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

SAMUEL SNEYD (1850-1859, resigned)

Town of Brisbane, 1844. Brisbane City Archive ID 2078; Map Brisbane 1858 showing town Boundary, 1859. BCA ID P005

A new Police Force was organised in 1850. 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 and maintained 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, though not for very long. The following year, the Act for the Regulation of the Police Force 1850 was disallowed and replaced by the Police Regulations Act 1852, reinstating rural police firmly under control of their magistrates’ benches. A local Chief Constable continued to receive his orders from the Police Magistrate.


Samuel Sneyd, undated. John Oxley Library Neg 9466.

New Chief Constable, Samuel Sneyd, was brought over to replace William Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick in turn had replaced Chief Constable William Whyte with his convict policemen in 1843, the same year Captain John Clements Wickham was appointed a permanent Police Magistrate for Brisbane. Four free constables, Martin Higgins, Jeremiah Scanlan, James Ramsey and John McGrath replaced ex-convict policemen Francis Black (Hadlow), Robert Giles (Exmouth), and W H Sketland ‘or Thompson’ (Sophia), and John Egan. Less than a month before his dismissal, Fitzpatrick was ‘severely censured’ by the police magistrate for not responding to a call of alarm (he stayed in bed due to a late shift the night before) raised by a local squatter concerned about a missing bullock and perceived threats made by a tribe camped near Kangaroo Point. The military assembled along with a few constables, shots were fired resulting in flesh wounds to four tribesmen which were treated at the hospital the next day. The missing bullock turned up a short time after the affray. (‘Investigation Respecting the Affray with the Aborigines’, Moreton Bay Courier, 8 Dec 1849, p. 2)

The new police force was comprised of Chief Constable Samuel Sneyd, a newly added District Constable in Kangaroo Point (as the population expanded so did the town landscape, including a new township of Kangaroo point), 8 constables, a clerk and watch-house keeper, Constable John Booth. The District Constable for the new township was the former lifer from Dublin, Peter Duff Murphy. Shortly, the number was deemed insufficient and the force was increased by four ordinary constables. There were no designated Detective Constables until the centralisation of the colonial force in 1864.

Samuel Sneyd immigrated to the colonies from England. He was the first-born child of Baptists Samuel Sneyd, a grocer, and Elizabeth Margaret Oliver. He was born in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England on 15 March 1811, and was followed by his sister Mary in 1814, and brother James in 1818. (‘Samuel Sneyd’, Family Pages) In 1832, at the age of 22, Sneyd came to Australia with the “4th of King” regiment. In the early days, he was selected as one of the picked men from the regiment to suppress bushranging in the colony. While in the Mounted Police he rose to the position of sergeant-major of the Goulburn Division.’ (‘Death of Mr Samuel Sneyd’, Queenslander, 11 Jul 1885, p. 67) On 13 February 1837, Sneyd, in command of the Woollongong Mounted Police, married Miss Kitty Mulcahy, originally of Black Rock near Cork, Ireland, emigrant per ship James Pattison. (Sydney Monitor, 24 Feb 1837, p. 3) They went on to have nine children. Widowed in 1858, Sneyd remarried to Margaret Hyland and had six more children, five of who grew into adulthood.

Overall, Sneyd worked with the police in New South Wales for twenty years, having been stationed in Wollongong, Bowen’s Hollow, and Goulburn among other places. At the time of appointment to the Brisbane Police in January 1850, Sneyd was in Sydney and his family in Goulburn, where he was stationed. Consequently, he had to petition the Colonial Secretary for additional time to move his family to Brisbane, which was approved. In the interim, District Constable Murphy served as an acting Chief Constable.


Brisbane, 1850. Copy of a sketch by Conrad Martens (1801–1878) of the Ferry from the South Brisbane reach 1850. RHSQ Photographic Collection, P53277, a digital copy of P4415.


By 1850, Brisbane population was about 3150 with a police contingent of 9 policemen, 8 ordinary and one district. Covering both day and night shifts, on average, police to population ratio at the time was roughly one constable per 1000 inhabitants. Understaffed and underpaid, the small force struggled with the round the clock duty which resulted in lapses in discipline. Prior to Separation, these men also performed escort duty to Sydney about two to three times a year after the Assizes, when the prisoners had to be transported to serve their custodial sentences. This practice stopped after Separation as the prisoners were kept at the local jail. It is noteworthy, that the escort duty was never performed by land but always by water.

On 5 January 1850, the Moreton Bay Courier printed an inquiry that was brought before the Bench. A complaint was made to the Police Magistrate by District Inspector Murphy, an acting Chief, that Constables Hore and Sparkes had neglected their duty and been intoxicated. ‘The charges having been proved on oath, and corroborated by the testimony of Dr Ballow, Mr Dowes, and other witnesses, both constables were dismissed [from] the force. It appeared that Sparkes had confined a man in the watchhouse for drunkenness, where he himself was more intoxicated than the prisoner.’ (‘Constables Dismissed. Domestic Intelligence’, MBC, 5 Jan 1850, p. 2) As evidenced by rising prosecutions for breach of conduct in the police, Chief Constable Sneyd was a meticulous man fond of rules and regulations. His testimony to the Select Committee on the Police in 1860, showed that he required the applicants to his force to provide testimonials of character and a doctor’s certificate of good health. Sneyd is also frequently seen expressing the desire the police be trained in drill and use of fire arms, however, he advocated against military discipline.

Similar to the Metropolitan Police force in Dublin and London at the time, uniforms of the local police included stocks, a rigid leather collar meant to ensure the right posture. These were uncomfortable and widely lamented. Sneyd openly deemed these ‘detrimental to the man’s health’. (Mr Sneyd, 11 Jul 1860, ‘Select Committee on Police’, QVP 1860, p. 19 [553]) The rest of the uniform issued comprised of a coat; full-dress trousers; white duck trousers, white caps; Wellington boots; Scotch twill shirts; three-stripe silver chevrons and great coats. (‘Clothing, Foot Police, Police Force’, QGG, 29 Dec 1860, p. 535)


‘A Peeler’, a nineteenth-century London Metropolitan Policeman (Wikimedia Commons)

During Sneyd’s term, the police contingent slowly increased:

in Fortitude Valley, there was one district constable and one ordinary constable; in south Brisbane there were three ordinary constables, and one district constable; at Kangaroo point one ordinary constable; in North Brisbane one Chief Constable, two mounted, and one ordinary constable acting as Lock-up keeper, and five more performing street duty; these were employed two by day and three by night. The day constables were on duty from 5am to 10pm; the night constables being on duty from 10pm to 5 am; the Lock-up keeper was continually on duty at the Lock-up, having also the charge of the Police Office. The mounted constables were employed in patrolling about the suburbs and in the district generally. At South Brisbane, there was one constable continually on duty day and night [as of November 1859]. The district constables had to patrol about the Western Suburbs and Bulimba twice a week; the Fortitude Valley district constable patrolled about Kedron Brook and the German Station twice a week; the man at Kangaroo Point was continually on duty. There were two mounted men whose duty it was to execute all Warrants and Summonses in the bush for the Police District of Brisbane and to make patrols occasionally to the Logan and Albert Rivers and extreme parts of the District. There were two for Logan District and the exterior, who patrolled once a week. (Mr Sneyd, 11 Jul 1860, ‘Select Committee on Police’, QVP 1860, p. 17 [551])

Between 1856 and 1859, Brisbane Police district population increased from 5,844 to 6,051 (Pugh’s Almanac 1860-61). The numbers only reflect the European presence, as the Indigenous population were marginalised, displaced from the settlement. Between June 1859 and June 1860, there were 38 offenders tried at the Supreme Court, including on Circuit, of which 13 per cent of the defendants were Aborigines (all guilty verdicts with hard labour custodial sentence). The list of summary cases tried at the Brisbane bench between Sep 1857-30 Sep 1858 does not provide details such as race, having said that due to concerted efforts of the Mounted Police, the Volunteer Force and the squatters to push the frontier, the Indigenous presence in Brisbane town proper was quite small. Below is the breakdown of the summary offences disposed of by the Police Magistrate:

  • Common Assaults 40
  • Embezzlement 20
  • Masters and Servants Act 78
  • Rogues and Vagabonds 71
  • Drunk and disorderly 337
  • Indecent exposure 4

(PA 1859, p. 41)

The significant number of drunk and disorderly arrests is hardly a unique or isolated incident. Consistently, ‘drunkenness’ or ‘drunk and disorderly’ are amongst the most numerous offences in police statistics across the urban forces in the colonies and England, and Ireland. Having said that, the handful of night and day Brisbane ordinary constables were kept busy indeed, as there was a total of 615 misdemeanours prosecuted in that year.

(Early View of Queen Street, Brisbane ca. 1859. SQL Neg 8299; Queen Street, 1868. John Oxley Library ID 36322)

In his ‘reflections’, a local resident writing under a pseudonym ‘A Stroller’, offered the following account titled ‘The Morals of Brisbane’, printed in the Moreton Bay Courier in November 1858:

SCENE I – Top of Queen Street. Time 10 o’clock at night. Two policemen talking.

No 1. – “I say Jem, see anybody about.”

No 2. – “No Tom, M’Adam’s cat has just run round Brookes’ corner.”

No 1. – “I’ll bet a tanner [sic] he is gone a wooing.”

No 2. – “Bad luck on him to set such an example. Seen anybody herring-boning?”

No 1. – “Out of all character, Tom, people are reforming. The quiet taste of the inhabitants makes our sheet look dull in the morning. Here will soon be nothing to do. Ever since Mr. Brown [William Anthony Brown, the Sherriff and the Police Magistrate] took the chair at the Teetotal meeting, people are afraid to get spicy with Old Tom, or kick up Bob’s-a-dying though the effects of a nobbler. Whatever shall we do, Tom, if the folks won’t get drunk?”

No 2. – “Don’t be alarmed! Hark! Hear you that noise?”

No 1. – “I hear it. By teetotalism, I swear, it’s a fellow three sheets in the wind.”

A half-drunken man staggers along, singing.

“I’m off, I’m off, to Burrendong.

To dig for a tinful of gold.”

No 1. – “Oh yes, my boy, just come along

I think you’ll find yourself sold.”

No 2. – Nabbing him, “we’ll find you a Burrendong.”

Escorts the singer to the lock-up, the unfortunate wight singing –

“I’m going, I’m going,

Where the beetles crawl;

From thence to where the breaks

Will me overhaul.”

During the rest of the night the only noises witnessed by ‘A Stroller’ were ‘violent barkings of stray dogs, not yet disciplined into our new regulations’.

SCENE – Next Morning – The Police Court.

Mr Brown: How many cases are there?

Mr Sneyd: One, your worship.

Mr Brown: Who is the prisoner?

Mr Sneyd: A man who says he is off to Burrendong.

Mr Brown: Let him go then. Is that all the business?

Mr Sneyd: Yes, your worship.

Mr Brown: There really is nothing worth coming to the Court for. I congratulate the inhabitants of Brisbane on their orderly behaviour. If any body else should get drunk during the next week you can let me know. I shall be at home.

The worthy magistrate made his exit. Mr Sneyd rolled up his charge sheet. Mr May [the clerk] adjusted his spectacles. The policemen engaged themselves in keeping the flies from the sausage shop; and the waiters at the public-houses put on mourning; and in many instances the shutters of grog-shops were put up.

The satirical piece cheekily concludes with, ‘this is my report…It is not likely to be true, as it is only the fudge of A STROLLER.’ (‘The Morals of Brisbane’, MBC, 27 Nov 1858, p. 2)

A year later, Chief Constable Sneyd retired from the Brisbane Police and took up a post of “a gaoler” at the Brisbane Gaol. Sneyd was presented with a gold watch and gold Albert chain and key by the Brisbane Police force, as an expression of their regard and respect for him. The watch was a hunter lever, and bore the following inscription on the inside of the case, ‘Presented to Mr. S. Sneyd, Chief Constable of the Brisbane police force, by the men serving under him, as a token of respect upon his retiring from the service Dec. 15, 1859.’ (MBC, 17 Dec 1859, p. 2) At a conclusion of Sneyd’s term, the existing pay of ordinary and district constables increased (from 2s 3d per day in 1848 to 5s 6d per day in 1859 for ordinary constables) but it was still deemed insufficient. Sneyd testified to the Select Committee of Police in 1860 that the pay ought to be increased to the Sydney Metropolitan Police level of 6s 6d per day for ordinary police, as ‘a good many men have left and joined the police force in Sydney on account of the higher pay.’ (Ibid, 18 [552])

Chief Constable Thomas Quirk then took over the force. In mid-1860, it comprised 1 Inspector; 2 Sergeants; 2 Lock-up keepers (North and South Brisbane); 9 Ordinary Constables (North and South Brisbane, Kangaroo Point and Fortitude Valley); 4 Mounted Constables (2 attached to the Government House); 1 Foot Constable (night sentry, Government House); 4 Ordinary Constables as messengers attached to the various colonial administrative offices.

(Early biographical details of Chief Constable Samuel Sneyd courtesy of Lisa Jones, Curator of Queensland Police Museum)