'Not a very attractive city'

As per the former Police Magistrate WRO Hill recollections in Forty-Five Years' Experience in the North Queensland, 1861 to 1905, Brisbane of the early 1860s was 'not a very attractive city, with uniform streets, atrociously kept shops, and houses few and far between...Bullock teams frequently blocked the thoroughfare'. In 1861, Brisbane census recorded a population of 6051 and 1,144 (1,115 inhabited) buildings, by 1864 the town's population doubled to 12,551. 

On 1 January 1864, 26 ordinary Constables took to the Brisbane streets. Vigilant guardianship of person and property was one of the key principles of police duty. A nascent Queensland Constable took an oath to see and cause Her Majesty’s peace to be kept and preserved, and to prevent, to the best of his power, all offences against the same. Absence of crime was considered the very best evidence that could be given of the complete efficiency of the police. At the time ordinary police to population ratio was one police officer to 600 inhabitants. 


'At the trial, the constable's face still bore evidence of gross ill-usage.'

Despite the limited police presence, thousands of persons were apprehended annually and appeared before the Police Magistrates daily. The majority of cases heard were offences against good order:

  • drunkenness
  • drunk and disorderly behaviour
  • larceny
  • assaults
  • assaults on police
  • resisting arrest
  • rescuing or aiding a rescue of a prisoner
  • obstructing a Constable during execution of his duty

After drunkenness and common assaults, offences against the police formed the most numerous sub-category tried at the Police Courts:

On the night of 16 February 1880, Constable Elliot* had occasion to arrest George Hawkins in the centre of Caxton-street, opposite Caxton Hotel, a landmark notorious for overindulging and disorderly behaviour. Hawkins resisted the constable, striking him on the face and other parts of the body. During the struggle, Hawkins bit Constable Elliot and tore off a portion of his whiskers. At the trial, the constable’s face still bore evidence of gross ill-usage. The bench found the defendant guilty, and fined him £3, to be recovered by a levy and distress, or in default of distress, one month’s imprisonment. A cross-case arising out of this, in which Hawkins charged the Constable with assaulting him, was dismissed, after several witnesses had been examined. ('City Police Court', Brisbane Courier, 26 February 1880, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article902464)


Court records show, as a rule, drunk and disorderly behaviour walked hand-in-hand with assaults, and assaults on police especially.

Over the ensuing decades Brisbane developed into a booming colonial metropolis. Between 1861 and 1901, its population increased twenty-fold to 123,085 persons, but so did its police presence.  Anonymity afforded by the sheer size of populations, increasing mobility and the complexity of the built landscape of the burgeoning cities encouraged the growth of opportunistic crime, such as false pretences. In addition to physical tests, the educational tests soon became necessary for all candidates for the police as a prerequisite for recruitment to the force. In Brisbane, the Police Museum was used for the purpose of instructing the men in the various methods employed by criminals. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, a knowledge of basic forensic method had become the required norm.


'Criminal Underbelly'

Along with Queensland Police Museum, we would like to invite you to come join an ordinary patrol Constable on a beat of colonial Brisbane and experience its bustling street life, but foremost its criminal underbelly. Policing Colonial Brisbane consolidates historical information regarding the key aspects of urban life in Brisbane from 1859 to 1901. The project recreates the daily interactions of Brisbanites as told by actions and words of the participants themselves, captured in sworn and expert witness statements as part of police courts records.

The main digital feature of the project is an interactive historical crime map of colonial Brisbane, today's CBD.  Those who prefer a physical book and a more continuous narrative will be able to explore the criminal underbelly of Brisbane’s past in the publication. The book will be supplemented by an exhibit at the Queensland Police Museum which will display beat police memorabilia, such as the ‘tools of the trade,’ records of notable cases, and images from their photographic collection. 


Queen Street c 1859. Source: SLQ

Police parade 'Under Arms' at Petrie Terrace Police Depot, 1867. Source: QP Museum

City Brewery, Perkins & Co, 1872-1882. Source: SLQ

Sub-Inspectors, Senior Sergeants, Sergeants and Senior Constables stationed at Brisbane during 1888 outside Roma Street Barracks (PM064a).  Source: QP Museum

Police on beat duty c 1900, Queen Street. Source: QP Museum

Police on beat duty c 1900, Queen Street. Source: QP Museum