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Superintendent Theophilus Ellis - his Life and Services

Theophilus Ellis was the first man to be appointed to commissioned rank in a WA police establishment, and the first to lose his life in the line of duty. Little is know of his early life and career, apart from a number of important basic and general facts. He was born in 1782, the son of Edward Ellis of Rocklands, Dublin. The name of his mother is not yet known. The Ellis family was a fairly prominent one amid the ranks of the Anglo-Irish gentry, a class which provided Britain with a huge number of army and naval officers, politicians, magistrates, law enforcement officers and administrators. The most successful of such families was that of the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo (1815) and later Prime Minister under King George IV.

The known lineage of Theophilus Ellis began in the late 1500s with the arrival and settlement of a soldier in the northern part of Ireland. His numerous descendants included a large number of officers in the two armed services and various holders of public office. Theophilus Ellis was commissioned as an officer in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars, rising to the rank of captain in the 14th Regiment of Dragoons.

He is identical with the Lieutenant Theophilus Thomas Ellis of the 14th Dragoons, who is mentioned in the London press as having been wounded at the battle of Talavera (Spain) in 1809. This same officer continued to serve in the regiment throughout the Peninsula War, with particular distinction at the battle of Fuentes d'Onoro (May 1811), in which he was again wounded.

He arrived in WA on the ship 'James' on 8 May 1830, along with his sister Mary Bolger and nine nieces and nephews. Writings of Ellis relating to the voyage reveal that it was not a comfortable one. The Ellis journal also shows that he was quite assertive and willing to argue with officialdom if he thought he was in the right.

The Colonial Government made Theophilus Ellis the Government Resident at Kelmscott in the same year. In 1831 he acquired a substantial land grant in the Avon valley. Not long afterwards, his sister and her family left to settle in Tasmania. One niece stayed behind to help Ellis with housekeeping and domestic affairs. It is likely that - as was perfectly natural at the time - Ellis and his sister Mary counted on being able to use a little influence and marry the young woman off to a promising young man among the colonial gentry.

On 1 August 1832 Ellis was appointed to the position of Superintendent of Native Tribes, his basic job being to patrol the outskirts of settled areas and to prevent trouble between settlers and Aboriginal people. He also arranged for the provision of food, clothing and medical care to aborigines as required - and is known to have directly cared for sick or injured people himself.

Colonial era documents reveal Theophilus Ellis to be a gruff but essentially kind-hearted and just man by the standards of the day. He was on friendly terms with quite a few aboriginal people and seems to have been confident of his own ability to negotiate solutions to issues as they arose.

The men who worked with him were part-time troopers drawn from the 21st Regiment of Foot and Governor James Stirling did not consider the arrangement satisfactory. He wanted to create a permanent civil Mounted Police Corps rather than a paramilitary unit, which was not a true police establishment.

After a visit to Britain and much lobbying, Stirling got his way. Immediately after his return he appointed Ellis Principal Superintendent of a troop of Mounted Police, 14 July 1834. Over the next few weeks, amid financial problems and increasing trouble between settlers and aborigines, the troop was gradually pulled together. Pay scales and regulations were worked out in August. The troop began its formal existence on 7 October 1834, when the appointments of commissioned officers and constables were finalised.

A couple of weeks later, Ellis and several members of the troop went to the Murray River with a party which included the Governor and Surveyor General. A detailed journal of the latter official - John Septimus Roe - indicates without any doubt that the purpose of the journey was to survey the area thoroughly and set-up a military outpost for a squad of soldiers from the 21st Regiment of Foot. The mounted troop members came along for as 'bush-wise' protectors because a couple of young soldiers had been attacked and killed or hurt in the preceding months. One was murdered under very nasty circumstances.

The outcome was an encounter with aborigines at Pinjarra on 28 October that exploded into violence. Identifying who the aboriginal people posed problems and some mounted constables rode in to take a closer look. One officer recognised a 'wanted' man, called out and tried to make an arrest. The result was chaos and an exchange of spears and bullets. Very early in the affair, Theophilus Ellis (who was probably unarmed) was hit in the head by a spear and knocked from his horse. It is quite likely the severe fall caused his most serious injuries. Superintendent Ellis seems to have lapsed quite soon into a semi-comatose state and died on November 11, 1834.

The position of Principal Superintendent was discontinued on November 29, 1834 and the niece of Theophilus Ellis left to join her mother and siblings in Tasmania.


Peter Conole
WA Police Historian (Retired 2013)