Masculinity and Sexuality on the Colonial Frontier

By Cherrie De Leiuen

Figure 1 Photograph of Herbert Rowland Paisley Durham (from The Queenslander, Illustrated Supplement,19 May 1900, p933).

Hubert Durham was born in Wales in 1854, the son of Major Philip Francis Durham, a wealthy Englishman. In 1877 he signed on as a Sub-Lieutenant in the 1st Royal Lancashire Militia, resigning his commission in May 1882. Shortly after that he emigrated to Australia, and joined the Native Mounted Police (NMP) in 1884 as a Cadet in the Wide Bay District.

In joining, Durham might have seen the NMP as an obvious extension of his military career. Developing one’s ‘character’ and the achievement of ‘independence’ in far-flung colonies such as Qld were seen to be primary attributes of proper ‘manliness’ for well-to-do gentlemen of the day (see Hogg 2012). Colonial ‘frontiers’ were sites for the performance and achievement of manliness through the demonstration of independence, service, physical prowess, and participation in war, hunting, (hetero) sexual experiences, exploration, and scientific discovery.

The performance of ‘proper’ manliness on the frontier was, however, often problematic, with the ideal virtues of sobriety, heterosexual propriety, and the fulfillment of family responsibilities actually quite different in practice. For example, a formal complaint was lodged against Durham on 25 April 1885 by a local resident who ‘saw him on several occasions in a brothel on Charlotte St’, and also ‘in the Excelsior hotel until one and two o’clock almost every night’ (QSA 563366 Durham Police staff file).

Despite the large numbers of single young men in their sexual prime, intimately living, working, and sleeping together in frontier/colonial settings where there were few European women in proximity, few historical accounts consider male same-sex relationships beyond the acceptable concept of ‘mateship’, or outside the bounds of convict behaviour. The NMP was constructed as a largely homo-social environment for white officers, and one where same sex encounters could (and likely did) occur, though this aspect of life in the Force has not been previously explored.

On return from the Boer War, Durham was stationed as a member of the regular Police Force at Hughenden. One hot morning on Sunday 11 November 1906, Constable Charles W. Cocks was reclining on his bed in the police barracks when summoned by Sub-Inspector Durham to his office, located in the adjoining room.

Durham started:

Now Cocks, I wish you to keep yourself clean and tidy, and take a bath every day … Should there be any reading matter you would like, I am willing to assist you with it, and if you would like anything to read I would be very pleased to give you any book you require.

Durham offered him the Police Manual, saying ‘Read this; you will find it valuable information’. Cocks thanked him and returned to his bunk. No sooner did he lie down than Durham called his name again. He returned to the Sub-Inspector’s office, but this time Durham closed and locked the doors and windows after Cocks entered.

‘Come here’, Durham waved. ‘I have an old khaki suit that I intended to give to the black boy belonging to the station, but you can have it if it fits you.’

Cocks had only been in Hughenden for three weeks, and Durham had noticed the dark uniform the newcomer was wearing, which was unsuitable for the western Qld climate. Durham presented the suit.

‘What do you go around the chest and waist?’, Durham asked, trying to guess Cocks’ uniform size.
‘I have no idea.’
‘You can try it on and see if it fits you.’

Cocks took the khakis and headed towards the door.

‘Oh, try it on here so that I can see how it fits … don’t be afraid,’ said Durham.

Cocks proceeded to undress. When his pants were off, Durham approached, placing one hand on Cocks’ shoulder and the other on his leg, saying, ‘You have fine muscular thighs’. He then lifted up Cocks’ shirt, rubbing his stomach and then his genitals. He then attempted to perform a number of sexual acts with Cocks, who rejected his advances and left the room. The incident passed, seemingly without any fuss.

Two days later Durham entered Cocks’ room and asked how the trousers fit. Cocks told him ‘they are a bit big Sir’. Durham approached Cocks, who was lying in bed and began fondling him before again being stopped by Cocks. At that Durham left the room.

Cocks later testified that he was ‘determined to … entrap Durham when his advances were renewed’ (QSA563366 Durham Police staff file). Cocks subsequently reported the incidents to Sergeant James Murphy and offered up the khakis as evidence. Murphy told Cocks not to tell anyone. Cocks, however, did tell Constable O’Hara, who then told Constable Robert Christie, who subsequently deposed that on 13 November he asked Cocks, ‘if it was true that the Sub Inspector had tried to Oscar Wilde him’ (QSA563366 Durham Police staff file). Unsurprisingly, ‘Chinese whispers’ and rumour were as much a feature of the colonial Police Force as they are any contemporary workplace. Murphy officially reported the incident to his superior officer on 20 November 1906.

On 25 November, Durham approached Murphy to ask if anything had transpired inside the department, because ‘the P.M. (Police Magistrate) had been shunning him’ and that he saw by the newspaper that Chief Inspector Frederick Urquhart was due to arrive on the Bingara that afternoon but he hadn’t been informed of the reason for the visit. Murphy declined to answer. Durham then asked if Murphy had reported him; again Murphy did not answer.

‘What is the charge against me?’
‘You know more about that sir, than I do,’ Murphy replied. ‘I know nothing.’

Durham turned and walked into his office. A gunshot was then heard.

Constables Lynch and Murphy ran to Durham’s office, finding him alive, but with a gunshot wound to the head. He lived for over an hour before the doctor arrived and pronounced him dead, a result of suicide.

After his death, the 1 December 1906 headline in the Morning Postread:


The newspaper’s reference to ‘revolting’ activities and the reporting of details of the depositions given at Durham’s inquest shows the newspaper’s over-zealous interest in the details of the event, while at the same time condemning the act. The piece was written to shame Durham, painting Cocks as the 24-year-old victim of a vile indecency. The newspaper reports and the inquiry held into Durham’s death all indicate the disdain the media and the Force had for Durham, or homosexuality, or both, at the time.

Interestingly, The Truth (2 December 1906) ran a contrasting piece with the headline:

DURHAM’S DEATH. A Police Sub-Inspector’s Tragic-End.
Shoots Himself Through the Head In His Office at Hughenden.

The reporter stated:

One could not wish to meet a whiter man … This tragic ending, of course, carries its own unhappy tale. Whether or not the harried officer felt that, at last, the grip of retribution was on him, or that he was to pass through another terrible ordeal of injustice, cannot be said … Of course, it was very obvious from the conflicting character of the evidence given that the police at Cairns were anything but a happy family. Apparently they were divided into two main factions, Durhamites and anti-Durhamites, and what one faction said would be flatly contradicted by the other … at the funeral there were a number of old private friends, but, strange to say, not a single member of the force with whom he had been so long connected was present.

The document shown below as Figure 2 is illustrative of the high esteem with which at least a portion of the Cairns community held Durham.

Figure 2 Letter of appreciation sent to Herbert Durham on his demotion and transfer from the Cairns office signed by local residents (from QSA563366 Herbert Durham Police Staff File).

What is unclear from documents in Durham’s police staff file is whether the account by Cocks (and others) had been fabricated to irrevocably damage Durham’s reputation, or whether Durham was indeed a sexual predator. Based on the timing of incidents and discrepancies in the reports, Durham may or may not have been a sexual predator, and Cocks may or may not have been a willing participant (perhaps one with cold feet?) — the evidence is not clear cut either way.

After his death, the Qld Police Force sent his wife Mary Ann his revolver (probably the one he shot himself with), but no information about the circumstances of his death. This perhaps highlights the deep roots of homophobia in the Qld Police Force.

Durham’s case brings to light many complex aspects of life in colonial Qld and the NMP, not just male same sex experience, but also wider legal and social attitudes towards sexuality and masculinity, and also suicide. In addition, there are the issues of sexual harassment and rape, which are less to do with sexuality and everything to do with power. The moral outrage caused by the case, when contrasted with that expressed over the NMP’s routine killings of Aboriginal people, is hard to conceive of today.

In recent years, historical archaeologists such as Casella and Voss (2011) have demonstrated that sexuality studies can be integrated into broader archaeological debates around colonialism, cultural change, relationships of power, and the construction of the material world. However, sexual histories are often erased, ignored, or put into the ‘too-hard basket’. But every now and then, a snippet of information comes to light providing an insight in to this major (yet understudied) dimension of the human experience. As this project continues to evolve, undoubtedly similar stories will emerge.


Casella, E.and B. Voss 2011 Intimate encounters: an archaeology of sexualities. In B.L. Voss and E.C. Casella (eds), The Archaeology of Colonialism: Intimate Encounters and Sexual Effects,pp.1–10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hogg, R.P.H. 2012 Men and Manliness on the Frontier: Queensland and British Columbia in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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