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The South Australian Police Force, now renamed the South Australia Police, or SAPOL, is unique in the history of Australian police forces inasmuch as since its foundation on 28 April 1838 it has been continually centrally administrated. That makes it the oldest police organisation in Australasia and one of the oldest established police forces in the world.  See the section Our Foundation for more detail on its origins.

  Our Foundations.

The stirring times and the excitement of police life in the early days attracted men from all walks of life. Men of letters, foreigners, seamen, military men, and men who could justly lay claim to titles, all enlisted for service in the police. Among the most picturesque of these were the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon, Alexander Tolmer who as Commissioner of Police initiated the gold escorts from Victoria in 1852/3, and explorer Peter Egerton Warburton.


Several specific history topics are covered elsewhere on this website, such as our foundations, uniforms, weapons, and women police. This section briefly discusses other aspects of our history.  For a more comprehensive history, refer to the publication ‘South Australia Police, 1838-1992’ by Chas Hopkins, available from the Society.




In 1838 the first police barracks were built at the north side of North Terrace, behind the present SA Museum. Prior to that mounted constables, who later became known as troopers, had to be quartered in public houses or private lodgings. The barracks eventually comprised two wings, each containing three small rooms, one of which was set apart as a guard room, cook house and mess room. Three were sleeping apartments. The stables extended from wing to wing and were built of broad palings, affording accommodation for about twenty horses, with a loft above for hay.


The primitive original barracks were subsequently rebuilt in much grander form, opening in 1855, and then closed for police use when the Thebarton Police Barracks were built in 1916. The old North Terrace barracks was then used by a number of government departments, including the Children's Library, but was partly demolished in the 1960’s to make way for a modern building. Portions of the old barracks still stand and are preserved because of their heritage value. The Police Historical Society opened a museum in the three top rooms on 28 April 1988. This closed in December 1996, having been re-established at the Thebarton Police Barracks.


The first police station in South Australia was at Adelaide and was titled the Police Office. The site was impermanent for the first two years. The first location is unknown but was occupied for only a few months, from May to August 1838. On 1 September 1838 Inspector Inman advertised that the Police Office was removed to “the building sometime occupied as the Colonial Secretary’s Office, nearly opposite the Land Office”. That was a building vacated by Colonial Secretary Robert Gouger when he sailed to England in November 1837 and presumably he reoccupied it when he returned to resume office in June 1839.


By July 1839 it is known that the Police Office had moved again, to a location on the parklands at the north side of North Terrace, just east of the present Morphett Street Bridge. It was reported that nearby was the school that Revd. Stow had erected in October 1837, also on the parklands.  It was being called the Metropolitan Police Station House between 1844 and 1851 when it was replaced by a purpose-built structure. This was in Victoria Square, off King William Street, adjacent to the present G.P.O. building, and served as Police Headquarters and Police Court.


In 1891, 1 Angas Street, Adelaide became the permanent address of the Headquarters of the South Australia Police Department. In 1965 a multi-storey building was erected in Angas Street (on the present Federal Court site) and this became Police Headquarters. On 18th September 1978, Police Headquarters was transferred to 202 Greenhill Road, Eastwood and the Angas Street building became Central Police Headquarters. In March 1993 the Eastwood premises were vacated and Police Headquarters were moved to 20 Flinders Street, Adelaide, which had been occupied by divisions of SAPOL since 1988, while the Adelaide Police Station operated from 60 Wakefield Street. The building at 20 Flinders Street was vacated when SAPOL moved to a newly built $41 million Police Headquarters at 100 Angas Street, Adelaide, opened on 8 October 2011.


In addition to these headquarters buildings, numerous police stations were built throughout South Australia and the Northern Territory.  Some were ephemeral, such as the police station at Salt Creek on the Coorong, which was built by the troopers themselves and fell down ten years later. Others were of architectural or historic merit, some of which are still used today either as police stations or as National Trust museums. Recent decades have seen the emergence of an array of police buildings ranging from shopfront police stations to major patrol bases.



For 120 years the fundamental structure of the South Australia Police was the division between mounted (country) and foot (metropolitan) police, even though some mounted police were in Adelaide, and some foot police were in the country.


By 1890 the Force was divided into three Branches - Mounted, Foot and Detective - and the State was divided into six Police Divisions : Metropolitan, Suburban, South Eastern, Central, Northern and Far Northern. Police Stations had also been established throughout the interior, following the telegraph line to Darwin.


The administration of the Northern Territory was taken over by South Australia in 1863 and was transferred to the Commonwealth in 1911. The Northern Territory Police were established in 1870 with one inspector and six men. They were part of the South Australia Police but were managed entirely by an Inspector in Charge (the first, and most well-known, being Paul Foelsche, formerly stationed at Strathalbyn) who was responsible to the Minister for the Territory.


In early years the daily pay for all constables was seven and six pence (7/6d). In addition, constables of more than four years standing were entitled to one penny (1d) per day for every year of service in excess of four years. Leave of absence for recreation on full pay, not exceeding fourteen days in the year, was allowed to every constable. Members who committed breaches of discipline were punished by fines or dismissed, and the fines, fees and forfeitures were used to pay retiring allowances to non-commissioned officers and constables.


Until 1869 the Force was conducted under the Police Act of 1839 with various amendments, but during 1869/70 Parliament passed a Consolidating Act which controlled the administration of the Police Department. In 1952 a new Police Regulation Act was passed, and a comprehensive set of Police Regulations was instituted for the management of the Force.


A major reorganisation took place in 1958. Ever since 1838 the police had been run as two distinct branches, the Foot and the Mounted, later to become the Metropolitan and the Country Police. In July 1958 the department amalgamated into one service.


Today for administrative purposes the State is divided into regions which are major administrative commands, known as Local Service Areas. These incorporate both metropolitan and country districts.



Because of their dispersion throughout the community of South Australia as well as their adaptability and organisational environment, police were always readily utilised by government to undertake tasks that were extraneous to simply preserving law and order.


In July 1838 the Royal Marines who had formerly acted as gaolers left the colony along with Governor Hindmarsh. For the next three years, until Adelaide Gaol was completed, the police ran the temporary gaol. Commencing from August 1838 the police carried mail between various places, and in some cases were the only postal service to remote areas. In January 1839 the police conducted the first census in South Australia.


Thus began a whole array of tasks undertaken by police over the following century.  These included such roles as statistical collectors, ambulance operators, inspectors of mines, firemen, wild dog scalp collectors, harbour masters, registrars of births deaths and marriages, and so on.  Indeed it seemed that practically any and every role was within the capacity of the police, and all with little additional expense to the government of the day.  


Over time many of these roles calved off to become independent organizations or government departments in their own right.  In more recent times, for example, the Emergency Fire Service was inaugurated under the auspices of the Police Department in 1946. In 1976 the Country Fires Act established the E.F.S. as an independent body, responsible directly to the Chief Secretary, and the organization is now renamed the County Fire Service. The Civil Defence organisation in South Australia was placed under the auspices of the Police Department in January 1962, before becoming the State Emergency Service under the patronage of the police.



Over the course of its long history the police force has investigated countless instances of crime and has also provided invaluable services to the State. A few of these are more notable, either through notoriety or significance. Each of those that are listed below absorbed an unusually large proportion of the resources of the organization during a brief or defined particular period.


Maria Shipwreck – In July 1840 Governor Gawler directed Commissioner O’Halloran to lead a large expedition of police and volunteers to the Coorong district, investigating the murder by local Aboriginals of all 26 survivors of the Maria shipwreck. Two Aboriginal men were summarily executed for their involvement, bringing controversy and censure upon Governor Gawler.


Rufus River Expeditions – During 1841 police and civilian volunteers conducted three large expeditions to the Rufus River region near the NSW-SA border. These were to investigate attacks by local Aboriginals on over-landers bringing livestock from NSW. The third and last expedition, led by Sub-Inspector Bernard Shaw, resulted in a pitched battle, the loss of 35 Aboriginal lives, and a Board of Inquiry.


Gold Escorts – The discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 caused a mass exodus of South Australian men to the diggings.  The economy suffered so badly that a Bullion Act was passed allowing diggers to convert their gold to cash, but that gold had to be in Adelaide. This was resolved by Commissioner Alexander Tolmer, who initiated a gold escort service of mounted police between Castlemaine and Adelaide. During 1852-53 eighteen well-armed police escorts brought back 328,509 ounces of gold for the diggers, saving South Australia from bankruptcy. 


Overland Telegraph – During and immediately following the construction of the 3,200km overland telegraph between Darwin and Adelaide, completed in 1872, there was racial tension along the line. In 1874, eight days after a police station was established at Barrow Creek, Aboriginals attacked that telegraph station. Numerous police stations were established in remote and inhospitable places, bringing law and order to the outback and thereby opening up the frontier to pastoralism and settlement.


Railways – During the late 1880s an extensive network of railway lines spread out over South Australia.  The gap between Adelaide and Melbourne was closed in 1887, to Broken Hill in 1888, and to Oodnadatta in 1891. At each railhead the construction crews set up a camp. Some of the gangers and fettlers were troublesome and so as each camp moved along the ever-expanding tracks, police resources followed accordingly. As new rail towns emerged, permanent police stations were established.


Mining Gold Rushes – Gold mining in South Australia got off to a slow start, but following the discoveries in Victoria there was increased activity. Whenever hopeful diggers rushed to a new gold mining field there was always increased lawlessness. The mounted police promptly followed, often setting up temporary police stations in a hot and dusty tent, along with a portable lock-up. In 1868 the Barossa gold rush attracted 10,000 men. Other rushes followed, such as Waukaringa (1873), Teetulpa (1886), and Tarcoola (1893).


World Wars I and II – Numerous police enlisted in the armed services in both wars, some making the supreme sacrifice. Those remaining in South Australia were actively engaged in war related duties in addition to normal police duties. These included air raid precautions, civil defence, military security, and investigations related to enemy aliens.        



In the Victorian era new recruits were drilled twice a day for a month and were required to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the Instruction Book as well as the general routine of street duty during that period. They also attended the Police Courts every morning to familiarise themselves with the method of giving evidence and general court procedure.


Training became more sophisticated from 1896 when Colonel Madley, a former soldier and schoolteacher, was appointed Commissioner. In 1933 Commissioner Leane introduced a cadet training scheme, which was followed in 1934 by a Junior Constable training scheme. Under this scheme training commenced at the Police Depot at Port Adelaide and was completed at Thebarton Barracks, which became known as the Police Training College.


In 1961 the former military establishment at historic Fort Largs was acquired by the police and began operating as the Police Academy Fort Largs, being the main training facility for the next forty years. A three-year cadet training scheme was introduced, later shortened. That site was vacated when a new training facility, built adjacent to the former, opened in 2012 as the South Australia Police Academy, where training continues today.


Other brief history topics will be added to this tag in due course.          



Max Slee


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