Was Australia's First Police Force Really Made Up of Convicts?

The co-existence of convicts, their military gaolers, and free settlers in Australia during the early years of European settlement in the country.
The co-existence of convicts, their military gaolers, and free settlers in Australia during the early years of European settlement in the country.

Police forces around the world are respected for their oath to serve and protect the general public. Members of police forces are generally expected to be upstanding citizens and role models for proper civic behavior. In most places, it would be unheard of for a known criminal to hold such an important position. That has not always been the case, however, in Australia. This article takes a look at the first police force of Australia, which was made up entirely of convicts.

History Of Law Enforcement In Australia

When Australia was first being colonized, the country had no formal police force. In response to this need, the Marines of the Royal Navy assumed the responsibility after arriving to New South Wales in January of 1788. This provisional police force proved to be insufficient for the growing law enforcement needs of the newly developing country. The need was made even more evident when an economic crisis hit and the government established a rationing program. The lack of basic goods caused insecurity and fear among residents. With these feelings of instability and the inability to procure basic necessities, crime rates began to soar.

The Night Watch

The Marines of the Royal Navy were unable to control the ever-growing crime rates. The local government, led by Governor Phillip, soon recognized the need for a locally established law enforcement department and created the Night Watch. At the time, Australia had more convict residents than residents without criminal backgrounds. With convicts being the only human resources set before him, Governor Phillip decided to task 12 of the most well-behaved individuals with the responsibility of the "night watch".

These 12 men were divided into four groups that were assigned to different sectors of New South Wales. Given the success of this first group of convicts-turned-police-officers, the government decided to expand the program. In 1790, the Night Watch program was expanded to the city of Sydney. A new group of convicts joined the pre-existing Sydney Foot Police, allowing the enforcement area to expand into Toongabbie, Hawkesbury, and Parramatta.

Under Governor Hunter, in 1796, this larger police department was modeled after the London Police Department. This new organization placed police constables under the management of local magistrates. By this time, the Night Watch had become the go-to model for Australia’s police force expansion efforts. After 30 years, the Sydney department had grown to over 60 constables in several districts, the majority of whom were ex-convicts. Additionally, the force had grown to include several new units, including: Border Police, Mounted Police, Water Police, and the Mounted Aboriginal Police.

According to historians, of these additional police units, the mounted forces played an extremely important role in enforcing law throughout the land. This is because these police officers were able to reach the areas located far from the city. In addition, mounted police were able to monitor and regulate the transportation of trade and other goods along the country’s roadways. By the mid 19th century, the government passed the Police Recruiting Act which allowed the police department to recruit individuals from the British Isles as well. Recruits were given a free fare to come to Australia in exchange for 3 years of police service.

Historical records indicate that the Night Watch and its extensions were successful at controlling and reducing crime throughout Australia, a surprising result for a police force created of convicts.


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