Nineteenth century Australia has often been described as though the only law-breakers were bushrangers or land speculators and the only spies were bushrangers’ friends. As a matter of simple logic the British would have brought 18th century ideas of power formations and their hemisphere’s attitudes towards surveillance. Fears of Fenians, Chinese secret societies, possible French or Russians invasions, and of home-grown republicans and worse, only meant continuous injections of official British thinking about security.
The English spy/detective/policeman correlation discussed in The Rise and Fall of English Freemasonry holds for the Australian colonies, even before plain-clothes officers were officially termed detectives, around mid-19th century. Captain Arthur Phillip brought military and domestic surveillance to bear immediately he arrived. He could not have carried out his job otherwise and is what would have been expected from someone with his military intelligence background. He appointed twelve watchmen in August 1789 to be the colony’s first constabulary. The first professional ‘thief-taker’ was ex-convict Israel Chapman appointed 1827, yet ‘the constabulary’, however it was termed, already had unquestioned power, especially in outlying areas, to detain at will or report even those officials considered to be shirking work. Quite apart from their powers of arrest or their level of competence, their role in the collection of information on all sorts of social phenomena for government use is clear. An 1833 Act empowered the Governor to appoint two or more Justices of the Peace to act as Police Magistrates, their duties being to suppress all riots, tumults, affrays or breaches of the peace and all public nuisances, vagrancies and offences against the law’. The magistrates appointed constables in their domain and determined work conditions. Uniforms were introduced in 1834 when the Colonial Secretary issued instructions for the Police Magistrates to ‘furnish confidential reports on crime, police, convicts and any other matters in their districts which it might be useful for the Government to know about’.These men were, at the same time, public servants gathering welfare statistics, secret agents attempting to head off threats, lobbyists for special causes and self-serving propagandists. Later administrative changes only formalised the generation of statistics on, for example, numbers of Chinamen, sanitary facilities, single women and unemployed mechanics in regions and districts.
In 1839, following the separation of the police from the magistrates, W.A. Miles came to the Colony as Superintendent of Police with ‘the intention of modelling the Sydney force more closely on the London Metropolitan Force’, that is, of updating the model. Despite his feeling that shortages of numbers and funds impeded Miles’ efforts, O’Brien has concluded that, ultimately, in all colonies ‘the example set by England in instituting an effective police force was followed … the character and methods of the original being closely copied’. After a ‘riot’ in 1850 in Sydney, a Board of Enquiry was appointed to look into civil control methods used. O’Brien records a contemporary comment that it ‘was not unusual for … the crowd to be dispersed by troops’. Out of the enquiry came an Inspector-General of Police responsible for all NSW constabulary. The gold rushes produced a mammoth influx requiring a rapid, further expansion of effort, including legislation such as the 1862 Police Regulation Act, hurried in after the Lambing Flat uproarwhich continued the centralising trend.
It is little known that colonial public services grew three times faster than total populations in this period. A Victorian Select Committee, July 1852, looking to express its autonomy from NSW had recommended the recruitment of not less than eight hundred police including two hundred ‘experienced’ men from England. Walter Rendale came out from England in May 1853 with Inspector Samuel Freeman and a party of volunteers, and was given the title ‘Detective’. A force of nine mounted detectives appeared in 1853. Dressed as bushmen, they patrolled the back-roads but complained about their having to observe military-style discipline which isolated them from the general population. Having to endure the incongruous mixture of swords and disguises continued in both Victoria and New South Wales up to the 1880s.
Detective-Inspector Christie’s personal accountrecords a distinct Detective Office in Victoria by 1865, with a ‘Superintendent of Detectives’ in charge. One Superintendent, Sadleir, had ‘secret agents’, no doubt informers, and his men’s skillful and patient use of them. Sadleir also refers to them as ‘scouts’ and says each had a secret sign. In rural Victoria, in various disguises, Christie personally searched for illicit stills and for smugglers working across the NSW-Victorian border. He had access to secret telegraph codes and authority to open personal mail. Disguises as extensions of plain-clothes are documented elsewhere in the pursuit of bushrangers, as is the use of the plain clothes disguise by special constables. In NSW from 1866, a recent biographer asserts, as the incoming Colonial Secretary and Minister for Police, Parkes personally devised a new plan for ending ‘the bushranger scourge’:
He had special constables secretly sworn in for covert operations, and personally selected the men to lead them. These mounted parties would act like the posses of the American West, tracking the outlaws to their lair.
The only difference in form between the reports on dissidents which now come forward from detectives and uniformed police, and the reports made explicitly for military intelligence during the First World War is the opening sentence indicating who it is for. On 9 March 1868 a memorandum from Superintendent Nicolson to the Chief Commissioner concluded a report on Fenianism in Australia with:
1 have no reason to believe there is as yet any organisation of the kind apprehended [Irish National League or similar] in this colony. It may be in contemplation.
The memorandum refers to a cabman at Hotham [Melbourne] ‘said to be a disguised Headcentre Fenian from the States’, that is, the USA. In 1869 Christie was summoned by the Duke of Edinburgh, recovering from an assassination attempt in Sydney, to be his bodyguard for the rest of his colonial tour. Following the receipt of information that Fenians intended to kidnap the Duke in New Zealand, an intended trip to the Otira Gorge was abandoned. Christie was asked to join the Detective Branch of the Royal Household but he declined, preferring to become a professional athlete. Christie later worked on the wharves as a Customs Detective. In 1901 he was engaged as royal bodyguard and co-ordinator of ‘a plan of supervision’ on the occasion of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall.
Twenty-three years after the Duke had been shot, Sydney’s Truth explored Sir Henry Parkes’s part in the then current social unrest and asserted that Parkes (1815-1896) had used the 1869 shooting as an excuse to introduce the Treason Felony Act. Parkes had claimed at the time that he knew before the assassination attempt that a plot existed. Publicity plus the legislation during a great public outcry did not hurt his career. Afterwards, embarrassed spies, the judiciary and Parkes assisted with a cover-up of not only the evidence but of the surveillance network itself.
Is it possible to determine how seriously a threat of major upheaval from civil dissent was taken, locally and/or at home? and/or determine what police/military resources were applied by ‘the authorities’ along the eastern sideboard during this period? How many extra troops were mobilised? How many extra covert resources were brought in? What were the politics around the decision-making?
Historians’ neglect of these matters may be a result of a lack of visible evidence but that’s the whole point of secrecy, isn’t it? There may seem to be no evidence because there is no evidence, which may mean the government of the time saw no need for an application of resources. But since as we have already seen the period was one of heightened, nay, hysterical perceptions of threat the idea of ‘no (extra) response’ seems untenable. AND given that the full story of the governmental responses to a similar situation ‘at home’ is still unknown because a blanket ban on relevant records has been in place ever since, that is for over a century, and has recently been extended indefinitely, I assume the response there entailed a great deal which was out of the ordinary.
Officially-designated ‘soldiery’ in all colonies remained subject to British Imperial authority during the period under review despite contemplation, especially in the 1850s, of volunteer corps as a possible way to reduce costs by allowing some local control. Official accounts insist that ‘the last Imperial troops left (in this case, Victoria) in 1870’ but show that in August, 1899, ‘the senior Imperial Military Officer in Australia was Major-General Charles Holled-Smith, Commandant of the military forces of Victoria.’ By 1886, each colony had volunteer defence force units but uniforms, for example, ‘followed the British style, with infantry in red jackets, artillery in blue.’ It is one part of the legacy of Colonel Tom Price that less flamboyant colours and slouch hats began to make their appearance when he was put in charge of the Victorian Mounted Rifles in Victoria in 1887.
The Empire’s increased profitability and prestige in the second half of the century had changed minds dramatically and not just in London. Competition for military advantage – the Arms Race’- had become intense and new players and new ways of doing business had appeared. British control of Suez was only secured in 1882 and further east ‘the natives’ were testing the established boundaries. Australia was, after India, ‘a rich and tempting prize’, and while the will to autonomy was certainly strong in some places, the politics were confused and prone to public grandstanding and opportunism, all of which covered a great deal of secret deal-making. Much has been made of moralising bombast suggesting any talk of independence approached treason and that defending ‘the Empire’ was a sacred cause. Lord Carrington, Governor of NSW in 1888, considered he had a ‘duty’ to ‘strengthen the cordial relations’ between ‘the mother country and this fair land and which are so precious to both’. (p.412, ‘1888’) Elsewhere it was argued that:
[Volunteering] would not only end the danger of invasion … it would also impart into the youth of the nation obedience, promptitude, and self-respect and provide a safe and salutary occupation for the increasing hours of leisure at men’s disposal.
I’ve asserted in The Rise and Fall of English Freemasonry that the bombast was essentially hollow, mostly a noisy show hiding radical shifts in influence from ‘old boy networks’ to very hard-nosed bargaining by professional agents – of government, of wealthy cliques and of what is now called ‘the media.’ Surface conflict over votes, careers and ambitions have always been one part only of the reality but many historians seem satisfied with it. News reports and later academic accounts usually obscure or do not ask – which troops were involved? who was in charge? what were their orders? Without a deeper probe, a peoples’ history is anecdotal.
Research has brought to light a series of letters which provide a glimpse of the co-ordinated surveillance network in place in the 1860’s. The correspondence links the Victorian Chief Commissioner, the Victorian Chief Secretary, the Victorian Governor, a Royal Naval commander, Commodore Stirling, and the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty in London. Concerned with yet another threat to the Duke’s life from someone called ‘Bertini’, surveillance of the suspect was put into place whereby ‘a member of the Detective Force’ resided not just in the same hotel but in the same bedroom, not just a spy but an under-cover agent. Records indicate a British Admiralty-Colonial Detective Branch network operating in 1894, when concerns included coastal defences, arrangements for war mobilization and surveillance of foreign vessels. It appears that from the 1870s the British War Office sought better information on the defenses of all Australian colonies. In 1887, an Imperial Conference in London, attended by spiritually-inclined politician Alfred Deakin from Victoria among others, discussed the role of the Royal Navy in the Indo-Pacific region and how much ‘Australia’ would contribute to secure protection of its ports. The War Office promised that an Inspecting Officer for all Australian troops would be appointed to ‘advise’ colonial governments.
Mutuality of ‘home’ and colonial interests in internal policing, too, was still assumed, but it is true that the late-1880’s and 1890’s presented difficulties not encountered previously. Until that time, colonial detective and uniformed police recruiting followed the ‘home’ pattern. Queensland had a Detective Branch by 1864, South Australia had 9 full-time detectives by 1884, and so on. A West Australian ‘police espionage’ system was gingered up by escapes of Fenians in 1868 and 1876, and when the Russian Consul visited the Victorian Mint a file was raised at Melbourne Headquarters. ‘Continued co-operation’ with Scotland Yard was communicated on ‘a case of Imperial importance’ but these files have been sanitised and contain nothing further of use.
The 1880s, according to O’Brien, ‘ushered in a more difficult era for Australian detectives’. There were ‘new criminals’, young colonials ‘who were more dangerous in every respect’. Grabosky’s statistics for Victoria in the early 1880s show that arrest was being employed as social control and that prisons served as warehouses for drunkards, vagrants, aged and infirm, and lunatics as well as the more conventional offenders, to a degree unsurpassed before or since. Detective duties included serving of bi-weekly stolen property lists to pawnbrokers and dealers, acquainting themselves with the whereabouts of criminals, suspects and prostitutes and furnishing a surveillance return every six months.
(The detective) took me a roundabout course through main and bye-streets, talking chiefly about the standing quarrel…between the uniformed and the plain-clothes police…occasionally stopping to…converse with (a prostitute) at the corner of an alley…these appeared to be his regular information agents.
Newspaper reports tell of disguised WA police driving that colony’s stage coaches and recording all visitors arriving by boat.Official Victorian police records show that their tasks included ‘rigidly inspecting’ mail at the central post office where one detective was always on duty. One presumes this included anything addressed to local addresses from known activists overseas, such as Most, Tucker, etc. The inevitable corruption of force members dependent upon success to achieve material improvement took on new forms – promotion of burglaries so that rewards could be obtained, paying of witnesses to ‘induce them to keep to the statement they at first furnished’ – are two that are known. It is unlikely that government resources directed to surveillance and suppression were considered unnecessary. During the last years of the century as the status-quo won victory after victory, it would have been the only supine administration in the Empire if colonial governments had done nothing in the face of assertions from friends and foes alike that civil war was possible. And yet, few ‘secret records’ have been found.
Links between the UK power-brokers and colonial capitalists are another element. That there was considerable communication cannot be doubted, that much evidence has been destroyed or secreted away is a probable explanation.
The less public politicking being conducted globally in the 1880’s was behind the alleged health-cure voyage of the retiring Conservative MP and specialist in Colonial Affairs, the fourth Lord Carnarvon who left England in 1886. His schedule, in South Africa, Australia and elsewhere, shows it was much more than a holiday but just how much was ‘official’ and how much his own, is uncertain. He was a committed imperialist, and keenly wanted to set up a global Masonic Parliament to maintain fraternal influence on Whitehall and Downing Street and no doubt on local parliaments. He is known to have carried instructions from the Prince of Wales to try to deflect thoughts of lodge autonomy among local brethren. Discussed further elsewhere, he was unsuccessful in both of his masonic projects but they were considered achievable at the time. In November, 1887, Premier of New South Wales, Parkes, proposed changing the name of that State to ‘The Colony of Australia’. He was forced to back down by opposition from other States but accepted from London the compensatory title of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George.
As elsewhere, newspaper editors and reporters were paid to ferret out the plans, faction fights and difficulties of ‘the opposition’ and were expected not to disclose those of his/her employer. How much local control existed in mainstream editorials is not yet clear, nor the extent to which they employed their own spies as The Times did, for example. The Age which seemed liberal in its views and even sympathetic towards what it called ‘the rights of the working man’ is unlikely to have been assisted with inside information by the authorities but their public attitude was only a subtle form of the ploy perceptible in other papers, that of separating ‘the incorrigibly criminal’ protestors from those who could be corralled inside the respectability dynamic. The totality of a pre-1886 Age summary of what was a life and death struggle excused the use of superior fire-power against un-armed labourers:
Serious riots have broken out among the wharf laborers in Montreal. They were suppressed by police with considerable difficulty, and not until they had to make use of their firearms to disperse the rioters.
This is in the same vein as earlier summaries, yet it was no longer possible for ‘the army’ to simply wade into un-armed civilians and expect there to be no consequences, as at Peterloo in 1819, or at Eureka Stockade. In 1861, Victoria’s volunteer troopers had been called out ‘to aid the civil authorities’ against railway gangers ‘incensed by a 2/- per day reduction in their wages.’ The local police magistrate brought sixty Mounted Rifles to bear and they ‘soon quelled the riot.’ But by 1886, decision-makers, civil and military, were asking themselves questions, and were finding that clear, legally sustainable powers were not available in the new circumstances – who was to make the call to act aggressively? did the Riot Act cover all possibilities? when was the decision to be made? how were the consequences to be dealt with? what, if anything, could be withheld from parliament?