Thomas (Tom) Coward was described as many things throughout his life: a ‘thoroughly good explorer’, an ‘experienced bushman’, ‘remarkable and interesting’, tyrannical, irascible, belligerent and domineering. He is one of the better documented NMP officers, chiefly because in his later years he seems to have told his life story to anyone who would listen—and many apparently did.
Coward was appointed twice to the NMP: first for just over a decade between 1863 and 1874, and then again in 1879, although this second appointment was never actuated. Typically there is nothing in his Police Staff file before 1869, but the details of his life can be stitched together from its various fragments. These scraps suggest a man who could be opinionated, forceful and, at times aggressive and abusive, but also one who was adventurous, hard-working and a voluble raconteur.
He started early on an independent life. Arriving as a six year-old from England in 1840 to the barely four-year-old colony of South Australia (SA), Thomas Coward ran away from home at the age of 13. None of the accounts of his life specify why, but it seems that he and his two older brothers—Henry and George—were all apprenticed early to various trades by their father (Adelaide Chronicle and South Australian Literary Record, 23 February 1842, p2; Adelaide Observer, 18 October 1845, p6). One account suggests that Coward may have been apprenticed to Joshua Gurr, an Adelaide merchant (or blacksmith) (Quiz and the Lantern, 28 July 1898, p4). Perhaps this kind of work simply didn’t suit him, because on running away he entered the service of Stephen King at Gawler, which he later counted as his ‘first real bush life’ (Adelaide Observer, 4 November 1893, p42).
Four years later he embarked on another change, leaving SA altogether for Melbourne, Victoria, in October 1851. Here he worked very briefly for William Johnson Sugden (former chief constable of Port Phillip) as a ‘bar boy’ at the Bull and Mouth Hotel in Bourke St (Quiz and the Lantern, 28 July 1898, p4), although he also claimed to have been at the Victorian diggings (Chronicle, 15 July 1899, p11). ‘Being without means or friends’ (Observer, 8 July 1905, p38) Coward returned to SA the same year, where he and his older brother George were sworn in to the Mounted Division of the SA Police Force in May 1852 (Adelaide Observer, 23 October 1852, p8).
Thus began a 27 year career with the police forces of, variously, SA, NSW and Queensland (Qld). In SA Coward became part of the first Gold Escorts to and from Victoria in 1852 under Alexander Tolmer and others, which were so essential to the survival of the then financially endangered colony. He was subsequently posted variously to Kapunda, Port Augusta (‘to civilize the blacks with ten tons of flour’—Adelaide Observer 4, November 1893, p42), Yorke Peninsula, Mt Gambier and Angipena.
He accompanied Major Peter Egerton Warburton (then the Commissioner of Police) in 1858 on his explorations of Central Australia and the following year went with Governor Richard Graves MacDonnell to explore the northern extremities of SA.
This expedition is the first hint of any difficulties in Coward’s personality, unless his desire for constant change can be chalked up to his finding fault with current circumstances. Apparently, on MacDonnell’s tour Coward ‘characteristically’ ‘had a row with the Governor, and the trip came to an inglorious end’ (Quiz and the Lantern, 28 July 1898, p4).
This may in part have prompted his decision to leave SA again (although not for good) and take his policing experience eastwards:
He left South Australia in 1860 and went to New South Wales, where he received the appointment of sergeant of the Snowy River escort, under Captain McLeary, Inspector-General of Police. (Truth 21 June 1908, p3)
Incidentally, Captain John McLerie had been briefly in charge of the (then NSW) NMP until their control was handed over to the Government Resident at Moreton Bay in 1856. And, between 1862 and 1864, Coward worked as a Sergeant of Mounted Police around Carcoar and Bathurst (and also apparently Lambing Flat during the riots [Bunyip, 18 December 1891, p2]), where Edric V. Morisset—former Commandant of the Qld NMP—was Police Superintendent. It’s highly likely that Coward knew him, since he certainly knew people who knew him (see the Evening Journal, 26 September 1893, p3).
Frank Gardiner, the ‘Australian Dick Turpin’ (Courier, 14 March 1864, p2), was also around Carcoar at this time following his release from Cockatoo Island and before he absconded to Qld with his mistress. In December 1862 Thomas Coward was sent as a first-class detective to Qld in search of him ‘with instructions to return overland to Sydney after discovering the man’s whereabouts’ (Truth, 21 June 1908, p3). Possibly for secrecy’s sake Coward completed this under an alias—Jones—perhaps because Gardiner had already met him and/or knew him (or knew of him) from Carcoar or Lambing Flat (Quiz and the Lantern, 28 July 1898, p4).
We can presume that Coward’s trip was unsuccessful, given that Gardiner wasn’t arrested until 1864 at Apis Creek in Central Qld, but it must have had some effect, since in 1864 Coward resigned from the NSW police and entered into a ten year career as an officer in the Qld NMP.
This is the hardest part of Coward’s career to understand. Life as an NMP officer shared some elements of his former occupations: life on the fringes of settlement, the opportunity for new places and experiences, the potential for adventure and change. He’d had previous experience in dealing with (or dealing out) frontier violence in SA, and the NMP may also have offered him promotion and the chance to be in charge of others. The potential for violence, however, must have far surpassed anything in his previous experience—and by all accounts Coward was quite good at it. The 1860s in Qld were years of massive change: settlement was expanding north as far as the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York Peninsula, and west as far as the Bulloo River. Nearly 50 new NMP camps were established in this decade and the highest number of conflict events in our database occurred in this ten year period (1868 was the most ‘eventful’ year). It is also the decade with the highest number of known attacks on Aboriginal people, although not on Europeans or others (that honour goes to the 1870s). Seventy-two of these attacks were NMP ‘dispersals’.
According to the Peak Downs Telegram of December 1864:
A certain native police officer lately boasted that in an attack of this nature he had personally shot eight darkies, but it would be improper in us to connect Mr. Coward’s name with that transaction in the present state of the law. The boast, made by whom it may, is calculated to excite unpleasant sensations in the breast of humane persons, and we hope will not be repeated. If the blacks must be slaughtered, gentlemanly feeling would dictate a decorous reserve, even if there were a morbid taste for sanguinary performances. (Brisbane Courier 28 December 1864).
And in 1868 he became embroiled in a case with fellow NMP officer Wentworth Darcy Uhr, who wanted a warrant issued for Coward for the suspected murder of Aboriginal people on the Norman River. The Commissioner for Crown Lands, Frank Scarr, refused to issue the warrant on the grounds “that in [a] new district like this it is necessary the blacks should occasionally be dispersed, and that in doing so, it is well known some of them do incidentally get shot” (QSA846865 1869 Commissioner for Crown Lands to Colonial Secretary 15 November, In letter 69/4531).
As an NMP officer Coward seems to have been a harsh disciplinarian. In the late 1860s and early 1870s his junior officer at Cashmere and the Gilbert Diggings, Matthew Fitzgerald, accused him of the ill-treatment of troopers, which was “often times without cause … and a disgrace to humanity” (QSA564704 1871 Letter from Matthew Fitzgerald to John Marlow 20 November, Thomas Coward Police Staff file). Even in his own stories Coward seems to have taken pride in the control which he exerted over his subordinates:
Severe sometimes the rule is, but he [the NMP officer] must reign supreme. I have been out for 16 days with armed blackboys searching for fugitives, but they were controlled and kept in subjection, and were ready at all times to obey the word of command, to execute their orders, and not to exceed them (Advertiser, 3 October 1900, p6).
He was also cautioned by his superiors to exercise greater discretion: ‘I have most particularly to request that you will carefully avoid indiscreet discussions referring to Police matters or your duty with persons not connected with the Force” (QSA282366 1867 Letter from George Murray to Thomas Coward 29 June, Native Police Inspector’s Office Northern District Letterbook 1866–1867, Mfilm 2436)
There is nothing in his Police Staff file to indicate why he left the NMP, but In December 1874 he was transferred to the Mines Department and appointed Magistrate and Warden of the Palmer River Goldfields. His personality collided almost immediately (and destructively) with public opinion:
… the trouble began in February, 1876, when a public meeting was held at Byerstown, at which a resolution was unanimously carried, to the effect that “Warden Coward’s conduct was unmanly, tyrannical, and derogatory to the position he holds.” This was followed by a petition from the store keepers, publicans, packers, chemist, blacksmith, and others of Byerstown, urging his removal. A Civil Service board of enquiry was appointed to sit upon him over this matter, and the board decided that nothing had been disclosed to Mr. Coward’s discredit. But then came other charges to much the same effect. He has, in fact, kept things pretty lively ever since, one way or other (The Week 6 July 1878, p20).
His position required daily interaction with the large number of Chinese who had flocked to the Palmer diggings—a situation which brought out the worst in him:
The Under-Secretary for Mines went up to the Palmer to look into matters, and reported of Mr. Coward in the following style on the 18th of last September:— “Numerous complaints were made to me of the excessively harsh manner in which Mr Coward treats the Chinese. When spoken to on the subject by me, he stated that if he was not permitted to act as he had hitherto done in the matter; he would not trouble about collecting any more revenue. I regret to say that this officer is not at all suited for a Warden. His general demeanour to the public, his immediate superior officer (Mr. Selheim), and also to myself, is exceeding objectionable. I can safely say that no body of European miners would submit to his irascible temper and domineering manner” (The Week 6 July 1878, p20).
According to an eye-witness in 1875:
On the Palmer track gangs of Chinese, employed by their countrymen, competed with horses in carrying goods to the Palmer, and it is no exaggeration to say that hundreds died on the road, apparently from overloading. The spine appeared to first become affected. Their countrymen never attempted to bury them, and their dead bodies could be seen all along the track. On one occasion I saw Coward, with his orderly, stick up a dozen or so Chinamen on the Palmer-road, make them drag about an equal number of bodies to one spot, and then dig a pit for their reception. One Chinaman loftily objected, stating he was a gentleman. “Well, Mr. Blanky Gentleman,” said Coward, “I’ll shoot you and get some one to dig your grave”, and tying him by the pigtail to a sapling he ordered his orderly to put a bullet through him. The orderly was willing. but the Chinaman fell on his knees. and begged for the privilege of being allowed to dig a grave for his countrymen, which Coward granted. But “John” was not grateful, for he subsequently complained to the Premier and as he was a man of influence, Coward would have lost his billet but for Sir Arthur Palmer’s help (Truth, 21 June 1908, p3).
Coward’s own version of this event was more civic-minded:
On my return to the Normanby I had to bury three Chinamen, who had been left by their countrymen to die like dogs in the bush. One of them had been dead for some days. I turned my horses out, and remained on the road; stopped some ten Chinamen then passing the dead bodies, and compelled them to bury them. Nothing was found on the bodies, they having been robbed by their countrymen before they abandoned them (Queenslander, 2 October 1875, p24).
In the end Coward resigned ‘under threat of dismissal’ because ‘”his disability of curbing his temper and his want of tact and judgment” rendered him unfitted to act as warden’ (The Week, 6 July 1878, p20). There were perhaps other scandals that contributed, including the Chinese seeking revenge, when, “during [Coward’s] absence from home they broke the Government safe open, and rifled the contents, which, according to the report, consisted of two hundred ounces belonging to the Government, and six hundred ounces belonging to Coward. When the Government found he lost three times, as much as they had, they meditated and Coward’s services were dispensed with” (Truth, 21 June 1908, p3).
Another account alleged “some trouble in connection with the premature death of some Chinese on one of the diggings”, which caused Coward to leave for America “where he remained for some little time” (Quiz and the Lantern, 28 July 1898, p4). He certainly spent time in the US in 1876 because he acquired while there—of all things—a black bear cub, which he subsequently donated to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens:
During the recent visit of Inspector Coward, of the native police, to the Philadelphia Exhibition, he became the purchaser of an American bear, and upon his return to this colony by the last Californian mail steamer he succeeded in landing him safely in Brisbane, after incurring considerable trouble and expense in the matter. He was presented by Mr. Coward to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, and is now located there in a small paddock immediately adjoining the aviary. (Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser 27 October 1876, p2)
Who was Tom Coward?
What do these combined accounts reveal?
In essence, a man who was opinionated, intolerant, impatient and demanding, not to mention hard and harsh. Over the course of his NMP and Gold Warden careers he alienated several colleagues, many of whom still maintained a level of rancour towards him many years later. At Byerstown in 1876 there was animosity between Thomas Coward and Sergeant George Devine, and between Coward and Alexander Douglas: “Mr Douglas was a great enemy of mine and did everything he could to annoy me while I was his superior officer” (QSA847037 1880 Minutes of Evidence taken before Board of Enquiry into charges against Alexander Douglas, In letter 81/296). William Armit said that had “never spoken to Mr Coward and am not likely to do so after the way he treated me up north” (QSA847037 1880 Minutes of Evidence taken before Board of Enquiry into charges against Alexander Douglas, In letter 81/296). Similarly, Richard Crompton, when Coward walked into his camp, told him: “I do not wish to have anything to say to you after the way in which you treated me when stationed on the Lynd” (QSA564704 1871 Letter from Richard Crompton to John Marlow 21 October, Thomas Coward Police Staff file).
Coward certainly had a temper, and was accused by several of his camp keepers (including John Kenny and Thomas Lonergan) of using ‘disgusting’ language. In 1871 he was suspended for a month pending the results of one enquiry, when Thomas Lonergan accused Coward of calling him a liar, a ‘mean scoundrel’ and an ‘Irish bugger’, and publicly humiliating him in front of the troopers:
On July 18th last Mr Coward asked me to drill the men, I made the men fall in. I was putting them through their pacings. It was infantry drill. I was about an hour drilling them, when Mr Coward interrupted and asked what drill I was learning them I told it was Infantry Drill what I knew he told me he did not want them to learn that rubbish, he wanted them to learn Calvary drill, he then came and stood in front of the men and told me I had them spoiled, I stood back then in a line with Mr Coward facing the men for some time then he made me “fall in” on the left of the Troopers I moved towards the right pivot thinking to get the privilege of a white man he interrupted me and made me fall in on the left. … On the 21st I was Fugleman I saw that the men were not sufficiently up in drill to handle their arms properly and I was afraid I should be shot as the guns were loaded at the time. Four of the troopers were recruits I saw the dangerous position I was standing in with the guns on the mens hips I stood back including to the right and Mr Coward made me fall in again in the old position and asked me what the bloody hell I was afraid of, he told me he would make me stand there and report me to the Commissioner of Police for insolence he kept me there and gave orders to the men to fire over where I was standing … during that whole time Mr Coward abused me on each day and often times told me I was worse that a Myall Black fellow (QSA564704 1871 Affidavit of Thomas Lonergan 21 November, Thomas Coward Police Staff file).
In summarising the case for the Colonial Secretary Inspector John Marlow argued that Coward had been antagonised, but also suggested that an earlier head injury might excuse his often extreme anti-social behaviour:
In the early part of the year 1865 Mr Coward in the Execution of his Duty received a very dangerous wound on the head, and as in all his explanations he states that his temper was at fault. I trust that the Honorable the Colonial Secretary will take into consideration the wound in question (QSA564704 1871 Letter from John Marlow to Colonial Secretary 4 December, Thomas Coward Police Staff file).
Whether or not this was justified, the wound was real, having been caused by a prisoner who had attacked Coward at old Fort Cooper station:
About 8 o’clock on Monday morning I saddled my horses to start away. The horses of acting sub-inspector Coward were standing at the door of the hut … Mr. Coward went back with me some distance from the hut. Our backs were turned to the hut. I heard a blow. I turned round and saw a man whom Mr. Coward had in custody, dropping an American axe. Mr. Coward staggered back, wounded in the head. The prisoner attempted to get on Mr. Coward’s horse. The horse plunged and the man fell. Mr. Coward made towards the man, who then let go the bridle of the horse and ran about 100 yards. Mr. Coward pursued the man and called to his trooper. Mr. Coward, before the trooper came to his assistance, seized the man and struggled with him, and eventually brought him back to the hut, where he was secured. I dressed the wound in Mr. Coward’s head, and left the station. He was very seriously wounded (Brisbane Courier, 22 April 1865, p5).
Where to next?
Although we don’t know his whereabouts in 1877 and 1878, on 13 March 1879 Thomas Coward was reappointed a 2nd Class Sub-Inspector in the Qld Police force. He clearly never took this second appointment up, and there is no correspondence in his Police Staff file about why he wished to re-enter the force or what his circumstances were.
Rumours were rife in the first half of March that Coward was intending to lead a volunteer party to track the Kelly Gang (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 15 March 1879, p2)—a possibility which clearly never eventuated (though Stanhope O’Connor and six troopers were eventually sent down the following year). Instead, he decided to get married.
On 25 March, 1879, Thomas Coward married Millicent Deagon, daughter of William Deagon, publican of the Sandgate Hotel in Brisbane. Tom took over his father-in-law’s license a few weeks later, in mid-April. In doing so he returned to one of his earliest professions—bar tending—and embarked on a new one: politics. He subsequently ran the Sandgate for at least seven years, and also became the publican of the Palace Family Hotel in South Brisbane in 1884 (renamed the Grand Central) and the Royal Hotel near Sandgate in 1886. In between times he served as an Alderman for Sandgate.
He later opened the National Hotel in Queen Street in 1889, by all accounts one of the best in Brisbane (Queensland Figaro and Punch, 6 July 1889, p13). Clearly hotel-keeping was paying off and the clientele were not discouraged by Coward’s somewhat challenging personality.
By 1891 Coward had returned to live in SA. His parents had both died, but he was still hotel-keeping and still hot-tempered. He was running the Imperial Hotel in King William St, Adelaide, in 1891 (possibly with his brother, William) and the Prince Alfred Hotel, also in King William St, between 1899 and 1905, the year of his death.
In his later life he turned his inclination for strong and vocal public opinions to perhaps better effect, becoming an inveterate letter writer to virtually every newspaper in SA:
He is, however, a most prolific letter writer, and readers of the Advertiser and Register who know not Tom Coward must be singularly dense of construction. Mr. Coward is a particularly aggressive individual. He holds most pronounced views on a variety of subjects, and he expresses his opinion in a manner that can only be regarded as forceful. As a matter of fact Mr. Coward prides himself on his plainness of speech, and he would not even call a spade a spade in the ordinary sense of the term. He might, if he were unduly excited, use an expletive to emphasise the importance of the occasion (Quiz and the Lantern, 28 July 1898, p4).
Throughout the 1890s and into the 1900s Coward wrote sternly worded letters about anything and everything: the adulteration of ice cream, the danger to the public presented by the statue of Queen Victoria in Victoria Square (Adelaide), politics (and politicians), women’s suffrage (he was for it), the Adelaide hospital, mining, the most appropriate location for the Federal capital (either Cooma or Bungendore) ,whether or not kangaroo joeys actually crawled to the pouch (because an “an intelligent bushman is often better informed as to the habits of wild animals, and about other things connected with them, even than doctors of science and German professors”, Australasian, 4 January 1896, p44), and the habits of Aboriginal people. He also reminisced regularly about ‘the noble pioneers’ and the ‘early days’ and publicly mourned the deaths of those he thought of as ‘pre-eminent white men’: Arthur Hunter Palmer, George Hawker and Boyle Travers Finniss (Adelaide Observer, 1 June 1895, p13; Advertiser, 22 March 1898, p6).
He became a well-known Adelaide identity and many of the newspaper editors who wrote about him and published his letters clearly admired him. He ran for Parliament (in the Northern Territory electorate) in 1893, but was soundly defeated (Northern Territory Times and Gazette, 12 May 1893, p2). He even had a play written and performed about his life (complete with bushrangers) by the Dan Barry Dramatic Company, titled ‘Ransom’ (Evening Journal, 29 September 1893, p2; South Australian Register, 3 October 1893, p6).
Coward was a incurable mining speculator—none of which ever seemed to amount to much—a collector of oddities, including mineralogical specimens, ‘something resembling a mermaid’ (Express and Telegraph, 27 February 1893, p2), the largest buffalo horns ‘ever exhibited in the city’ (South Australian Register, 18 February 1899, p5) and sketches of early SA executions (South Australian Register, 17 August 1891, p7). His favourite insult—which he used regularly—was ‘limejuicer”, a term he disparagingly applied to anyone with little or no experience in the bush: “the word is not applied as an insult to a man who is a teetotaller, but is known to apply to a new chum, as the word “Jackaroo’ was applied in Queensland to young gentlemen arriving in the colony in search of experience” (Adelaide Observer, 4 November 1893, p42). One of his epistles took one such to task for persecuting a small child:
I was at the Morphettville Races yesterday and saw a little boy about ten years old go to a watertap to fill a bottle with water for drinking. He was roughly interrupted by a la-di-da swell—a “limejuicer,” as I call such—and this gentleman sailed for the police to come and cut the water off to keep such little “wetches fwom” coming between the wind (and water) and his nobility. If this miserable creature had been a man or a bushman he would not have prevented the poor boy from getting a drink (Evening Journal, 4 January 1893, p2).
The other side of his personality was less sanguine and more sanguinary, although perhaps not so unusual, either for men in general (see Woollacott for a discussion of men and violence on the frontier) or for NMP officers in particular. He whole-heartedly supported Rodney Claude Spencer, sentenced to jail for murdering an Aboriginal man at Port Essington in 1890, on the grounds that “a better bushman you never met” (Adelaide Observer, 27 January 1900, p9). Coward might have felt particularly strongly about Spencer’s sentence given that one of the other labels applied to him (Coward) in print—and not as an insult—was the “Black Avenger”, because he was “reputed to have killed more niggers than any ten men in Australia” (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 15 March 1879, p2).
 His time as Gold Warden was not all scandal. He is perhaps better known for making the third major track from Cooktown to the Palmer River in 1875 (known eponymously as “Coward’s track”):
This route has the advantage of shortness and directness; and these, combined with the facts that the feed and water on the road are exceptionally good, and that it is equally free from the sandy tracks on the old dray road, and (to Byerstown at least) the precipitous spurs of Douglass’s track, make the question as to the feasibility of a road from Byerstown to Maytown a question of considerable importance to the general population of the field. It is, at all events, quite certain that the track is superior to either of the others I have described, more especially in wet weather (Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 19 February 1876, p250).
 Equivalent to about $425,000 AUD today.