A history of self-sacrifice

Tasmania's police: A history of bushrangers, convicts and centuries of self-sacrifice


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CENTURIES ON: The history of policing in Tasmania dates back more than 200 years, but the dedication of officers has remained the same. As National Police Remembrance Week comes to a close, the stories of officers killed in the line of duty are being shared. Picture: Tasmania Police Museum Facebook

CENTURIES ON: The history of policing in Tasmania dates back more than 200 years, but the dedication of officers has remained the same. As National Police Remembrance Week comes to a close, the stories of officers killed in the line of duty are being shared. Picture: Tasmania Police Museum Facebook

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Looking back on police in the nineteenth century.

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This week Tasmanians joined the rest of the country in remembering our fallen police. But some of the state's officers were killed long before the creation of the Tasmania Police force - these are their stories.

The history of Tasmania Police dates back hundreds of years, when the introduction of the Police Regulation Act saw the creation of a united force in 1989.

But before then, in the early nineteenth century, Van Diemen’s Land was policed by superintendents, overseers and a civilian group called ‘the night watch’.

While the dedication of those officers was no less valuable than the sworn police officers today, the conflict they faced was much different.

Their criminals were bushrangers, convicts and drunken sailors, their transport was boats and horses and they carried muskets and revolvers.

It was a “much more violent time”, according to retired officer and former curator of the Tasmania Police Museum, Russ Ames – who spent 30 years in the force and developed a passion for researching the history of policing.

“There was quite an interesting number of police who were murdered in those days and actually, a lot of them were from a convict background,” he said.

“They were convicts turned police officers and their fellow convicts were not happy and murdered them.”

Mr Ames said the types of people within the police force had also changed.

“Bushranger Martin Cash murdered a policeman and was sentenced to death but managed to get out of that somehow and he went on to become a police constable,” he said.

“You would have thought a fellow that’s got a prior for killing police wouldn’t be accepted but it just shows how few people were attracted to the police as a job back then.”

One officer who fell victim to those violent times was Chief Constable John Randall, who died at George Town in 1817.

He had been ordering government crews to bring their boats out of the water and secure them overnight when they refused to do so.

The crew were drunk and one of them, Samuel Smith, killed Chief Constable Randall by striking him to the head with an axe.

It was just out of George Town that another Constable died, nearly 10 years after Chief Constable Randall.

Constable Magnus Baker was chasing a bushranger in 1826 when he was shot and killed.

The bushranger, Thomas Jeffries, was eventually captured, convicted and hanged for his crimes.

Constable Baker was not the only officer to be killed by a bushranger in Tasmania.

In 1843, Constable William Ward was attacked and shot by two bushrangers, Riley Jeffs and John Conway.

Jeffs and Conway were captured, convicted and hanged, but Constable Ward died during the shooting.

Five years later and four bushrangers were behind the death of Constable Joseph Howard somewhere between Deloraine and Port Sorell.

HISTORY: Constable Joseph Howard was killed during a shootout between police and bushrangers. Picture: Tasmania Police Museum Facebook

HISTORY: Constable Joseph Howard was killed during a shootout between police and bushrangers. Picture: Tasmania Police Museum Facebook

John Reilly, Michael Rogers, Patrick Lynch and Peter Reynolds were imprisoned at a penal settlement in 1848 in Fingal when they escaped.

They were hiding out in a hut and when police arrived they opened fire – shooting and killing Constable Howard.

A bushranger robbery at Campbell Town led to the death of another Constable in 1853.

The two bushrangers were found by police in the Fingal Valley and a shootout ensued.

Constable Thomas Buckmaster was fatally shot.

Bushrangers and hardened criminals were not the only enemy of police in the nineteenth century though.

Similar to the death of Chief Constable Randall, an officer near Campbell Town was attacked by a drunken axe-weilding man.

Constable William Thompson was killed when he tried to stop the man from abusing a woman and her daughter.

Mr Ames said since those days of bushrangers and convicts, the police force had “changed dramatically”.

He said by the time he joined in 1964, it was far-less violent and officers rarely carried firearms.

“It was an interesting time because we didn’t have a drug problem, hotels shut much earlier than they do these days and we had motor cars but they didn’t have heaters in the cars, would you believe it,” he said.

“We didn’t carry firearms openly until 1976 and I never advocated the carriage of pistols. 

“Once you pull the trigger you’ve got absolutely no control over the bullet and you just didn’t want police firing our pistols all over the place.”

Mr Ames said there were “very few cases where police actually used a firearm or threatened to shoot somebody”.

“I was assaulted once, a man punched me through the window of a car and I was talking to him in court he next day and said ‘what did you do that for’ and he said ‘sorry’. That’s what it was like.”

Fast-forward to 2017 and Mr Ames said he believes police are again facing dangerous times.

“It has changed and you can see that just from the vests they now wear,” he said.

“It’s come down to that now, that police have to have armored protection. But police are a much better trained now and better prepared.”

National Police Remembrance Week is held annually to commemorate the sacrifice of officers in the line of duty since the late 1800s, with ceremonies held across the country. 

The story A history of self-sacrifice first appeared on The Examiner.

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