Home » History » Crime in Colonial Queensland: A Context for Studies in Queensland Bushranging (Part 1)

Crime in Colonial Queensland: A Context for Studies in Queensland Bushranging (Part 1)


Queensland Native Mounted Police, Rockhampton 1864 (Queensland Police Museum).

An understanding of the patterns of development of Queensland is important if the context of the major bushranging crimes on the Queensland frontier are to be understood. Frontier life was one of hardship and was characterised by institutionalised and other forms of violence. Bushranging in Queensland needs to be seen against this backdrop. Within this context, especially when viewed in comparison with the crimes of the frontier wars against indigenous Australians during the same period, the crimes by Queensland bushrangers pale into insignificance. In the nineteenth century, much of the non-indigenous population of Queensland was motivated by the pursuit of wealth. Most had accepted that what law enforcement existed was often distant. Many saw the colonial government’s efforts at developing across Queensland a police force as little more than tokenism and certainly something far short of an effective deterrent to crime. The early policing of Queensland can be viewed as more a tool of the wealthy or as a weapon in suppressing indigenous resistance rather than a significance means by which laws were effectively enforced across the new colony.


Queensland had, by December 1859, at the time of separation from New South Wales, begun to develop pride in a robust frontier ethos based upon “white civilisation” and revelled in a heritage of links to the penal settlement of Moreton Bay – where the colony was being built through “the sweat of the chain gangs, through the toil of the human refuse of Britain and New South Wales” (Johnston, 1982, p.20).

The white settlement of Queensland was spawned by the growing evils of industrial Britain. The growing cities (of Britain) seemed to harbour growing numbers of criminals, many of them hardened by the environment.

… New South Wales became home for many of these people convicted of a variety of offences, mainly of a criminal nature… Moreton bay began as a by-product of this situation. it was intended as a place for the very hardened and “worst class” of offenders. (Johnston, 1982, p.22)

Much of colonial Queensland’s early white population had quickly accepted that society would contain a significant criminal element. Many, it seems, held an almost instictive antipathy of the enforcers of law and order. The concept of policing was still a relatively new one (on a worldwide basis) and even law abiding citizens were known to harbour, and even on occasion express,some suspicion of the motives of police. Police departments in colonial Australia were much maligned and generally reviled. In 1847, comments characteristic of this position were expressed by Sydneysiders.

No public department in the the colonial service has been so well-abused as the Police… and certainly no department so richly deserves it… That the police of the colony is a very useless and inefficient body has been so often asserted by its own heads, that we shall scarcely be obnoxious to a prosecution for libel in repeating so obvious a proposition. (in Phillips and Davies (eds) 1994, p.36)

The views of early Queenslanders mirrored such a view.

In the formative years of the colonial police, the Queensland government sought to adapt both the British Metropolitan model and the Irish model of policing to the new colonial context – at a time when the very rationale of policing itself was still being questioned by some members of the community ( Phillips and Davies (eds) 1994, p.9). Many of those not overtly outspoken against policing saw the infant Queensland police as an irrelevance or an obstacle to their activities on their new pastoral frontier. (Often early pastoralists saw the police as little more than adjunct to their own employees in their wars to subdue indigenous resistance to European expansion.)


Coupled with a perverse loyalty to a convict heritage and a widespread antipathy to police, prevalent in the new colony of Queensland was an embryonic pioneering and pastoral tradition. In Queensland during the 1830s and 1840s was “a boom almost like a gold rush in land… squatters eagerly awaited the return of explorers, and they themselves often deliberately undertook exploration to be the first to choose grazing lands (Johnston, 1982, p.25). Willing to ride roughshod over the interests of indigenous peoples who had occupied the lands for millennia, European pioneers came to the Queensland frontier with firmly established concepts of private ownership and an ethos of acquisition. Many of these free settlers came in search of fast and easy wealth. “Individual success was adulated” and success was measured almost entirely in therms of the “possession of private wealth” (Johnston, 1982, p.4). As the pastoral frontier expanded (and indigenous sovereignty contracted), there were few constraints upon the unscrupulous in their pursuit of wealth. In many areas, wealth was measured in terms of head of livestock or acres. The centres of “law and order” could seem, and often were, very far away from those willing to secure their success financially through criminal action. Respectability on the Queensland frontier during the early decades of the colony was often linked to financial success through ruthless ambition. There was often only a very thin veneer separating respectability and what would be considered criminality today.


The discovery of gold in Queensland created further lucrative opportunity for criminality in the colony. During the 1860s, towns constructed of shanties, tents and rudimentary buildings grew around areas in which gold had been discovered. “Motley collections of bark and slab” were found around the gold digs “as and where the owners had felt inclined” (Johnston, 1982, p.68-9). These towns were separated by intermittently policed open spaces through which fortunes in gold were transported. Thus new opportunities for the unscrupulous seekers of wealth emerged. Mining districts became magnets for the seekers of fortune – either legal or otherwise. Individualism, hardship, ambition and disillusionment, always underpinned by a desire for financial gain, characterised the miners’ mindset.

Many diggers failed in the wild searches… many were destitute, most were disheartened. The authorities feared riots… For the diggers there [were] rowdy nights and drunken brawls… (Johnston, 1982, p.69)

Disputes and violence were common on the goldfields of the new colony. On the diggings, new opportunities for criminal acts were rife. The discovery of gold brought a new dimension to the criminal history of Queensland. Despite this, however, there exists some historical dispute as to whether or not the mining centres were in fact the “seed-beds of crime and violence” that many believed they were at the time (Johnston, 1982, p.69). Common assaults, larceny and drunkenness were common offences in these areas until the 1880s and 1890s.


This experience was not, however, limited to mining areas. On the Gulf of Carpentaria, in Burketown, the situation was similar during the same period. Within the months after settlement (in 1865), a few “shanty-pubs” had sprung up along with:

O’Connor’s store, a butcher shop and a blacksmith’s, and some rough shack homes of bark and slabs… bushmen who had not had a spree for years really let their hair down in late 1865 and ‘thoroughly enjoyed themselves in bush fashion – a fight every half hour, horse-racing on the plain and strong rum for everyone”… With no police, the only law in the frontier was that of the fist and the revolver. (Pike, 1978, p.167).


While it’s disputed as to whether or not mining districts were any different to others in terms of the degree of the prevalence lawless behaviour, what is not in dispute is that crime and violence were part of the wallpaper of colonial Queensland society. few structures were in place for the adequate maintenance of law and order in Queensland. In 1847, a local bench of magistrates observed that crime had “passed unpunished” in Queensland because of insufficient policing and a lack of judicial facilities (Johnston, 1992, p. 54). By the 1880s, little had changed in some areas of the very large colony. Even Brisbane, with its sprawling river centre, proved a difficult area to police.

… the very geography of Brisbane stretched police resources since the river was such a divide. In 159-60, police operations mainly centred on maintaining the peace in a few small urban centres. (Johnston, 1992, p. 2-3)


Governor Sir George Fergusson Bowen and Colonial Secretary Robert Herbert would be the first to try to develop the extent of police reach in Queensland society in the 1860s but Queensland was very much a lawless frontier for many years after their work began. In a context where many of the populace saw the colonial government’s efforts at developing a Queensland a police service as little more than tokenism, the efforts of those such as a Bowen and Herbert initially fell far short of an effective deterrent to crime. Early policing on the Queensland frontier was more often than not a tool of the wealthy pastoralists or the weapon of indigenous dispossession than a significant means by which laws were effectively enforced across the new colony. Many colonial Queenslanders viewed the police with antipathy, suspicion or disdain – if they viewed them at all. Miners and settlers alike were often allowed to settle their disputes with the fist in the absence of a legal alternative. The absence of law enforcement was the rule rather than the exception across the colony and it was against this background that Queensland bushranging took place during the nineteenth century.


  1. Pike, G. (1978), The Queensland Frontier, Rigby, Brisbane.
  2. Johnstone, W.R. (1982), Call of the Land, Jacaranda, Brisbane.
  3. Johnstone, W.R. (1992), The Long Blue Line: A History of the Queensland Police, Boolarong, Brisbane.
  4. Phillips, D. and Davies, S. (eds) (1994), A nation of Rogues? Crime, law and Punishment in Colonial Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

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