When Bureaucracies Kill

By Heather Burke

Cecil Fulford Hill was 21 years old when he was speared by Aboriginal people near Rannes station in central Qld in 1865. Along with Henry Kaye (1881), George Dyas (1881) and Marcus Beresford (1883), Hill was one of only four NMP officers to be killed while on patrol, although many more were attacked, including some by their own troopers. Hill’s death was hardly the stuff of legend; rather it was the consequence of a series of bureaucratic bungles. This post looks at those bungles and what transpired to put Hill in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hill had been appointed only two months prior to his death, at a time of transition for the NMP. Bureaucracies continually mutate, changing their terminology and structure to reorganise themselves around new principles. The NMP was no exception. Between 1863 and 1865 the Force underwent major changes, replacing the original military structure with a civilian one. One of the crucial differences was that whereas previously a distinction had been drawn between what were effectively commissioned and non-commissioned officers, this was no longer the case after 1865. Under the old system commissioned officers were ranked (from highest to lowest) as Lieutenants, Second Lieutenants and Cadets; these were the men who went out on patrol in command of detachments. In contrast, the non-commissioned officers were given the title of Camp Sergeant and remained in camp to look after the stores and—if also possessed of a farrier’s skills—shoe the horses. The mid-1860s transformation, however, remade all officers into Sub-Inspectors, Acting Sub-Inspectors and Constables (Richards 2005:90).

This was the first of two bureaucratic processes that were critical in Hill’s death. Had he been appointed earlier or later—either before the transition began or after it had been worked through—his death may never have happened.

The second was the tedious process of applying for leave and waiting for it to be approved through the labyrinth. Officers on the frontier customarily waited many months for such approvals and then were unable to take it if there was no-one available to replace them. Here’s what happened in the case of Hill.

Cecil was the younger brother of William Richard Onslow Hill, also at times an NMP officer, but later (among other things) Gold Warden for the Etheridge Goldfield (Hill 1907). When Cecil was appointed in 1865 he was given one of the new-fangled titles: Acting Sub-Inspector (Qld Police Gazette, 1 March 1865, p10). This rank encompassed any brand new recruit who needed to learn the ropes, although, previously, commissioned newbies (‘Cadets’) had been distinguished from non-commissioned ones (‘Camp Sergeants’). Hill entered the Force in a role that only the year before would have been called a Camp Sergeant, meaning that his sphere of duties was intended to be restricted to the camp, its occupants and its contents (QSA846797 1865 Letter from D.T. Seymour to Colonial Secretary 17 June, In letter 65/1478, M/film Z6542).

Hill’s first (and last) posting was to the Mackenzie River, where he was sent in March 1865. Unfortunately for him, the man in charge—George Farren Price—was one of those officers caught up in the bureaucratic process of applying for leave. He had applied in November 1864, but was still waiting four months later. At the same time, his previous Camp Sergeant (Sutcliffe) had been ordered to Peak Downs, leaving Price with no support. When Hill arrived, Price leapt to an understandable—if self-serving—conclusion:

Being aware I could not leave the district until I was relieved I continued to do duty till the 17thof March. At this period Acting Sub Inspector C Hill arrived at the Mackenzie Barracks. Concluding that this Officer was the relieving officer for whom I had been waiting I asked him for his instructions. He informed me that he had no definite instructions but was ordered to report himself to my Barracks stating at the same time that Inspecr Murray with the Commr of Police was on a tour of duty in the north and that he had been appointed by the Acting Commr in Brisbane and that he believed he had been sent for the purpose of relieving me.

… I therefore came to the conclusion that the authorities had not considered necessary to forward me other instructions than that contained in my original leave of absence and the fact of my being virtually relieved from duty by the presence of another officer, being well aware that two officers were under no circumstances detailed for duty to one section of NM police – I therefore handed over to him in the usual manner the section & Govt property and further to guard against any indiscretion in the absence of any instructions I required him to show me the proof that he really was sent to the Mackenzie District – In reply he handed me an order from Hd Quarters the same being to the best of my present recollection an order to report himself to the Mackenzie Barracks and addressed to him under the title of “Acting Sub Inspector” and signed by the then Acting Commissioner of Police (QSA846797 1865 Letter from George Farren Price to Commissioner of Police 16 June, In letter 65/1478, M/film Z6542).

George Farren Price. Source: SLQ APA-74 Album of Carte de Visite Portraits 1868-1875.

This was a huge mistake. Hill had not been sent to relieve Price, but to replace Sutcliffe. Price was both desperate to begin his leave and confused by Hill’s title. Assuming that Hill’s rank was equivalent to that of the former rank of Cadet (a commissioned officer) and that he had been sent to relieve him rather than the Camp Sergeant, Price turned over command of the detachment to Hill. According to the Commissioner of Police ‘Mr Hill was fully aware of the position he was to occupy’ (QSA846797 1865 Letter from D.T. Seymour to Colonial Secretary 17 June, In letter 65/1478, M/film Z6542), so either didn’t know enough—or didn’t say enough—to contradict Price’s assumption.

Price was quite old at the time by NMP standards, having not entered the Force until he was 47 years of age. He had previously served as a Lieutenant in the Spanish Civil War in 1837 and in Australia had ‘appointments of Departmental Storekeeper, Penal Department, Pentridge and Chief Officer of Immigration for the Western District, Port Fairy and Warrnambool’ before moving to Queensland* (QSA846817 1867 Letter from George Farren Price to Colonial Secretary 8 September, In letter 67/170). He had not been at the Mackenzie River barracks long when Hill arrived.

Seymour noted to the Colonial Secretary the enormity of Price’s error:

The change in the name (from Camp Sergeant to Acting Sub Inspector) seems to form Mr Price’s excuse for having left the district, as he did, in charge of a mere boy, who had never been in the bush, and who was totally ignorant of the duties he would be required to perform, not even having the advantage of a camp sergeant’s services … Common sense would have told him that a young and inexperienced officer would not have been sent to take charge, altogether by himself, and without any instructions whatever, of a large and troublesome district [QSA846797 1865 Letter from D.T. Seymour to Colonial Secretary 17 June, In letter 65/1478, Mfilm Z6542].

Unfortunately for Hill, a critical shortage of staff left George Murray, the district Inspector, without any immediately workable solution: ‘Through the proceedings of Mr Sub Inspr Price the detachment of police on the Mackenzie is now in charge of a young officer and I have no one to send up to relieve him’ (QSA846797 1865 Letter from George Murray to Commissioner of Police 16 April, In letter 65/1478, Mfilm Z6542).

The result was that the inexperienced, 21 year old Hill was left in sole charge of the Mackenzie River detachment. In May 1865 he responded to a request to patrol Pearl Creek station. Hill’s was the first patrol to that area for almost nine months, where—so local squatter T.J. Thompson claimed—Aboriginal people ‘from all parts have taken shelter in and about the scrubs of the Mackenzie and Dawson, and, at length, have become so bold as to way-lay passengers by teams, and even many on horseback have been stopped and threatened’ (Brisbane Courier, 24 June 1865, p6).

Hill accompanied Thompson’s overseer, Thomas Rothery, to the area:

Lieut. Cecil Hill and three troopers rode up to my station (Pearl Creek) on the evening of Sunday, 21st May. Lieut. Hill informed me that he had come down from the Mackenzie, having heard a report that a shepherd on my run had been murdered by the blacks. I told him that an old shepherd had been murdered about eight weeks previously, and till now no police had been down. Mr. Hill and his troopers camped at my station that night. The next morning (Monday, the 22nd), Mr. Hill asked me if I had much to do; I said, No. He then asked me, as he did not know the run, to show him where the blacks were camped. I said I would, and we all left the station together–Lieut. Hill, myself, and three troopers. We called at Mr. Thompson’s station (Coolooboolaro), and staid there to lunch. Mr. Thompson wished Mr. Hill to stop there, but he would not, wanting to push on. A little before sunset we came upon the camp, which Lieutenant Hill and his troopers charged and dispersed; one, I think, was shot. The gins were left in the camp; I counted them afterwards at Mr. Hill’s request, and there were eighty-nine. We then camped for the night. I wished to camp at a hut a mile off, but Mr. Hill told me that I need not be afraid of the blacks returning, as they would not come near ‘his boys’ (Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser 29 June 1865, p4).

Hill ‘very unadvisedly, encamped his men for the night close to the scrub, evidently intending to follow up the blacks the next day, and see that they were properly dispersed, as he must have been aware that it was dangerous for the safety of the district to leave such a large mob together’ (Brisbane Courier, 17 June 1865, p3).

Just after midnight the camp was surprised by an attack:

About 2 o’clock in the morning the blacks came upon the police camp, and at the first onslaught Mr. Hill and two of the troopers retreated from the camp fire, leaving Mr. Rothery and trooper Fred, who succeeded in driving the blacks back, but not before the former was wounded slightly, and the latter very severely. Mr. Rothery found Mr. Hill lying on his face twenty yards from the camp-fire, with a spear wound in his back, and a severe wound on the back part of his head, apparently caused by a blow from a nulla nulla. He was alive when Mr. Rothery first went up to him, but died ten minutes after. Mr. Hill, in retreating, evidently intended to get away from the glare of the fire (Brisbane Courier, 17 June 1865, p3).

In Thomas Rothery’s words:

The night was pitch dark. About three o’clock the next morning (Tuesday, the 23rd) the blacks came upon us; they were on us before one in the camp was aware of it. Mr Hill was the first to jump on his feet, with his revolver In his hand. He staggered a few paces, and then fell flat on his face. I was struck on the wrist and on the chest by nulls nullas. I fired my revolver, and shot one black the rest then rapidly dispersed. I then looked about for Lieut. Hill; I found him lying on his face; his head and face all covered with blood  there was also a spear wound in his back, under the left shoulder; I took him by the shoulder and spoke to him; he did not answer, but moaned once or twice, and then ceased to breathe. I found one of the troopers (Fred) had been terribly cut about. Immediately it was light enough I despatched one of the troopers (the only one that was but slightly wounded) into Mr. Thompson’s to communicate the news; we then covered the body as well as we could with blankets, and made for Mr. Thompson’s station, with the horses and the two wounded troopers. … On returning to look for the body, it was found that the blacks had returned and stripped [it] of every article of clothing, and taken all away: the corpse was then brought in to the station, and buried the next day, Wednesday, the 24th May; the wounded trooper, Fred, I took to my own station (Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser 29 June 1865, p4).

Confusion, mistaken assumptions, bureaucratic bungles and a 21 year old’s lack of caution resulted in a ‘mere boy’ being left in a position of responsibility on an uncertain and dangerous frontier. He certainly had no experience that was equal to the task and an over-inflated sense of security deriving from the presence of the troopers. The detachment had also shot someone the day before, not to mention participated in an unknown number of previous ‘dispersals’. It was no wonder Hill was a prime target.

The correspondence surrounding Hill’s death ran in circles around the incident and rarely mentioned it directly—probably a clue that the bureaucracy felt some responsibility for the circumstances. Price alone referred to it when trying to explain his actions:

On my return from Melbourne I heard that Mr Hill had unfortunately been killed by the Blacks and on reporting myself to the Commissioner of Police that gentleman gave me to understand that I was suspended for leaving my district without leave. I was further informed of what I could not by any possibility in the absence of any instructions been aware of, namely that the late Mr Hill was sent up to do duty in place of Sergeant Sutcliffe forwarded to Peak Downs by order of Inspector Murray – Had I for one moment supposed the “Acting Sub Inspector” was in fact merely a Sergeant I should have known it was my duty to remain and should have done so.

I therefore beg most respectfully to point out that I have not wilfully disobeyed any order or orders of any of my superior officers not having indeed received any instructions as to my line of conduct in this matter – I simply left the Mackenzie Barracks on the authority of my leave of absence granted by the Commissioner of Police. I waited for 17 days till I was relieved by (as I supposed an officer ranking with the old cadets) and reported myself in due course to my immediate commanding officer and afterwards to the Acting Commissioner of Police (QSA846797 1865 Letter from George Farren Price to Colonial Secretary 14 June, In letter 65/1478, M/film Z6542).

In their search to place the blame the administration laid it squarely on Price: ‘The consequences of Mr Price’s conduct have been much more serious than could have been anticipated but even had everything gone on smoothly during his absence he would have been equally to blame, his conduct at all events shows that he has but slight regard for the good of the service, which will be much benefited by his removal’ (QSA846797 1865 Letter from D.T. Seymour to Colonial Secretary 17 June, In letter 65/1478, M/film Z6542).

Cecil Hill was rarely mentioned again, even by those who lauded the careers of other NMP officers who were killed in frontier conflict events. William Hill noted in his biography 42 years later that ‘[a]lthough my father was at this time in Brisbane, no official intimation of this sad event was ever sent to him by the government, and if it were not for my brother Stanley, then a clerk at the office of the Commissioner of Police, who went up to the scene of the tragedy and erected a fence around the grave, so as far as the government cared, he would have been left forgotten and his death and even the locality unrecorded’ (Hill 1907:32).

*Ironically, Price resigned his position in charge of the Pentridge stockade in Victoria because ‘the treatment at that time meted out to prisoners was repugnant to his nature in its harshness’ (Bairnsdale Advertiser and Tambo and Omeo Chronicle, 19 September 1893, p2). He left to join—of all things—the Qld NMP.


Hill, W.R.O. 1907 Forty-Five Years Experience in North Queensland. With a Few Incidents in England, 1844 to 1861. Brisbane: H. Pole & Company.



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