You appear to be looking for trouble and if you carry on like this you will get trouble.

Inspector MacKay, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 August 1929

Gold painted plaster bust
Bust of Commissioner William John MacKay, c1940. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

William John MacKay (1885–1948), known as Bill, was a Scottish-born police officer who played a major role in policing Sydney’s underworld during the 1920s. Affectionately known as ‘Big Bill’, he was 6 feet (183 centimetres) tall and weighed almost 100 kilograms. He was not afraid of a fight, and was said to have used his large fists to great effect during violent skirmishes with criminals. He joined the New South Wales Police in 1910, and after a period on the beat and then as a detective he became the Commissioner of Police in 1935.

Even as a senior officer, MacKay was known to stand shoulder to shoulder with his men during raids. In January 1928 the then inspector came to the aid of officers during a violent brawl at a home in Riley Street, Surry Hills, which was known to police as a ‘thieves’ kitchen’. MacKay was hit by an assailant, Christopher Smith, and the two fell to the ground and traded blows until, as MacKay stated in court, the man ‘became quiet’1 and was arrested. Thrilled journalists headlined the story‘C. I. B. Chief Mackay in a swirl of fists and boots at “Party”’.

  • 1. Evening News, 24 January 1928, p9.
Black and white mugshot of six men standing in line, all with hats on.

C Smith, J Bezzina, W J Williamson, A Feutrill, G Hodder & W Thorson, 25 January 1928

MacKay kept up a sustained offensive against criminals, disrupting illicit businesses through targeted police attention. In 1927, when tasked with cleaning up crime in Darlinghurst, he sent officers out to pick up suspects and bring them back to the station for questioning. If the suspects were seen loitering on the streets again they would be brought in for more questioning. This relentless pressure led some criminals to leave Darlinghurst and set up business in nearby suburbs outside MacKay’s jurisdiction. He also allegedly encouraged officers to harass suspects he believed to be involved in crimes the police could not prove. One method he apparently advocated was to place police officers outside premises used for sly-grog or drug distribution or illegal gambling to discourage customers. On one occasion the occupants complained; the official explanation given was that police were aware that razor-wielding gangsters wanted to harm the building’s residents and the police were there for their protection.2 The criminals soon moved out.

MacKay was an innovator who studied the work of police forces abroad, travelling overseas in 1928–29 on a tour of European and American police forces, and then adapting their methods for NSW. Nothing was beneath his notice, from traffic signage to legislative amendments, and he was particularly interested in streamlining criminal investigation processes. He looked to improve the efficiency of police detectives through training: ‘I believe that it is true that Detectives are born and rarely made, but I also believe that the born Detective can be improved by tuition on his duties’.3 He also advocated the need for specialist investigators to deal with crimes such as illegal drug distribution and vehicle-related offences.

MacKay could be brusque, petulant and politically naive but no-one doubted his effectiveness in keeping the criminal underworld on its toes.

  • 2. Smith’s Weekly, 1 October 1927, p11.
  • 3. William MacKay, European Report, 1929, p6, State Records NSW 5/5427.2.