By Uschi Artym
‘Disgraceful’, ‘comfortable’ and ‘respectable’—these were some of the words used to describe the Diamantina, Jundah and Boulia Native Mounted Police (NMP) camps by contemporary visitors. Scant historical documentation remains on just how NMP camps were laid out and what they looked like, so wondering about what constituted a ‘comfortable’ camp, or distinguished a ‘disgraceful’ camp from a ‘respectable’ one is an intriguing process.
The precise logic behind the siting and construction of NMP camps in the 19th century has not been recorded in documents. Archaeology and its focus on spatial analyses raises questions such as: What exactly did an NMP camp look like? What types of built structures might be present at one? Were camps laid out systematically and formally, or was the approach more ad hoc? Do we see clear evidence of military hierarchy within camp layouts? And how comfortable or disgraceful were such camps really?
Generally, a camp consisted of a living area for the staff, which was located within a ‘police paddock’, which itself was often a smaller fenced part of a ‘reserve’ used for agistment of police horses. Information in the personal accounts of camp visitors or former NMP officers suggests that there were some features common to all camps. A ‘typical’ camp might have had:
The sub-inspector’s quarters, perhaps bark walls and an earth floor … Then there was the camp sergeant’s quarters, even less pretentious than the sub-inspectors—in fact rather crude … Then came the troopers’s huts, wurlies, mia-mias, gunyahs, call them what you will; they lined the parade ground … As stores had to be kept on hand for a least six months, perhaps longer, a store-room was necessary to camp; also harness shed, rooms for this and that and, of course, a horse yard. (Lamond 1953:27)
The author of this description, Henry Lamond, was the son of Sub-Inspector James Lamond of the Carl Creek and Corella Creek camps, so we can assume he is speaking with some authority, based on what he saw growing up as a child in these camps.
Unfortunately, contemporary newspaper accounts rarely describe camps in any detail, and surviving administrative correspondence often only depicts camps as little more than a square marked on a map. This makes it difficult to know just how ‘typical’ Lamond’s observations really were, although an evaluation of extant camp layouts provides some clues.
The most important consideration when siting a camp was access to a permanent water source. Some camps, like Carl Creek (Figure 1), have a river or confluence of tributaries forming a natural border around the reserve.
Others, like the Lower Laura (Boralga) camp, were located right next to permanent water bodies, or had watercourses running through the police paddock. Inspector Frederick Murray, when selecting a new barracks site in 1881 for the McKinlay Downs detachment reported that he had found a place on the ‘west bank of Eyre’s Creek’ that was ‘the most central and suitable place that can be got where there is permanent water and a good horse run’ (QSA290304).
Of course, rivers, waterholes and swamps also provided opportunities for hunting game, fishing and collecting shellfish, while open woodland provided building timber and bark for roofing. Likewise, a site bounded by rivers or backed by mountain ranges provided natural barriers against the straying of police horses and other camp livestock. A lack of proper paddock fencing, however, meant that errant camp horses and encroaching sheep and cattle were a constant problem.
In her study of the Lower Laura (Boralga) NMP camp Cole (2004:171) noted that the barracks had been ‘located strategically close to the roads, telegraph and cattle stations which it was required to protect’. Figure 2 shows the distance from Boralga camp to the telegraph line and the main dray route to Cooktown.
Sizes are not usually specified for the camps themselves but rather were designated for the ‘police paddock’ or ‘reserve’. The size of the police paddocks varied depending on the availability of suitable grazing land for the horses and drought incidence. Paddock sizes ranged from 238.5 acres (0.96 km2) for the original Lower Laura camp (1875) to one of the largest, 2100 acres (approximately 8 km2), requested for the Barcoo camp (1872 to 1881). There do seem to have been some regulations, however, as a hand written note on the Clohesy River police reserve map of 1895 says ‘Regulation frontage 40 chs x 80 depth = 320 acre’ (QSA290308).
As you can see in Figure 3 below, from available historical and archaeological evidence there seem to be no single or ‘standard’ camp configuration or size.
Documents in the Qld State Archives show that Sub-Inspectors in charge of detachments scouted for camp locations, usually funding and building their own camps in the expectation of later reimbursement by the Colonial Government.
In July 1885 Sub-Inspector Frederick Urquhart wrote to Sub-Inspector John Ahern outlining the cost of buildings at the Corella Creek camp (Figure 4) and requesting reimbursement for the £12 he had already spent acquiring timbers for a yard, and erecting eight trooper’s huts, a meat house, store and gallows (for hanging meat) (QSA290311). Buildings in which to store saddlery and harnesses, ammunition and food stores would be necessary at every camp.
Documented camp layouts and sizes may seem to lack uniformity because they may also be a reflection of the preferences of the individual officer-in-charge. As you can see in Figure 3, depending on how militarily-minded a Sub-Inspector was, there seem to have been three types of layout :
- the classic quadrangle arrangement with a central parade ground, like Corella Creek;
- an arrangement that places buildings in vertical lines, such as at Carl Creek (Figure 5); or,
- something ad hoc with no formal military building arrangement, such as the Barcoo Barracks.
As Lamond (1949:32) commented, ‘Some officers insisted on regularity of design: some let the boys and gins build to their own inclinations. All of them were systematically placed with methodical evenness.’
While layouts vary, beyond their proximity to water and travel/communication routes, there are two other consistent features of camps: the separation of the troopers and officer’s huts, and the building materials used.
Whether troopers’ and officers’ huts were adjacent to each other or separated by a ‘parade ground’, they seem always to have been constructed with a measure of distance between them. What was probably most important from the officers’ points of view was that a clear line of sight could be maintained between their quarters and those of the troopers.
NMP camps were typically built with whatever materials were to hand. This could range from vernacular structures like A-frame canvas tents with bush poles, grass-clad huts, thatched buildings, adobe, or bark slab arrangements, to more formal timber-framed, corrugated iron hipped or gabled roofed buildings with added verandahs (Figures 6 and 7). In his memoirs, one-time NMP employee Edward Kennedy (1902:35) stated that ‘The barracks (rough but comfortable) for officers were built of logs and roofed with bark’, while the ‘boys’ (meaning the troopers) ‘had gunyah’s of their own outside the main building’.
A British patent for wrought sheet iron was granted in 1829, and by the 1840s galvanised sheet iron was commercially available in a corrugated form. Such was the popularity of the latter that by the late 19th century there was not a building, including those for the NMP, that did not use this material for either wall and roof cladding.
Author of fictional story The Black Police: A Story of Modern Australia, Arthur Vogan (1890:170), painted a romantic picture of an NMP camp as:
Two rows of weather-board iron-roofed buildings, amongst which are the white sergeant’s quarters, stretch down a slight declivity to where they meet at right angles a terrace of brown, single-roomed huts, occupied by the native constables.
Even so, much simpler bark and slab buildings continued to be constructed at police camps throughout the 19th century. Correspondence about the sale or lease of buildings from the decommissioned Glendhu camp in 1885, for example, listed:
… about 200 lined and dressed slabs 8 feet high; office; kitchen and camp keeper’s quarters containing about 300 slabs … saddle room and cart shed of saplings and trooper’s huts  of bark’ and main building doors and windows of ‘sawn stuff’(QSA290322).
Very occasionally NMP camps featured stone buildings, such as the ruins of two structures at Boulia and the gable roofed building pictured at the Cooktown camp (Figure 8).
It’s all Relative…
So how did NMP camp accommodation stack up against civilian standards? Lamond (1949) stated that the buildings, while described as ‘palatial’ then, would be considered ‘hovels’ now. Slack (1998:42), however, recounted how the two brothers who owned the Murree (later Riversleigh) cattle run near Carl Creek in 1883 were only too willing to exchange their homestead buildings for those of the NMP camp as compensation for the Police Reserve limiting their access to grazing land.
Hovel or no, camp buildings were still of some value. So much did Inspector Frederick Murray value the iron roof cladding at his Barcoo barracks that he took it with him in 1883 to roof his new residence in Blackall (QSA290277). Generally, however, defunct camp buildings were either removed and the individual components, like the corrugated iron, sold separately, or the buildings were sold holus bolus to interested parties or the station owners on whose run the camps were situated. Unfortunately, the price offered for the buildings and materials was not always to the Sub-Inspector’s liking, as Aulaire Morisset found when informed about the low offer made for the Glendhu buildings. His response to the officer-in-charge of the sale was to threaten no more purchases for the NMP from station owners ‘and loafers generally’ until the Glendhu buildings could be properly sold or leased (QSA290322 A/41614; RS12939/1/451_1883).
Cole, N. 2004 Battle camp to Boralga: a local study of colonial war on Cape York Peninsula, 1873-1894. Aboriginal History 28:156–189.
Kennedy, E. 1902 The Black Police of Queensland. London: Hazell, Watson and Viney.
Lamond, H.G. 1949 Native mounted police. Walkabout November:31–32.
Lamond, H.G. 1953 The Bulletin 74(3807):27.
Slack, M. 1998 Aborigines, Settlers and the Native Police: A Reassessment of the Frontier War in Far North West Queensland. Unpublished BA(Hons) thesis, Department of History, University of New South Wales, Sydney.
Vogan, A.J. 1890 The Black Police: A Story of Modern Australia. London: Hutchison.