Policing a Colonial Metropolis: from Moreton Bay to Brisbane
Dr Anastasia Dukova, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2016/2017


(Map of Brisbane Town, Moreton Bay 1839 [cartographic material] G. W. Barney, SLNSW; Town of Brisbane by Henry Wade, 1843, QSA Item ID 714293)

The Moreton Bay Penal Settlement

John McIntosh, a lifer from Scotland, was the first Chief Constable (1828- 1833) of the Moreton Bay police force consisting entirely of convicts.

The centralised Queensland Police Force was formally organised when the Police Act 1863 (27 Vic No 11) came into force. The foundation for the future organisation was laid in 1838, by the first Police Act (2 Vic No 2). Prior to that, enforcement of law and order was the duty of the Military Commandants of the Moreton Bay penal settlement. This was set up in Brisbane Town in 1824.

The iconic ballad, the Moreton Bay, evokes a bleak image of the settlement. The words evoke the terrible fate prisoners suffered there, ‘One Sunday morning as I went walking/ By Brisbane Waters I chanced to stray/ I heard a prisoner his fate bewailing/ As on the sunny river banks he lay.’ Their isolation, ‘I am a native of Erin’s Island/ And banished now from my native shore,/ They tore me from my aged parents/ And from the maiden whom I do adore.’ The ballad compares conditions of sentences served at Port Macquarie, Norfolk Island and Emu Plains, Castle Hill and ‘cursed Toongabbie’; ‘At all those settlements I’ve worked in chains/ But of all places of condemnation/ And penal stations of New South Wales/ To Moreton Bay I have found no equal/ Excessive tyranny each day prevails.’ Captain Patrick Logan, who arrived in 1826, was reputedly a harsh disciplinarian, despised by the convicts he controlled:

For three long years I was beastly treated,
And heavy irons on my legs I wore;
My back with flogging is lacerated
And often painted with my crimson gore.
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay,
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
At the triangles of Moreton Bay

(Bob Reece, Exiles from Erin: Convict Lives in Ireland and Australia. (Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), pp. 171-2)

Between 1826 and 1829 the number of prisoners at Moreton Bay rose from 200 to nearly 1000. In 1836, the writer, James Backhouse, a benevolent Quaker, accompanied by his friend George Washington Walker, visited Brisbane and described the town as consisting of ‘the houses of the Commandant and other officers, the barracks for the military, and those for the male prisoners, a treadmill, stores, etc’. (William Coote, History of Colony of Queensland from 1770 to the year 1881, Vol 1. Brisbane, 1882, pp. 24) They found the settlement ‘prettily situated on the north bank of the River Brisbane’ navigable fifty miles further up for small sloops, with ‘some fine cleared and cultivated land on the south side bank opposite the town.’ (ibid) Adjacent to the Government House, the visitors noted ‘the Commandant’s garden, and twenty-two acres of Government gardens for the growth of sweet potatoes, cabbages, and other vegetables for the prisoners. Bananas, grapes, guavas, pineapples, citrons, lemons, shaddocks.’ (ibid) The climate being nearly tropical, sugar canes were grown for fencing, there were a few thriving coffee plants, ‘but not old enough to bear fruit’. Backhouse predicted that coffee and sugar would probably at some time be cultivated as crops.

The convicts, they observed, worked the treadmill:

The treadmill is generally worked by twenty-five prisoners at a time, but when it is used as a special punishment, sixteen are kept upon it fourteen hours, with only the interval of release afforded by four being off at a time in succession. They feel this extremely irksome at first, but, notwithstanding the warmth of the climate, they become so far accustomed to the labour by long practice as to bear the treadmill with comparatively little disgust, after working upon it for a considerable number of days. Many of the prisoners were occupied in landing cargoes of maize or Indian corn from a field down the river, and others in divesting it of the husks. To our regret, we heard an officer swearing at the men, and using other improper and exasperating language. The practices forbidden by the Commandant; but it is not uncommon, and, in its affects, is, perhaps, equally hardening to those who are guilty of it, and those who are under them… We visited the prisoners’ barracks a large stone building, calculated to accommodate 1,000 men, but now occupied by 311. We also visited the penitentiary for female prisoners, seventy-one of whom are here. Most of them, as well as of the men, have been re-transported for crimes that have been nurtured by strong drink. The women were employed in washing, needlework, picking oakum, and nursing. A few of them were very young.

(William Coote, History of Colony of Queensland from 1770 to the year 1881, Vol 1. Brisbane, 1882, pp. 24-5)

Female Factory Plan 1837, QSA, Digital Image ID 5236

In its first five years the Brisbane penal settler population increased by more than twenty-fold, from approximately 50 in 1824, the year of establishment of the Moreton Bay penal colony, to 1108 in 1829, including 18 female convicts, the very first convict women to arrive into the settlement. Their number had increased to 71 by 1836. The arrival of female convicts flamed much local enthusiasm at the time. According to Pugh’s Almanac, ‘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.’ (Pugh’s Almanac 1859, p. 65) Although a wall was constructed around the building, which was quickly found to be necessary, it 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, intrigue and licentiousness were soon rife.

Female Convict Factory ca. 1850, JOL 153725

Throughout the 1830s, increasing agitation to bring about the end of the system of convict transportation led to a decline in prisoners arriving at Moreton Bay. By 1839 only 107 prisoners remained in the settlement. In Backhouse and Walker’s recollections, ‘at the time when the convict rule was supposed to be nigh its end, Brisbane existed almost only in name’:

There were no streets, and nothing that could by any stretch of the imagination, be tortured into a town. Fronting the river, adjoining what is now called William Street, stood the modest wooden residence of the Commandant. In its rear was a long row of old rubble buildings for the minor officials and servants immediately attached to him; some of these rooms are still remaining behind an hotel in George Street, close to Telegraph Lane. At some distance further up the river, were the commissariat quarters… Farther on the road to Breakfast Creek for Fortitude Valley then had no name was the house of the clerk of the works. Beyond these and a few temporary huts, there was nothing to indicate a town; and with the exception of the garden and cultivated ground mentioned in “Backhouse’s Journal,” all was “bush.”’

(Coote, pp. 29-30)

John McIntosh, first Chief Constable 

The first police force, small as it was, dates back to 1828 when the Colonial Secretary Correspondence lists John McIntosh as the first Chief Constable. McIntosh was transported for life to New South Wales in February 1814 on the General Hewitt and arrived at Moreton Bay in 1826.

Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868, p. 53

Originally from Glasgow, born in 1789, McIntosh, a watch and clock maker by trade was convicted at Berwick, Northumberland in May 1813 and sentenced to transportation for life. Little is known of his life in the colonies until 1826 when, after an unsuccessful term as a Superintendent of Convicts at Liverpool (Sydney), McIntosh was investigated and found guilty of gross irregularities and lost his Ticket of Leave, a form of parole. (Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 16 Jan 1826, p. 1) Several months later, however, he volunteered to relocate to Moreton Bay as an overseer at the Agricultural Department. (Chronological Register of Convicts at Moreton Bay)


McIntosh, John. Chronological Register of Convicts at Moreton Bay, QSA Item ID869689

Two years after relocating to Moreton Bay McIntosh earned another Ticket of Leave and is listed as a Chief Constable of the local police force. Unlike the remainder of the small force and most of the settlement population, McIntosh was married when he arrived, having obtained permission to marry another convict, Christiana Ferris (a proper spelling of ‘Christana Harris’) in 1824. Chief Constable McIntosh remained in Brisbane until 1833, when he petitioned for replacement and leave to return to Sydney. He died in July 1842 as Chief Constable of the Goulburn Police (Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 12 July 1842, p. 3), just a few months after his wife Christiana was imprisoned for drunkenness at Newcastle Gaol. (New Castle Gaol Entrance Book)

Christiana had her own colourful history. She was born in 1800 and at age 22 she was indicted at the Old Bailey (Middlesex) ‘for feloniously assaulting Joseph Bentley, on the 14 of January, on the King’s Highway, putting him in fear, and taking from his person, and against his will, one brooch, value 15 s., his property.’ (Old Bailey Proceedings Online, www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 10 July 2017, February 1822, trial of CHRISTIANA FERRIS (t18220220-27)). Though charged with violent theft and highway robbery, Christiana was found guilty only of stealing. Still, she was sentenced to transportation for life.

A year after her husband’s death Christiana petitioned for a permission to marry a free man Joseph Nicholson (aka Nicholls), which was denied as on the record she was still married to John McIntosh. The following year, in 1844, she petitioned again and this time the permission was granted. There is no way of determining what happened in the year between January 1844 and 1845, but on 31 January 1845, Christiana married a fellow convict James Broad in East Maitland. (NSW, Registers of Convicts’ Applications to Marry, 1826-1851)

The End of the Convict Police

Replacing John McIntosh at Moreton Bay in 1833 was Richard Bottington, also Bettingten, a convict initially transported in 1818 on the John Berry from Surrey and re-convicted in Sydney in 1827 for bigamy. He was a plumber, painter, and glazier by trade. Three years later Bottington was succeeded by a free man, William Whyte, who was also a Clerk to the Commandant. 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 the Hadlow), Robert Giles (Exmouth), and W H Sketland ‘or Thompson’ (Sophia), and John Egan.

Following the nineteenth century reforms in the police forces of England, Ireland and Scotland, the Brisbane force was also now responsible for monitoring and curtailing certain behaviours, social decorum, as well as crime. The police was tasked with enforcing trading hours, such as Sunday closing at 10 am. Trading outside of these prescribed hours incurred a £3 penalty. Shortly, the majority of daily activities of the town life were regulated. Penalties ranging from £1 to £20 were introduced for misdemeanours, such as damaging a public building, extinguishing a street lamp, bathing near or within a view of a public wharf, or installing awnings on shops and houses. (Police Act 1838) It is noteworthy that the Act did not provide for imprisonment as a form of alternative punishment. This is mainly due to the absence of judicial and custodial provisions being in place at the time. However, the town did have a Scourger (flogger), who was a convict and resided with the convicts at the barracks until December 1839. (Letters Relating to Moreton Bay and Queensland Received 1822-1860, SLQ, Reel A2.13)


Plan of Commissariat Store 1838, QSA Digital Image ID 5225

Soon the efficiency and effectiveness of the convict police came under scrutiny. In 1841, a complaint about local shortage of rum alleged it was sold to private individuals straight from the Commissariat Store. The demands for free constables grew louder, especially following a particularly audacious theft. There was a general feeling that there was ‘too much of a fellow-feeling’ in the community. (‘News from the Interior. Moreton Bay’, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1842, p. 2) There was a push back against appointing convicts and ex-convicts to the police force as free immigrants started to arrive in large numbers. The penal settlement was closed in 1842, and the Moreton Bay area was thrown open to free settlement, with Brisbane Town as its centre.