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

ALFRED SAMUEL WRIGHT (1850-1864, Discharged)

Slater’s Pocket Map of the City of Brisbane 1865, APA-59 Nicholson Family Photograph Album, JOL, SLQ

Alfred Samuel Wright, 13 June 1843, 22 years. Image from the Wright/ Mullins family collection

Alfred Samuel Wright was born in Butters Place, Southwark, in 1820 to Samuel Bridgeman Wright, wool stapler, and Mary Ann Morgan (London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1917, p. 261). Before making his journey to the Australian colonies, Wright, a warehouse man, married Matilda Bryant on 10 March 1844, at the Protestant Church of Saint James, Bermondsey, London. The ceremony was conducted by Thomas Ridley in the presence of John Wilcock and Joseph Wheeler. Matilda was born on 13 September 1826 to Edward Bryant and Henrietta Elizabeth Harriet Page in Ashburton, Devon (London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921, p. 135).

Following a six-month journey, Alfred and Matilda Wright arrived with their three children, Matilda Clara Hannah, Edward Alfred and Emma Sophia Chaseley (she was born on the ship, Birth Reg BP0307), in Brisbane in May 1849. (Registers of Immigrant Ships’ Arrivals, Series ID 13086; Roll M1696, QSA). Matilda’s sister, Elizabeth Dickens, also journeyed to Moreton Bay with her husband Thomas and his siblings. In 1859, a decade after their arrival, Matilda’s niece, Elizabeth Rose Welsh (neé Dickens) opened a school for young ladies (Meiklejohn, First Families 2001).


Chaseley, May 1849. Registers of Immigrant Ships’ Arrivals, Series ID 13086; Roll M1696, QSA

Shortly after settling in Brisbane, in June 1850, Alfred Samuel Wright joined the local police. This was only a couple of months after Chief Constable Samuel Sneyd had taken over the newly re-organised force (The Act for the Regulation of the Police Force in New South Wales 14 Vic, No. 38). At the time, the police force comprised of a Chief Constable, a District Constable, six to 11 Constables (including one at Kangaroo Point), a clerk and a watch-house keeper. The Brisbane gaol was opened the same year providing facilities for custodial punishment. The first ‘gaoler’ was Martin Feeney, who had ‘served in the British army for 28 years, before becoming a sergeant-major of the mounted police force in Sydney for 11 years. His wife Maria held a position of a matron of the Brisbane gaol. The gaol quickly acquired its first inmates – 16 by mid-January [1850]. (Ross Johnston, Brisbane-The First Thirty Years, p. 169)


A S and Matilda Wright, c. 1900. Image from the Wright/ Mullins family collection

The Wright family’s first year in Brisbane was marred by the death of their five-year-old son, Edward Alfred Wright, in November 1850. Edward was playing with other children at the back of the Commissariat Store, ‘when turning round the parapet surmounting the wall of the deep area that surrounds the building, he lost his balance and fell to the bottom, a distance of some eighteen to twenty feet’ (‘Fatal Accident’, MBC, 4 Nov 1850, p. 1). The accident was witnessed by a servant woman of the Chief Constable of the police. She summoned assistance and Edward was carried to the house of Chief Constable Sneyd. Drs Hobbs and Cannan attended soon after, but the boy died that night without ever regaining consciousness. The couple went on to have seven more children, a total of 5 girls and 6 boys. In a tragic coincidence, another boy also named Edward Alfred born in 1867, died in infancy (Wright QP Personnel File).

According to the surviving court records, the majority of cases Constable Wright dealt with during his time with the Brisbane Police were related to the sale or consumption of alcohol. In April 1852, Constable Wright together with Constable Swinburne appeared before the Brisbane Bench to answer the charge of one Victor Godoy. They were charged with neglecting their duty by going into and remaining in a public-house . The court heard that when on duty (or in uniform), police were prohibited from entering a public-house. The magistrate found that the constables had gone into the house in the discharge of their duty, and therefore dismissed the case (MBC 24 Apr 1852, p. 2). Alcohol related prosecutions dominated bench books all through the nineteenth century. Constable Wright’s charges against Roger Eaton of being drunk and using profane language in Queens Street would be typical of his daily work. Eaton pleaded guilty to the charge and was fined 10 shillings (MBC 16 Oct 1852, p. 2).

In another case, Joseph Antonio, ‘an old sinner’, was charged at the Brisbane Police Office with vagrancy. According to the court proceedings, the defendant had only finished serving three months imprisonment with hard labour a day earlier. Antonio was under sentence of the Ipswich Bench, for begging in the streets. On the afternoon of the day he was discharged, he went into the shop of Mr Cooling at North Brisbane where ‘he represented himself as an unfortunate who had just arrived in the colony and had lost his wife and family. He spoke in French, [pretending] he did not understand English, and Mrs Cooling, taking compassion on him, gave him a note to a magistrate, but instead of making use of that he went away and got drunk, in which state he was apprehended by Constable Wright’ (MBC 8 Apr 1854, p. 2). Antonio was sentenced to six months with hard labour.

The following month, Constable Wright was present during another interesting case. Three seamen off the Himalaya who had recently served a month’s imprisonment for absconding from that vessel, were again brought up before the Brisbane Bench for refusing to return to duty. They were sentenced to be imprisoned for one month, or until the ship sailed:

The Water Police Magistrate, Mr Duncan, had scarcely pronounced this sentence, when one of the prisoners, Edmund Henry Davis, took a stone out of his pocket and threw with great force at Magistrate Duncan…District Constable Anderson and Constable Wright, the lockup keeper, proved that the prisoner had no stone in his possession when confined. He must have obtained the missile from the ruinous walls of his cell, many of those receptacles being so dilapidated that they were not used at all (MBC 6 May 1854, p. 2).

Constable Wright gave evidence as to the insecurity of the cells, ‘which showed that it was time the new ones were built’.

One of the most infamous cases of the decade, however, involved Wright’s wife, Matilda. As no women served in the police force until the twentieth century, the wives of jail wardens or lockup keepers often served as female searchers or matrons. On 22 May 1852, Matilda Wright, a female searcher at the Lockup, was deposed in the notorious case of Jane Ellis. Mrs Ellis, the wife of warder, stood indicted for having unlawfully and maliciously committed a series of assaults on Jane McEvoy, ‘an infant of tender years’ (MBC 22 May 1852). Witnesses stated that the girl was ‘one mess of sores and congealed blood’ from her loins to the back of her knees. According to the trial coverage, the abuse began seven years earlier:

Isabella, aged about 15, was routinely stripped, strung up by her arms so only her toes touched the ground, and was beaten with a stick or whip for long periods. Isabella ran away and hid under a neighbour’s house for 24 hours. Once she reappeared, neighbours took her to the Chief Constable and he had a doctor look at her injuries… The jury after some deliberations found Jane Ellis guilty on both counts, she received a sentence of 14-months imprisonment for the first and 10 months for the second. The prisoner was committed to the custody of the Sheriff, and she was sent to serve her time at the Parramatta Gaol in New South Wales (Lisa Jones in Dukova, Policing Colonial Brisbane, UQP 2020).

In November 1859, Alfred applied for the office of the Chief Constable, having served as a constable and a lockup-keeper. The other candidate for the role was Mr Thomas Francis Quirk, previously inspector in charge of the Sydney District Police. The bench carefully considered the claims and testimonials of Wright and Quirk, and appointed Mr Quick to the office (MBC 26 Nov 1859, p. 2). The month after Quick’s appointment, the Police Department relocated from the old Convict Barracks to the old gaol in Queen Street, having doubled in size since 1850. In June 1859, the Brisbane police force comprised of a Chief Constable, 3 Sergeants and 18 Constables.

Between 1856 and 1861, Queensland’s urban population also increased by almost 40%, putting more pressure on the small police force (Table XVIII, Report – Census, 1861, p. vii). In May 1862, Colonial Secretary Robert Herbert put forth a bill proposing to consolidate the laws relating to the police. The most significant change to the existing organisation was a recommendation to appoint a paid superintendent of police for the colony; the Colonial Secretary provided justification for the organisational reform arguing that ‘by having an officer responsible for the management of [police] department, a saving of several thousand pounds, would he felt sure, be effected in the supply of stores, the pay of constables, and in many other matters.’ An entry level constable received 5s 6p per day, and those of a higher grade were remunerated at 6s 3p per day, the rate was fixed when the ‘gold fields first broke out, when everything was very dear’ (‘Police Regulation Bill’, Legislative Assembly, Record of the Proceedings of the Queensland Parliament, 20 May 1862). Due to the rapid colonial growth and the parallel expansion of the force, by 1862, expenses amounted to a staggering £50,000.

Colonial Secretary Herbert government’s proposed bill under which these reforms would be instigated also suggests that possibility for collusion and nepotism were rampant under the existing organisation, for ‘as long as [the Constable] was well behaved in his own district, and pleased his own magistrate, he had nothing to fear.’ The Opposition, however, was concerned that the proposed changes would ‘throw more patronage into the hands of the Government’ instead. Local and overseas examples indicated that the corruption of local magistracy was widespread. In 1812, the Dublin citizens presented a petition to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland complaining about the police magistrates’ connections with gambling houses. The letter also exposed the magistrates’ ‘improper use of police horses and supplies, and employment of paid constables as “domestic and menial Servants, the Police institution has been charged as if they were respectively effective Police Men doing duty”’ (Dukova, 2016, p. 49). In Queensland, a similar practice was highlighted during the Commission into Management and Working of the Police Force, 1868-69. Inspector Lewis testified ‘that every police magistrate in the colony employed constables for their own purposes: ‘As I understand, they looked upon it as a right to have a man, as an orderly, to look after their horses and trap, and [on] messages, and to whatever rounds was wanted’ (J. A. Lewis, ‘On the Management and Working of the Police Force’, Commission into Management and Working of the Police Force, 1868-69, p. 49, QPM). William Anthony Brown, Brisbane Police Magistrate, ‘had one or two police constables for his private service, who, the evidence showed, did not do any police duty’ (Dukova, 2016, p. 50). The men were remunerated from the police resources by being paid a night allowance (‘D.T. Seymour’, Commission, 1868-9’, p. 16). Brown had been appointed as Brisbane Police Magistrate in 1857. At that time, the Brisbane Police Magistrate’s role also encompassed the role of Sheriff and Superintendent of police (‘Police Regulation Bill’, Legislative Assembly, Record of the Proceedings, 20 May 1862).

On 1 January 1864, the new Queensland Police Act was promulgated. Despite the introduction of a new Police Act, there was no clear magistracy reform. The magistrates retained their powers as Inspectors, meaning that an official could effectively act as a prosecutor and judge in the same case, while having full command over the rank and file police.

Certificate of Discharge

Wright transitioned into the new organisation along with the rest of the Brisbane Police. The Register of Members of the Police Force describes him as 5’6” tall (one inch under the minimum gazetted height, no doubt an exception made due to his previous service), of dark complexion with hazel eyes and brown hair. (Register of Members of the Police Force) Wright’s time with the Queensland Police Force was brief, as per the Queensland Police Gazette, he was discharged on 7 December 1864 (Queensland Police Gazette 1864, p. 24).

Alfred Samuel Wright was later an assistant bailiff under Mr Hingston, the city rates collector (Brisbane Courier, 11 Apr 1866, pp. 2-3). He died on 22 August 1894, at his residence in Richmond Terrace, New Farm and was buried at the Toowong Cemetery, grave location 1-94-18 (BC, 24 Aug 1894, p. 1). Matilda outlived Alfred by 16 years and died at their residence as well, on 2 April 1910 (Australia Death Index, B012438).