Alexander Tolmer


Commissioner Alexander Tolmer



From the following publications ;- ‘Some Adventures of Alexander Tolmer’ by Murray Tonkin, ‘Colonial Blue’ by Robert Clyne, ‘South Australia Police 1838-2003’ by Chas Hopkins, ‘Tales of the Troopers’ by Jean Schmaal, ‘Australian Dictionary of Biography’ by J Mayo and ‘Reminiscences Volume 1 & 2 ’ by Alexander Tolmer.

Alexander Tolmer is a very important part of our Police History.  He was the first Commissioner to be drawn from the ranks.  He probably saved South Australia from bankruptcy with the Gold Escorts for which he was hailed a hero by the people of South Australia. 

He was, quarrelsome, hasty tempered, blunt, flamboyant and would not  suffer fools gladly.  These are but a few of the terms to describe this  remarkable man. 
He was born in England in 1815, his father French and his mother German.  He was taught French by his father who intended him to be a teacher, but the rebellious Tolmer had other ideas and ran away to sea but did not enjoy the experience.  He joined the British Legion 6th Lancers Portugal Department  fighting for Queen Donna Maria against her brother Don Miguel who disputed her right to the throne.  At 17 years of age he was a veteran and had been seriously wounded in battle.  Queen Sophie herself decorated him with the Portuguese Order of the Tower and Sword in 1833.  (This medal is on display in our museum in the Bob Potts Gallery)

The Portuguese Order of the Tower and Sword.

He was 21 years of age and acting adjutant and riding master of Britain’s crack cavalry finishing school where he was overlooked for promotion.  As a result he approached a friend of his father named Randall who advised him to go to the new Colony of South Australia. He bought Tolmer out of the army and paid fares for the trip for his family, wife Mary, son Horace and Sister Elizabeth Carter.

Tolmer 17-19yrs age in the uniform of the 6th

Tolmer 17-19yrs age in the  uniform of the 6th lancers.

They sailed in the “Brankanmoore” and eventually arrived at Port Adelaide in 1840 travelling in a bullock dray to Hindley Street where they stayed at the Black Bull Hotel for their first night.  He visited Governor Gawler with his letter of introduction from his Commanding Officer Colonel Brotherton.  Gawler had fought alongside  Brotherton at the battle of Waterloo. The Governor appointed Tolmer as a Sub Inspector  responsible for training Foot and Mounted Divisions. He was also appointed Captain and adjutant of cavalry in the Volunteer Militia.
The force was headed by Superintendent Inman and this was to prove to be a difficult relationship.  Not long after this Inman was forced to leave the police force and Thomas O’Halloran was appointed as the  first Commissioner of Police

Tolmer proved to be an excellent horseman and policeman and was active in chasing cattle rustlers and horse thieves. He accompanied Thomas O’Halloran’s force which executed two aboriginals who had  allegedly killed the survivors of the “Maria”.  Tolmer led many expeditions to prevent trouble between settlers and aboriginals and spent much time in the bush pursuing cattle thieves, murderers, smugglers and seeking illicit stills.  His duties also took him to Tasmania and Victoria.

 He was prone to the odd mistake and on one occasion, when on horseback in Rundle Street, he recognised an escaped convict, Patrick Murphy who had £100 on his head.  With great flourish he rode up and grabbed the man by the shoulder.  His spurs dug into his horse which reared up in protest and he was thrown to the ground. Tolmer was then involved in a fight with the  offender, much to the amusement of the many onlookers.  Murphy broke away and ran into the Plough and Harrow Hotel,  pursued by Tolmer.  Another fight followed watched by the many spectators in the hotel who thoroughly enjoyed this impromptu entertainment.

Tolmer led the offender towards King William Street where the man broke away again and ran into Pearce’s Tailor Shop to the astonishment of Mr Pearce, with both men jumping over the counter. ( Mr Pearce was the Uncle of Trooper Pearce who was murdered near Kingston.)  Tolmer  subdued the man again and took him to the Police Station (now the GPO) where Inspector Stewart had doubts about the identity of this man.  Tolmer left to retrieve his horse and in the meantime, Inspector Stewart took him to a Magistrate who released him.  Murphy made his escape and was never seen again. It was later established that Tolmer did indeed have the right man, and he made a formal complaint.

Tolmer was promoted to Commissioner of Police on 3rd February 1852 at a critical time for the Colony.  He wrote to Queen Victoria requesting her permission to wear his medal and after a long period of time she replied with a refusal.  He wore it anyway ignoring the Royal refusal.  Gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851 and most able bodied men left the Colony for the goldfields taking cash and leaving spouses and children behind almost destitute.  The Colony was almost bankrupt, with  merchants heavily in debt.   The banks needed sufficient gold in their vaults to redeem notes.  The Bullion Act was passed and Tolmer proposed police escorted trips to the goldfields.  He did not receive a   reply but instead received an order to  reduce the force by 50 men by the end of the month.
Eventually his scheme was accepted and he looked for a shorter route to the diggings via “Scotts Wood Creek Base”.  After making his first trip, he returned with gold from the diggings after issuing  receipts to the SA gold miners.  He was hailed a hero by the public and probably saved the colony from bankruptcy.  He also modestly suggested that a Police Station and town be established at “Scotts Wood Creek Base” and that it should be call Tolmer-town after himself.  His suggestion was rejected by the establishment who were openly hostile to this upstart and they decided to call the town by its present name “Bordertown”.  He made 3 such trips and others were later made without him.  These gold escorts were very difficult in otherwise unknown country with bushrangers waiting for an opportunity to rob, difficult terrain and at times crossing  rivers by removing wheels of the cart, and manhandling the cart across rivers.

Sign Gold Escort Route– Mt Alexander .

Historical sign completed 12th September 1963 by Wimmera Shire Council in conjunction with Country Roads Board of Victoria to mark where the old escort route from Mount Alexander (near Castlemaine) to Adelaide crossed the Western Highway 4 miles north west of Horsham ( although the present highway did not exist in 1852). The route was pioneered by a South Australian Surveyor McLaren and used by Tolmer for the 1st 4 escorts.

When he returned from his third escort, he found that Inspector Stuart left in charge had made a hash of things.    Tolmer was reduced in rank to Inspector in 1/3/1853, raised to  Senior Inspector in 1854 and Superintendent in 1855.  He left the service in 1856 when his position was abolished due to budget cuts.
Tolmer experimented with the First Detective Division and established Water Police to patrol the Port River as well as a native police force. He also proposed a superannuation scheme for police.   He was a competent artist with watercolours and sketches, one of which found its way into Queen Victoria’s possession.  He was a good musician and played the violin while his wife played the harp.  He was also an inventor, designing an improved ammunition pouch for light cavalry (whilst in the British Army) and designed and patented a breakwater at the Murray Mouth involving a system of hinged plates.

He also designed a bridge over the River Torrens.  This caused the Surveyor General considerable umbrage as he had designed a bridge that would have cost £20,000 whereas the bridge designed by Tolmer was to cost £1,000.  The Surveyor General got his way and his bridge was built, only to be washed away in a flood 12 months later.  The remains of this bridge can still be seen on the banks of the Torrens (south bank– West of the Convention Centre).

Tolmer became involved in a trading venture on Lake Alexandrina which failed, as did his attempt to cross Australia from South to North in 1859 and a grazing enterprise on Emu Springs and Reedy Well runs in the South East.  He was appointed a Crown Lands Ranger in 1862 and in 1877 sub-inspector of credit lands.  He retired in 1885 and invested his money in Broken Hill mining shares
Tolmer’s wife Mary passed away in 1867 leaving 3 sons.  He married Jane Douglass in 1869 at Mount Schank Station and had four daughters and two sons.  He died of uraemia at Mitcham on 7th March 1890 survived by his wife and large family, and was buried in Mitcham cemetery after an Anglican service.  His estate for probate was valued at £8350.  .



The Tolmer family of second marriage, James, Bert,
Elizabeth, Bell, Jane (wife), Nell, Richard.

Tolmer’s gravestone in the  Mitcham Cemetery



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