Are his fingerprints all over it?


Commissioner Childs and the NSW Police Forensic photography archive.

The Justice & Police Museum is the custodian of the NSW Police Forensic Photography archive. There have always been questions about the history of the physical archive which consists of around 130,000 glass and flexible negatives. The story we’ve always told about this collection begins, like all epic narratives, with a great flood and the salvation from destruction of a select few (negatives in our case). Recent work by Sydney Living Museums curators is helping us to better understand how this collection evolved and to identify the men responsible for its creation and preservation.

Holly Schulte, our curator of Digital Assets, has been investigating the photographers who created the images and piecing together their stories. As part of this research she has come to the conclusion that the earliest negative in the collection dates from 1910 not 1912 as was previously thought. Interestingly it was in 1910 that a new wing was added to Police Department buildings on the corner of Phillip and Hunter Streets. The Metropolitan Superintendent of Police moved into the building along with the Fingerprint branch, Criminal investigation department and the police photographer amongst others.

The Fingerprint and Criminal investigation police had an interest in photography as a way of capturing ephemeral evidence of a crime for future interpretation and use in court so their accommodation alongside the police photographer is not coincidental. Presumably the officers began stockpiling the negatives they had created as part of their work within the building and it is possible that this is the origin of the collection now housed at the Museum.

Another interesting fact about this new police building concerns the men who worked in it. During 1910 two future Police Commissioners were stationed there; James Mitchell and Walter Henry Childs. I am looking into what, if any, role they may have had in encouraging the growth of police photography in NSW and in the safekeeping of the negatives created during investigations.

Childs in particular is of interest to me currently.

Walter Henry Childs MVO, Commissioner of Police 1930-35. Photo Sydney Living Museums.

I haven’t ever given much thought to Childs other than to ponder his catfish-like moustache. He was always overshadowed in my mind by his more dynamic successor, William John Mackay. Childs' most enduring legacy was his work in  introducing the use of fingerprints in criminal investigation in NSW.

Childs [standing] at the original NSW Police Fingerprint section in 1907. Photo Sydney Living Museums.

He also had an appreciation of policing history, demonstrated by his role in setting up the Police Museum as a teaching collection (now part of the Justice & Police Museum collection) within the newly opened building. He was in charge of the Fingerprint, Criminal correspondence and Criminal records sections, a role which included the management of photographic records1 . His work in this area coupled with his appreciation of history makes me wonder what role he may have had in archiving these important negatives in the Phillip Street building.

He certainly recognized the usefulness of photographs of fingerprints both as a way of sharing information and explaining evidence in court. In 1910 his use of a photographic enlargement of a fingerprint during the court case Rex vs Blacker led to a landmark ruling by the High Court about the admissibility of photographic enlargements in court. You can read the original Sydney Morning Herald article from 14 May 1910 on Trove.

So I am left with more work to do to see if there are some stronger links between Childs and the negatives held by the Museum. I also need to investigate Mitchell and his police work with more rigour. At the very least the museum does have Childs to thank for preserving some of our most important objects such as the Captain Moonlite death mask, Ben Hall ambrotype and forensic evidence from early police investigations.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of this research and if you’d like to view the digital images created from these negatives head to the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection’s picture catalogue and type 'Police Dept.' in the search box.

Mug shot of Fay Watson, 24 March 1928, Central Police Station, Sydney. NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive. Sydney Living Museums.


  • 1. Photographic Work. During the year 1913, 812 criminal photographs were received from the Prisons Department, and most of these were distributed in accordance with the established practice. I might here explain that it is necessary, for the purpose of such distribution, to print copies of each photograph and this necessitates a considerable amount of work. 6,457 photographs were sent to the various States and New Zealand, while 20,545 were supplied to city and country stations in this State. When it is remembered that each photograph is comprised of a full-face and profile (really two photographs) it will be seen that a considerable amount of work is entailed in connection with this duty. 1,264 photographs were received by us from the other States of the 'Commonwealth and New Zealand. W. H. CHILDS, Inspector. [Appendix D, Police Department. Annual Report for the year 1913 ]

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Nerida Campbell
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 brimming with family photographs, generations of clothing and things she still can’t identify.

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