In the Shadow of Ned Kelly

The Study of Australian Police History

Author: Superintendent Robert Haldane APM, PH.D, BA (Hon)

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This article was first published in the The Australian Police Journal Vol. 54. No. 4 December, 2000.

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"I think the British police are helped by their history, by the picture and tradition of restraint and of public service.
I think the Australians are handicapped gravely by Ned Kelly and his myths and traditions."
(AAP - September 1982)

This observation was made by Sir Colin Woods on his return to London after a three year stay in Australia as the first Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. To say that Australians are handicapped gravely by Ned Kelly is perhaps an overstatement and is certainly open to contention. Considering that Ned Kelly, despite being a convicted police murderer, has been ranked as one of Australia's most prominent heroes, Sir Colin's observation is a bit like saying that the English are gravely handicapped by the mythology surrounding Robin Hood. If, however, Sir Colin had suggested that the study of policing in Australia languished while authors and researchers for many years displayed a preoccupation with Ned Kelly and others of his ilk, he would have been closer to the mark.


Australian Federal Police Commissioner Sir Colin Woods (right),
who was a visitor from the UK and who so succinctly identified
Australia's 'Ned Kelly Syndrome'. Photographed here in 1980 with
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner S.I. (Mick) Miller, who has
arguably done more for the promotion and preservation of Australian
police history than any other commissioner.



Our libraries are rich with Kellyana and new material is generated by scholars and authors each year as they pursue Kelly through a labyrinth of archival material. In the years since his execution more material has been published about Kelly and his gang than has been published about all the Australian police forces since their formation in the eighteenth century. One bibliography of Kellyana lists over 350 items and this number increased greatly after the centenary of his death in 1980.

Ned Kelly, police murderer, who not only robbed banks but who for a
century has also stolen the Australian historical limelight.

The range of Kellyana includes detailed studies by accomplished historians such as Professor John Molony and Doctor John McQuilton, and a spate of lesser works which deal in detail with such things as Ned Kelly's school days - the classroom was fifteen feet wide - his sympathisers and his trial. So much has been written about Kelly that one book about him was introduced with the reassurance, `Yes! There was, after all, room for yet another book on Ned Kelly'. And room or not there will undoubtedly be others to follow.


In addition to the wealth of Kellyana there is a plethora of publications bedevilled by the 'famous crimes and criminals syndrome', featuring bushrangers and other notorious characters - and police adversaries - such as John Wren,  Squizzy Taylor, Eddie Leonski, and more recently the likes of Raymond Edmunds, Mark Brandon Read and Paul Denyer. Libraries and bookshops are brimming with material about criminals and their underworld, with police often rating only a tangential mention, usually in a crime context featuring a lionised detective, such as David O'Donnell. Indeed, even the scholarly Australian Dictionary of Biography, which includes O'Donnell, contains entries about Kelly, Wren, Taylor and other criminals but does not include such noteworthy policemen as Frederick Downie, who was a world pioneer in the use of wireless in police cars (refer to front cover), Lionel Potter, who was a pioneer in the use of fingerprints in Australia, or William Brooks, who organised and led Australia's only police strike.

Victoria police Constable William Thomas Brooks, leader and organiser of Australia's only police strike, who has been largely overlooked by historians and editors of biographical reference works.


In stark contrast to the rich sources of published material about Ned Kelly and those of his ilk, there has been a relative dearth of research and publications relevant to the police. Duncan Chappell and Paul Wilson in their noted book about police in Australia, lamented the lack of published historical data and observed that there were, 'fruitful fields of study still open for Ph.D and other students who wish to examine aspects of the historical development of Australasian police forces'. This rich potential for research is not restricted to university studies or major writings about large organisations but also includes almost unlimited opportunity for local historical research focussing on individual police stations, specialist sections, personalities and innovations.

Criminals and their activities do have a place in history and literature, and it is perhaps desirable that people know something about the life and influence of people such as Ned Kelly. However, the focus on bushrangers and criminals has contributed to a paucity of research and literature about the police. A Mitchell Library catalogue published in the 1960s listed fewer than two hundred items in a section on Australasian police forces and this trend continues in the internet age, where a search of the world wide web discloses twice as many entries for Ned Kelly as it does for Australian policing. Much of the published material relevant to police in Australia is antiquarian in style or in the form of personal reminiscences, the most notable works being those of William Burrows (1859), Alexander Tolmer (1882), Francis Augustus Hare (1892), Edward B. Kennedy (1902), John Sadleir (1911), A. L. Haydon (1911), J. B. Castieau (1913), Thomas O'Callaghan (c.1921), M. O'Sullivan (1935), Ion L. Idriess (1935), H.E. Graves (1937), E. Morrow (1937) and G. M. O'Brien (1960). One feature of this genre is the wide range of material describing `outback' police adventures and this is one area where Australian police history publications parallel the bountiful Canadian literature about rugged police life in Canada's far north-west. In the sixty years spanning 1920 - 1980, only a handful of books were written about aspects of police history in Australia. Not one of them was by a recognised historian and none contained full footnotes or bibliography. Academics, students, historians - and police themselves - almost universally avoided the subject. Several Australian police agencies, including Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales have produced modest `public relations' or centenary style publications but there is still scope in most jurisdictions for the publication of comprehensive organisational histories.

Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Thomas O'Callaghan, who displayed an active interest in the study of early Australian police history and was the President of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

There have been a number of significant university works including A.J. O'Meara's M.A. thesis on The Establishment and Development of the Role of Women Police in Victoria and the earlier work by A.H. King in 1956 on colonial police organisation and administration in New South Wales. Perhaps the most studied university topic relevant to Australian police history has been the Victoria Police strike which has been the subject of many theses and essays exploring almost every aspect of the strike.

It was only as recent as 1986 that a comprehensive history of the Victoria police was first published. This coincided with the publication of a police history in New Zealand (1986), and was followed by similar publications in South Australia (1987) and Queensland (1992). In Victoria, in particular, the last twenty years have seen a renaissance of interest in police history, sparked by the then Chief Commissioner S. I. 'Mick' Miller with his idea for the production of Police in Victoria (1980), and his active support for the writing of The People's Force (1986). These works were conceived contemporaneously with the formation of a Police Historical Society and Police Historical Unit and the appointment of a Police Historian: innovations which have generated considerable interest in Victoria police history and have been instrumental in the development of a police museum, the compilation of an honour roll and the publication of such works as Cops and Robbers (1990), In the Performance of Duty (1994), Arresting Women (1997), True Blue (1997) and For God's Sake Send The Trackers (1998).

The earlier initiatives of Mr Miller have been consolidated by Chief Commissioner M.N. Comrie, a third-generation member of the Victoria police, who has actively fostered interest in the force's heritage and facilitated the display of historical photographs throughout the Victoria Police Centre in Melbourne.

This historical activity at the macro level has been matched at the local level with a number of police stations displaying local police photographs and service records and the publication of police station histories at Prahran (1988), Traralgon (1989) and Mildura (1992); the history of the Victoria Police Highland Pipe Band (1986); the history of the Police Transport Branch (1997) and the published recollections of retired policewoman Elaine Brown, I Wore the Blue (1986).

Ned Kelly


An interesting aspect of almost all of this recent work is that, like the earlier work of Burrows, Hare, Sadleir, O'Callaghan and O'Brien, it has been the product of policemen or others closely associated with the police service. With the exception of a limited number of works, such as those of Marie Hansen Fels, Good Men and True (1988) and John Lahey, Damn You, John Christie! (1993), the study and publication of material relevant to aspects of Australian police history has been left largely to the police. This contrasts sharply with the interest shown by academics, authors, jurists, historians and sundry others, in the lives and times of criminals and bushrangers. Perhaps the police themselves have been partly - largely? - to blame for this skewed research focus, in that police agencies have traditionally functioned as `closed shops', not particularly welcoming of `outsiders' wanting access to archives, interviews or information. Again, it has only been since the advent of the Police Historical Unit and the production of historical data on microfiche, such as the Gibson Index of watch-house book entries and the Members Index, listing the names of past members of the Victoria Police, that the force has actively shared its wealth of historical data with genealogists and other outside researchers.

Police have been present at or part of virtually every major public event in Australia since the beginnings of white settlement and during that time they have been an integral part of society's efforts to cope with major disasters, critical incidents, searches, the regulation of motor vehicles and general criminal activity. The vital role of the police in Australian society and the relative neglect of the historical study of this institution is underscored by the Victoria Police strike of 1923, when Melbourne was torn apart by violence and looting during a police strike lasting six days. It stands as the only strike by policemen in the history of Australia and is one of the most significant police strikes to have occurred anywhere in the world since policing as we know it began. Yet notwithstanding the ongoing interest shown by students and others, it remained the only such police strike not to have been the subject of a major published historical study until 1998. Given the extent to which police have permeated Australian life and impacted on the social fabric of Australians in all States and Territories, the reasons why the study of their role in history has been so ignored needs addressing.

The field of police history is ripe for research and rich with an exciting range of source material, including substantial collections of archives, extensive newspaper reports, photographs, and the personal reminiscences of thousands of police - men and women, serving and retired - some of whom can go back to the years before World War 1.

In this context there is also considerable scope in Australia for the publication of biographical and autobiographical accounts about former and serving police officers, who have made outstanding personal contributions to the development of policing in this country or who have led interesting and varied careers from which we all might learn. We would all benefit from Australian versions of works such as Sir Roberts Marks autobiographical, In The Office of Constable or Retired Assistant Chief Constable John Stalker's harrowing experiences detailed in his book Stalker.

The London Metropolitan Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police have fostered a veritable industry founded upon the research, development and promotion of their historical heritage. In addition to a wide range of books and other publications there is produced a kaleidoscopic array of 'police' tea pots, tea towels, postcards, placemats, toys, souvenirs and other collectibles. Imagine returning from a holiday to Australia, a copy of a police history tucked under the arm for oneself, a police tea towel for mum and a Commissioners teapot for grandma! Other agencies, such as the New York City police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the then Royal Hong Kong Police Force, have too managed to foster extensive research into their history and the promotion of their forces with such imagery as `Asia's Finest'. The products of this research and promotion might not always be empirically sound or balanced, but the level of research, publication and public interest stands in stark contrast to that shown, until relatively recently, in police history in Australia.

There is no experiential basis for this difference. Prominent overseas police agencies have for years been featured in movies and television programmes, but that is equally true of Australian police services. The traditions, deeds, courage, and range of duties of Australian police more than matches those of the more famous overseas police departments. Likewise the misdeeds, levels of corruption, incompetence and maladministration of Australian police services does not exceed and is arguably much lower than many `respected' overseas police departments. Australian police might not wear scarlet jackets or bobby helmets but the level of invention, innovation, community service and investigative expertise has frequently been world class: there being no better exemplar than Frederick Downie, whose revolutionary work in the 1920s developed the world's first wireless communication using a touring police car. The positive community contribution of many police has certainly been deserving of far greater recognition than the misdeeds of bandits and rogues.

Whilst the list of published material relevant to Australian police history discussed here is not exhaustive, it is evident that the study of police history in this country has been neglected and we might not ever know for certain why this has occurred. Perhaps it has been due in part to our convict heritage, our supposed egalitarian anti-authoritarianism, the Ned Kelly syndrome, a societal pre-occupation with things pertaining to crime and criminals, or the relative neglect of police history by police. Is it reasonable for police to expect others to show an interest in their heritage when they have so neglected it themselves?


If the police and the community - of which they are part and which they serve - are to prosper together and avoid the mistakes of the past, they must heed the lessons of history. There are few genuinely new problems or ideas in the world of policing: the basic tenets have not changed in over 150 years. Many things are cyclical and there is much to learn from what has gone before. The history of Australian policing has been punctuated by recurrent corruption allegations and inquiries, administrative reorganisations and restructurings, examples of ineptitude and maladministration by police leaders, and police forces being at odds with rapidly changing technologies, social conditions and community expectations. Too often these crises in policing have been confronted in an historical void - without using the knowledge of the past. The study and use of police historical data can be a valuable management aid, provided that police accept that not every policing challenge is a 'new' problem. It is also important to understand that history is created as it happens. History is not inviolate and antiquarian. It is dynamic and ever-evolving. Only a naive technocrat would believe that the history of the world starts tomorrow and have his gaze fixed on the future without a keen eye on the events of the past.

Overseas police forces, notably the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and London Metropolitan Police, have demonstrated beyond doubt that the study and promotion of police history develops a sense of organisational heritage and pride, builds camaraderie, helps foster a positive public image, and provides a rich knowledge base on which to build a future.

In Australia we have much of which we can be proud - and which we should learn and promote. It is time for our research efforts, interest, public promotion and knowledge of police history to at least match or surpass the attention given to bushrangers and criminals. For too long the achievements of Australian police and the study of their history has languished in the shadow of Ned Kelly.


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- Robert Haldane (2009)

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