From the Horse’s Mouth: Horses and the NMP

By Lynley Wallis and Heather Burke

Today we don’t think twice about travelling vast distances by car at great speed, so it’s hard to imagine what life was like before the invention of the internal combustion engine. The First Fleet that arrived in southeast Australia in 1788 included horses, and by the time colonists began pushing into Qld there were more than 150,000 in the country (Dobbie et al. 1993; Kennedy 1986). Initially bullocks were the most important animal for colonial transport of goods using drays (not to mention camels later in the nineteenth century in the desert country and parts of far north Qld), but for personal needs horses were the primary mode of transport for everyone across Australia.

It was recognised very early on that each NMP officer and trooper would require at least two horses to do their work:

… [Francis Nichols] had also sent his best horses to the Dawson some months since, and he could not, under any emergency, effectually mount above five troopers; for it has been satisfactorily proved that two horses are indispensable to enable each man satisfactorily to perform his duty. (North Australian, Ipswich and General Advertiser, 8 September 1857, p2)

The native police districts are excessively large—200 miles and even more in length and width. For each district one patrol party is thought to be sufficient, and this consists usually of one European officer with six boys, provided with arms and ammunition, besides 12 to 14 pack and saddle horses.  (Sydney Morning Herald 16 October 1880, p7)

And, as Uschi Artym discussed in an earlier post on the layout of NMP camps, the availability of feed and water for horses was a critical element in the decision of where to locate NMP camps. Despite the best efforts, however, sometimes these decisions were later found to be wanting. For instance, John O’Connell Bligh, writing to the Colonial Secretary in October 1862, noted:

… I proceeded to Sandgate – Second Lieutenant Wheeler being absent on patrol I could only inspect that part of his detachment which remained and I found the men very backward in their drill and the horses nearly dying from starvation. There is no feed for horses in the neighbourhood of the Sandgate Barracks – the place is surrounded by small farmers and the season has been very bad – I opine that it will become necessary to remove that detachment from Sandgate ere long or else to supply forage for the horses.  (QSA846764_1862_Letter from John O’Connell Bligh to Colonial Secretary 8 October, In letter 62/2512, Mfilm 2512)

Likewise, in 1888 Archibald Mosman complained to Ernest Carr about the lack of water at the Moonah Creek NMP barracks in the northwest of the state:

I have the honor to inform you that as all the surface water had dried up here, I was compelled to engage two men to put down 64 feet of troughing in the sand so that the horses could get a drink. For some time previous myself and the Troopers had been throwing out the sand to deepen the waterhole but had to give it up at last.  Rochedale station have had to put down troughing also, and there is no surface water fit to drink between here and Carandotta, a distance 50 miles, and none up the creek for the same distance, where Rochedale have most of their cattle. (QSA290289_1888_46_Letter from Archibald Mosman to Ernest Carr 31 December, Moonah Creek Native Police Camp file)

And when grass wasn’t locally available for horses, the cost of buying in fodder was a cause for concern in the ever-scrimping NMP. For instance, Hervey Fitzgerald in his 1880 report to the Commissioner of Police noted that at the Eight Mile NMP camp:

… hitherto a very heavy expenditure in forage has been occasioned  by the miserable grass in the former paddock and absence, in the latter portions of the year of “fresh water”. (QSA289940_1880_ 2 to 8_Report from Hervey Fitzgerald to Commissioner of Police 10 March, Cooktown Police Station file)

In 1897 the Eight Mile NMP camp had 25 horses, and feeding and watering them was a concern according to a report on the camp by James Lamond:

Horses – serviceable 6, Unserviceable 3, In Cooktown 3, At Highbury 1, At Coen 1 (draught), En route from Mareeba 9, Inspector’s Transferred Port Douglas 1, Cairns 1, Total 25. Owing to unprecedented drought the water has given out at the 8 Mile & the horses have to be take 2 & 3 miles to water – such a thing was never before known. The grass in consequence of such dryness is very bad & if rain does not fall soon the horses will have to receive hay – So far the horses have been kept in very fair order on 9 lbs corn daily … (QSA290298_1897_44 to 46_Report on Inspection of 8 Mile Police Station 6 October, Eight Mile Police Station file)

Despite a near total reliance on horses, the NMP did not breed their own. Instead they purchased them, sometimes locally, sometimes further afield, and such purchases generated much correspondence between officers and their superiors. For example, John O’Connell Bligh described the arrival of Edric Morisset at Head Quarters in 1861, “bringing with him thirty three horses which he had purchased in Brisbane for the Force” (QSA846746, In letter 61/1492, Mfilm Z5601). The following year, Bligh provided more information about this essential business:

Second Lieutenant Wheeler has purchased nine remount horses at an average price of £20 per head. I have not yet had an opportunity of inspecting; and cannot therefore yet report on their fitness for the service—he has also caused four cast horses to be sold, which only realised an average price of £6.10.0—his number of Troop horses is now complete….

Since the commencement of the year 16 Troop horses have been cast as unserviceable and sold at Rockhampton—the average price realised is about £12.10.0 per head after deducting the auctioneer’s charges the proceeds have been forwarded to the Treasury. To replace these, fifteen horses have been purchased averaging exactly £18.11.4 in price. I do myself the honor to request that I may be allowed to send an officer or go myself to the Clarence and New England to purchase fifty horses which will be required to mount the new detachments and to fill existing vacancies. Suitable horses cannot be procured here in sufficient numbers at anything like such low prices as in the Districts I have mentioned. (QSA846762_1862_Letter from John O’Connell Bligh to Colonial Secretary 26 May 1862, In letter 62/2123, Mfilm Z5607)

As contemporary author A.W. Stirling (1884:97) noted, “horses, especially draft horses, were in great demand … and large profits were made by the wise men who Brough up batches from New South Wales”.

The outlay of funds for the purchase of horses was a constant requirement, and both the cost and quality of mounts was on occasion subject to complaint in the media:

The native police have returned from their search after the murderers of Probert. We understand that they tracked the blacks from the Springs to the Belyando country, where heavy thunder storms overtook them and caused them some trouble. We were glad to notice that the men were mounted on new horses that did not display the same venerable aspect that usually characterises the chargers of our cavalry. On making inquiries of the officer in charge how, when, and where these hordes had been obtained, we were met with a reserve we were unable to penetrate. But by means of inquiries elsewhere, and information obtained from the southern papers, we found out that they had been purchased in Brisbane at a cost of £17 a head. It was interesting to know, that when horses could be bought here for local use, they were bought in the capital 800 or 900 miles away; but it was still more interesting to know that whilst equally good or better horses could have been bought in Clermont for from £6 to £8 per head, these were bought in Brisbane at more than double the price. The cost of bringing them up alone must have equalled their value when they got here, so that £17 a head was dispensed by a liberal and open-handed somebody to somebody else who had secured this fruitful contract. Unfortunately it was public money. (Brisbane Courier, 24 December 1870, p6)

It was a particularly common complaint that detachments were often prevented from doing their duties because their horses were “knocked up” or of such poor quality they were unsuited to the tasks at hand (Figure 1). For example, R Kellet, writing from Natal Downs for assistance in 1865 after two murders in the district, complained:

… on finding what had happened I at once started as necessary to the police camp on the Bowen River a distance of 130 miles our nearest protective force requesting the officers above to start and the answer I got back was that the horses were all knocked up, but that they hoped to be up here in a fortnight. (QSA846794_1865_Letter from R. Kellett to Colonial Secretary 26 January, In letter 65/499, Mfilm Z6410)

A year later, the same problem persisted:

Mr. Lamb, the superintendent of Imbill station, informs us that since the murder at Mooloolah, of Mr. Stephens, the travelling botanist for the Government, the blacks have accumulated in great numbers on the Imbill run, and have slaughtered two heifers, and threaten further destruction. Mr. Lamb says that, though that part of the district swarms with blacks, the squatters are left utterly without protection. Sub-inspector Freudenthal called at the station last week with black troopers, but their horses were all knocked up, and they were not able to perform any other service than to recruit and return to Maryborough. We would remind Mr. Commissioner Seymour that the object the country has in submitting to be taxed to support a police force is to obtain some protection to life and property, and a force that, through false economy, is inefficient to compass this purpose, is worse than no force at all. What is the use of sending men after blacks or bushrangers on horses which he must know beforehand will not carry a trooper more than two or three days without breaking down. A good mount is as essential to a trooper as a good weapon. (Brisbane Courier, 26 March 1866, p3).

Figure 1 NMP troopers on parade with their horses at Baan Bero NMP camp (Qld State Library Negative 31246).

But there were suggestions that perhaps the treatment that officers and troopers dished out to horses wasn’t always conducive to getting the best out of them:

I have frequently impressed upon the Native Police officers the necessity for constant Patrols and the evil results of waiting for requisitions and then hurrying and over riding their horses with the effect, generally, of arriving too late to be of any use, their horses knocked up, and unfit for further work without a spell after which the same course is repeated. (QSA847000_1879_Copy of instructions given to Inspector Stuart, In letter 79/382, Mfilm 94583). [From DT Seymour]

In any case, it wasn’t solely the poor quality of horses, or a lack of care, that was the problem: the rough nature of the country they had to travel, and the constant patrols would wear down even the most expensive mounts. As Inspector Hervey Fitzgerald noted with regard to north Qld:

The additional horses six (6) purchased @ £6 per head have been of good service but I must still represent the great difficulty there is in the west season to patrol the Murray and Tully Rivers by land – it simply cripples horse flesh – as the country is a veritable quagmire. (QSA290322_1897_21 to 22_Inspection of Kirtleton Native Police Station 29 January, Kirtleton or Fairmead NP Camp file).

Good horsemanship and/or experience working with horses was often a quality emphasised by potential officers in their application letters, such as that by William Arundel in 1882 (QSA562911). Despite his horsemanship, Arundel was ironically killed by a fall and a kick from his horse on the road near Watsonville in 1890 .

Likewise, in 1881 John Fanning, in his letter of application, referred to the fact that he was “well accustomed to horses, and can ride very well” (QSA563436). The following year Fanning took a severe fall from his horse whilst on duty, though in this case he survived, although there was an investigation into whether he was drunk at the time (QSA563436).

Horsemanship amongst the men was also remarked upon by their commanding officers, such as Hervey Fitzgerald’s assessment of William Dawes in 1883 as a “good horseman” (QSA563346) and Charles Marrett’s assessment of Alfred Brennan in 1898 as a “poor horseman” (QSA564850). The Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser of 19 April 1902 said of Sergeant Michael Portley that he “has had years of experience in the native police, is a splendid horseman, can track is well as an aboriginal, and may be said to have been reared in the saddle”.

In fact, Joseph Needham, stationed as a camp keeper at the Carl Creek NMP barracks in the late 1880s, was such an excellent horseman that after he left the Force he became a professional jockey (Letter to the Editor, Northern Miner, 4 June 1904, p6).

Of course the NMP didn’t only employ men who were good with horses – several officers appear to have been employed as camp keepers specifically because of their skills as blacksmiths generally, or as farriers in particular (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Horseshoes recovered during excavations at Boralga NMP camp.

Joseph Needham, the camp keeper who went on to become a jockey, was also mentioned by Inspector Alexander Douglas to the Commissioner of Police in 1888 because of his blacksmith skills:

I would also suggest Const Needham camp keeper and blacksmith at Carl Creek be stationed at Corinda with a portable forge to do the shoeing of all the Police horses which will be kept in the Corinda Paddock. There is no farrier at present in this district though I believe a man is likely to start soon in Burke Town; but the price will be high and by providing shoes &c with our own farrier a saving of at least 5s per set will be effected. (QSA290307_1888_32 to 34_Letter from Alexander Douglas to Commissioner of Police 28 August, Carl Creek Police Station file)

Constable Peter Egan also served as a farrier for the Nigger Creek camp, doing “all the police farriery of that portion of the district” (QSA290286). In 1897 Egan requested an allowance for his services on top of his regular pay, noting:

The Constable shoes the Troops horses at Nigger Creek, Herberton, Atherton, Irvinebank, Montalbion and all other Troop Horses travelling through the district, a mountainous country which the Troop Horses have to travel over. They require to be newly shod every three weeks or a month. With regards to the Constables capability as Farrier, his Inspector can testify to it. The Constable further states it costs a good deal extra to supply himself with the required clothes for the Blacksmiths shop as it is Very rough on clothing. (QSA563570_1897_40 to 43_Request for farrier allowance Peter Egan)

With 15 horses at Nigger Creek, 3 at Atherton, 7 at Herberton, 1 at Irvinebank and a further 3 at Montalbion, Egan had quite a lot of work to do. Lamond suggested this was saving the NMP “over £5 a month for the 4 stations exclusive of Nigger Creek” (QSA563570). Although Lamond was supportive of the request, Commanding Officer John Stuart denied Egan’s request on the grounds that “This Constable draws a salary of £132 PA and with 6 d per diem Ration allowance and Free quarters in which is good pay for the work he has to do” (QSA563570).

Farriers were seemingly few and far between in colonial Qld, and it was difficult to entice them to outside places, so an NMP officer’s skills in this area were apparently more important than their service record or drinking habits. For example, in 1899 Constable James Walsh was charged with drunkenness whilst on duty and in charge of two troopers bound for the Turn Off Lagoon camp. Initially his Commanding Officer James Lamond recommended he be dismissed, but then had a change of heart, stating:

I believe Walsh will now reform & be a good man & hope you will give him another chance as he appears to give satisfaction as a camp keeper – can shoe horses  – mend saddlery &c and am afraid it would be a difficult matter to get a good man to be contented at such an outlandish hole—in fact very few capable men would live at such a place. (QSA564643_1899_Letter from James Lamond to Commissioner of Police 7 September, James Walsh Police Staff file)

James Walsh wasn’t the only farrier who liked a drink whilst on duty; similar charges were laid against Andrew Allen in charge of the McIvor detachment in 1893:

The present man in charge of the McIvor detachment—Constable Allan —is most unsuitable for the position – he is a farrier and has had no experience in the bush. Further he is addicted to drink and when I inspected his camp on the 9th Inst he was then under suspension for being drunk in Cooktown on the 25th ult. As he pleaded guilty and was required for duty I relieved him from suspension which I trust will under the circumstances meet with your approval. (QSA290072_1893_84 to 86_Letter from John Stuart to Commissioner of Police 12 December, Laura Police Station file).

The various accoutrements for the horses, including saddlery and forage, as well as a forge, also had to be accommodated at NMP camps – yards were particularly important so that the horses could be easily found when required (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Lynley Wallis recording post and rail fence features at Glenroy NMP camp.

Stables were less common, however. In a letter headed “Nigger Creek stables in ruins” penned in 1892, Sub-Inspector James Lamond complained to Inspector Hervey Fitzgerald that:

… the stabling at Nigger Creek is in ruins & dangerous for anything be near same, as all the post slabs etc near the ground is [sic] perfectly rotten & the whole building liable to fall at any time.  As all the horses there are fed out of nosebags I see no necessity for stabling at all, with your permission will have the whole fabric pulled down & a horse shed put up in its place. (QSA290286_1892_61_Letter from James Lamond to Hervey Fitzgerald 11 February, Nigger Creek Police Station File)

Nigger Creek was one of only two NMP camps which we are aware of that had dedicated stable buildings (the other was Frome on the Palmer River), despite the fact that horses were so valuable and vital to the work of the Force. Why this should be is not clear, although it may simply be another consequence of the thrift so constantly in play at each and every NMP camp across Queensland.


Dobbie, W.R., D.M. Berman and M.L. Braysher 1993 Managing Vertebrate Pests: Feral Horse. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Kennedy, M.J. 1986 The Role and Significance of Bullocks and Horses in the Development of Eastern Australia 1788 to 1900. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Stirling, A.W. 1884 The Never Never Land: A Ride in North Queensland. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington.

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