Piecing together the officers’ list: the value of obituaries

By Heather Burke

We’ve written before about how useful TROVE’s digitised historical newspapers can be as a source of information unavailable anywhere else. The latest demonstration of their value was in the discovery of the names of two white officers of the Native Mounted Police who were previously unknown to us: Walter Pickering and Edward Mostyn Webb Bowen. Neither was named in any existing list of officers until TROVE revealed brief mentions in their obituaries of their service in the NMP.

Interestingly, both Pickering and Bowen served in camps on the Palmer River at their inception and at the same time: Bowen in 1873-1874 and Pickering from 1874. One of Bowen’s obituaries noted that he ‘came out to Brisbane [in 1873] to acquire colonial experience, and some twelve months of his life were spent in northern Queensland with the native police force. During this period he was wounded by the blacks’ (The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 27 November 1879, p3). Bowen, in fact, arrived with the second detachment of police sent to Cooktown under Aulaire Morisset and volunteered for the Palmer in early 1874 (Australian Town and Country Journal, 29 November 1879, p32).

The Palmer rush had begun only three months earlier in October 1873; it brought men from all over Australia, some of whom had little prospecting experience and many of whom were ill-prepared. A Palmer diarist who tried his luck on the field in early 1874 recorded the desperate conditions:

I must say that I never saw so much absolute misery … There were numbers of men going about barefoot that could not raise the price of a pair of boots; others with “moccasins” on—that is, the heel part of some discarded boots lashed under the soles and over the toes of the ones they were wearing. “Royal Alberts” is the name they give to pieces of blanket wrapped around the feet in the place of socks. Meat was often a luxury with them. I was talking to several in Cooktown whom I had seen on the Palmer; they told me that they were hard up, and had not the means of getting away; that they were living on one meal a day, and often did not get that. Some are lying sick in their huts, down with fever, dysentery, or nearly dead through the starving they have had on the roads. (The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 23 May 1874, p659).

While details of Bowen’s Palmer service are few, another obituary described how,

On the Palmer [he] found the life anything but a pleasant one … day after day he was scouring the country avenging the deaths of his fellow countrymen at the hands of the blacks. In one of these expeditions a hand-to-hand encounter took place, and Bowen received a spear wound which, for a time, incapacitated him.’ (Australian Town and Country Journal 29 November 1879, p32).

Bowen’s obituaries are conflicting about precisely what led him to resign. One suggested he contracted a ‘fever’, another that the famine took a heavy toll on his health, and a third that his spear wound could not be treated on the Palmer so ‘he was conveyed to Cooktown, with part of the spear still in him. The doctor at the latter place not having the skill to extract it, the sufferer was sent to Brisbane, where he was relieved of his pain’ (The Gundagai Times and Tumut, Adelong and Murrumbidgee District Advertiser, 20 January 1880, p4).

Bowen’s death occasioned several obituaries because of what happened to him after he left the NMP. Having survived the Palmer, he left Qld and joined the New South Wales police force in 1875. Only four years later, at the age of 28, he was shot dead by the bushranger Captain Moonlite at Wantabadgery.

The late Constable Bowen (Australian Town and Country Journal, 29 November 1879, p32).

Walter Pickering’s obituary was far more lyrical and perhaps less directly reflective of the actual conditions of his service:

Mr. Pickering, who was a native of New South Wales, crossed over to the recently created colony of Queensland when only twenty years of age. Shortly afterwards he joined the mounted police force, and by his intrepid skill and determination, gained rapid promotion. He was a splendid horseman and a thorough bushman. In the early seventies at the time of the Palmer rush, he was in charge of the Native Police, and performed valorous deeds in those wild days when a clear head and quick perception were necessary essentials, in combination with a strong hand, and even stronger mind, and powers of endurance, such as in these days of closely settled county with roads and railways, men are not called upon to possess’ (Bundaberg Mail and Burnett Advertiser, 5 March 1917, p3).

Walter Pickering, courtesy of Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com.au/family-tree/person/tree/84104455/person/250088050319/facts).

Further investigation revealed no police staff record for Edward Bowen in the Qld State Archives, although there is one for Walter Pickering, who was admitted to the police force in 1868. The earliest years of Pickering’s service are missing from the record, but the portion from 1874 onward illustrates the contrast between sources written at different points in a person’s life for entirely different purposes. Despite a blemish-free early career, including his service in the Cook district of far north Qld, in 1881 Pickering was dismissed from the force for drunkenness and neglect of duty following a string of similar offences over the previous three years.

Piecing together a comprehensive list of NMP officers is no simple task, but it is a great deal simpler than piecing together the list of troopers. Only a small percentage of officers have a police staff file on record and these are mostly the later serving officers. We now have 438 officers of the NMP in our database; further research will hopefully reveal more.

6 thoughts on “Piecing together the officers’ list: the value of obituaries

  1. Another awesome piece by Heather. And Wantabadgery. My question in reply is “Who doesn’t”

    Iain Davidson,

    Emeritus Professor, University of New England, Australia

    Mailing address: 10 Cluny Rd, Armidale, NSW 2350

    Mobile/cell phone AUS +61 402 106 853

    ORCID 0000-0003-1840-9704

    Texts of recent publications are on Academia: Cultural transmission and tone tools, Aboriginal stone houses; Paleolithic art; Fauna in rock art .

    Facebook (Davidson Iain Davidson), Academia.edu (Iain Davidson), Research Gate (Iain Davidson) Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/23766603@N07/


    1. Heather, Mike Munro has a show on Tuesday night called “Outlaw” and last week it re-created the Webb Bowen killing by Moonlite, and proved that it wasnt Moonlite who fired the fatal shot.
      So what; but that is what have said to the two in the Outlaw series so far. !!!
      There is another one in the series tonight…History at 7.30 (real time)

  2. In my research Trove has been an absolute god-send. The sheer volume of information available in this database is incredible and has definitely enabled me to find things that otherwise I couldn’t.

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