22 September 2020

'To Preserve and to Protect: Policing Colonial Brisbane' - Book Review

Anastasia Dukova’s To Preserve and Protect: Policing Colonial Brisbane is a very readable look at law and order in 19th-century Queensland. 

This is no straightforward ‘history of the police’ reference book because the story is told from several different perspectives, an approach which gives the reader a much broader view of colonial life. 

Outside the Indigenous presence, colonial Queensland was a migrant society, and Dukova’s background (she holds a PhD in crime and policing history from the University of Dublin, Trinity College) means she is tuned into the direct personal and cultural connections between the streets of Dublin, London, and early Brisbane.

This opening chapter is about Peter ‘Duff’ Murphy, an Irish ex-convict who in 1846 became the first district policeman for Kangaroo Point, and in the 1860s presided over the local police court in Ipswich. The story neatly covers convict life and the struggles of early policing, and the frequent overlap between the two. It is also a tidy example of one of those personal colonial journeys from criminality to social respectability. 

Then we get to see policing develop further in the township with Englishman Samuel Sneyd, who had a much more orthodox career in the ranks of the military, police, and prison service. The Sneyd family ended up having a long association with the prison service and I’m pretty familiar with that side of their lives, so I particularly appreciated seeing their earlier story fleshed out more here. 

There are chapters on the life of Queensland’s first detective (Samuel Lloyd), and the career of an ordinary beat policeman (Thomas Tyrell) during the 1860s-‘80s, highlighting the different paths to be taken within the police service itself.

19th-century female criminality (a subject I have researched and written about in the past) is viewed through the life of Susan McGowan, an all-too-typical tale of a life filled with petty crime and alcohol that was the lot of the vast majority of female prisoners of the late 19th century. The we jump to the birth of the Criminal Investigation Branch in the 1890s is with the story of detective and police prosecutor James Nethercote. 

Finally there is the story of Charles Durant, an habitual criminal who spent a big part of his life in places such as the St Helena Island penal establishment and the prisons at Petrie Terrace and Boggo Road. 

These perspectives work well together, allowing the author to humanise the people involved while also touching on the subjects of police and political corruption and mismanagement, and issues of gender, class, and - to a lesser extent - race. To Preserve and Protect was released during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, when the public mind was more attuned to such history, which left me thinking that a full chapter on colonial police interactions with Aboriginal people would perhaps have been welcome. But that’s hindsight. 

This mix of very different ‘characters’ paints a vivid panorama of law and order in 19th-century Queensland. The shifting perspectives keeps the book readable and interesting, and the thorough academic research and deep dives into primary documents gives the information an important sense of reliability. 

To Preserve and Protect: Policing Colonial Brisbane has been published by the University of Queensland Press. Thanks to UQP for providing the review copy.

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