Superintendent Richard Goldsmith Meares (1780-1862) by Peter Conole
The Meares family that settled in Western Australia in early colonial times was of Anglo-Irish origin, descended from Lewis Meares, who moved from England to Ireland in the mid-1600s. One of his descendants was Richard Meares, who married Susan Munro and became the father of William Meares of Killinboy, County Westmeath. William became a successful wine merchant and the partner of a Dublin firm closely involved in the trade. He married Emily Goldsmith, who may have been a distant relative of the famous poet and dramatist Oliver Goldsmith.
Their son Richard Goldsmith Meares was born in April, 1780 and received a fine education, one suitable for the scion of a minor gentry family. He was interested in art and went to London to study at the Royal Academy in October 1800.
Eyesight problems and the renewed war with France led to a major change in career path. Richard was commissioned as an ensign in the North Yorkshire militia in September 1803, promoted to lieutenant a year later and then transferred to a regular regiment – the 7th Fusiliers –in March 1808. He had married Ellen Seymour in England in January of the same year.
Somehow he managed the trouble and expense of moving into a prestigious cavalry regiment – the 2nd Life Guards – as a cornet and sub-lieutenant in July 1810. After being promoted to lieutenant in September 1812, Meares went on active service in the Peninsula War. He took part in the battles of Vittoria (1813) and Toulouse (1814); a couple of gossipy and witty letters he wrote to Ellen from Spain resurfaced in WA early in the 20th century.
In 1815 his regiment was based in Belgium and became heavily involved in Wellington’s last and greatest victory at Waterloo. Richard Meares moved sideways again in March 1817 to become a captain by purchase in the 18th Regiment of Foot. He retired on half-pay a year later, took up farming and dabbled in art. He and Ellen became the parents of eight children.
In the course of 1829 he decided to move to WA and arrived in the colony with Thomas Peel on the ‘Gilmore’ in December of that year with his family and seven servants in tow. The early years were difficult, although as a distinguished retired army captain Richard obtained some good land grants. He moved to Guildford in 1832, amid a flurry of appeals for help to London officials, and soon found the means to put his life together again.
The law enforcement needs of the colony provided the opportunity. Governor James Stirling lobbied and argued hard to establish a Mounted Police Corps and Theophilus Ellis, another highly regarded Peninsula War veteran, won appointment as principal superintendent on July 14, 1834. The primary job of the Corps was to maintain the peace between settlers and aborigines.
The Colonial Secretary formalised the appointment of Richard Meares as a superintendent in charge of the district around Guildford on August 22, 1834. As discussed in earlier publications about Ellis, Charles Norcott and Alexander Cheyne, most members of the Corps had military backgrounds or connections in one way or another. However, recruiting suitable men and obtaining decent uniforms and equipment remained problematic. There is no evidence at all that Meares had any troopers under his direct command at Guildford.
In October 1834 Governor Stirling and a party of about two dozen colonists, among them Ellis, Norcott and Meares, several mounted troopers and some prominent civilians such as Thomas Peel and the surveyor Septimus Roe, travelled south from Perth. The journal of Roe strongly indicates that the purpose of the journey was to survey the area and establish a military camp preparatory to road building and settlement.
It is worth noting that Meares took along his 16 or 17 year old son Seymour and Thomas Peel his 15 year old lad Frederick, while several other members of the party were unarmed. For the reasons just noted – regardless of after the fact assertions and claims even by participants – the Governor can hardly have set out to deliberately bring about a bloody conflict.
The tragic affray at Pinjarra on October 28 nevertheless ended in the death of Ellis, injuries to a couple of troopers and more severe loss of life among indigenous people. In later years Seymour Meares wrote that he counted up to 18 dead bodies when all was over.
The aftermath was marked by a diminished degree of tension and some civil servants soon questioned the need for the Mounted Corps. On April 4, 1835 the services of superintendents Richard Meares and Alexander Cheyne were terminated.
In 1837 Meares became a Justice of the Peace and obtained the position of Government Resident (such officials were also known as Resident Magistrates) for the Murray district in the early 1840s. He acquired land there and in the Avon valley, where he eventually settled. Richard became Government Resident at York in September 1842 and remained in the job until he retired in 1859.
As a holder of public office, he could be quarrelsome and continued to display a quirky level of wit in his correspondence. But he was efficient and showed initiative, playing an important role in the development of horse breeding and agriculture in WA. In his time a court house, hospital and suitable roads all appeared, while the Resident also proved to be a solid lay benefactor of the Church of England.
Both Richard and Ellen were adornments to the social and cultural life of the colony. Members of the family were fine pianists and singers and Richard himself continued to sketch and paint. Some of his works have survived to this day, including an attractive painting of the York residency, although murals he is believed to have produced for his Guildford house are understood to have been lost in a fire.
Ellen Meares passed away in 1854. Richard became something of a benevolent patriarch in the valley in his last years and died on January 9, 1862. His remains lie in the old cemetery at York. The attached photograph of him is one of a tiny handful known to exist of men who served as police officers in the days of Governor Stirling.