Reading the Rockhampton Letter Book

We’ve complained before about the general lack of records detailing the day-to-day realities of NMP life. This is most apparent in the lack of surviving Patrol Diaries and Camp Diaries from the Force’s 80 year existence. When at the Queensland State Archives recently, however, we came across a catalogue reference to a “Letterbook – police”, created by the police station in Springsure, Central Queensland. Even though it didn’t indicate it was specifically related to the NMP, it was in the right date range (1862–1866) for the operation of the Force in this region, so we thought we’d take a look.

We’re glad we did, as it proved to be something quite unexpected.

It turned out to be George Murray’s letter book from his time as First Lieutenant of the First Division, and then Inspector of the Rockhampton NMP district. A letter book holds copies of all letters sent out by a particular office; in this case hundreds of letters written by Murray between October 1862 and late August 1866 to his various subordinates, his boss (the Commissioner of Police), and various other individuals connected with the NMP.

During this period Murray was in charge of the second Rockhampton NMP camp at Gracemere (Malchi Hill), where he was based, as well as the camps at Peak Downs, Lower Dawson (Mimosa Creek), Upper Dawson (Commissioner’s Creek), Taroom, Isaac River (North Creek), Mackenzie River, Fort Cooper, Belyando River (Mistake Creek) and Broadsound (Marlborough). His time in charge also covered the expansion of the NMP into the Burdekin River area in 1863 and as far north as Cardwell in 1864, as well as the end of the Mary River (Cooper’s Plains) NMP camp in 1866.

Murray was transferred to Springsure as Chief Inspector of the Northern District in 1866, so presumably took this book with him, where it remained until it made its way into the archives.

The beauty of the Rockhampton letter book is that it gives unique insights into many of the elements of NMP work from the perspective of the central office and the man in charge of an extensive network of camps. It offers many glimpses into the daily workings of NMP detachments and the bureaucratic processes of office and people management, including pay, requests for leave, charges and complaints about conduct, payments for rations, officer orders and transfers, and illness and deaths amongst NMP personnel.

Many of Murray’s letters were about administrivia, such as the resupply of forms and the correct completion of the same by his various officers. Many fell far short of the standard Murray expected, such as those completed by Cadet Joseph Harris, who was presumably still learning the ropes while stationed at Maryborough, since his appointment at the time was less than two weeks old:

19 Octr 1862


I have the honor to enclose the pay abstracts which you will have properly filled up signed and attested. The Abstracts already furnished by you are not in proper form—The only witness required to the pay abstract is to the Troopers marks when marked in the margin—The column headed “Date of payment must not be written across.

Your signature is not required at the bottom of the pay abstract the calculation of your own pay from 9th Augt is wrong—In furnishing official reports I have to request that you will do so in a more legible manner as some previously forwarded by you are almost illegible.

The requisition furnished by you for clothing &c was not fit to be forwarded to the Collonial [sic] Store Keeper. I have been under the necessity of making out another copy

Printed forms can be procured from the Government Printer on application being made by letter a copy of which you will send to this office—Your Allowance sheets are returned for signature of witness where I have marked x also incorrect—You will return the Abstracts to the office by first opportunity.

I have &c
Geo P.M. Murray
Lt N.M. Police

Mr Cadet Harris NMP

Letter from George Murray to Joseph Harris 19 October 1862, Rockhampton NMP Headquarters letter book, QSA2368964

A comment by John O’Connell Bligh in the margin noted that: “The Commandant informs Mr Cadet Harris that unless some improvement takes place in his manner of sending in official correspondence he will compelled [sic] not only not to recommend him for promotion but to report him to the Government as unfit for his office. (Sd) J.O.C. B”. Both Murray and Bligh were correct in their poor assessment of Harris, who was dismissed for neglect of duty (albeit for shooting an Aboriginal man rather than irregularities with his record keeping) the following year.

Outside requests from squatters for protection were also funnelled through Murray’s office. In December 1862, for example, he ordered John Bligh Nutting to:

… proceed with the Troopers named in the margin [Marmaduke, Oswald, Bendigo, Darling, Tom Burke] to Mr Atherton’s Station on the North Bank of the Fitzroy and disperse all large assemblies of Blacks in that neighbourhood, endeavouring to punish them for theyr [sic] numerous depredations, after which you will visit the stations named in the margin [Mr Kelly’s station, Canoona, Mr Ray’s, Mackenzie’s]

Letter from George Murray to John Bligh Nutting 6 December 1862, Rockhampton NMP Headquarters letter book, QSA2368964

Such a listing of trooper names is incredibly valuable, given the problems we have previously identified with tracking individual Aboriginal men—usually poorly recorded and inconsistently and simplistically named—across NMP records. In fact, the Rockhampton NMP letter book is one of the best records of the troopers attached to the various district camps that we have come across, since it regularly includes details of their pay, transfers (both individually and as part of their detachments), desertions and duties. Their deaths are recorded here too, such as Dick, who “died at these Barracks [Rockhampton] on the morning of the 19 Inst and was buried the same evening” (Letter from George Murray to Commissioner of Police 22 July 1864, Rockhampton NMP Headquarters letter book, QSA2368964). Trooper Antony died at Malchi Hill the following month, and it is possible that both men were buried within the camp precincts.

There are occasional references to troopers’ marital arrangements as well, such as when Murray complained to Henry Browne, the then Inspector of the Northern District, that:

In reply to your Memo dated 25 ult stating that Sub Insp Bayley had allowed 4 of the Troopers to have gins from the Lower Dawson. I have the honor to state that I consider you have acted unwisely in allowing such, as it is well known that Troopers will not work properly in a District when they have gins [sic] belonging to the Tribe that they may come in contact with in the performance of their duty. As the step has been taken there is nothing for it now but to allow the men to keep the gins [sic] but you will require to look sharply after them.

Letter from George Murray to Henry Browne 11 July 1865, Rockhampton NMP Headquarters letter book, QSA2368964

The effects of NMP reprisals against Aboriginal people are hard to gauge from material in the letter book, apart from isolated references to a few specific events. Most of these are extremely general, such as when Murray praised Otto Paschen to the Commissioner of Police for the “steps taken by him to punish the Blacks for the late murder [of Sub Inspector Cecil Hill]. The conduct of Mr Sub Insp’r Paschen has been highly praiseworthy through the whole affair, he having behaved in a most energetic manner, after the receipt of the information of outrage.” (Letter from George Murray to Commissioner of Police 19 June 1865, Rockhampton NMP Headquarters letter book, QSA2368964).

Other references are slightly more precise. In January 1865, for example, Murray noted that he enclosed a report to the Commissioner of Police “from Sub Inspr Uhr about shooting Six Blacks for murder of Shepherd” (Letter from George Murray to Commissioner of Police 23 January 1865, Rockhampton NMP Headquarters letter book, QSA2368964). Despite the fact that the report itself was not transcribed into the letter book (and to our knowledge does not exist in any other archival files), the only other version of this event was by one of the other perpetrators—Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh of Vine Creek Station, whose shepherds had been killed by Aboriginal people in mid-December 1864. Interestingly, Fetherstonhaugh claimed that 12 Aboriginal people were killed, doubling Uhr’s figure (Fetherstonhaugh c1917:274).

Other inclusions are quirky, to say the least—even slightly mysterious—such as when Murray took his subordinate Aulaire Morisset to task for asking to visit the Rockhampton barracks at Christmastime in 1864, for purposes that were left unexplained. His request was denied in typical Murray fashion:

I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 12th Ultimo regarding permission to visit these barracks during the Christmas week & in reply beg to state that such a request is most unusual & cannot be entertained.
I have etc
Signed GPM Murray
Inspector N.M.P.

Letter from George Murray to Aulaire Morisset 12 November 1864, Rockhampton NMP Headquarters letter book, QSA2368964

Why such a request would be considered “most unusual” in entirely unknown. Whom specifically did Aulaire wish to visit there at Christmas time? Another officer? One of the troopers? One of the Aboriginal women attached to the camp?

Sometimes the absence of transcripts of items appended to the letters sent by Murray and transcribed in the letter book is infuriating, as it deprives us of documents that haven’t survived elsewhere, such as complete lists of all the Troopers and their register numbers stationed in the Northern Districts in 1866. Yet despite our frustrations over what is absent, the insights that do appear are both rare and precious.

We continue to harbour the hope that, somewhere, somehow, other similar treasure troves of information might come to light.

Fetherstonhaugh, C. c1917 After Many Days. Being the Reminiscences of Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh. Melbourne: E.W. Cole.

4 thoughts on “Reading the Rockhampton Letter Book

  1. I have no doubt that there will be many others through time that will surface as I am finding with images of frontier Cape York. We are after all looking for proverbial “needles in many haystacks”.

    That is the exciting nature of our research.

    1. It’s almost complete now Alan – have a look at the documents beginning with QSA2368964. We’ve transcribed 628 entries so far. Thanks for asking!

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