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2005-09, 347, Alan Ventress, History, New South Wales



Alan Ventress

Associate Director, State Records Authority of NSW

THIS PAPER IS BASED essentially on research carried out by David Philips from the History Department at the University of Melbourne and is covered in more detail in A nation of rogues? Crime, law and punishment in colonial Australia, edited by David Philips and Susanne Davies published in 1994 and in his William Augustus Miles. Crime Policing and Moral Entrepreneurship in England and Australia

.To set the scene: in 1847 a Sydney journal called Heads of the People was launched—among the initial entries was one related to William Augustus Miles with an accompanying sketch.

Comments in the article include

No public department in the colonial service has been so well abused as the Police, whether of Sydney or the Country districts, and certainly no department so richly deserves it …


That the Police of the colony is a very useless and inefficient body, has been so often asserted by its own heads, that we shall scarcely be obnoxious to a prosecution for libel in repeating so obvious a proposition.

William Augustus Miles was head of the Sydney police force from September 1841 until he was removed in July 1848—he died in Sydney in April 1851. This paper will provide an inkling of the problems Miles faced in his job as Sydney Police Commissioner and the environment he worked in during the 1840s, which was an economically depressed period of Australia’s history.

When I first arrived at State Records about three years ago one of the staff showed me the remarkable Registry of Flashmen and suggested that it self-selected as the first item to be digitised from the vast State Records collection, which consists of over 50 linear kilometres of shelving and some 8 million individual items. I agreed and State Records started this digitisation and transcription project. The Registry is the first of many iconic items from the State’s archives collections to be placed on the web. I will discuss the Registry in greater detail later in my talk, but to place it in context I would now like to turn to the rather remarkable but murky life and career of William Augustus Miles.

William Augustus Miles (1798-1851) is believed to have been the eldest son of the political writer and composer of comic operas William Augustus Miles (Senior), although he was later thought to be an illegitimate son of royalty, but this was never fully proved. David Philips in his book William Augustus Miles, Crime, Policing and Moral Entrepreneurship in England and Australia indicates there seems to have been some connection with royalty because of the funds that were made available to Miles from the Royal purse throughout his life, but the nature of the connection has never been fully revealed. In 1822 Miles was given £150 by George IV’s private secretary, who used the occasion to deny vigorously that this had anything to do with Miles’ father having allegedly been the illegitimate son of the royal duke, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. David Philips also recounts a more colourful version which was recorded in the diary of Francis Place a radical activist of the time, who writes:

He found his claim to the countenance of the King on a circumstance which he probably thinks is correct, namely that his father Miles senior is the son of the late King George 111 by the Quaker woman whom it is said he married, and he talks of papers in his father’s possession which would set the nation in an uproar. The story told about the time this William Augustus was born credited at the time and believed by many to the present time is that he is the son of the present King George 1V and certainly as far as the marking of breed in families goes he may claim to be a Guelph. He is a tall, large man, with big limbs like the family he has large features, the goggle eye, the projecting pig like form face, the low and rapidly receding forehead, the small head on a large carcass, altogether the want of intellectual appearance and the strongly marked animal character. His father Miles senior was one of the profligate friends of the Prince of Wales and like other of his friends then and now even, used to let the Prince (King) have the use of his wife and thus it is said this Mr Wm Augustus was produced with the characteristics of royalty strongly marked upon him. (His father is a small man) His father like most of the Kings early friends was at length discarded and treated with coolness and contempt, as perhaps he deserved to be and then he wrote a pamphlet against the Prince of Wales. It had a prodigious sale. Some time afterwards he wrote another pamphlet and this led to a compromise. Mr Miles was pensioned for life and ever afterwards held his tongue.

Apparently there are some errors of chronology in Place’s account and to all intents and purposes the mystery of Miles’ origin remains just that – a mystery. Miles’ early childhood and adolescence set the pattern for the rest of his life.

He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a success. Miles attended the public school, Haileybury between 1813 and 1816, a school which had been established by the East India Company to provide civil servants for the company especially in India, and it is interesting to note that Persian and Hindustani were on the curriculum. Regrettably, Miles’ time at the school was not auspicious and he did not apply himself to his studies in a serious manner; even more alarmingly for his father he had run up considerable debts which his family were unable to repay. This led to his expulsion from the college in 1816. To some extent he never seems to have recovered from this ignominious end to his school career.

Between 1816 and 1835 very little is known of Miles’ life, but he appears to have been disowned by his family, though he continued to request and receive funds from the King, having received £150 in 1822. There is also some proof that he may have spent some time in the West Indies. He also wrote an anthropological book dealing with a burial mound called Deverel Barrow in SW England. Interestingly, in later life he also wrote an article on the languages, beliefs and material culture of Aboriginal Australians that was posthumously published in the Journal of the Ethnological Society London.

The first clear record of Miles obtaining government employment comes in January 1829 when he was employed to index the Privy Council Registers, for which he received £326. His boss was the diarist Charles Greville who comments:

I first employed a certain William Augustus Miles who pretended to be a natural son of one of the Royal Family (I forget which) and who turned out to be a scamp and a vagabond, and who cheated me.

This man got into prison, and I lost sight of him.

The claim that he went to prison cannot be substantiated but is yet another example of the tantalising gaps the historian discovers when researching the life and times of Miles.

In England, Miles held a number of offices including Assistant Commissioner of Inquiry into the Poor Law, assistant to the Commission of Inquiry into the State of Hand Loom Weavers, and one of the Commissioners of Public Charities. He gave evidence to the House of Lords Committee on Secondary Punishment in 1834. In 1836 he published a pamphlet advocating the establishment of a unified police force in England and Wales and also served on the Royal Commission on Rural Constabulary from 1836 to 1839. However, Miles never seemed to make enough money to support himself adequately and he was constantly badgering anyone who had influence and, in order to gain advancement for himself, he was constantly badgering anyone to appoint him to the government payroll.

His appointment as Superintendent (later Commissioner) of Sydney Police in New South Wales was promoted by the Speaker of the House of Commons, C S Lefevre and was endorsed by Lord John Russell, who was responsible for his appointment in July 1840. Between the time he was appointed and the time of his arrival in Sydney Miles had difficulty paying off his debts and even had difficulty in paying his fare to Sydney. At the time it was said that the authorities thought he was never going to arrive, he took so long between his appointment and arrival in Sydney on 17 August 1841. And many were hoping that he would never arrive, especially Captain Joseph Innes, who had been temporarily appointed to the position Superintendent of Sydney Police after the dismissal of Colonel Wilson by the Governor, Sir George Gipps.

While he had intended to make the New South Wales police force resemble its London counterpart, he was hampered by insufficient funds and the lack of suitable policemen. However he introduced some similarities, including the pace of the beat and uniforms. Bizarrely, he introduced beaver caps for Sydney police and because of this suffered mercilessly at the hands of the local press who criticised him for the inappropriate uniforms he had introduced for the Australian climate. He also suffered from competing work pressures, as he was a magistrate as well as Commissioner of Police, and was criticised because of his preference for working from home, which made him inaccessible. During his time as Superintendent of Police Miles wrote the now famous Registry of Flashmen, which in some ways reveals almost as much about his personality as it does about those of the ‘criminal classes’. The Registry of Flashmen is a journal he maintained which provides a unique insight into the criminal underworld in Sydney during the 1840s. The volumewas kept by Miles from July 1840 to July 1848.

Miles held the belief that “much crime was caused by the contamination of innocent people”, and that most of the crime in Sydney was the result of former convicts mixing with free immigrants. He believed that the ‘criminal class’ required constant surveillance by the police:

I have a great number of thieves under my eye in the town, who occasionally do a day’s work, and idle, gamble, and thieve, the rest of the time…. I have taken great pains to inform myself how these men form themselves into gangs, and I keep a book relative to their movements, the parties who are their companions, and such other information as I may obtain respecting them.

In the Registry of Flashmen, Miles has made notes on persons of interest to the police. He makes reference to their aliases, appearance, known associates, places of residence, occupation, their character and temperament, sightings of them, details of previous convictions, incidents in which they were known or suspected of being involved, and their circumstances. Miles also included newspaper clippings relating to persons he was watching.

The volume also contains several lists of associated criminals including the ‘Flash Mob’ (a gang of eight who committed robberies and assaults), ‘the Norfolk Islanders’ (those who had been previously imprisoned at the Norfolk Island Penal Establishment) and ‘Sydney Bullies, Brothel Keepers and Thieves’. Miles has largely only referred to people by their surname.

The complete registry is available on State Records web site at


but here a few examples (see also the appendix to this paper):

N. Bray North Shore: lr– [letter] calling my attention to him: said to be living like a man of property without any visible means.Also to Benjamin Ford of Cumberland. Who has bought land of Bray.

Result of Enquiry

Bray was in the Police, left it 3 years ago. Kept a public House on the Rocks – had no money when he left the Police. He came out free as a sailor – his House was of a most notorious character and after keeping it two years he retired from it – is now living on his own property and considered a Wealthy Man.

Ford of Cumberland Street. Came out for picking Pockets: is a shoemaker his wife has a Mangle – He was in the Police – is considered a steady quiet man. but he has also, by some unknown means, been enabled to buy land of his friend & Brother Police man Bray. – I learn that about three years ago a Woman at Windsor robbed the man with whom she was living of £500 – The money could never be traced, further than that it was given to a Police officer: & very shortly after this Bray leaves the force & commences Publican – The Chief Constable, however, was imprisoned & he is now in Sydney.

Emanuel Brace. A young stout set fellow smart dressed, I apprehended on the 30th Novr. in an Empty House in Pitt Street and 3 a.m. in company with a newly arrived Emigrant.

Esther Rowe per Herald – She had been in Service but lost her place thru drunkenness – He was very fancy, attempted to bolt but was re captured & taken to the Watch house. He turned was recognized as an old offender a most notorious thief, and was the witness that convicted the murderer of

Dr. Wardle, having been then present a Bush Ranger. I expected that he would have been committed as a Rogue and Vagabond, but the Magistrate dismissed him with an admonition. saying it having been ascertained that he had recently worked at his trade, a Shoe Maker. He however sentenced three lads to Prison who had been found an on the same night in the same House one was

Taylor, an undersized, thin faced lad with a red mark on left side of upper lip – about 13 years old: who had been previously tried for Robbery. He has left his home to go thieving. His father w is a wheelwright on the Surry Hills – This House is opposite to Donaldson & Dawes Stores –There is also a back entrance.

Tommy the Banker as he was called at Paramatta: was transported for Bank robbing, issued notes upon the Austilia Bank. He always lived at Paramatta & was a very experienced hand. Bundles of blank notes were found in his possession. His proper name is Thomas Wright. He was sentenced lately at the Supreme Court & is now at Norfolk Island.

Hart T W of Hart’s buildings in Pitt St caught Dr B – n with his wife – got damages & set up in business. Some time ago a man was found in Hart’s house, a lodger with his throat cut. The affair was then considered very mysterious – Some time afterwards a Watch which was recognized as having belonged to this man was traced to have been in Hart’s possession, but there was no proof & there the matter ended. Hart moreover attempted to ravish his own daughter on her bed –

To finish off the story of Miles’ life, he appeared as a witness on 16 June 1847 at the Select Committee on Police. He answered a range of questions on his role and the manner in which his duties were carried out, the duties of his subordinates, alternative models for the organisation of the police force, conflict with the Corporation of the City of Sydney and some specific questions relating to crime and order in Sydney. He testified that there were too few police officers and that too much of their time was occupied by ‘casual duties’. He generally defended his men against charges of neglect of duty and corruption although he admitted that there was difficulty in hiring and retaining an appropriate quality of man because of uncompetitive salaries and better opportunities in other callings. As we know, the 1840s were a difficult period in Australian history because of an economic recession—Miles had to labour under a system which reduced the number of police in Sydney from 90 to 65, and his lack of success in this area is related to this climate of retrenchment.

In 1847 several complaints against Miles were investigated including carelessness in his account keeping, the wrongful dismissal of an officer and insobriety. The last charge was unsubstantiated and the officer was reinstated. Miles was forced to exchange duties with Joseph Long Innes and to undertake only magisterial duties. Miles’ salary was maintained by a close vote in the Legislative Council, but was discontinued at the end of 1849, when he was forced into retirement. He claimed compensation for loss of office but this was only granted posthumously.

Miles was a member of the Ethnological Society of London, the Statistical Society and the Musée d’Histoure Naturelle of Paris and some of his drawings of Aboriginal rock carvings survive. He died in Sydney on 24 April 1851 and was buried at Camperdown Cemetery, where his gravestone reads: “William Augustus Miles, Police Magistrate and late Commissioner of Police, whose parentage was derived from Royalty. Died 24th April 1851, aged 53 years Neglected and in poverty”. Naturally, this has perpetuated the mystery of his origins. He was survived by his widow Sarah, who had a very difficult life from a financial point of view until her death in 1863.


King, Hazel: “Miles, William Augustus”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1788-1850, Vol 2, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic. 1967, pp 228-229.

Letter from Sarah Miles to Joseph Phipps Townsend, 21 July 1851, informing him of Miles’ death, in Joseph Phipps Townsend, Miscellaneous papers, 21 July 1846-24 September 1862 (Mitchell Library MSS 1461/3 Item 1 pp 31-38, microfilm copy CY2541).

Miles, W A: “Evidence before the Select Committee on Police, 1847”. Pp17-24, in NSW Parliamentary Papers, 1847. Vol 2, pp 55-64.

Phillips, David: “The Royal Bastard as Policeman? William Augustus Miles and the Sydney Police, 1841-1848”, in David Phillips and Susanne Davies (editors), A Nation of Rogues: Crime, Law and Punishment in Colonial Australia. Carlton, Vic. Melbourne University Press, 1994, p. 45.

Phillips, David: William Augustus Miles 1796 – 1851 Crime, Policing and Moral Entrepreneurship in England and Australia. Melbourne: History Department, University of Melbourne, 2001.

State Records NSW: Registrar General. Births, Deaths and Marriages Branch; CGS 12937, Registers of baptisms, burials and marriages, 1787-1951. Vol 37 No 195 [5/4200 Reel 5012]

Vaux, James Hardy: The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux ed. Noel McLachlan, London: Heinemann, 1964.


COOL IMPUDENCE – We have to caution The public and the publicans against the impudent impositon and fraud which a person of the name of Bloomfield, now in Sydney, is eudeavouring to practice upon them. This gentleman was sent out some years ago for his country’s good, being then a minister of religion in England, and has till recently been employed as a special, at Port Macquarie. Having arrived in Sydney, he attaches himself to a young female whom he puts off as his daughter, and then spunges upon the public in every shape and form. We know of several publicans who have been taken in by this scamp during the last fortnight to a considerable amount. He is a tall jolly looking personage with a most unfailing stock of assurance, to which he trusts upon his first introduction of himself to his patron’s notice for making a favourable impression; he assumes the familiar style, and what he principally delights in, is having every thing round him in a homely way; he calls for a bundle of cigars and smokes them, and when they have evaporated he turns up his nose and calls it child’s play, but doats on the pipe you have between your lips, because it is so homely; he flirts disdainfully with the tender limbs of a young duck, while he smiles fondly at the scent of a roast surloin at the other end of the table; his leisure intervals he fills up with glasses of hot brandy and water, but glows into rapture at the pure simplicity of a pot of porter, it is so homely; he vents the full flow of his benevolent feelings on his supposed daughter and lavishes on “his dear Ellen” every kindness and attention which paternal affection can suggest. We saw this fellow, after being turned out of a house where he had run up a bill of seven pounds, step into a poor man’s shop and having refreshed himself and la fille with ginger beer and cakes to the amount of some shillings, retire with a promise to call again to-morrow, and pay.



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