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The Great Purge of 1878

In March 1877, when presenting his Annual Report to the legislative Council, Superintendent Matthew Skinner Smith of the colonial Police Force was able to express considerable pleasure at the progress of his reforms and the general trends of law enforcement in Western Australia.

Most offences seemed to be linked to misuse of alcohol, or connected to the doings of ex-convicts transported to the colony in earlier days. But the recently formed Detective Branch and Police Stables were now functioning very well, the Police Gazette was proving to be a boon and the officers and men were gaining a lot of credit for their zeal and general attention to duty. The apples of Smith’s eye were the five Sub-Inspectors who functioned as district chiefs in various areas. Unfortunately, the colonial authorities were in cost cutting mode and the Superintendent was worried.

Over the next couple of years Smith fought a rearguard action to try and preserve the positions, but his arguments fell on deaf ears. By the end of 1878 all of the existing Sub-Inspectors had been eased out of their jobs. Smith was not at all happy and did what he could to find his tried and true subordinates alternative public employment, but certain demotion was to be their fate if they remained police officers. Some left the Force rather than suffer the indignity and associated financial hardship.

On balance the five officers ‘fell on their feet’, with fortunate consequences for some communities. The youngest Sub-Inspector was William Finlay, commissioned in 1865 in only his 25th year. His is pictured here while visiting York for a police swearing-in ceremony of 1868, along with Sergeant Charles Wisbey. Of officer Wisbey, more later.

Charles Wisbey with William Finlay Swearing-in Ceremony at York  -  1868

Finlay was Scottish in origin and a member of family that supplied soldiers for the British Army since the very early 1800s. This writer and his colleague Jean McDonald had the honour of writing up the Finlay family history saga in two editions of the Western Ancestor a couple of years ago.

Young William Finlay joined the Police Force at 18; he was brave, efficient and highly literate – hence his rapid rise through the ranks. In Geraldton during the 1860’s he ruffled local feathers by sorting out disciplinary problems among the local police and suppressing sly grog selling among settlers. In the south, he showed both skill and nerve in leading a party to track down and arrest the bushranger William Graham.

William Finlay was in control of the police districts based on Albany, the Avon valley and then Albany again from 1865 onwards. He became a popular figure in the south-western town, engaging in charitable work as well as the intricacies of policing administration. He also helped found the local militia company and later became its Captain and commanding officer. After his regrettable resignation from the Force on 27 August 1878, the gentleman decided to remain in Albany.

To this day he is remembered as one of the leading lights of Albany history and one of the town’s most distinguished citizens. He obtained a couple of low paid government jobs – Clerk of Customs and Tide Waiter – and was never very well off in the financial sense. He still worked hard on behalf of the community, helping to improve education and local government. He was a Municipal Councillor for several years and in 1885 he was elected Mayor of Albany, only to die on 16 June 1886 at a very early age, leaving a large family to struggle on without him.

One of Finlay’s former comrades-in-arms as a Sub-Inspector, Charles Wisbey (1833-1894), was reduced in rank to sergeant. Smith had fought hard to keep him and at least prevented outright dismissal, saying it “would mean discharging a very deserving officer.” But Wisbey could not cope with the demotion anyway and resigned. Fortunately he shone in the Bunbury community and became a successful businessman there. Like Finlay he ended in his life while holding office as the first Mayor of his adopted town.

Another star of the group, William Roper Piesse (1827-1894), moved sideways into the demeaning and lowly paid position of Inspector of Scab in Sheep. He too rose above misfortune to obtain better public positions and prosper as a landowner.  Piesse later  established a very well known south-western ‘dynasty’; three or four of his sons became politicians during the 1890’s and early 1900’s. Both Wisbey and Piesse deserve larger scale treatment in written form.

The remaining two Sub-Inspectors - Robert Campbell and Patrick Kelly - were retained by Smith as clerical assistants in the Police Force of the day and succeeded one another as heads of the civilian component of the organisation. Accounts of their careers have been published elsewhere.

Just a few years after the woes of 1878 Matthew Skinner Smith was enabled to resurrect the rank of Sub-Inspector and begin a well-planned process of WA policing expansion and consolidation.

Peter Conole
WA Police Historian (Retired 2013)