Police Remembrance Day Address
Dr. Robert Haldane has presented the Police Remembrance Day address a number of times over recent years at Melbourne, Morwell, Sale and Bairnsdale. Although each address had local flavour, the general gist of the address is presented below.
Police Remembrance Day Address 2004 – Doctor Robert Haldane
‘Ordinary Lives – Outstanding People’
When The People’s Force was first published in 1986 I included in it
Angela Rose Taylor, Steven Tynan, Damian Eyre, Gary Silk and Rodney Miller are names eternally etched into the Victoria Police touchstone and are household names throughout much of Australia: they are the very essence of the ethos that underpins Police Remembrance Day and the Blue Ribbon Foundation.
The first Police Remembrance Day in Australia, introduced by the Australian police commissioners to honour those police killed on duty, was held on 29 September 1989 to coincide with the Feast Day of Saint Michael, Archangel and Patron Saint of Police.
Blue Ribbon Day began spontaneously in 1998 as part of the massive community response to the murders of Sergeant Gary Silk and Senior Constable Rod Miller. Marked every year since then, Blue Ribbon Day now coincides with Police Remembrance Day: a day of remembrance and expression of community support for all police around the world.
But it has not always been thus. During my research for The People’s Force I wrote and presented an academic paper titled In the shadow of Ned Kelly: the study of police history and during seminars I would challenge members of the audience to name the three policemen murdered by the Kelly Gang: no one ever could but many not surprisingly could name the recalcitrant Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick.
I recall once asking this question, eliciting the tentative response from one daring soul that ‘I don’t know his name but I think one of them was Irish’. Not a bad guess considering that all three murdered policemen were Irish-born: as was about 82 per cent of the Victoria Police Force at the time of the Kelly Outbreak.
And in their relative anonymity, Michael Kennedy, Michael Scanlan and Thomas Lonigan were not alone. If history had allowed the victims of Australia’s worst police massacre to fade into obscurity - mere bit players in the Ned Kelly sideshow - then what chance those like Patrick Conarty and William Harnetty, who died accidentally while quietly doing their job: Harnetty drowned in 1956 at Bet Bet, while trying to rescue flood-bound sheep and Conarty was killed in 1862 when struck by a falling tree.
Conarty’s case in particular not only gives us an insight into the solitary lot of ordinary policemen in the nineteenth century but also highlights both the sad neglect of much of our history for decades and the recent efforts to make amends.
Conarty was the first policemen appointed to Rosedale and in May 1862, together with another member, he was escorting two prisoners to Dandenong when they stopped near Moe Creek to speak to a potential witness in a forthcoming court case. While they were talking a partly grubbed tree fell and killed Conarty. An inquest into his death was held at the Eagle Hotel, Moe and a local carpenter removed the floor boards from another local hotel to make a coffin: Conarty was then buried at the Rosedale cemetery in a grave that remained unmarked for 130 years. Not until the 1990s and the interest of Senior Sergeant Eric Duffy was a plaque placed on his grave.
In 1979, when at the behest of Chief Commissioner S.I. ‘Mick’ Miller, I first started research into the origins and development of the Victoria Police, there was no honour roll or other accurate listing of those members killed or seriously injured on duty and no published record of the exemplary achievements of Victoria’s finest. Not only had they created history without knowing it: they were themselves largely unknown. Much work lay ahead for the then yet-to-be-formed Police Historical Society and Police Historical Unit.
Policing began in Victoria, then the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, in September 1836, when three policemen from Sydney arrived in Hobson’s Bay aboard a ship aptly named the Rattlesnake. It proved an inglorious start to policing in the Colony, for each of them was soon in turn dismissed for being ‘repeatedly drunk’ (James Dwyer), being ‘repeatedly absent from duty’ (Robert Day) and ‘taking a bribe from a prisoner’ (Joseph William Hooson).
Over the years journalists and academics have made much of this inauspicious start: newspaper articles trumpeting ‘State’s first police were drunken, corrupt’. What they did not also tell us was that Dwyer’s replacement, Constable Matthew Tomkin, was murdered by an escaped convict named George Comerford on 30 December 1837. The first policeman murdered in Victoria, his death in that fledgling settlement underscored the risks posed by policing and was an augury of things to come.
From the disparate and motley crews that policed Victoria from 1836 was formed the Victoria Police Force in 1853 and the first member of the ‘new’ force murdered on duty was Sergeant John McNally, who was shot and killed by prison escapees on 16 October 1856. Sub-Inspector Edward Thompson had previously been shot near Kilmore on 27 September 1853 by escapees from Van Diemen’s Land: he died as a result on 4 December 1856.
Due to the research of Chief Inspector Ralph Stavely and others we now know that since 1853, 137 members of the Victoria Police have been killed in the line of duty: including twenty-nine who have been feloniously slain.
It is highly significant as a measure of personal tragedy but it is less than point one of one per cent of those men and women who have served in the Victoria Police and as with the road toll count, a focus on the tragedy of those who have perished on duty does at times have a propensity to subsume the sacrifices and stories of those who the military jargon might refer to as ‘collateral casualties’. And there are many of them.
Kenneth McNeil is perhaps not a name known to many. He died alone in 2002, a bedraggled, unkempt, eccentric figure, who shambled about the Malvern area: a strange local identity that wary passers-by avoided. Dux of his squad in January 1974, his police career lasted a mere four months: ended on point duty in Swanston Street, Melbourne, when his flapping police cape was caught between two passing trams. Flung from one tram to the other he suffered horrific injuries and never worked again. Cared for by his parents, who predeceased him, he eventually died lonely and alone. Kenneth was a ‘collateral casualty’.
And so too, in a different way was the famous Detective Sergeant David O’Donnell: a monolith of a man; [6’ 2" tall and twenty-two stone] his exploits to places like Egypt, Colombo and London saw him dubbed ‘Australia’s roving detective’. He led the crusade against John Wren’s gambling empire and others but he paid for it. Constantly followed by criminals and forced to carry a revolver for protection, things came to a head in January 1906 when a home-made bomb was thrown through the front window of his Fitzroy home. The first such know case in Victoria’s history.
O’Donnell and his family were not injured in the blast but there would be others. In July 1936 the home of Plain Clothes Senior Constable Frederick Milne at Newton (Geelong) was largely demolished by a bomb blast that killed his wife: Milne and his two children survived the blast. Aimee Milne was not a member of the Victoria Police but she died because her husband – a well-known astute and active investigator – was; like the O’Donnell’s, the Milne’s paid a heavy price for being part of the Victoria Police family.
Each of us is probably aware of other ‘collateral casualties’ and in a very
real sense all of us in varying degrees fall into that category ourselves.
Almost 400 years ago the English poet John Donne wrote:
Police Remembrance Day and the Blue Ribbon Foundation’s perpetuation of the memory of those members of the Victoria Police killed in the line of duty ensures that never again will they be forgotten and cast into the shadows.
Similarly, it is important that historians and those with an interest in the heritage of the Victoria Police accurately record the stories of Kenneth McNeil, the O’Donnell’s, the Milne’s and hundreds like them, to ensure that their memory too is perpetuated in a way that recognizes their contribution to the Victoria Police and the Victorian community.
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This page last updated on 15 December 2014