By Frank Uhr
My name is Frank Uhr, and I am a 70-something historian living in Brisbane, following and thoroughly enjoying the adventures of the Archaeology on the Frontier team as they help open the veil on men who served in the Qld Native Mounted Police (NMP). You see, my great grandfather Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr (Figure 1) and his older brother (Reginald) were both officers in the NMP, so I am one of many descendants of those men, able to relate stories that will go to help build the profile that future historians will be looking to examine. This is the first guest post of a two-part adventure that culminates with what we believe is the longest horse chase in Australia. This first post tells a little of D’Arcy’s background, his upbringing in Maryborough, and then his enlistment as a cadet in the NMP in 1865. Following his “training”, his first assignment was to lead a detachment of troopers to the wild and untamed township of Burketown in the colony’s far north. Here is his story.
Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr was born on 31 October 1845, at Wivenhoe station in the Moreton Bay District, to Edmund Blucher Uhr and his wife Amy (née Kemp). At the time of his birth, Edmund and Amy already had three children: Edward, aka ‘Ned’, born 1841; Mary, born 1843; and Reginald (who also served in the NMP from 1863–69), born in 1844. (Another child who didn’t survive was born in 1847.)
When D’Arcy was four the family sold Wivenhoe and his father took up another station—“Barambah”—not far from the small port town of Maryborough. However, within a year of moving an outbreak of the highly contagious sheep disease catarrh made the situation untenable. Edmund did a deal with his brother-in-law, Richard Jones, who bought Barambah while Edmund took over the boiling down works that Jones had imported into Maryborough. Edmund selected a house site on the Yululah Waterholes and opened the boiling down works on a delightful bend of the nearby Mary River.
From ages five to nineteen, D’Arcy lived with his family in Maryborough, at that time a bustling, rough frontier village built around the port facilities and the wool export trade. Here, no doubt, the adventurous teenager learned how to look after himself among the rowdier element of the town.
As the town grew, the foul-smelling boiling down works was moved from the bend of the river now known as Queens Park, to a site Edmund chose to call “Woodlands”, some four miles down river. The combination of the isolation at Woodlands and the nature of the boiling down operation, where sheep and cattle carcases were plentiful, especially during the rendering season, often attracted Aboriginal attention. This brought the Uhr family, and especially the young brothers, D’Arcy and Reginald, in close contact with Aboriginal people.
While we do not have extensive reports on deaths in the vicinity of Woodlands, there is no doubt the close proximity of the different land users sometimes spilled over into violence. For example, in June 1852 two workers at the boiling down works were attacked by Aboriginal people and severely injured:
One of them managed to escape outside, and give the alarm, when the murderers fled, stealing the blankets of the Chinese, and leaving two nearly dead, Dr. Palmer considering them in a very precarious state. We shall not be surprised to hear any day of something worse occurring at that place, for Mr. Uhr’s boiling place is more like a blacks’ camp than anything else ; hundreds of camps being round it, numbers being employed by the proprietor to carry on his operations (Moreton Bay Courier, 15 June 1852, p1).
Through such experiences D’Arcy must have become very conscious of the strengths and weaknesses of Aboriginal people and Europeans as groups, as well as on their own, and in turn, he learnt how to maintain his own safety. Having spent his childhood and teenage years on the frontier, D’Arcy would have been constantly faced with the racial tension that was ubiquitous as the undeclared war for control of the land and its resources proceeded. This undoubtedly shaped him, and possibly prepared him for his future hunting down Aboriginal people in the NMP, for in 1875 he would claim that “I suppose I have had more experience amongst blacks than any other man of my age in this colony…” (Telegraph, 26 June 1875, p5).
Although he didn’t attend The Kings School, Parramatta, as did his two older brothers, his letter writing is testament to a sound local education, and his sporting prowess was evident from his results in the Mary River regattas (Maryborough Chronicle, 14 December 1864, p2), coupled with a reputation in later years as “the fastest runner in these parts [i.e. Burketown]” (Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 17 October 1871, p2).
On leaving school, D’Arcy began working in the family business, which had grown from the original boiling down works to include a butcher shop supplying fresh meat to Maryborough, a large sawmill, and a 16,000 acre property called “Marianna”. By the time his father Edmund was offered the Brisbane-based position of Sergeant-at-Arms in the Qld Parliament in 1866, D’Arcy had added to his natural talents with expertise in butchering, saw milling and droving, as well as becoming a hard business man. He was well over six feet tall and strongly built, weighing about 13 stone. His years of hunting in the bush surrounding his home had taught him to be an excellent marksman with both rifle and pistol, and the hours droving stock honed his skills with the long stockwhip – a favourite weapon in future years, and one that would gain him the nickname “Stockwhip Uhr” (The Sunday Mail, 3 January 1971).
Logic would have almost demanded that he take up a cattle station of his own when his parents sold Woodlands and moved to a house in Margaret Street, Brisbane. However, little was left from the proceeds of the sale and two children (Elizabeth, who had been born in 1852 and William who had been born in 1855) were still at home, so it was improbable that his parents could have spared the cash necessary to establish him—or any of their other surviving seven children—on a station.
Given his upbringing, D’Arcy was never going to be happy in what could be considered a “normal city or town job”. His older brother Reginald had already joined the NMP and that offered him much of what he was looking for, so, with the promise of an adventurous life in uniform, D’Arcy too sought employment with the Force, being officially appointed a cadet as a 19-year-old on 17 October 1865.
His training and preparation for life as an NMP officer was short and most likely followed the outline illustrated by Kennedy (1902:127):
… nothing of the sort, as far as examinations were concerned, was required, and as for training, as long as a man bore a good record, could ride and understand the use of firearms, he had as good a chance of entering the force as any one …
Similar comments regarding the training of recruits is attributed to a contemporary, Haydon (1911):
… No exams were required … so long as a man bore a good record, could ride and understand the use of firearms, he was eligible to become an officer …
D’Arcy’s first posting was to the camp at Owanyilla, 20 miles up the Mary River from Maryborough (Figure 2). Owanyilla had originally been an out station of Eales’ Tairo Station in the mid-1840s until it was abandoned due to Aboriginal harassment. In the early 1860s, Owanyilla had become an NMP frontier outpost of squatter protection and the same camp that Reginald had been posted to when he had joined two years earlier. It was described a few years later as:
… a hamlet extending from the bank of the Mary to the Gympie road, half-way between Maryborough and Tiaro. Here … the native Police had their headquarters … until the blacks in the neighbourhood having been sufficiently “ameliorated”, this chivalrous corps were transferred to more distant outposts of civilisation … (Maryborough Almanac, 1875).
At the time D’Arcy joined the NMP the pastoral industry was providing Qld with over 70% of its revenue, and over 90% of total export income at the time of separation (1859), so the progress and prosperity of the colony was directly linked to the safety and security of squatters (Barnett 1975). D’Arcy’s first orders, direct from Police Commissioner Seymour, were to recruit his troopers and:
… report himself with the least possible delay to the Inspector of Police for the Northern Districts of the Native Police barracks Rockhampton for further orders (QSA POL/4/168).
One of his recruits was a trooper known as “Sambo”, who had been incarcerated in Brisbane Goal for over a year. Recruiting NMP troopers from gaol was not uncommon and two or three others in the contingent had “also matriculated in the same college” (Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 2 December 1865, p2). D’Arcy’s association with Sambo is interesting in that they maintained a long relationship stemming from the days of teenage youth in Maryborough and from prior associations between Sambo and the Uhr family. It was a relationship that would continue at least until March 1869 when Uhr resigned, at which time he asked for Sambo to be allowed to resign from the force also as a gesture for his service (Wentworth D’Arcy Uhr to Commissioner of Police, David Seymour, 29 March 1869).
On 30 November 1865, the freshly minted Sub-Inspector boarded the coastal steamer Leichhardt with his detachment of troopers for the short voyage from Owanyilla to Rockhampton. There they joined the party of the recently appointed Police Magistrate, William Landsborough, who was bound for the newly established port town of Burketown in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a 1500 km overland journey.
On 22 December 1865 Landsborough’s party left Rockhampton. Leading the small column in typical NMP fashion were either five or six Aboriginal troopers and three Aboriginal women; all members of the clans from the Wide Bay district (Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 2 December 1865, p2).
The troopers were followed by the newly-appointed Police Magistrate (PM) Landsborough, his 20 horses and Aboriginal assistant Jemmy, also an NMP trooper, plus the new Government Surveyor George Phillips, and finally D’Arcy (Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1870 p3). They reached Bowen Downs, a station founded by Landsborough near Longreach three months later in March, and then pushing on, arriving at the outskirts of Burketown on 11 April 1866.
The township serviced a community of some 35 neighbouring sheep stations in the district, with two general stores, two doctors, a butcher and a milkman, plus a blacksmith’s shop, a ginger beer factory, private boarding house and a new boiling-down works on the Albert River (Figure 3). PM Landsborough went almost directly to Sweers Island to escape the wet season fever that was wracking the town, while the NMP set up their camp on “Beames Brook” station, about 25 km away (Brisbane Courier, 10 November 1866, p6). Following his help in evacuating the town to Sweers Island, using the sailing skills he had learned on the Mary River, and during which he himself experienced illness and was forced to bury his best trooper, Tommy Curtis, who died of the fever, Uhr settled down to “routine” patrols along the Flinders River (Brisbane Courier, 10 May 1870, p3).
For the next two years D’Arcy was in charge of a patrol area of some 50,000 square miles centred around what was widely considered to be the most lawless town in Qld (e.g.Queenslander, 27 July 1867, p8; Queenslander, 29 October 1870, p11; Week, 28 December 1878, p14). Despite his young age and inexperience, D’Arcy was soon lauded for his work in “dispersing” Aboriginal people in the region:
… Everybody in the district is delighted with the wholesale slaughter dealt out by the native police, and thank Mr Uhr for his energy in ridding the district of 59 myalls … (Illustrated Police News, 12 September 1868).
Barnett, S. 1975 A Study of the Queensland Native Mounted Police Force in the 1870s. Unpublished BA(Hons) thesis, Department of History, University of Queensland, St Lucia.
Haydon, A.L. 1911 The Trooper Police of Australia. London: Melrose.
Kennedy, E.B. 1902 The Black Police of Queensland. London: John Murray.
Parry-Okeden, W.E. 1897 Report on the North Queensland Aborigines and the Native Police.
Uhr, F. 1999 Once Upon a Colonial Time. Brisbane: Frank Uhr Advertising.
“The Evening Telegraph”, June 26 and July 3, 1875.
 ‘One of the police, “Jemmy,” was previously with me [William Landsborough] at Carpentaria, when I was in search of Burke and Wills. Two of the native police were, before they enlisted, servants to my brothers, and have been with them as such from childhood; the others were enlisted at Wide Bay by Mr. Uhr’ (Brisbane Courier, 6 November 1866, p2).