Phillip Street police station (Justice & Police Museum), corner of Phillip and Albert Streets, Sydney, November 1870. Sydney Living Museums COL_JP92_0119

Gritty business

By the 1850s the town of Sydney was thriving. With the recent end of convict transportation, the discovery of gold, and improved transport and communications, people of all kinds flooded through the bustling port. Around the waterfront – the   hub of the expanding city and colony – crime as well as trade was on the rise.

This was the beat of the Water Police and the area of interest for the magistrates of the Water Police Court. As tempers flared into drunken fights, deals soured and the good times collided with the bad, roughs and drunks, petty criminals and the plain unlucky were hauled before the court in such numbers that a new building was urgently needed. An elevated site overlooking the waterfront on the edge of the governor’s domain was chosen, and plans for a new courthouse were quickly drawn up. 

The new Water Police Court was completed by 1856, and soon after a new Water Police Station. In 1886 a Police Court was squeezed into the vacant land between the two buildings, making the three-building complex one of the busiest legal precincts in the colony. Today as the Justice & Police Museum, the history of crime, policing and justice are explored in these same buildings, where the gritty business of maintaining law and order once played out. 

ABOVE: Pictured here in 1907, Circular Quay and the Rocks were places where heavy industry met business and warehouses abutted homes. The Water Police Court building is just visible looking out over the waterfront. Panorama Sydney Harbour and Circular Quay by Melvin Vaniman. Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority
 
Black and white print of 14 men wearing straw boaters and police uniforms with coats that each have a double row of brass buttons.
A group of NSW water police officers, c1900. Their distinctive uniforms included broad brimmed hats and jackets that were lighter and less restrictive than those worn by foot police.Sydney Living Museums, COL_JP88_0343

THE WATER POLICE COURT

The Water Police Court opened in 1856 and, although not universally celebrated for its architecture, it was accepted as ‘well fitted for the purpose for which it is designed’.1 Most of the court’s work revolved around petty crimes – using offensive language, public drunkenness, careless ‘mistakes’ made after a night on the town, petty theft, break and enter – and by 1880 it was dealing with over 17,000 cases a year.2​ Along with those directly involved in the trials, thousands of others passed through the court, supporting friends and family, hoping to see an enemy put away, or simply to enjoy the drama of the courtroom.

Day after day, month after month, the same faces are visible in their dirt and repulsiveness, watching with interest and gloating over the scenes which are almost daily presented in the courts.

Evening News, March 1884​

The Water Police Court also held preliminary hearings for more serious offences. Perhaps the most infamous was the case of Henry Louis Bertrand, known as the mad dentist of Wynyard Square. In 1865 Bertrand murdered the husband of his lover Maria Kinder and made it look like a suicide. When another of Maria Kinder’s lovers sent Bertrand a letter accusing him of murder, Bertrand took the letter to the police. The letter writer was arrested and appeared before the Water Police magistrate, who sentenced him to one year’s jail for attempted blackmail. Following the trial, Bertrand commented in his secret diary, ‘I am satisfied. Thus once more perish my enemies’.3

But further investigations eventually led to Bertrand’s arrest, along with his wife Jane and Maria Kinder, who assisted him in his plot. A preliminary hearing was held before the Water Police magistrate who, in an attempt to shield the two women from recounting the sordid details of the case in public, allowed part of the hearing to be conducted in his private office. As with other serious crimes, the case was sent on to a higher court, where Bertrand was found guilty, but insane. During his imprisonment, he carved little mementoes out of animal bones. A number of them are held in the museum’s collection, along with the guns he bought for the murder.
 

Black and white photograph depicting Phillip Street police station in the 1870s. There are no tall buildings visable and a number of people are sitting on the stairs or on the street.
The Water Police Court, about 1870. The design by colonial architect Edmund Blacket was inspired by the basilicas used as courts in ancient Rome, while inside the cedar joinery set a formal and dignified tone in the courtroom and adjoining offices. Sydney Living Museums.


The Water Police Station

The next building to appear on the site was the Water Police Station, which opened in 1858 and remained operational until 1985. The station initially had two holding cells, staff offices, a charge room and upstairs accommodation for officers and their families, but to cope with increasing demand, a further two cells were later added. The officer’s beat included the warehouses, streets and laneways, pubs and brothels that spread from the shoreline back into today’s CBD. The Water Police were also responsible for the waterways around the city, where they made many daring rescues as well as arrests. 

In 1894 the police from this station took part in a bloody battle that was to change the course of policing in Australia. Known as the ‘Bridge Street Affray’, the incident began when three thieves armed with metal bars and a revolver were disturbed by police while breaking into a building. After attacking one of the officers, leaving him injured, they ran off into the surrounding streets. As more police gave chase, the thieves broke up, one heading into the Royal Botanic Gardens, never to be seen again, and the others making the unfortunate decision to run down Phillip Street past the entrance to the Water Police Station. Officers flooded from the station and a violent fight erupted right outside the door. Five officers were seriously injured but eventually the thieves were subdued. The station’s inspector, George Hyem said, ‘the two were tame enough when they got inside. One of them dropped a little of his blood down there on the floor’.Unknown Object​The pair appeared before the Police Court before eventually being sentenced to death at a higher court. The seriousness of the injuries inflicted on the police caused an outcry in the media, and led to the arming of all NSW police from that time on.

the two were tame enough when they got inside...

Inspector George Hyem, 1894

 
B/w photo of a man working at a typewriter in a police station office area with a public counter in the foreground. The office has desks, files and staircase in the background.
Interior view of the museum's charge room taken around 1956. Photographer unknown, c1956. Sydney Living Museums.
 

The Police Court

In 1886 a further court opened on the site to ease the workload in the original Water Police Court. Architecturally it had learnt many lessons from the failings of the first onsite court and so was equipped with slightly better acoustics and a bank of windows set high into the ceiling to light the room. In the earlier Water Police Court, ‘If the magistrate speaks, one hears a voice proceeding from the roof, as if some ardent ventriloquist were displaying his talent’,4 while by the 1870s complaints about the smell of prisoners and the stench wafting from the court’s public gallery had become commonplace. 

The new court was designed with seven air vents and a basic air-conditioning system built into the magistrate’s bench. On the court’s opening, its first presiding magistrate, Mr Whittingdale Johnson, commented, ‘There was chance now of those magistrates who were in good health not losing it, and of those who had suffered through the foul atmosphere of the old court regaining their health’.5 With its cedar joinery, the magistrates’ bench also created an appropriately dignified and authoritative setting from which to pass judgment, while a maze of corridors and entrances ensured the magistrate was kept separate from the public, and prisoners from the witnesses, to minimise the potential for violence, bribery or coercion. 

If the magistrate speaks, one hears a voice proceeding from the roof, as if some ardent ventriloquist were displaying his talent.

Evening News, 4 September 1902​

 

Museum and collection

By 1979 the volume of work had outgrown the courts on the site and they were all closed. 
After the police left the site in 1985, plans were made to create a museum in the buildings. The museum today features a courtroom, charge room and cell recreated to their appearance of the l890s, when the complex was at its busiest. The working wharves and warehouses, grimy streets and Water Police may have made way for the bustling financial and tourist hub that is now Circular Quay but the stories of those who lived outside the law and of those who strove to stop them live on inside the museum’s sandstone walls. 

The original police museum collection had been assembled many years earlier from weapons and other items seized during investigations and used in training new constables – although when viewed by a reporter in 1910, it was described as ‘an excellent demonstration room for a professor of crime’.6​ The collection also contains forensic evidence from some of the state’s most infamous crimes, including the Pyjama Girl murder, and a wide-ranging collection relating to the bushrangers who terrorised the colony from the 1850s to the 1880s. These include weapons and other items alleged to have belonged to bushrangers such as Ben Hall, Thunderbolt, the Kelly gang, the Clarke gang and Frank Gardiner. A plaster deathmask of Andrew George Scott, alias Captain Moonlite, made shortly after his execution, has particular resonance as he is known to have spent time in the Water Police Station.

... an excellent demonstration room for a professor in crime

Daily Telegraph, 26 August 1910

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Most of the weapons on display in the museum were confiscated by NSW Police over the past 170 years and used in teaching police cadets about the weapons they may face on the streets. Photo Holly Schulte © Sydney Living Museums.

Notes

  • 1. Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 1856.
  • 2. Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January 1881.
  • 3. A complete report of the examination in the alleged murder case of the late Henry Kinder, Caxton Steam Machine Printing Office, 
Sydney, p58.
  • 4. Evening News, 4 September 1902.
  • 5. Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 1886.
  • 6. Daily Telegraph, 26 August 1910.

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Nerida Campbell
Curator
Justice & Police Museum, Museum of Sydney, Susannah Place Museum
Nerida’s passion for history was influenced by childhood holidays spent at her grandmother’s farm, happily rifling through chests...
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