
reporting the failures of some police, newspapers sent a strong political message to the Colonial Office that Arthur’s administration was flawed and
change was needed.
More commercial and personal motives also existed. Reports of law enforcers breaking the law were popular amongst all classes of readers. They played
on the insecurities of many and the genuine fears that personal liberty and rights were at risk. Such stories helped sell papers.
Some periodicals, such
as Henry Melville’s Colonial Times also had personal axes to grind. Melville was a strong supporter of the introduction of liberal reforms but Melville’s
opposition to the administration had included increasingly intemperate prose and strong personal condemnation of the governor’s policies.
been jailed for a short time after he had been convicted of contempt of court for material he had published about the Bryan case, a watershed judgment
that highlighted the deficiencies of the justice system in Van Diemen’s Land.
Robert Bryan, the nephew of a settler of considerable wealth, was charged with cattle stealing and sentenced to death, primarily on the evidence of three
convict constables. The constables testified that they witnessed the accused driving a small herd of cattle into his uncle’s stockyards, several of which were
clearly marked with his neighbors’ brands. It was alleged that one of the beasts was killed for meat. Although the constables did not see the animal being
slaughtered, they argued that a branded hide was found near the yards. The middle class rejected evidence where convict police were the only witnesses.
They wanted trial by a jury of citizens to be introduced, who could judge the potential degree of honesty of the witnesses and the strength of the
Police magistrates and district chief constables had the difficult task of making their local constables effective workers in the face of the increasing clamor
against the police, some of it justified, some of it exaggerated or spiteful gossip, and some of it politically motivated by the supporters of reforms. In the
Campbell Town police district an examination of the magistrates’ bench book for the year provides a list of all charges that were brought against the local
police either by their senior officers or by settlers. Twenty two of the local police had no charges brought against them in 1835, while the rest had to
answer between one and five charges, a total for the year of around 50 court appearances.
The charges were mostly for minor offences, often work-
related disciplinary issues and drinking. Table 3.5 shows that around 31 police were charged with these types of offences that resulted in admonishment
or a fine.
Table 3.5: Number of Charges made against Campbell town police in 1835 by sentence
Source: LC 83/1, Return of Cases Heard, Magistrate’s Court, Campbell Town, 1835, AOT
However, fifteen police were found guilty of taking a bribe, assault, false arrest or corruption. Most of those who were found guilty and punished with
suspension or dismissal had also been drinking at the time the offence took place, which may explain their lapse of judgment and was probably a key
factor in the magistrate’s decision to apply a harsher sentence. All these police were sentenced to a period of time in a road party or chain gang. All
sentences, including reprimands and fines were recorded against them on their conduct records.
Generally, convicts who served as Campbell Town
constables had more reports against them entered on their conduct records during the periods they worked as constables than when they worked as
assigned workers for settlers. This can probably be explained by the stricter standards of discipline imposed on police than for assigned servants and the
difficulties of the tasks the police performed.
However, other more uniquely colonial responses were emerging amongst the colonial police, as well as within the general society. Increasing levels of
assertiveness were emerging in the colonies, particularly amongst the freed working class, but also amongst convicts. McKenzie argues that colonial
culture in the Cape and Australian colonies was changed by the social and economic ambitions of colonists from all classes which worked to transform
former boundaries of social status and civil liberties.
Even within the highly disciplined ranks of the convict police a new assertiveness started to
appear, which sometimes resulted in constables refusing an order. The personal confidence of some of the police, bolstered by the responsibilities of
their work, sometimes clashed with their officers’ demands for complete obedience and deference. Thomas Moore, a free constable, pleaded not guilty to
the charge of neglecting his duty and misconduct when his commanding officer ordered him to return to duty at a remote and unpopular police outpost.
As his superior put it:
On Friday morning about 10 o'clock when Thomas Moore signed the abstracts for his pay, I ordered him to return to his station. He said he could not
agree with Mr Gatenby and wished his station to be changed. I told him that it would be absolutely three weeks before the changes of the constables took
place and to return to his station. He did not return. About one o'clock on Friday I saw him coming out of Mr Broad's (pub) staggering drunk. I ordered
Constable Drinkwater to put him in jail.
Moore was fined five shillings for this offence.
William Fogherty, a former labourer aged 25, attempted to reason with District Constable Freestun in Ross when he needed to return to Campbell Town to
start his evening shift of night duty. Freestun explained:
Yesterday Fogherty asked me if I had any prisoners to go up, I told him I had none and that he was not to leave the station as the judge's luggage
was in a house at Ross and had to go forward under his charge. He said he had night duty to do at Campbell Town and would go on. I told him on
his peril not to leave his station without any orders. He was very abusive in his language and insolent in his manners. He refused to be controlled by
Fogherty was fined forty shillings.
John Johnson, an older convict, defied his commanding officer by failing to leave for Fingal one Saturday afternoon to deliver a package to the post
master. Later that afternoon the officer found him drinking in a pub and was astonished to hear Johnson argue that “if he was back on Monday morning
in time enough, could he not use his own discretion as to the time of starting.”
In some respects, the attempts of the local police hierarchy to retain absolute control over their men and reject negotiating even reasonable changes with
assertive constables was symptomatic of the difficulty the wider convict system had in controlling emerging new social responses against its more
repressive demands. By the mid 1830s many sectors of Van Diemen’s Land Society of all classes were aware of social and political reforms taking place in
Britain and were clamoring for changes such as trial by a jury of citizens which the administration delayed as unsuitable for a penal colony. Assertiveness
appeared to be growing in small ways throughout the convict classes in assigned service and gangs as well as within a rural hierarchical police force as a
few police started to reject the level of strict control imposed upon them. Tilly saw such responses as a repertoire of small social actions that collectively
signaled to an administration that the pressure for change was building.
McKenzie saw colonial culture releasing people from the traditional
restrictions of their former culture and encouraging their hopes of gaining greater control and success in their lives.
Additionally, Reid noticed changes
in the behavior of female convicts that was not open rebellion, but a more subtle expression of personal rights.
Each of these historians was trying to
document some of the minute ground shifts of social change enacted in the lives of the participants.
This said, alcohol played a substantial role in many of the charges brought against constables and affected the severity of the punishments they received.
Although they were supervised closely in their barracks, some took other opportunities to get drunk when they were away from Campbell Town or Ross.
William Fogerty was charged with riotous conduct at Gibson’s inn at Epping Forest when he got drunk and threatened to shoot the groom.
was ganged for three months for this offence, most convict police were initially only reprimanded or fined. Only ten constables from Campbell Town were
charged with being drunk and disorderly in 1835. This is an indication that drinking in pubs was reasonably tightly controlled in this police district and the
police mostly stayed out of pubs in their leisure time, except for extraordinary occasions, such as when a fellow constable had been found guilty of a
charge and sentenced to a road party.
Letter writers frequently complained about drunken convict police, but it was also a major issue in the ranks of
the police in Britain too, where four out of five dismissals at this time were due to drinking offences.
Drinking seemed to be predominantly a working
class issue, rather than a specific convict or police issue.
Some police made a habit of drinking in inns on the road while escorting prisoners when they were out of the immediate control of their officers. In the
Spring of 1835 John Poole, a notorious absconder, escaped three times from local police custody while being escorted from Campbell Town to Launceston
jail to stand trial, and subsequently when taken back through the Campbell Town district to Port Arthur. Constables Moore and Edmonds first lost him at
the Stagg Inn near Snake Banks where they stopped for the night as there was no lock up nearby. He bolted after they left him eating in the inn’s kitchen.
After he was recaptured, constables McManus and Collins were then given the duty of escorting him, but he escaped from McManus at the gates of the
Launceston jail. Several days later after being recaptured and sentenced, Poole was again escorted back through the Campbell Town district by McManus
and Newton. The three stopped once more at the Stagg Inn for the night, McManus went out drinking with a friend and left Newton in charge of five
prisoners, including Poole, in a bedroom that had no lock on the door. Poole and one other prisoner escaped from the room after Newton went out to
fetch firewood some time after midnight.
Was Poole simply a clever and determined absconder or were the police negligent in their duty or worse still, had any of them taken a bribe from Poole
and allowed him to escape? It certainly appeared that there was a considerable degree of negligence from all the constables at various times, but
Eastwood and Collins had recaptured Poole after two of the escapes, so they were not charged. Newton’s explanation of the third escape left a number of
unanswered questions about his role, but he had an unblemished police record. As a result although he was charged with allowing prisoners to escape,
his version of the escape was believed and the charge against him was dismissed. Conversely Moore and McManus had shown increasing unreliability
that year, McManus had been charged on several occasions with drinking and Moore had been disciplined for drinking and being insubordinate to his
superiors. Moore was fined forty shillings for leaving Poole unguarded in the kitchen of the Stagg inn, and McManus was sentenced to three months in a
road party with hard labour.
Police drunkenness was not always the cause of prisoners escaping from custody. Police constables sometimes displayed compassion to their prisoners’
conditions, which contributed to some escapes. Constable Hewlett was dismissed and sentenced to a road party for six months for allowing two prisoners
to travel without handcuffs thus enabling them to escape near Fleming’s pub at Tunbridge Wells.
Some police allowed prisoners in the town lock up the
luxury of a visit to the local pub. The decision to allow a prisoner a last drink before he was sentenced or conveyed to a place of punishment could be
costly. One constable lost his ticket of leave for six months when he took a prisoner, under escort for a capital charge, to Dickenson’s pub in Ross for a few
drinks one Saturday night. The watch house keeper who accompanied them was dismissed from his post and sentenced to twelve months in a chain
The previous watch house keeper had been dismissed earlier in the year for a similar offence.
Very few serious criminal charges were brought against the Campbell Town constables in 1835 despite middle class fears of police corruption. Although
ten criminal cases were brought before a court, one was dismissed for lack of evidence, and three returned not guilty verdicts. Three of the remaining
charges resulted in convictions, but the constables had been drunk when committing these offences, hardly an extenuating circumstance, but certainly
one that explains their lack of judgment. The most prominent local conviction was recorded against constable William Drinkwater who was found guilty of
attempting to pervert the course of justice by conspiring to use false evidence to convict a local emancipist farm worker for the murder of Captain William
Serjeantson a local justice of the peace. Drinkwater had enlisted the aid of constable Reardon to place pistol shot in the farm worker’s hut and claim it
was the same shot that killed Serjeantson. The plan was foiled when Reardon told his commanding officer about it. Drinkwater was tried and sentenced
to Port Arthur for two years.
Reardon claimed that Drinkwater had devised the plot to win an early release, as his wife was on her way to the colony
and Drinkwater wanted to be free to join her.
The other less public trial was of constable Michael Beard who was found guilty by the Court of Quarter Sessions of taking a man to the watch house,
imprisoning him illegally, and releasing him after extorting a bribe of money and spirits.
The man and his companions complained to the officer in
charge and Beard was charged. Both these cases show that the local senior officers were able to command the system and expose these attempts to
disadvantage innocent men.
Three other cases of either assault or attempted extortion involving drunken policemen were heard in the local magistrate’s court in 1835. Two of the
constables charged were dismissed and the other three received either three or six months in a road party. The severity of the sentences should have
reassured respectable local people that they could complain about these incidents and ensure charges were laid against corrupt police.
Even officers faced disciplinary procedures and in 1835, District Constable Freestun, in charge of the Ross police office, was charged with embezzling five
Freestun’s tough and successful stand against local emancipist tradesmen and settlers involved in trading stolen building supplies had
created many enemies for him in the local area.
Benjamin Horne, a local justice of the peace from Ross, charged Freestun with the offence but he was
acquitted by the Court of Quarter Sessions and left the island to join the police in the Port Phillip District.
Although these cases of assault, false arrest, bribery, embezzlement and attempting to pervert the course of justice demonstrate that some of the
Campbell Town police were corrupt, they also indicate a willingness to prosecute. People from all levels of local society were prepared to bring charges
against the police including emancipists, free men falsely arrested, publicans, justices of the peace, and settlers. Generally the police magistrate, John
Whitefoord, heard cases against police with care. He required evidence that would convince him of guilt but did not hesitate to prosecute where this was
forthcoming. Out of fifty charges brought against his police for the year, he dismissed four charges and imposed fines, demotions or reprimands on a
further twenty seven cases. He also regarded the constables’ conduct records as a good indication of their reliability. On the third proven charge he
generally imposed a sentence to a road party, sometimes including a dismissal from the force.
Whitefoord was also notable for never sentencing one of his police to a flogging. This was a rare punishment for police, but other Campbell Town police
magistrates, Leake and Horne, while acting in the position, and Frederick Forth who arrived later, all resorted to this punishment for a few of their police
constables. While Whitefoord attempted to achieve some degree of control over the drinking habits of his working class constables by imposing severe
sentences, he was unable to completely prohibit drinking. Part of the problem was that the constables were waged and therefore had the means to drink.
Convict police tended to receive more work related punishments than assigned men. They were more likely to be sentenced to several months in a road
party than assigned men, as the stricter military discipline under which they worked resulted in more charges being laid against them. Their conduct
records often had more entries than those of assigned men. Many of these entries were for breaking police orders that were quite minor; not attending
church, failing to attend morning muster, refusing duties and many drinking charges. Charges of disobeying police orders were also rife and punished in
the new British police forces, which were established after 1828. The difference was that these charges were not criminalized in Britain, and while British
police could be fined or dismissed for poor work, they could not be punished by flogging or sent to road parties or be forced into hard labour in chain
The Campbell Town convict police were a microcosm of the larger cohort of working class men sent to Van Diemen’s Land as convicts. They tended to be
taller, be amongst the more literate and have trade skills that were directly useful in rural districts. Their major differences from the general group of male
convicts were that far more of them had life sentences and fewer of them were Irish. The strict discipline to which they were subjected meant that it was
more likely that they would be to charged and sentenced to road parties, than an assigned convict. They were scrutinized, detested by some and feared.
Despite this there were some settlers who recognized that policing was necessary in a convict colony and on reflection that many police magistrates
exerted tight control over the convict police. Even though instances of drunkenness, and corruption did occur, settlers of all classes could complain and
expect action and restitution. While few may have fully shared Arthur’s appraisal of the police as being “the best character, active, intelligent” of the
convicts who were landed, some indeed were.
However, at least one settler on the Macquarie River was prepared to defend the local police in a letter
to the editor of the Launceston Advertiser. Vindex argued that the problems found amongst convict police in Van Diemen’s Land were not unique to the
colony and that similar problems existed amongst the free police in Britain. He believed that “in the main, the police system works well.”