FROM the VAULT – Policing Brisbane before Queensland

It is tempting to picture early colonial Brisbane as a lawless place inhabited by convicts and ticket-of-leavers, convicts on parole, and the military. In the first five years, Brisbane population increased by more than twenty-fold, from approximately 50 in 1824, the year of settlement, to 1108 in 1829, including 18 female convicts the very first women to arrive into the settlement. (4) The latter flamed much local enthusiasm. The building then known as ‘the gaol’ was erected for their accommodation. ‘The “female factory” proved a grand source of intrigue and vice, and some queer tales [were] handed down to us – the gay Lotharios of which were not by any means the lowest people in the settlement.’ (5, p. 65) Although a wall was constructed around the building, which was quickly found to be positively necessary, did ‘not seem to have been proof against the agility and nimbleness of the midnight rovers who had first all secured the blindness of the warders by a liberal use of bucksheesh.’ (Ibid) Regardless of the counter measures soon intrigue and licentiousness were rife.

Female Convict Factory, c1850.  John Oxley Library image number 153725.

For the next decade, until 1839, Moreton Bay saw a steady stream of convicts. In 1839, the last draft of convicts landed on the banks of the Brisbane River, both male and female. The earliest attempts to codify and regulate public order in Brisbane town date to 1838. The Police Act of 1838 (2 Vic., No. 2) provided for appointment of police magistrates and justices to suppress riots, tumults, and affrays in towns. Reminiscent of the Statute of Winchester or the Fairs and Markets in Churchyards Act, 1285, the first formal attempts to keep criminal element in check in England, Brisbane policemen were entrusted with an array of duties and responsibilities. Any constable was granted powers to arrest any person ‘found drunk in any street or public place, and also all loose, idle, drunken, or disorderly persons who [a constable] shall find between sunset and 8 am lying or loitering in any street, highway, yard, or other place, not giving a satisfactory account of themselves, and convey to lockup.’ (1) Per the Statute of 1285, the men who patrolled the streets after nightfall (commonly known as the night watchmen) were vested with power to arrest any stranger until morning.

Police Act 1838. See the link below for a downloadable PDF file.

Police Guide – Police Act of 1838

Following the nineteenth century reforms in the police forces of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Brisbane force was also responsible for monitoring and curtailing certain behaviours as well as crime. (2) These included enforcing trading hours, the penalty for operating outside of these hours was £3, such as on Sundays after 10 am; keeping billiard or other places of amusement open was liable to a higher fine of £5. The majority of daily activities of the town life were soon regulated. These ranged from damaging a public building to extinguishing a street lamp, and from bathing near or within a view of a public wharf to installation of awnings on shops and houses. Penalties ranged from 1 to 20 pounds. Interestingly enough, the Act did not provide for imprisonment as a form of alternative punishment. This is mainly due to absence of judicial and custodial provisions in place at the time. In 1840, the police force of Brisbane Town consisted of one Chief Constable William Whyte; Bush Constable George Brown (free); four convicts employed as assistant Constables: Francis Black (arrived on Hadlow), Robert Giles (Exmouth), and W H Sketland ‘or Thompson’ (Sophia), and John Egan. (3)

Plan of Brisbane Town Moreton Bay 1839, J G Steele, Brisbane Town in Convict Days, 1824-1842, UQP, 1975, p. 124.

The convict police was relatively short-lived, as now a free settlement of Moreton Bay saw further reforms, legal, governmental, social and policing between the 1840s and 1850s. Captain John Clemens Wickham was appointed a Police Magistrate,  Court of Petty Sessions opened in 1846, a new Police Force was organised in 1850, this was followed by a new Police Act, passed in 1855, and construction of the new jail two years later. Having said that, as the population expanded and policing became more sophisticated, the foundational principles outlined in the 1838 Act remained largely the same demonstrating that though novel female presence in town in 1829 did cause much excitement penal Brisbane was no more lawless than ‘free’ Brisbane.

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Further reading:

(1) Bain, Donald. Queensland Police Guide; Containing an Epitome of 184 Acts of Parliament to 1891, and a Supplement of 815 Offences, Alphabetically Arranged with Penalties and Punishments. Brisbane: Watson, Ferguson & Co, 1892.

(2) Dukova, Anastasia. A History of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Its Colonial Legacy. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016.

(3) Letters Relating to Moreton Bay and Queensland Received 1822-1869, SLQ, Reel A2 Series.

(4) Population by capital city and rest of state, Queensland, 1823 to 2007. Queensland Government Statisticians Office,

(5) Pugh’s Moreton Bay Almanac, 1859 (first year of publication), Brisbane: Theophilus P Pugh.


This information has been provided by the Queensland Police Museum from the best resources available.  The article was written by Museum Volunteer and Crime and Policing Historian Dr Anastasia Dukova.

The Police Museum is open 9am to 4pm Monday to Thursday and 10am to 3pm on the last Sunday of the month (Feb-Nov) and is located on the Ground Floor of Police Headquarters at 200 Roma Street, Brisbane. Contact: E: [email protected]

“FROM the VAULT – Policing Brisbane before Queensland” by the Queensland Police Service is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (BY) 2.5 Australia Licence. Permissions may be available beyond the scope of this licence.

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