During the 1860s, Queensland was a rapidly expanding colony rich in opportunity (and sources of wealth) for those prepared to face the many risks. In the early years of the colony’s existence, European expansion and settlement on the Queensland frontier expanded far more quickly than the ability of the youthful Brisbane colonial government to provide adequate services – especially policing. The colonial government began to grapple with these issues at the very time that an urgent need for frontier law enforcement became obvious.
Between 1850 and 1900 has become known as the wild colonial days, as it embraced the goldfield and bushranging period. That time spawned not only local born criminals but inflicted [upon the colony] imported ones as well… There were bushrangers and other thieves who preyed upon those who survived by honest toil. Not for them the labour of tending stock, digging in a mine, or performing other work when it was much easier to rob at the point of a gun, or steal from the home or person or take what they wanted by physical assault. (Penzig, 1992, p.xv)
Law enforcement in Queensland during this period was rudimentary at best and violence was accepted by many in the new pioneering society as legitimate as a means by which wealth was secured. Fortunes were amassed as private wars were waged against indigenous peoples. Petty crimes went unnoticed. Some major crimes went unreported. In the combined context of…
- a developing heritage of both officially sanctioned and other violence,
- a societal mentality of equating of material gains in wealth (regardless of its source) with social success
- an ethos of pursuit of wealth through individualism
- an antipathy towards police (and even for the need for policing in the eyes of some)
- the logistical difficulties facing police in a large colonial territory
- increasing opportunity to commit (and get away with) crimes
… it seems surprising that bushranging, as experienced on the scale of other colonies in Australia in the same period, was so uncommon in Queensland!
On January 15, 1859, the Queensland Commissioner for Police commented on the difficult situation facing those who wanted to enforce more effectively law and order in the colony. Of particular concern was mail robbery in the vastness of the Queensland bush where police were at a distinct disadvantage in protecting the vulnerable from almost any who chose to accost them.
The police stations being so far very far apart, and the men generally so badly horsed, that it was not difficult for a good bushman, well-supplied with information, to continue to “stick up” with impunity for some time the solitary mailman… (in Johnston, 1992, p54)
The Commissioner continued:
I am sorry t say that the opinion so confidently expressed some time back that bushrangers would meet with no sympathy in the Colony turns out to be incorrect. The criminal can gain plenty of assistance and information – the police but little. (in Johnston, 1992, p54)
Johnston states that given this situation “the wonder is that more bushranging (and other crimes of violence) did not occur” (1992, p54) – especially in and around the gold districts of colonial Queensland such as Gympie.
- Johnstone, W.R. (1992), The Long Blue Line: A History of the Queensland Police, Boolarong, Brisbane.
- Penzig, E. (1992), Rogues, Vagabonds and Bloody Thieves: An Illustrated History of Colonial Crime 1850-1900, Tranter Press, Katoomba.