Wanted: Water Police Warders

Employment opportunities

1864: Brisbane Water Police – Variety of positions

Two boats’ crews, each numbering five men, including the coxswains.

Report to Mr John McDonald, Inspector of the Water Police, Port of Moreton Bay

Requisite personal skills: 

Prison Hulk Success
Prison Hulk ‘success.’ The two Brisbane prison hulks would have been based on this English design.

Flexibility to work at any hour of the day or night.

Be prepared to reside aboard the Prison Hulk ‘Proserpine’ at the mouth of the Brisbane River.

Ability to apply themselves to a wide variety of situations with zeal and aplomb.

Be disciplined and follow instruction.

Must love boats.

Duties may involve (but are not restricted to)

  • Guarding newly arrived immigrants under quarantine on board ship or on islands
  • Boarding all vessels coming into port and inspecting conditions.
  • Apprehending refractory and escaped seaman from newly arrived vessels
  • Attending to boating or any other accidents or drownings in the bay or river.
  • Putting out fires.
  • Keeping order, cleanliness and security on board the prison hulk, including cooking.
  • Cleaning, maintaining and repairing a fleet of vessels including 23 punts, 2 dredges and a tug.
  • Transporting dignitaries around Moreton Bay and its islands
  • Conveying passengers and luggage across the river mouth bar or onto bay islands
  • Attending Water Police Court when required as witnesses
  • Acting as crew or pilots for vessels whose crew have deserted or refuse to work
  • Mounting large scale searches to rescue shipwrecked passengers and crew.
flinders map
Flinders map of Moreton Bay, showing Mud, St Helena and Green Islands.

In tracking the story of the earliest of St Helena Island’s warders, I’ve also found myself tracking the story of the Water Police in Brisbane, as the the first Warder recruits in the St Helena Penal Establishment seem to be mainly drawn from the Water Police force. The ‘Water Police Act of 1840’ established this small branch of the Police Force in NSW, where the headquarters for the Moreton Bay force remained until separation in 1859. The Queensland Water Police unit was officially established under ‘The Police Act of 1863,’ which came into force on the 1 January 1864. (1) There had been a demand for a Water Police Force for many years:

We have frequently urged upon the government the necessity of establishing a Water Police Force in connection with this port, and every vessel that arrives from England supplies fresh evidence of the existence of such a necessity. The reputation hitherto borne by the port of Moreton Bay among British shipowners has not been of the best, and there does not at present appear to be the slightest probability of making it less notorious and move inviting… We can scarcely remember an instance, for the last three or four years, in which the captains of immigrant vessels have not had a disturbance with their crews… In all such escapades as this seamen are encouraged by the absence of all representatives of the law. Were the distress signal at once replied to by a water police boat coming alongside, as would be the case elsewhere, and were they to be conveyed on board a hulk for punishment, instead of being brought up to town to a comfortable gaol, the result would be very different. (2)


Water Police Staff ca.1875  Image No PM0001 QPS Museum

Water Police Constables who found themselves as the first turnkeys (warders) or prisoner guards on St Helena Island from 1866 included Samuel Olson, James Hamilton and  James Aird (from 3 Scottish men and a world of adventure), Samuel Seymour, James Dowd, James Dowse and James Harrup. An average day for these men as a Water Police officer was varied to the extreme:

Water Police crew 

28th May 1863


The Barque Rockliff is now ready for the seas, she have all her stores etc on board and now only waiting for her crew. These men are now in the Gaol, but will be conveyed on board today… they will be taken on board in irons, under the charge of Water Police Inspector McDonald. Should the men again refuse duty when on board, the Rockliff will be worked across the bay to the pilot station by the Water Policemen. (3)
James Aird My services were required to go with the Governor, Sir George Bowen of Queensland and other members of Parliament, among the islands, to the southernmost extreme end of the Bay our destination being Broadwater. (4)
Water Police Crew

12th April 1864

WE understand that yesterday the body of a man was picked up at about nine o’clock in the Bay by the crew of the Water Police boat, the body passing under the bows of the Water Police hulk. The deceased is supposed to have been a seaman on board the steamer Gneering. (5)
James Aird


My duty led me to go to all ships on their coming to port in Moreton Bay for some years, and during that time thousands of immigrants arrived from all parts of the world. Among these, were numbers of naked savages from the South Seas.  (6)
Water Police Crew

7th June 1864

‘Young Australia’ – From want of means the conveyance of the luggage and passengers was a tedious operation. Three boats only were available. One belonging to the Kate, another which Captain Coleman borrowed from some blacks, and the Water Police gig, in charge of Inspector McDonald and his crew. This last proved of material assistance from its superior size and the obliging disposition manifested by Mr. McDonald and his men. (7)
Samuel Seymour 

22 September 1865

…Seamen aboard the ship ‘Melmerby’ were charged with disobedience of orders on the 18th instant. Samuel Seymour of the Water Police deposed the prisoners were given into his charge on the 18th instant, he was present at the time they refused to obey the orders of a superior officer. The Chief Officer asked each of them if they would turn to and work and they all refused, and gave a loud cheer. The reason urged by them for not going to work was that they had not had sufficient dinner. (8)
James Hamilton

18th May 1866

WATER POLICE COURT – BEFORE the Water Police Magistrate.

EMBEZZLING CARGO.—Joseph Letto, William Louttit, Frederick Gilley, and Robert Grimshaw, seaman, were charged with embezzling cargo on board the British ship ‘Osborne House’. Mr. Paul appeared to prosecute. James Hamilton, Water Police constable, deposed that on Sunday last he had searched the bunks of the prisoners, and had found various articles, forming part of the cargo of the ship, concealed between the partition of the woodwork of the bunks and the deck of the vessel; he found boots, a dress, some forks and spoons, and some flasks of powder. (9)

John McDonald, previously a Sergeant with the Brisbane Police Force, was appointed as Inspector of the Water Police for the Port of Moreton Bay in October 1862. (10) He was to become St Helena’s first Superintendent of the prison. It seems Mr McDonald was a man of great devotion, energy and daring in his police work, as well as disciplined leader who ran a tight and efficient ship. He and his crew were prepared to assist with dry land operations also as required: 

Queen St, Brisbane ca 1859. State Library of Victoria.

Fire in Queen St, 1864

The members of the Water Police force under Inspector John McDonald, were conspicuous in their blue serges as the best organised workers at the fire. Thoroughly disciplined, they obeyed every order of their superior officer, whose quick intelligence and cool intrepidity directed them not only where their services were most needful but where danger was imminent. It was here that the most gallant and successful effort was made to arrest the fire. Inspector McDonald mounted to the upper part of the house three stories high at the street front, and got into the attic, whence he cut his way with an axe through the roof. Though aware that there were fifty pounds of gunpowder in Mr. Markwell’s store, next door, which was fiercely burning at the time, he would not desist from his endeavour to strip Mr. McDonnell’s roof so as to prevent the flames communicating with it as they did with Messrs. Kingsford’s and with Mrs. Thomas’ hotel. Nor would he tell his men that the powder was near, fearing that possibly they might have declined the risk. When, however, he got through the roof he ordered them aloft, and they swarmed up to him like so many tilers and soon removed all danger of any further extension of the flames. (11)

Next week, come and join us on the 14th May as we celebrate the anniversary of the Proclamation of the St Helena Penal establishment 151 years ago.



(1) An outline of the history of the Qld Police Force 1860-1949 By Commander Norman S. Pixley, M.B.E., V.R.D., R.A.N.R., Historical Society of Queensland, Inc., on July 27th, 1950.
 (2) Courier (Brisbane, Qld. 1861 – 1864), Wednesday 5 March 1862
(3) Courier (Brisbane, Qld. : 1861 – 1864), Saturday 5 September 1863
(4) Diary of James Aird, Courtesy of Sandra Eaton
(5) Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Tuesday 7 June 1864
(6) Diary of James Aird, Courtesy of Sandra Eaton
(7) Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Friday 25 August 1865
(8) Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Friday 22 September 1865
(9) Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Saturday 19 May 1866
(10) Courier (Brisbane, Qld. : 1861 – 1864), Saturday 4 October 1862
(11) Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Tuesday 12 April 1864
Featured image by Amanda Thepanda

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