South Australia was formally colonised by the British in December 1836. Unlike the eastern colonies of Australia, it was not a penal settlement and all migrants were free settlers. It was hoped that by attracting this type of migrant a respectable society would grow in South Australia, separated as it was from the east by vast unexplored distances.

No professional police were sent with the small cohort of initial settlers, although the Colonisation Commissioners intended to establish a police service as soon as warranted by population increase.  In the meantime, temporary volunteer constables, whose appointment was provided for under English law, would provide law and order. Additionally, protection of the Governor and first settlers was to be augmented by Royal Marines from HMS Buffalo, which vessel had brought the Governor to the new land.

The emigrants brought with them to the new colony their British laws and institutions. To dispel any doubts which might have existed among the colonists as to which laws and statutes of England were legally binding on the colony, an Act was gazetted in February 1840 which stated that:

"all the laws and statutes which were in force in England on the 28th day of December 1836 so far as the same are applicable to the circumstances of this Province....shall be deemed to be part of the laws of this Province."

For most of 1837, the first year of colonisation, there were only a few thousand settlers. Nevertheless, within weeks of his arrival Governor Hindmarsh was already dreading the inevitable departure of the Royal Marines and lamenting as to what he should do without a small military force:

"It is true that I can institute a police force, but whom am I to make a policeman? Those of sufficiently respectable character are able to earn much higher wages than I dare offer, and I am restricted in the salary to a police magistrate to £100 a year. Where shall I get a gentleman fit to do such a duty who will give up his time for so small a sum?"

As a population, the earliest colonists were predominantly young, many being single males. Most of these were industrious and law-abiding, but a few were hot-headed and too fond of grog, which was liberally available. Ructions among them quickly obliged Hindmarsh to appoint a suitable settler to the ancient office of constable. The first reference to such an office appears in the Colonial Secretary's correspondence on 6th January 1837. This instructs the Colonial Storekeeper to furnish a settler named William Williams, who had been given the title High Constable for the district, with 3 braces of pistols, 3 swords, and 24 ball cartridges, all for the purpose of his office. Like the marines who had accompanied Hindmarsh to the colony, the High Constable was to be amply armed.

William Williams
William Williams, appointed 1837 as part-time 'High Constable'
(State Library of SA, B5839)

Williams’ first policing action, a few weeks after appointment, was to prevent colonists from unlawfully supplying Aboriginals with liquor at the landing place at Holdfast Bay. Williams immediately took an interest in Aboriginal culture and became one of the very few colonists to learn the Indigenous Kaurna language. As with all the special constables who followed over the next fifteen months, Williams only worked part-time at policing, being paid a small retainer plus fees for services rendered.

Williams was joined in March 1837 by Robert Keate Hill. Formerly a captain in the East India Company’s employment, Hill had arrived as third officer on the brig Rapid. That same month a brawl broke out among some drunken marines from HMS Buffalo. Constable Hill and Advocate-General Charles Mann intervened to arrest four of them, in the course of which Hill was bludgeoned on the head. There was not yet a gaol and so these prisoners, as with all others, were held in irons aboard HMS Buffalo. Hill resigned soon after, as did Williams, who retained office for only five months.

The vacant position of constable was advertised in only the third issue of the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register, stating "persons desirous of becoming candidates for the situation may apply at the office of the Colonial Secretary between the hours of ten and twelve in the forenoon". However, this position was never a popular one and it was difficult to find a suitable settler willing to accept it.

Nor could the constable rely upon the marines for support as they were found to be unsatisfactory and, due to a lavish Royal Navy grog ration, were not always sober! In some ways it was a relief when in June 1837 HMS Buffalo sailed away to Sydney, taking all the Royal Marines except a sergeant’s platoon of twenty that Hindmarsh ‘temporarily detained’. These marines, under Sergeant Richard Mew, formed an encampment at about the present Botanic Gardens where, because they also acted as gaolers, they kept prisoners chained to a tree.

Oscar John Lines was the successful applicant to fill Williams’ vacancy, his appointment dating from July 1837. A few months later Lines resigned to become a publican, being followed in September 1837 by William Henry Gray. Indeed, through until April 1838 there was a succession of these special constables, most of whom served only a few months before going on to become successful settlers, some of them quite wealthy, while others later enlisted as police constables. Their names include James Windebank, Andrew Birrell, Henry Alford, James Samuel Hately and William Anderson. That these special constables were only prepared to hold office for brief terms appears to vindicate the earlier complaint of Hindmarsh.

1838 recruitment notice announcing formation of SAPOL
(Mitchell Library, D356/4, No.38)

The fact that the office of special constable was by the authority of the magistrates and the courts sheds some light on the nature of the duties involved. As well as the less specified and common law duties of apprehending offenders, preventing crime, and maintaining public good order; summonses were to be issued, warrants executed, and the increasing number of gazetted Government Orders and Acts enforced. While the marines, who had no commanding commissioned officer, and whose duties were largely uncertain, were under the direct control of the Governor, the magistrates controlled the constables.

There was duality and confusion in the area of law enforcement, and in the respective roles to be played by both the military presence and the civil authority. The marines, when sober and not the cause of disturbances themselves, were occupied principally as gaolers.

By November 1837, with more immigrants arriving, Governor Hindmarsh realised that a permanent police force was now an urgent necessity. Further, there was an influx from the eastern states of criminals and runaway convicts who considered the free settlers to be ‘easy game’. Hindmarsh wrote to the Colonial Office, stating he envisaged a force of twenty young men, half for mounted duty and half as foot police. Lord Glenelg agreed, instructing Hindmarsh to prepare a cost estimate. 

Since replies to despatches took around five months by sailing ship, Hindmarsh didn’t receive the cost estimate approval from Lord Glenelg until March 1838. Dramatic events in Adelaide that same month precipitated matters. Following a burglary, a murder, and two attempted murders, settlers became so alarmed that the whole colonial venture was at risk. Governor Hindmarsh decided to press ahead immediately and resolve funding issues later. Months later this decision was to cause such a funding crisis that the new police force was on the brink of being disbanded.  

It was the attempted murder of Sheriff Samuel Smart that brought matters to a head. Two suspects had been promptly arrested, while special constables were in pursuit of another, when Hindmarsh appointed 21-year-old former cavalry officer Henry Inman to the position of Inspector of Police, instructing him to create a police force. Inman, who had been decorated for gallantry in action during the First Carlist War in Spain, had arrived from England on the Royal Admiral in January 1838. The title of Commissioner was not yet the fashion for the commander of a police force in Britain or its dominions but in effect, if not by title, Inman was its first Commissioner. Notices were posted on trees about Adelaide stating “Wanted for the police force about to be raised – twenty active young men”. 

The creation of the South Australian Police Force, since renamed the South Australia Police, was gazetted on 28 April 1838. That same day tenders were advertised to construct a mounted police barracks at North Terrace, Adelaide. Inspector Inman promptly recruited men and purchased necessary horses and equipment. These men were the first professional and salaried police in South Australia.

In accordance with instructions from Hindmarsh he organised the police into two distinct divisions, foot police for the town of Adelaide and a para-military mounted police. The latter, with cavalry standards, were fully armed and prepared for mobile operations at the frontiers of settlement.  The new police force rapidly established a presence of law and order among the pioneers, their first important task being to oversee the first public execution – that of Michael Magee who had fired at Sheriff Smart. When Hindmarsh was recalled on 16 July 1838, he took all the Royal Marines with him, leaving the police with the additional task of running the gaol.

In the meantime, unbeknown to those in Adelaide, in June 1838 the Colonisation Commissioners had recruited two experienced sub-inspectors from the London Metropolitan Police for the purpose of creating a police force. The men – James Stuart and William Baker Ashton – promptly sailed to South Australia on full pay, along with their families. Unbeknown to those in London, the force was already formed and operating. When Stuart and Ashton arrived in November 1838 they both then served under Inman, adding valuable civilian policing expertise to the fledgling organisation. 

William Baker Ashton, former London policeman
and governor of gaol 1839.

At this time the police cost the Treasury forty pounds (£40) per week. When on 17 October 1838 Governor Gawler succeeded Governor Hindmarsh, Inman was raised to the status of Superintendent. At the same time Inman lost sole control, as Gawler was concerned to see that the police had proper administrative oversight.  This was because Inman tended to ‘lead from the saddle’, focussing on operational policing to the detriment of important administrative matters. Gawler also felt the police should have a stronger military flavour and discipline.  Gawler created a board of four honorary part-time ‘Commissioners of Police’. They were Colonial Secretary Robert Gouger, Advocate General Robert Burnard, and two citizen Justices of the Peace, Thomas Shuldham O’Halloran and John Walker. O’Halloran was formerly a major in the British Army, while Walker was a former Royal Navy lieutenant.  The board lasted only five months. 

The existence of the new police force under Superintendent Inman was well accepted by the settlers and became a necessary and integral part of the life of the colony. Soon after it was established the frontiers of settlement were able to expand rapidly. As these expanded, conflict between settlers and Aboriginals then caused concern in the settler community, leading to an increase in police strength.

In 1839 the Executive Council, in order to fulfil a guarantee made to the settlers by the Colonisation Commissioners, placed the formation of the police force on a formal basis by the introduction of an Act that became known as the Police Act.  Passed on 11 October 1839, it set out the legislation for such matters as appointment of officers and men, oaths of office, and penalties for neglect of duty.

In January 1840 an outbreak of bush-ranging in the Mount Lofty Ranges severely tested the resources of the developing organisation but Inman and his police soon brought the culprits to justice. On 3 April 1840 Gawler reported to Executive Council that the police, ‘preserved both the town and the rural districts in a state of tranquillity which is not surpassed in the most favoured portions of the mother country, or of any nation in the world’. The public were therefore surprised when on 18 May 1840 Gawler ‘regretfully’ dismissed Inman due to a conflict of interest in the purchase of hay for the police horses. At that time the police comprised one superintendent, two inspectors, three sergeants and forty-seven constables.

In June 1840 Gawler appointed Major O’Halloran, one of the Board of Police Commissioners, to command the police along with a new title – Commissioner of Police – the first salaried officer in that capacity, after which the Board was abolished.  Since that time the Commissioner of Police has been the sole source of orders from the Government, being responsible for the efficiency and discipline of the South Australia Police.

Max Slee.

Mounted police barracks, North Terrace, c.1841, by S.T. Gill (National
Library of Australia, NK2038/6)



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