The Social Capital of Officers in the NMP

By Heather Burke

In the 1960s French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu offered an influential framework for thinking about the social differences between people.

Going beyond straightforward economic theory, he argued that there are three forms of capital that enable society to function and to create the social structures under which we all live. These can theoretically be drawn on whenever people negotiate their place in a social hierarchy, but that hierarchy also enables or constrains certain groups of people from accessing each form of capital equally. You can read the original here.

The first of Bourdieu’s forms of capital is the most obvious—economic capital, or the material wealth that a person has access to. The second is social capital, or the personal networks that create certain benefits just by associations between people. These networks can be thought of as “social assets”, and are created through membership in both institutionally-based (e.g. clubs or other professional or elective societies) and kinship-based (e.g. marriage) groups.

The last is cultural capital, or knowledge, behaviours and skills. This includes things such as formalised knowledge (education), informal knowledge, such as how to behave in social situations (politeness or ‘manners’), the appreciation of certain cultural or artistic forms or activities, and the cultural goods (pictures, books, furniture, objects) that physically demonstrate all of these things.

Each form of capital influences the others, so that economic capital can always be exchanged for the other two, and the more of the other two someone possesses the more opportunities they have to create wealth for themselves.

These various forms of capital are helpful when thinking about the white officers of the Native Mounted Police (NMP). We know that many men became officers because of the opportunities for promotion the NMP offered that were unavailable elsewhere (you can read about this here). In seeking to join in 1881, Frederic Urquhart laid this out quite clearly:

The reasons which make me anxious to exchange from the Telegraph into the Police are firstly because this department is overcrowded and promotion slow and difficult to obtain. Secondly when a man has risen to the position of Station Master he can get no farther. (QSA567139 1881[?] Letter from Frederic Urquhart to General Feilding, date unknown December, Frederic Urquhart Police Staff file, Mfilm 8369)

Some men also took to the NMP when all other avenues had failed, like Samuel James Crummer Irving, who retired from the 28th Regiment to take up land in Australia, but through a series of misfortunes lost it all and sought employment in the NMP as the alternative to starvation (QSA2969633 1850 Letter from Samuel James Crummer Irving to Colonial Secretary 16 January, In letter 50/1276, NSW Colonial Secretary Letters Relating to Moreton Bay and Queensland 1822–1860, Reel A2.22).

Like Irving, others shifted between the NMP and pastoral pursuits depending on their financial situation, although only those who remained within the public service long enough to be promoted to senior positions, retire and receive a pension could be thought of as gaining any real economic capital from the job.  So while in one sense a preferred career, in other ways the NMP was an expedient rather than an assured route to income. Relatively few officers had any form of private income. Stanhope O’Connor reputedly used his private income to offer money prizes to his troopers for marksmanship (Corfield 1921:64), although this didn’t prevent him from being declared bankrupt in 1878 (Qld Government Gazette 1881:466). Inheriting serious economic capital was rare, but no doubt extremely useful to Frederick Wheeler who was able to abscond from Australia to avoid trial for murder in 1876, possibly because of the share he inherited of his father’s estate. His father, Henry, had died in 1873 with effects under £350,000 (England & Wales, National Probate Calendar Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, 1973-1995), a sum valued at the equivalent in 2019 of around USD$30,000,000 (Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency).

Others were sons of minor gentry, such as John de Linden Affleck, Jocelyn James Pusey Brooke, Henry John Browne and Charles Henry Lambert, who were all sons of baronets, and Marcus Beresford, who was related to the Marquis of Waterford. Duncan Macneill’s grandfather was Laird of Colonsay, Oransay, Ardlussa and Gigha.

Ancestral houses
The ancestral homes of the families of Henry Browne, Jocelyn Brooke and John de Linden Affleck. Left: Breaghwy House, County Mayo, Ireland (Browne); centre: Norton Priory, Cheshire, England (Brooke); right: Dallham Hall, Suffolk, England (Affleck)

Their backgrounds would have brought certain indicators of social and cultural capital to the fore: the way they behaved, their connections—familial and professional—the schools they attended, their accent and vocabulary, all of which would have given them a certain level of familiarity with superior officers and each other.Officers were expected to be ‘young gentleman of good character’ (QSA846768 1863 Report from George Murray to Colonial Secretary 27 February, In letter 63/511, Mfilm Z5631), and were regularly praised for conforming to the19th century gentlemanly ideal. Hogg (2007:59–60) argued that:

The nineteenth-century gentleman had his antecedents in the code of chivalry adopted by medieval knights. In the nineteenth century this ideal was reborn. It was embraced by political movements, promoted by youth organisations, taught in schools and dramatized in literature. The ideals of chivalry were revived in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, Gothic architecture, Pre-Raphaelite painting, and an Arthurian revival in poetry and drama …. A gentleman was upright, brave, honourable, benevolent, and loyal to Queen and country. He was a natural leader, fearless in war, in the hunt and on the sporting field. As tough as he could be when circumstances demanded, he could be equally gentle when required. Above all these attributes, he was respectful and courteous to women of all classes.*

Cultural capital as revealed through behaviour, tastes (literary and otherwise) and past-times were all crucial elements of the gentlemanly character. Amongst NMP officers it manifested in their personal possessions. When William Armit lost virtually everything he owned in a flood that destroyed the Cashmere NMP camp in 1875, his personal library contained works on Australian flora, various treatises on surgery, physiology and disease, cavalry and field artillery, Ogilvy’s Comprehensive Dictionary, and works by Friedrich Schiller and Felix Dupanloup, as well as novels such as “Romola” by George Eliot (QSA847000 1875 Affidavit of William Armit 4 May, In letter 79/443, Mfilm 94583). Although Armit applied for compensation he had received none four years later, a state of affairs that ‘almost ruined’ him:

I was in no way to blame in losing nearly everything I possessed being absent on duty at the time trying to get up to Georgetown where the blacks were spearing horses. I trust the money will be paid without much delay as necessarily had to replace most of the articles lost, which together with the expensive transfer and the cost of living up here [Georgetown] since render it a matter of great difficulty to me to keep out of debt.’ (QSA847000 1875 Letter from William Armit to John Isley 16 September, In letter 79/443, Mfilm 94583).

Thomas Clohesy had the misfortune of having his private possessions stolen and burnt by a thief known as “Ballarat Jack”. Amongst the booty was:

1 box, containing 6 white linen shirts, 4 crimean ditto, 2 silk ditto, 4 pairs trousers, 4 vests, 2 white coats, 2 dozen cambric handkerchiefs, 14 pairs white cotton socks, 2 dozen white linen collars, 2 pair linen sheets, 1 mosquito net, a quantity of spurious gold (recovered), £5 cash, 3 quartz specimens, about 1 dozen neckties, 2 savings bank books, 1 large size Catholic prayer-book, with brass rings and clasps, and other books; also, a writing desk containing 3 gold scarf pins, 3 gold rings, 1 gold albert chain, with locket attached, 1 gold pencil case, 1 silver ditto, 1 pair gold sleeve links, 3 gold nuggets, weighing 2 ozs  together. (Queensland Police Gazette, 7 December 1870, p102)

Many officers demonstrated their cultural capital by publishing short stories, scientific papers, memoirs or poetry, including Urquhart, Armit, Robert Johnstone, John Kyle Little and Edward Kennedy. Alexander Kennedy described Urquhart as a:

… bookish man, well educated and well read … Wherever he went, the Inspector carried some reading matter and Kennedy tells us that, it was, indeed a strange sight to see Urquhart out on patrol, seated by the campfire with nothing but naked savages and the wild and lonely bush all round him, reading the latest poetry or a recent copy of the ‘Spectator.’ (Cairns Post 3 August 1938, p11)

Amongst the Camp Sergeants and Constables the demonstration of forms of capital is less evident, an unsurprising trend given the social gulf that often separated the upper from the lower levels of the police hierarchy. Social capital deriving from sources other than birth can be glimpsed through membership of “Friendly Societies”, particularly the Freemasons. Thirty-two NMP officers of all ranks belonged to a Masonic lodge, although only one admitted belonging to a more sectarian Orange Lodge, and one to the Oddfellows.

Membership of other advantageous social clubs is less easy to discern, although presumably some of the wealthier, better connected officers would have had access to such circles. It may still not have been plain sailing—socially speaking—for them, as an anecdote about former NMP Commandant, Edric Morisset, suggests:

Once at the Union Club, Sydney, he mistook a very pompous member of the Club albeit a right good fellow for someone he knew. As Morrissett [sic] held out his hand, the other drew back and scathingly said, “Sir, you have made a mistake.” Morrissett at once replied, “Ah, I see I have. I’ll apologise to my friend when I see him.”‘ (Fetherstonhaugh c1917:224).


Hogg, R. 2007 Men and Manliness on the Frontier: Queensland and British Columbia in the Mid-nineteenth Century. Unpublished PhD thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, University of Queensland, St Lucia.

* We would note that NMP officers, while possibly ‘respectful and courteous’ to white women, were often anything but to Aboriginal women.

2 thoughts on “The Social Capital of Officers in the NMP

  1. Thank you for that , another very interesting article . sub inspector Urquhart is one of the major players in the Cloncurry NMP story.( my major area of interest ) it was interesting to see for the first time his reason for joining the NMP . thank you . PS am wasting patiently for the release of your data base .


    1. Hi Alan – we gave the database a trial run with teachers in the Brisbane area and some of the students at All Hallows School last month. Now just ironing out a few kinks (while continuing to add more to it every week)…the countdown is on! Cheers Lynley and Heather


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