Lyndon Megarrity interviews Anastasia Dukova about her recent book To preserve and protect: Policing colonial Brisbane

Thank you for writing this book, which is a great contribution to our understanding of Queensland colonial history. Can I begin by asking you how you developed your interest and expertise in crime and policing history?

Thank you! I first came across crime and society studies during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto and was immediately drawn to the subject. My honours thesis investigated the history of crime and policing in mid-nineteenth century Dublin. This topic later evolved into a doctoral thesis at the University of Dublin, Trinity College funded by the Irish Research Council, which focused on the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP); how it compared to the London Police; and how it influenced Brisbane specifically and Queensland as a whole.

What inspired you to write a book on Brisbane’s colonial police?

My doctoral thesis was a comparative study of the Dublin, London, and Brisbane police. This work was followed by postdoctoral research into the Toronto Police which added a British American colonial dimension to the comparison. The findings were published as a monograph, A History of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Its Colonial Legacy, in 2016. At the conclusion of this project, which focused mainly on the DMP, I still had questions about Brisbane policing which led me to apply for funding with the Brisbane City Council. I was awarded a grant, Lord Mayor’s Helen Taylor Award for History, and it allowed me to continue my research into the history of Brisbane policing and publish my findings online and eventually as a book.

The heart of each chapter is the narration of the life and times of a specific historical actor, either a policeman or perpetrator. What do you feel are the advantages of fleshing out historical themes and eras with individual biographies?

Historical criminology demonstrates that policing is not an abstract ideal and cannot be divorced from the social conditions it was borne out of. This approach of interweaving historical themes with individual biographies helps to demonstrate how the organisations and institutions of the time shaped the lived experiences of both policemen and perpetrators. At the same time, it contextualises policing history socially, economically, and culturally. It illustrates cause and effect and how it plays out on an individual level as well as organisationally. It also highlights an existential push and pull between the police and the community. Police would not exist without a community, while a community as we perceive it today would not function without some iteration of law enforcement. The role of the police would be ineffective without community cooperation granting it authority and affording legitimacy.

As your book shows, many of the first police in Brisbane had been transported to Australia as convicts. Even after free settlement began in 1842, a significant minority of residents in Brisbane and surrounding districts were convicts, or ex-convicts. How did this shape the official nature and community expectations of policing in the colony?

The early colonial Brisbane community was made up of migrants, voluntary and forced, individuals with previous, albeit brief, experience with uniformed police. The very first city police force was established in Dublin in 1786, in response to widespread unrest fomented by the subsistence crisis, the economic downturn after the American War of Independence, and the inevitable destitution which led to rising larceny rates. Overall, from the 1780s-onwards, Dublin and London witnessed waves of riots, labour movements, and an unsuccessful United Irishmen Rebellion. This led to calls for more stringent social control and a series of police reforms which culminated in the establishment of the Irish Constabulary (1822), the London (1829) and Dublin (1836) Metropolitan Police. The key Scottish forces, such as Edinburgh and Glasgow were organised in the first five years of the 19th century.

As a result, by mid-1840s, most Brisbane residents would have had some form of interaction with uniformed police either in the colonies or more likely in their home country. Similar to the prevailing attitudes in Great Britain, local police were viewed with suspicion. Having said that, there was an expectation that the police perform their duties by enforcing law and protecting life and property. This is evidenced by the gradual overhaul of the force in favour of hiring free men over ex-convicts and newcomers over local candidates who may have divided loyalties when it came to enforcing the law. In a sense, the Brisbane police was formed as an antidote to the diversifying society, as opposed to an ailing society as was the case in Ireland or England.

The colonial Queensland police force was very much modelled on the Irish Constabulary. Why was Ireland considered by the authorities to be an appropriate model for Queensland policing, and how did it shape the lives of police officers “on the beat”?

Ireland at the time had three police forces with parallel jurisdictions, Belfast City Police, Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Irish Constabulary. Unable to cope with rioting and partisan allegations, the Belfast Police force was disbanded in 1865 and the district was absorbed by the Irish Constabulary. Belfast’s police presence doubled after the restructure. Irish (Royal after 1867) Constabulary was an armed state paramilitary force, a gendarmerie tasked with enforcing state law and rule in predominantly rural areas. The men were frequently transferred between districts. This model was deemed ideal for frontier policing across the colonies. The metropolitan branches of colonial forces utilised urban police models. As a consequence, ex-Irish police as well as military were preferred applicants to the Queensland Police. This approach resulted in significant organisational knowledge transfer and experience. Brisbane policemen, like their Dublin and London counterparts, were clad in blue, armed with batons and were assigned a beat. Their performance was assessed based on rates of crime on their beats; ‘absence of crime’ was considered ‘the best proof of the complete efficiency of the police’ (A Return of All General Orders, Whitehall,1830) The lives of patrol constables were extremely regulated both professionally and personally. Constables could not vote, own a business, be in debt, marry without permission, or be caught ‘chatting idly’ or have their hands in their pockets. In return, a career in the police ensured a regular income, some housing assistance and more importantly, a pension.

You conclude the book by pointing out that new recruits “still swear to keep and preserve peace and prevent all offences against the same.” Can useful comparisons still be made between colonial and 21st century policing styles and principles?

The principles founded upon the ideas of Scottish Enlightenment, such as the social contract, and formulated by Sir Robert Peel such as keeping and preserving the peace and prevention of all offences still apply today despite the major changes in law enforcement.  Beat policing has taken the form of community-oriented policing, where regular foot patrols and community integration are rated among the more effective methods of preventative policing.

Because of its mission of preserving order and peace, particularly in times of unrest, the police force plays a key part in shoring up the legitimacy of governments and the state in general. What were the differences/similarities between the way that the Brisbane police carried out this role and the way peace was preserved in other parts of the British Empire in the nineteenth century?

The decades between the 1880s and 1910s witnessed several waves of politically- and economically- charged social unrest across the British Empire. Given the relative homogeneity of communities of the British White Dominions, such as Ireland, Canada, and Australia, and similarity in policing, there are significant parallels in riot control and civilian response. In nearly every riot, the local police contingent was not enough and either the military, or in the case of Brisbane, special constables, men with no training or rigorous vetting, were called in for support. Typically, in cases of city rioting, foot policemen armed with batons were supported first by the mounted police and then the army. The crowds traditionally responded with showers of cobble stones, bricks and bottles (also known as the Belfast Confetti due to the frequency and severity of the rioting in the city). Rural riots, as well as out of control city gatherings, were ‘quelled’ with bullets. Enforcing social control during labour lockouts inevitably chipped away at the police’s legitimacy and acceptance and led to increased hostility towards policemen, in essence labouring men themselves.

As your work shows, female criminality was dealt with especially harshly in colonial Brisbane. How did this reality reflect the moral values of the time? Are men and women still treated differently within the legal system?

Legal tolerance of women acting against the social norms and what was deemed appropriate by the proliferating Victorian culture of sensibilities was much lower than it was for men in Brisbane, the Australian colonies, and overall across the former British White Dominions. An increase in the policing of certain behaviours, or morality policing, reflected the change in popular culture influenced by the rising bourgeoisie, when previously accepted modes of behaviour were refashioned as felonious. 

The gender bias that persists in the judiciary today is less implicit but not necessarily less impactful. The treatment of offenders remains aligned along gender norms for both male and female defendants. Female bodies continue to be commodified which is especially obvious in cases of sexual assault, while male offenders are typified by their masculinity evidenced by systemically limited provisions for childcare in prisons. Postcolonial legal systems are also epicentres of gender and racial biases intersecting leading to overrepresentation of indigenous women in prisons, particularly those on remand.

To what extent did the geography of Brisbane, including the location of “undesirable areas”, determine the nature of crime and consequent police responses?

 The nineteenth century beat policemen had significant discretionary powers. It was up to an individual constable to decide on a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ law enforcement approach in any given situation. This flexibility is likely what allowed the early police forces to overcome suspicion and eventually secure a degree of legitimacy across the social classes.

The pathology of colonial metropolitan crime and its trends were shaped primarily by the socio-economic factors and topography, which encompassed housing conditions and population density, presence of trade and commerce, hotels, and invariably police to population ratio. Densely populated areas offered anonymity and opportunity to carry out criminal activities, and this eventually led to increased police presence leading to soaring crime rates completing the criminalisation cycle. Criminal activity typical for such areas was informed by opportunities and need such as pawnshops, brothels, gambling and unlicensed public houses.

What can the history of policing in colonial Brisbane teach us about the need for police organisations to be vigilant in their efforts to maintain transparency and trust within the community?

 The history of colonial era policing highlights the long and winding road to community acceptance and trust.  Although today the concept of police is firmly and seemingly irreversibly integrated into the social fabric, its legitimacy is predicated on community trust. Despite their crucial social role, police forces that forfeited this trust were invariably disbanded. Key examples would include Toronto City Police (disbanded for sectarian violence, corruption and partisanship, 1858); Belfast City Police (disbanded due to allegations of corruption and partisanship, 1865); Royal Irish Constabulary (disbanded under Article X of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, following long history of power abuse which culminated in open warfare during the War of Independence, 1922); Queensland Police Force (re-organised following inquiry into corruption and power abuse, 1991); Royal Ulster Constabulary (re-organised following allegations of power abuse peaking during the 1970s-1990s and as part of transformation of police in the NI following the Good Friday Agreement, 2001); Minneapolis Police Department (City Council has unanimously approved to disband following allegations of power abuse and murder of an unarmed man, George Floyd).

What’s your next project?

I am currently working across a few fronts. I am preparing a book proposal on a comprehensive history of women in the Queensland Police. This research is supported by the Queensland Police Museum and a group of retired women police, including the first female constables who were denoted as PWs (Police Woman), a prefix attached to their names before it was abolished as discriminatory in the mid-1970s. I also continue working on acompendium of the Queensland Police ANZACs which began as a smaller project funded by the QANZAC 100 Fellowship with the State Library of Queensland, as well as wrapping up work on the ARC Discovery Project ‘Managing Migrants and Border Control in Britain and Australia, 1901-1981’ led by the team at Flinders University.

Thank you for your time!

Anastasia Dukova
Anastasia Dukova

Dr Anastasia Dukova is a crime and policing historian based at the Queensland Police Museum, QPS. Her research interests are Irish and Australian policing history and historical criminology. Her recent monographs are To Preserve and Protect: Policing Colonial Brisbane (UQP, 2020) and A History of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and its Colonial Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Anastasia is a partner investigator on an ARC DP Managing migrants and border control in Britain and Australia, 1901-1981 (DP180102200). She is also an associate member at the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice, Open University, UK.

Lyndon Megarrity
Lyndon Megarrity

Dr Lyndon Megarrity is the Books Editor of Australian Policy and History. Lyndon completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer.