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

PETER ‘DUFF’ MURPHY (1846-1853, resigned)

Layout of Brisbane Town, Moreton Bay, 20 Sep 1839, QSA Item ID 659605; Town of Brisbane, Brisbane City Archive 2078

Until 1839, Moreton Bay saw a steady stream of convicts. In 1839, the last draft of convicts, both male and female, landed on the banks of the Brisbane River. These included the first convict policemen. Peter ‘Duff’ Murphy initially arrived into the penal settlement as an assigned servant to Patrick Leslie, a pioneer and grazier from Scotland. In 1846, he returned in a radically new capacity of a District Constable Murphy, Kangaroo Point.

Peter Murphy was born in Dublin in 1806 into a working class, Roman Catholic family, only a few years after yet another failed uprising in 1803, led by United Irishman Robert Emmet, had shaken the capital. Following a series of reorganisations throughout the first decades of the 1800s, Dublin saw its peace and property preserved by the day police during the daylight hours and the watchmen after sundown. Various contemporary accounts depicted the night watchmen as old, infirm and completely unfit for the job ‘always prepared to allow a prisoner to escape on the production of half-a-crown.’ Peter Murphy’s first brush with the law came at the age of 16, when he was apprehended for theft of clothes. (‘Police Intelligence’, Saunder’s News-Letter, 28 Jul 1821, p. 2) Murphy, in company of Jonathan Brennan, was witnessed fencing a military plaid-coat, a cotton dressing gown, a pair of leather breeches, a pair of pantaloons, and two handkerchiefs. Three years later, in 1825, Peter Murphy, alias Duff, was at the Newgate Prison, Dublin awaiting trial for burglary and felony. (The Dublin Morning Register, 24 Jun 1825, p. 2) The outcome of that trial is unknown, however, we do know that a year later, on the night of 3 June 1826, Peter with a new accomplice, a 13 year old boy named Christopher Monks, got indicted for having ‘barbarously and feloniously entered the house of Pat. Barnewall, Spring-gardens, Newcomen-bridge, and taken therefrom certain articles, the property of Mr Barnewall (also Barnwell), and also some clothes the property of Miss Anne Frued.’ (The Dublin Morning Register, 21 Jun 1826, p. 3)

As the boys tried to escape with the clothes, one of the residents was woken up by the noise and raised alarm. The night watchmen John Waker and John Graham on duty in the area gave chase. Murphy and Monks abandoned their loot during the run. At the trial McKane, another resident, testified that he recognised Murphy, as they both lived in the area. The arresting watchman Graham testified that he saw the two prisoners running across a field from the gardens, upon catching up with Duff, alias Murphy, he ‘immediately pulled a pistol from under his coat, presented it at witness, and told him to stand back or he would blow the contents of it through him.’ (Ibid) The jury returned the verdict against both prisoners, as guilty of felony, and not guilty of burglary; ‘sentence – to be transported for life.’

Murphy’s transportation record shows he was indicted and convicted of street robbery in the Dublin City Court and sentenced for transportation to Australia for the period of his natural life. Murphy made his passage over on a convict ship Countess of Harcourt (4). She sailed from Dublin on 14 February 1827 and, following a 134 days’ journey, arrived at Sydney on 28 June 1827, along with 22 transported countrymen (eight of them lifers) he arrived in Sydney. Murphy, a common Irish surname, was supplemented by “Duff” which derives from Gaelic dubh, dark or black, inspired by Murphy’s complexion. According to his transportation record, Murphy had brown hair and brown eyes with a distinct scar across the centre of his forehead.

Conditional Pardon

‘Peter Duff Murphy’, Conditional Pardon NSW 31 Dec 1847, Convict Registers of Conditional and Absolute Pardons, 1788-1870, p. 384.


Ten years later, in 1838, he was assigned as a servant man to Patrick Leslie, a pioneer and a grazier who arrived in Sydney from Scotland four years previously. Murphy distinguished himself during the Darling Downs expedition on a number of occasions, repelling attacks by the local Aboriginal tribes. It was the assistance Peter lent Leslie that secured him his pardon.’ (The Queenslander, 20 Feb 1892) In his diary Leslie described Murphy as ‘the best plucked fellow’. As he returned to Sydney, Leslie asked the then Governor, Sir George Gipps, to grant Murphy a ticket-of-leave in gratitude for his services before the expiration of the sentence, which was of course, life. Murphy was granted ticket-of-leave on 13 June 1842. The conditions of parole allowed Murphy to stay within the Moreton Bay district. Nevertheless, for the duration of the year, he resided in Port Macquarie where he performed duties of District Constable. This he has done exceedingly well, as ‘The Country News’ in the Australasian from 28 May 1842 hinted at Murphy’s promotion to the Chief Constableship at Moreton Bay. (p. 3) It will be some years before Murphy will receive the honour, however.

On 29 November 1842, in presence of Mary Anne and William Tyrell, Peter Murphy married Catherine Thompson at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Sydney. (Marriage Certificate, 1266/1842 V18421266 91) Peter and Catherine went on to have five living children and five boys and a girl that died in infancy. Margaret (1844), Elizabeth (1846), Peter (1848), John (1850), and Edward Joseph (1853) were born and baptised in Moreton Bay. (Death Certificate, C1472) On 31 December 1846, Murphy received a conditional pardon (No 1225) three years after he was granted ticket-of-leave. The pardon’s conditions allowed Murphy freedom of movement in all parts of the world, except the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland ‘then this pardon shell thenceforth be and become wholly void, as by Her Majesty’s Commands expressly limited and directed’.

By the time Murphy and his family reached Brisbane, Moreton Bay was opened for free settlement. All convicts except 39 men were removed. The settlement continued expanding and its administrative apparatus grew in complexity, such as establishment of the Courts of Petty Sessions in 1846, the first Circuit Court and the first bank in 1850. Between 1846 and 1850, Brisbane’s population more than tripled from just under a 1,000 to 3,150 inhabitants. (ABS) As the population expanded so did the town landscape. In the mid-1840s a third township emerged, Kangaroo Point. Here land sold at £5 pounds per acre. In comparison, building allotments in North and South Brisbane sold for twenty times the price. Constable Peter Murphy and his family (including two daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth) owned two of those allotments in Kangaroo Point, one conveniently located across from a lockup.

Brisbane Map

Kangaroo Point, 1858. Cadastral Map of Brisbane, 1858, Queensland Government Data.


As evidenced by court reports reprinted in the Moreton Bay Courier, most of the cases prosecuted by District Constable Murphy were property offences and offences against good order such as drunkenness or indecent exposure. The former significantly outnumbered the latter. William Murray was summoned to appear before the Magistrates on 20 July 1847, ‘charged with indecently exposing his person at Kangaroo Point on the previous day. The defendant did not appear, and the case being substantiated by Constable Murphy, he was fined £5, which was subsequently paid.’ (‘Indecent Exposure’, Moreton Bay Courier, 31 Jul 1847, p. 3)

Kangaroo Point

Kangaroo Point 1858 by Silvester Diggles (England/Australia 1817-1880), pencil 21.6 x 26.7 cm, acquired before 1959. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery, photograph: QAGOMA


In July 1850, Murphy investigated and prosecuted an interesting case of a house robbery, where he got to apply his forensic skills. On the night of 15 July 1850, the house of a man named Duffy in Kangaroo Point was burglarised. The thief entered through the window and stole a one pound note and three penny pieces. Murphy’s suspicion fell on a ticket-of-leave holder Isaac Thomlin (convict ship Mount Elphinestone). By an odd chance he found the man in question at the Police Office, where he was making a request to be allowed a pass to remain in Brisbane (all ticket-of-leave men and women were not free to move around until pardoned). Murphy decided to search him. He found the notes which was positively identified by Mrs Duffy ‘by the peculiar way it was folded and by some remarkable stains on it’. Murphy also examined Thomlin’s boots which he matched to a boot print he found near Duffy’s house. The boot was missing a nail and left a characteristic impression in the soft soil. The defendant was sentenced to six months in an ironed gang. (‘House Robbery’, Moreton Bay Courier, 20 Jul 1850, p. 2).

In 1850, the Brisbane Police also underwent organisation changes and expanded; the police force now comprised of a chief constable, a district constable in Kangaroo Point, 8 constables (increased to 11 in 1853 per ‘Domestic Intelligence’, Moreton Bay Courier, 25 Jun 1853, p. 3), a clerk and a watch-house keeper. The Act for the Regulation of the Police Force in New South Wales (14 Vic, No.38) provided for establishment of a colonial police force headed by an Inspector General supported by a network of provincial inspectors. The proclamation of the act ended locally organised police forces in New South Wales and the domination of the police force by the magistracy.

In January, Samuel Sneyd succeeded Chief Constable William Fitzpatrick, who was dismissed from the force in the end of 1849. As Sneyd took over, the cases for breach of conduct of the police appeared more regularly in the local newspapers. In 1853, Murphy was charged with being drunk twice, on 21 January 1853 (‘Charges against Constable’, Moreton Bay Courier, 22 Jan 1853, p. 2) and in June, when he was found drunk at the ferry wharf, Kangaroo Point. As this was a repeat offence, the Bench sentenced him to pay a fine of £5. Brisbane Police annual pay at the time was £125 for Chief Constable, £95 16s 3d p.a. District Constable, or roughly £1 8s per week, and £86 13s 9d p.a. for Constable. (Moreton Bay Courier, 25 Jun 1853, p. 3) Murphy tendered his resignation following the hearing, which was accepted. (Moreton Bay Courier, 18 Jun 1853, p. 2)

Murphy’s third son, Edward Joseph, was born the same year. Land sale records and Police Court coverage for Ipswich show that Murphy relocated to the town and 1860s onwards presided over the local Police Court. The cadastral map of Brisbane listed ‘P Murphy’ as the owner of two allotments in Kangaroo Point, 27 and 32, as late as 1874. Peter ‘Duff’ Murphy died on 6 April 1878 at Charters Towers aged 72, ‘a highly respected colonist’. (Brisbane Courier, 13 May 1878, p. 2)