Early police force in New South Wales

The First Fleet arrived in New South Wales in January 1788, with a contingent of naval officers and men as well as their cargo of convicts. At first, the Marines of the Royal Navy were responsible for keeping law & order and enforcing the rules laid down by Governor Arthur Philip. A year later, in 1789, Governor Philip created the first Night Watch. He selected twelve well-behaved convicts and organised them into four gangs which patrolled sections of Sydney town.

In 1790, more convicts were selected to form the Sydney Foot Police. The Foot Police and the extended Night Watch covered most of the settled districts, as far afield as the Hawkesbury, Parramatta and Toongabbie.

When Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in 1810, he organised the police into districts, each with its own watch-house. By 1819, Sydney had six watch-houses and more than sixty constables, many of whom were former convicts.

In the early 1820s, as recommended by John Thomas Bigge in his report, the police were reorganised along similar lines to the London police. The first superintendent of police, who oversaw the new organisation, was Francis Nicholas Rossi, a Corsican-born solider. In the next few decades several different groups of police are formed, including the Mounted Police (which began in 1825 as a military unit and was replaced by civilians in 1850), the Water Police (1840) and the Mounted Aboriginal Police Unit (1848-1859). In 1853, the Police Recruiting Act meant that police officers could now be recruited from the British Isles. These new recruits began arriving in 1855 and received free passage to Australia in return for three years’ service. An example is 26-year-old Constable Patrick Purtell, whose record of employment is shown below. He arrived in Australia from Ireland in 1856 on the Winifred. He resigned from the police in 1864 when he was 35.

Record of employment for Constable Patrick Purtell, 11 Apr. 1864 from New South Wales. Police Dept. - Records, 1820-1894
Manuscript  MLMSS 224

In 1862, the New South Wales Police Force officially became a single entity when the Police Regulation Act 1862 was passed. The Act unified the Force under an Inspector-General, and created sub-districts across the state with a Police Inspectors in charge of each one.

The official police publication, the Police Gazette & Weekly Record of Crime, started in 1862. The purpose of the Gazette was to spread information among the police force about crimes committed, criminals apprehended and wanted, as well as to announce staffing news and other items of interest to the police. It was published weekly and circulated to all police stations. Later issues included photographs and most of the Gazette is comprehensively indexed.

 > View the first issue of the Police Gazette from 1862

View the first issue of the Police Gazette
The police force started using photography to document criminals in 1872. Early police records including albumen photoprint portraits with name, age, sex, religion, year of birth, occupation, physical description of offenders, as well as offences committed, where and when tried and the sentence.

 > View a selection of criminal records with photographs from July & August 1880
View a selection of criminal records

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