Samuel Denham, a builder and bootmaker in Buxton Street, North Adelaide, his wife, Ann, and their five children aged 6-12, boarded the Maria bound for Hobart on June 26, 1840.
The family of seven was among the 26 passengers led by Commander W. Smith, who got as far as Lacepede Bay, south of the Coorong, when their wooden schooner was shipwrecked and they were saved by members of the Milmenrura people, a tribe within the Ngarrindjeri nation.
Shortly after the tribe helped them start a 180-mile journey back to Adelaide, every survivor was murdered. There were suggestions that inappropriate advances by male survivors to female members of the Milmenrura people sparked these brutal slayings, but no one really knows.
Governor George Gawler dispatched 12 police, 11 sailors and three Encounter Bay aborigines who apprehended 65 aborigines on August 22, 1840, and in a “bush” trial sentenced two men to be hanged. The sentence was carried out immediately; no trial, according to historians.
It tells us something about how law and order was in our pioneering days; challenging, to say the least. Despite the horror, and the questionable aftermath, it remains a poignant episode in the South Australian story.
The Maria tragedy, which led to the first detachment of police in Goolwa in 1840, albeit for only 12 months, is one of the many notable timelines from the southern Fleurieu in the history of the South Australian Police Force – now SA Police – which is celebrating its 175th anniversary.
We have been reminded of their innovation and as national leaders with their use of fingerprinting and photo ID, and being the first to form a police band in 1884 and using alternative means of transport first – bicycles in 1893 and camels from the 1880s until the early 1950s – but perhaps their mark during their journey through our local history is not recognised enough.
The region holds a special place at a national level with Henry Inman (1816-95), a former cavalryman in the English Army and a pioneer of South Australia, becoming Australia’s first police commissioner shortly after leading the pursuit of two escaped convicts near Encounter Bay, arresting one in a valley, hence the river and town being named after him. And, for the record, Inman also co-designed our first police uniforms. However, we will cast aside the inglorious details on Inman being dismissed by Governor Gawler after an enquiry revealed he had supplied the public with the forage hay he was given to feed the police horses. Vehemently denied, of course, according to Adelaide historian Max Slee in his superb recollection of Inman’s life, which ended as a mathematical master at Sydney Grammar School and returning to England to enter the Anglican ministry through St Bees Theological College.
The southern Fleurieu police were also at the end of scurrilous tattle in 1858 when
Mounted Constable Rickaby arrived to take charge of the Goolwa Police Station, and after his first horse died in a fire, two weeks later his second fell over and also died.
Today, the station is an art studio/gallery, and one of many old police stations across the Fleurieu used for varied reasons, including the old police station, gaol and court house in Normanville, which is now a fabulous little restaurant – The Court House. Embedded in its sandstone walls are stories of amazing endurance and dedication by our early police officers, all so brilliantly captured by Hahndorf author Lena Wade.
She recalled how the station was opened in 1856 and troopers Berrill and Toole represented the entire western half of the Fleurieu with their horses tied to the hitching post at the front ready for action. They were on duty 24 hours a day, and it was only years later they were given one day off a month.
Normanville was a busy wheat and flour milling port in those early days, and overall not unlike other stations where the troopers needed to conduct a census on people, wild dogs and crops, inspect mines, protect Aborigines, and be the registrars of births, deaths and marriages in between operating the police fire brigade while finding time to fight crime.
Trooper A. Lawrence earned interstate acclaim in 1864 for apprehending a wanted murderer in Blackfellows Creek, near the gorge, and escorted him to Melbourne where he was hanged. There was a huge reward for the villain’s capture, but being a real trooper our Mr Lawrence refused to take the money saying it was part of his duty.
Some other convictions lacked this wicked trait, like when Normanville wag Levi Lovelock was found guilty of “tippling”… this dastardly character had the cheek to hold tin kettlings outside of homes of newly-weds on the Lord’s Day, and was fined five pounds.
Warland Reserve, Victor Harbor, was the site of South Australia’s second police station in 1840, known as Police Point, and was replaced by a new station in 1912, which today is a medical specialist centre in Ocean Street. The two old holding cells still exist at the back.
The police days of yester-year are constantly revived by retired police officers along the southern Fleurieu. There were 20 retirees when they first met to form a southern association three years ago, and now there are 120.
Brian Liddy, who joined the force in 1955, worked across the state before being transferred here in 1982. He and his wife, Pat, and their five daughters lived in this beautiful old building until his retirement as a highly-respected snr sergeant in 1994.
With an enormous sense of pride, Brian said looking back at his days at the previous Victor Harbor Police Station he was really from the old school. “I encouraged the staff to walk down the street so they would get to know the people,” he said. “It was common for an officer here to call into a shop and say g’day, and have a yarn for five minutes over a coffee.
“They got to know the local people and I always felt the community became more conscious of sticking to the speed limit because they felt they were friends of the officers and didn’t want the embarrassment of being caught.
“That’s all changed throughout the force now; unfortunately the young ones are trapped inside writing reports on everything.
“Having said that, I think the method of police work is generally still the same, and most do a really good job. They are under pressure all the time… these days you can type up a report, and if you have mis-spelt one word a solicitor will try to have the case mis-heard.
“The drug problem was bad years ago, as it is today everywhere, but I guess the real hard stuff wasn’t around back then.
“In my early days here the only real problems we had were after the big nights at the pub discos. The young ones would fall out the door and spill onto Warland Reserve. I’d say to them, ‘home you go, and if you don’t I’m going to lock you up, and if I lock you up it’s going to cost you money’. So off they’d go moaning. I think they appreciated the chance, and if they did the wrong thing I never made it bad for them in court because often it was just the drinking and carrying on. They were never really dirty rotten scoundrels.
“A lot used to wander down to Johno’s Pizza Bar and make a racket, and then remember I lived across the road. I still recall the look on one poor lad’s face when he jumped my front fence and pinched a big red rose. I caught him red handed, but I said it was okay if he gave it to his girlfriend with him. We laughed and he moved on; that’s the way things were.”
Never in Brian’s 38 years on the force did he fire his police revolver, and he resented wearing a side arm when it became mandatory shortly before his retirement.
“I really loved all my time on the force,” he said. He recalled some humorous moments that are best left in the old lock-up cells, and how the force was so miserable that an officer had to hand in his old pen to get a new one, and he couldn’t get a new pad unless every line of every sheet has been used up in the old one.
Brian also spent three years on Kangaroo Island, and locally was involved in cliff face and boat rescues in treacherous seas.
But above everything, he remembers what was supposed to be his last day on the force, the August night of ’94 when he had to knock on the door of family friends to tell them their son had been killed in a car accident.
“I can remember that moment as if it were yesterday, as I can with all of the other mums and dads and partners I’ve had to tell the same news,” Brian said. “I will never forget their faces, and to this day my thoughts have been with them. I really mean that; every fatality has touched me.
“It’s why we used to pick everyone up for speeding, and today’s police still do. You can go back over all the history on the force you want, but unfortunately some things just don’t change; you still find yourself looking at the parents’ faces.”