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South Australian Police Historical Society Museum Experience

Home > Adelaide > Exhibitions | Galleries | Museums | Places of Interest | Tours
by Graeme Fanning (subscribe)
I'm a tour guide who is passionate about South Australia and love to showcase to locals and visitors. Visit my facebook page at
Published July 25th 2022
SA Police history revealed
If you are a lover of museums, particularly relating to history, then one of South Australia's more interesting and lesser known spots to visit is the South Australian Police Historical Society and its associated museum.

Established in 1977, the society's aim is to preserve the history of the South Australia Police (SAPOL) for future generations.

A recent open day gave me the opportunity to enter the society's complex with 5 galleries dedicated to areas such as the first 100 years of SA Police, Police Operations, Crime Investigation and Forensic Science, Remembrance, Foreign Police Uniforms, and an impressive Police Car and Motor-Cycle collection.

SA Police general uniform
SA Police general uniform

Here are some of the exhibits in the overall eclectic collection worthy of mention.

1. SA Mounted Police

The Mounted Police in SA stem right back to 1838 when our very first Police force was established - 10-foot police and 10 mounted.

Amazing to think that South Australia has the third oldest organised police force in the world after Britain and Ireland, considering there were never plans originally for any police force let alone a gaol along with a Justice system.

Based upon Edward Wakefield's systematic colonisation scheme, with initially a low population and most colonists knowing each other, it was deemed of little point to have a police presence. It was believed that the residents could temporarily police themselves through sworn special constables should the need arise.

There would have also been a bit of elitism about South Australia being established as a "convict-free" colony and that all inhabitants would have been "god-fearing", raising their young families.

However, by 1838 there was still tension with the Kaurna people, who had been present on the Adelaide Plains for more than 60,000 years before white settlement, and were forced off the land.

Human nature in some shape and form and time, led to pockets of crime breaking out, not to mention the escaped convicts from the penal colonies coming over to South Australia.

On 28th April 1838, the very first organised police force was established here by Henry Inman (Inman Valley named after him), including the mounted police division, which helped form the first centrally controlled police force in Australia.

The mounted police were initially stationed in wooden palings and mud barracks on North Terrace behind the present day Museum. By the 1850s more substantial stone buildings were erected, which still stand today as a reminder of the time when the mounted police were stationed there - in fact right up to 1917 when these barracks finally closed.

The use of Police "Greys" (horses) by South Australia police is unique amongst police units across the world.

The "Greys" first appeared and utilised by police in the late 1800s, however, it was not until the First World War that their use became more prominent. The reason for the colour at that point - was because the Australian army during WW1 procured most of the available darker-coloured horses, preferring not to use the lighter-coloured grey horses for military purposes.

By the early 1950s police horses were exclusively to be "greys".

Based loosely on the uniform of the 6th Dragoon Guards (The Carabiniers), uniforms were first adopted, one for foot police and the other for mounted. The mounted police uniform comprised of a waistcoat style double-breasted tunic from 1838 until 1854 when the design was eventually changed.

During the hot SA climate in summer, mounted police then adopted a Garibaldi Summer jacket from 1854, which was then replaced in 1881.

From 1881 the design for mounted police uniform became cut in dark blue serge cloth, with a high step collar tunic. This was in turn styled into an open-neck style tunic from 1949.

Today the Mounted Police Barracks still exist, albeit they are located just outside of the city at Thebarton.

SA Mounted Police
SA Mounted Police

2. SA Police Bicycle Brigade

SA Police was the first police force in Australia to use bicycles.

In 1893, soon after the invention of the modern safety bicycle, (1880), 10 bicycles were introduced for foot police. However, their introduction brought with it teething problems, including some police officers refusing to ride them, stating they preferred to walk.

Others complained that at night, they had to continually stop to re-light the bicycle's acetylene lamp due to rough roads.

However, there was a gradual increase in use and tended to be utilised for all types of police work, including enquiries, service of summonses, patrols, and in the late 1910s and early 1920s to detect speeding motorists - the speed limit at the time being 12 mph.

By 1943, the bicycle fleet totalled 133 and continued to be an important means of police station transport until the 1950's when they were replaced by the police motorcycle and sidecar.

SA Police Bicycle Brigade
SA Police Bicycle Brigade

3. SA Women Police

Another first for South Australia was the introduction of women police in 1915 - the first place in the British Commonwealth to do so.

The other ground-breaking situation at that time was that female police were on the same pay, conditions and powers as the men.

The force was established by Kate Cocks along with Annie Ross, with both of them being appointed as police officers to the SA police force women police office. At that time, the maximum age to join the South Australian police force was 29 years, however, this was waived for both women - Kate Cocks being 40 and Annie Ross 32.

Incredibly, women police officers in SA were not issued with a police uniform until 1974, having been plain clothed since their inception.

Many of their duties in their early years encompassed domestic violence cases as well as working closely with the Destitute Asylum until its closure in 1917. Other work included dissuading prostitution, and with young girls loitering in the streets at night.

Both Kate Cocks and Annie Ross received quite a lot of publicity in the early years of their work, as one of their jobs was to patrol Adelaide's beaches, up and down the sandhills, advising any "indiscreet" couple to move "three feet apart, three feet apart".

To think in those early years of women policing, the weekly hours of work were around 60 hours and they were allowed one day off every six weeks.

Initially women were not issued with any firearms, particularly when patrolling at night and Kate Cocks did apply for three automatic .25 calibre pistols for use of women officers back in 1917, however the Commissioner at the time believed that the humble whistle would probably have as much effect as a weapon.

Permission was finally granted for small pistols during the 1920s (about double the size of a Redheads matchbox).

A plaque exists in Victoria Square at the site of what was the Women Police office, commemorating the establishment of female police and their contribution over the years.

By the 1930s there were approximately 12 female police and today, we have quite a large female contingent in the force.

SA Women Police
SA Women Police

4. Foreign Police Uniforms

I was amazed by the extensive collection of police uniforms and equipment from all over the world, ranging from Royal Canadian Mounted Police, British police, Hong Kong, Russian, American State Troopers to Italian Carabinieri and French Republican Guards as well as Gendarmerie.

The Republican Guard of France, for example, is responsible for providing guards of honour for the state and security of the Paris area, including guarding important public buildings such as the Presidential palace, the residence of the Prime Minister, the Senate etc.

Much of the collection has been donated over the years, some from police officers who had served in varying forces across the world at certain times. One of the more extensive displays relates to the Ray Tims Collection, comprising of uniform items worn by Mr Tims whilst he served as a police constable in the UK during the 1960's. Part of that collection also includes items such as police motorcycle crash helmet and goggles, cap badges, police baton, whistle, handcuffs, duty note book and police beat instruction book amongst many other significant items of interest.

French Republican Guard Uniform
French Republican Guard Uniform

5. Black Maria Prison Van

One of the more significant historic pieces on display within the museum grounds is the impressive Black Maria prison van, which dates from 1874.

The one on display is a replica, however, it shows a great example of these types of vans used right up until 1928.

The transport of prisoners by police was always a challenge in the early years and the earliest van was obtained in 1867, a horse drawn vehicle known as "Black Maria", the term originating from the United States.

By 1874 when a newly constructed Black Maria was made available, it had capacity for up to 12 prisoners and was pulled by 4 police horses with a crew of three Mounted Constables, two seated high up in the front and one on a "dicky" seat at the rear.

The vehicle was mainly used around the streets of Adelaide on general patrols and particularly around hotels at closing times.

Every couple of months the Black Maria did journeys out to Adelaide Gaol as well as Yatala Labour Prison to drop off prisoners, with a total of 4 Mounted troopers on board with sabres drawn.

Finally, in 1928, the van was withdrawn from service and replaced by a motorised Bean prison van. Apparently the Black Maria was sold at auction to an MP for 8 pounds, which he used as a bathing box down at Victor Harbor.

Black Maria Prison Van
Black Maria Prison Van

6. Forensics

It was also interesting to see the development of technology regarding forensic science and its application in the investigation and hopefully solving of crimes over the years.

A pioneer and "father" of Police forensic science in South Australia, Senior Sergeant Frank (Barry) Cocks was responsible in the late 1950s for the establishment of SAPOL's first Forensic Services branch.

Whilst serving in the CIB as a detective in 1952, Barry began to develop and demonstrate the benefits of forensic science as a key tool in criminal investigation.

Following the Stuart Royal Commission in 1955, the then Premier, Sir Thomas Playford arranged for a forensic laboratory to be established at Police Headquarters. This was spearheaded by Barry Cocks. Barry was also at some stages during his long police career, seconded to police scientific bureaux within Australia and overseas.

Fingerprinting was becoming an important process in criminal investigations as early as 1894, with the first fingerprints taken in that year at the Darlinghurst Gaol in NSW.

Detective photographer, William Thomas Lingwood-Smith joined the SA Police force in 1882 and soon moved into that role.

In 1894 his role was extended to include being appointed as the Branch fingerprint expert. It was due to Lingwood-Smith's pioneering work in the South Australian police force, which led in 1904 to a uniform fingerprinting system being adopted across Australia.

Additionally Lingwood-Smith is credited to being the first to use fingerprints in the pursuance of the detection of criminals and the tracing of offenders in Australia as well as being responsible for the establishment of the Modus Operandi Section within the South Australia Police.

Photography was also a key development which was used in the identification and detection of criminals, and in the SA Police force, a police photographer was engaged for the first time, (in 1874), Detective 2nd Class Leopold (Leo) von der Borch. Von der Borch's duties included photographing persons arrested for criminal offences and bodies of unknown deceased persons.

Fingerprint technology
Fingerprint technology

7. The Somerton Man Mystery

Many people would have heard something over the years about the Somerton Man Mystery which all began back in 1948 when a man's body was discovered propped up against a seawall down at Somerton Beach.

To this day, the man's identity has not been established even though his body has been exhumed from West Terrace cemetery awaiting further DNA analysis and possible sample matching.

Apart from identity, there has always been mystery over how the man died - was it a suicide, accidental death or murder? It is believed some form of irritant poison was discovered in his system, not common to this part of the world.

There have been all sorts of theories on who the man might be, a displaced post-war immigrant, a cold war spy and many others.

Cryptic coding was discovered both on a piece of paper torn from a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which read "Tamum Shud" meaning "it is ended or finished", as well as in the back cover of the same publication with scrambled letters which decoders have not been able to de-cypher at this stage.

A taxidermist working at the South Australian Museum in the early period following the discovery of the man's body, Paul Lawson was approached to see if a plaster cast could be made, which would help perhaps identify the man in the future.

Time was ticking away as far as the deadline for burial of the man, so there was only limited time to prepare the cast.

Since the body had been in the morgue for several months, the task of moulding was a difficult challenge as the embalming process had begun to shrink and sag the body, making it difficult to recreate the man's appearance.

Moulds were created for the head and upper body, as well as separate moulds for the man's ears. The bust was made of plaster of paris with sisal fibres.

The mould of the head of the man is on display in the museum for all to see, together with some interpretation surrounding the ever baffling case.

Today SAPOL continue their investigations of this case and in a separate investigation, a man by the name of Derek Abbott, who at one time taught Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide, has had keen interest in the case, believing that his wife may well be possibly related to the Somerton Man.

The mystery continues!

Somerton Man Mystery
Somerton Man Mystery

8. Police performing role of Fire and Ambulance Service

At one time police carried out multi-tasking roles including providing both fire and ambulance services in the colony/state.

The Police Fire Service dates right back to 1840 when there were numerous wooden houses erected around Adelaide which posed a very high fire risk. Police in the early years were the only disciplined body capable of dealing with such emergencies.

Police back then were equipped with a hand-hauled "Tiller" fire appliance which was later fitted with a tiller enabling it to be horse-drawn.

Officers underwent regular monthly training in order to have the necessary skills to deal with these emergencies.

Our police force remained responsible for the fire service until the late 1850s when fire brigades run by insurance companies were established and in 1867 the South Australian Fire Brigade was created.

The Police Civil Ambulance Service was established in 1884, after many early years of no ambulance service, public or private, for the conveyance of the sick and wounded.

Patients were at one time conveyed to hospital in private wagons and sometimes even in wheelbarrows. The first police ambulance was horse-drawn, and the following year saw the newly formed Adelaide branch of St John Ambulance Association providing police officers with first-aid training.

By 1900 police were provided with several "hand-drawn" ambulances as well as the first rubber tyre horsedrawn ambulance, built by Adelaide coach builders, Duncan and Fraser.

In 1916 the first police motorised ambulance entered service, followed in 1919 with a second vehicle. By 1920 these had been replaced by two Model T Fords, and in 1926 the last of the horsedrawn ambulances had been withdrawn from service.

Finally in 1954 the ambulance service was handed over to the St John Ambulance Brigade, bringing to an end 70 years of the dedicated police civil ambulance service.

Horse Drawn Ambulance
Horse Drawn Ambulance

9. Dog Operations Unit

The Dog Operations Unit stems back to 1973 when two SAPOL officers travelled to Stafford in England to undergo training as Police dog handlers. They returned to South Australia with two operational police dogs.

Soon another 4 dogs joined them from England. An inspector who came from the North Yorkshire police travelled to South Australia in 1974 to train the remaining 4 dog teams.The unit was originally established at the Thebarton Police Barracks on Port Road at Thebarton.

By the 1990's the dog teams had increased to a total of 12, and in 1994 two SAPOL officers travelled to Canberra and were trained at the Australian Customs Dog Training Centre to be trained as specialist drug dog handlers.

By 2012 the dog teams had further expanded to 15 general purpose, 5 specialist passive alert for drugs, and 3 for explosive/Firearms detection.

The general purpose dog teams exercises include tracking, searching as well as criminal apprehension. As part of the general purpose dog teams, the training is quite intense, taking a whopping 14 weeks to complete.

Detector dog teams are involved with searches including premises, vehicles, freight and person screening.

Since 1973 a total of 54 handlers have served as police dog handlers and 136 dogs have been trained and deployed as SAPOL police dogs.

Dog Operations Unit
Dog Operations Unit

So how do you access this fascinating museum?

Tours are run during the week, except for Thursdays and can be at either 10 am or 1 pm. A basic tour run by volunteers (many of them former police officers) will take you around 1.5 hours and will set you back $10. This price does not include morning or afternoon tea, which will be an additional $5 should you wish to partake (allow another 30 minutes on top of the basic tour time).

Guided tours at this stage are only run for groups of 15 people or more and you will need to book your group in with at least 28 days notice. The Society will consider smaller groups, particularly those with special needs or school groups.

Bookings can be made on the society's website and phone enquiries can be made on 08 8207 4099 (only on Thursdays) or via their email

You will find the society and museum on Gaol Road at Thebarton, just off Port Road.

The other option is to wait until the Society have one of their open days, normally scheduled during the SA History Festival in May of each year. You won't be sorry if you make the effort to visit and be fascinated by the interesting displays relating to SAPOL as was I.

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Why? An opportunity to discover the history behind the SA Police force
When: By Appointment or Open Day
Phone: 08 8207 4099
Where: Gaol Road, Thebarton, SA
Cost: $10
Your Comment
Fascinating Graeme, thanks for sharing - well done with the Silver!
by Elaine (score: 3|8949) 21 days ago
the Service has changed and evolved so much over the decades. Good to see the evolution here.
by Gillian Ching (score: 3|5098) 21 days ago
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