William John von Peterswald, Police Commissioner

William John Peterswald

Peterswald in 1865 (SLSA)

William John von Peterswald was born in Jamaica in the West Indies on 28 November 1829 to William and Jean von Peterswald. He was educated in Edinburgh where he attended the Military Academy. Peterswald was of German origin, and was the only son of the late Colonel William Peterswald, of Jamaica. Colonel Peterswald was a West Indian planter, but after the emancipation of the slaves he sold his properties and removed to Edinburgh.

William John Peterswald married Emily Mary, daughter of Charles de St Croix on 11 March 1852, at age 22 in St Hellers, Jersey. They were to have 6 children: William Ernest, Emily Jane Matilde, Grace Margaret, Arthur Charles, Francis Dumaresq and Florence Maude who died on 21 July 1916, a few months after her mother.

In 1852 the young couple migrated to South Australia and arrived on the Charlotte Jane in May 1853. Peterswald commenced farming at Munno Para. He named his 1320 acre property Tyeka which he worked with John Bowman. The farm was not very successful but he kept courageously to this occupation until I860. In the end, like many other inexperienced farmers, he lost almost all he possessed and made nothing but a name for fair dealing. In September Tyeka was put up for auction, including all animals, machinery and implements.

In July 1860 he was appointed Chairman and Treasurer of the Munno Para East Council and a Committee member of the Gawler Town Agricultural Association. During 1862 he enrolled, drilled and commanded a volunteer company of riflemen which earned a high reputation. In 1862 Mr Pettinger, Inspector of Metropolitan Police, was murdered at a sale at Government House by a discharged constable, and Peterswald applied for and obtained the vacant post under Major Warburton.

His fortunes improved substantially now and his wife was able to advertise for the services of a ‘Good Laundress and a Nurse who is also a good Plain Needle woman’. For one reason or another Mrs Peterswald had problems with getting and keeping servants. In July 1863 she once more had to advertise.

Two years later, while living at Childers Street, North Adelaide she wanted a Cook who had to be a good Laundress as well. She also required a nursemaid who had to be willing to assist in the house. Not only that, she had to be a good needlewoman too. In July 1892, while living on the corner of Jeffcott and Ward Streets she again advertised for an experienced housemaid.

After four years in the police force, Peterswald resigned in 1866. In December he worked as a presiding Officer at Robe for the Council elections and for the next two years worked at Parliament House. In October 1868 he became Warden of the Goldfields and was appointed Resident Gold Commissioner at the South Para Goldfields.

He took his job seriously and was not afraid to speak his mind or travel far and wide through the colony. According to Peterswald, goldfields in South Australia had been ‘merely outlets for unemployed labourers, where the workingman, when out of work, can by perseverance make pretty sure of a livelihood’.

He went on to say that ‘There is no doubt that we have rich deposits as yet undiscovered. The quantity of gold already obtained, found as it has been in patches, must have been fed from some source. I confidently anticipate that a system of deep sinking will lead to the most valuable results, and open up an entirely new era in the history of South Australian mining enterprise’.

In his first report as Warden, Peterswald stated that it would be well if diggers could search at a greater distance from Adelaide. Goldfields at a greater distance, he said, would be much better tested as miners would not be so ready to leave them, and with most land on leasehold, the obstruction of private property would be less frequent.

At the first anniversary of the discovery of the Barossa goldfield several celebrations were held on and off the field. Most of the afternoon was taken up with different sports, but at night a dinner was provided for Warden Peterswald and attended by about 50 men. A large number of speeches were made and even more toasts were given. Among some of them were, ‘to the gold mining interest of the Colony, especially that of the Barossa’, ‘the Land we live in’ and a special one ‘to Mr Goddard, through whose enterprise the field had been opened up’.

In March 1871 he visited the Ulooloo goldfield and reported that ‘the gold itself is one of the best samples I have seen in South Australia, rough, nuggetty, and very heavy, totally different from that found at the head of the creek’. Owing to the want of a cradle and proper appliances, considerably longer time was taken to obtain this than would have been the case had all conveniences been on the spot.

It was not until July 1871 that Peterswald reported that gold had been found at Blinman. Peterswald also had to say something about the lack of new gold discoveries. In one of his regular reports to the Commissioner of Crown Land he stated that ‘the pursuit of gold mining in South Australia laboured under a great many disadvantages, and those who were engaged in it had to contend with ridicule, apathy, and in some instances direct opposition of a great number of their fellow men, who were either too lazy to assist in the search themselves, too prejudiced against the gold bearing capabilities of the country, or whose interests were in direct opposition to the development of our gold resources’.

It is true he admitted, that ‘we have not as yet made any startling finds, but in all cases where anything like a rush had taken place the results had been far from contemptible’ On 5 October 1871 the third anniversary of the discovery of gold at Barossa was celebrated with an evening of entertainment at the Institute. Warden Peterswald presided and gave an appropriate address.

Meanwhile Peterswald, who had been stationed at different goldfields during these years, thought it better if he was based in Adelaide rather than on the Barossa or Echunga goldfield. Accordingly he applied on 2 January 1873 to the Commissioner of Crown Lands if this could be arranged. The Commissioner could see some sense and advantages in his proposal and granted his request.

From that date Peterswald was expected to be working in the Adelaide office on Mondays and the other days visiting Barossa, Mount Pleasant, Echunga and Meadows, or any other district as required, returning to Adelaide on Saturdays. Special authority would be needed to visit Outalpa or Ulooloo. Within a week though Peterswald requested permission to visit Ulooloo as he had ‘not been there since July 1872’ and as the leader of the government prospecting party was about to leave his job there it would be necessary to engage another man on the spot.

In late 1873 he resigned from his job and on 14 November a number of men met at the Prince Alfred Hotel to present him with a gold watch. The watch came from the establishment of Mr Wendt, and bore the following inscription: Presented to W. J. Peterswald, Esq., First Warden of South Australian Goldfields, by a number of friends connected with gold mining. Some of the present friends were; C Bray, M.P, W. H. Stratford, W, S. Whitington, J. Williams, H. Roberts, E.M. Bagot, J. Chambers, W. Harcus, B. Amsberg, J. L. Noltenius, W. H. Bean, J.C. Hawker, B. A. Noltenius, W. Wadham, and G. Mumme.

Edward Meade Bagot (SLSA)

Edward Meade Bagot (1822-1886) seated second from left, with his older sons - George Wallwall Bagot (1858-1919) standing in centre, Charles Mulchra Bagot (1863-1895) on his father's right, Richard Neetlee Bagot (1860-1934) in centre, and Edward Mead Bagot (1848- ) seated on right, possibly before he left for Undoolya.

In his speech Peterswald said; ‘I hardly know how to thank you sufficiently for the handsome present you have this day made me, and coming, as I see it does by the accompanying address from all classes of my fellow-colonists, it is more especially gratifying, showing me that I have not made myself popular with one class at the expense of another.

I cannot conclude without publicly thanking those gentlemen who have rendered me great and valuable assistance in carrying out my duties, chief amongst whom I have much pleasure in naming Mr. Stratford, whose indefatigable zeal in the cause of gold-mining no one knows better than myself.

Again thanking you for your kindness and good wishes, I take a final leave of the gold-mining interest, which I hope I may safely say has now taken a firm root in the colony, with every wish for its future success’. W. H. Stratford proposed ‘Success to the gold-mining industry of South Australia’. W. H. Bean thought that the gold-mining interest in South Australia was in a comparatively flourishing state and that with careful expenditure of money there would be a good return.

After his stint as Warden of Goldfields, Peterswald re-joined the police in 1874, eventually gaining the position of Commissioner of Police. Peterswald worked extremely hard and steered his men through ever-increasing responsibilities despite a constrained budget. He was liked and invited as an official guest on many occasions. Years later the Quiz newspaper would say that no party was complete without his presence. When the Glenelg Institute was opened on 19 October 1877, he was there with his wife and daughter.

During these years mounted police were stationed at the frontier of settlement in the Flinders Ranges and the South-East. As it expanded throughout Central Australia and the Northern Territory, Peterswald established a branch of native police there in 1884. In the 1880s Peterswald was instrumental in the re-arming of the Police Force. In early 1881 it was issued with 200 new Martini-Henry rifles with long bayonets, as used by the Volunteer Militia Forces. Peterswald also recommended that the Mounted Police be issued with the large new model Smith & Wesson revolver.

Peterswald in 1880 (SLSA)

In June 1881 Superintendent Peterswald was appointed Acting Commissioner of Police during the absence of George Hamilton. In 1884 he introduced revised uniforms and encouraged the formation of a Police Band from within the ranks of the Adelaide Metropolitan Foot Police, the first such band in Australia, under the leadership of Constable Robert Howlett.

Its original 14 members were given a bonus of six pennies per day and allowed four hours to practice per week. The Band quickly became very popular with the community and played in parks, gardens and more often than not at Vice Regal functions at Government House. On 1 March 1886 a Silver cup presented to Peterswald, at a dinner given by the Police and Registered Rifle Clubs.

William John Peterswald died on 28 August 1896, at age 66 in Adelaide. His lengthy and detailed obituary in the Chronicle of 5 September, stated, among other things that; Widespread regret will be felt at the death of William John Peterswald, which occurred on Sunday afternoon. There are few names better known in South Australia than his.

During the many years he presided over the Police Department he served the State faithfully and well, and became one of the most popular officials in the Civil Service, respected for his uniform courtesy and the fairness and impartiality which characterised all his dealings with the large body of men under his control.

Peterswald possessed a remarkable memory, which served him in good stead in connection with the apprehension or prosecution of criminals, and could remember the smallest detail of a case heard years ago. He took a special interest in the Criminal Investigation Department, and was very proud of the members of that branch. He was truly the father of the force, and any member of it who had a grievance knew that when making his statement to the Commissioner he would be treated with courtesy and justly dealt with.

Peterswald in 1882 (SLSA)

Peterswald had been suffering from diabetes, for which he had been treated by Dr Anstey Giles. He always looked the picture of health, but he was frequently in a weak state, and ultimately the insidious disease hastened his death. At the opening of the Grand National meeting of the Adelaide Racing Club about a month ago he complained to Dr Giles that he was troubled with a carbuncle on the back of his neck. This was an old complaint, and with medical aid it was removed.

He came from an old Silesian family, being a direct descendant of the Countess von Eickstedt. Peterswald was one of the progenitors of the present Bismarck family, which the great Iron Chancellor made famous. The late Mr Peterswald's grandfather fled to England from Germany (where he held a high position) for political reasons, and settled in Bath. There he married an English lady. He had two sons, John and William, both of whom went to the West Indies, and one of whom (William) was the father of our late Commissioner of Police.

When seven years of age young Peterswald was sent to the Edinburgh Academy to be educated, and a few years subsequently his parents also went home to Scotland, the emancipation of slaves and other causes conspiring to make such a step advisable. Young Peterswald's education was continued at the Military Academy, Edinburgh, and afterwards at St Peter's College, Guernsey.

The family, after living for some time in Scotland, removed to Liverpool, where William Peterswald died. After his father's death Peterswald went to the Continent and resided in Paris till 1848. He got mixed up with some political troubles in that city and went over to Jersey, where he remained for some time, and ultimately married Miss de St Croix, daughter of the magistrate of that beautiful island.

While residing in Jersey Peterswald had commanded the first rifle company attached to the Channel Islands Militia, and his military tastes were at all times pronounced. In 1852, attracted by the fame of the gold discoveries, he and his wife left Jersey for Adelaide where they arrived in May, 1853, on the ship Charlotte Jane. For the first seven years he was engaged in farming, and losing money, in the Munno Para East district.

For dairy farming, however, he had not the required experience. His first idea was to go on to Melbourne, but was persuaded to remain in South Australia. On the advice of a man who he thought was honestly his friend he invested money in dairy farming on a large scale, and leased some land on One Tree Hill, near Gawler, from his adviser, paying him a high rental. Knowing nothing of farming he became a prey to his employer, and in seven years was ruined.

He then removed to Adelaide, and was soon afterwards appointed assistant clerk to the House of Assembly. In 1862 the Inspector of Metropolitan Police was murdered at a sale at Government House by a discharged constable and Peterswald applied for and obtained the vacant post under Major Warburton. After four years' service he was obliged to resign that appointment owing to pecuniary difficulties arising out of his dairy farming operations.

Two years later he was appointed Warden of goldfields, having during the interval been variously employed in temporary Government situations. In 1873, in consequence of the disorganised state of the police force, he was advised to apply for his old position. He did and was reappointed. George Hamilton was then Commissioner. In May, 1882 Peterswald became Commissioner.

Since that time his career has been public property, and few public men have been so deservedly popular, both with the general public and his own immediate subordinates. He was fully justified in proudly saying that his untiring efforts to advance the police force of South Australia to the foremost rank amongst the colonial forces were successful, and that he leaves a body of men who for smartness and efficiency cannot be excelled.

For many years he was a very prominent mason, having helped to raise the first Royal Arch Chapter in the colony and until 1889 acted as a Sword bearer in the Grand Lodge of South Australia. He also helped to found the United Service Naval and Military Lodge, but at the time of his death he was only a private member of the United Service Lodge.

Many other obituaries and articles were printed by the different newspapers. An article in the Observer concluded with ‘that under his direction the Police Force of South Australia acquired that admirable efficiency which has caused it to be regarded in the other colonies as an object-lesson and an example’.

In social circles Peterswald would be greatly missed. He had been a hospitable host and a genial companion and his company was much sought after. In order to allow Civil Servants to attend his funeral at the North Road Cemetery, Government Offices were closed from 11 till 2 o'clock. The Procession was a very large one, as Peterswald had been popular in private life as well as in official circles. A body of mounted and foot police, including many officers from the country attended the service.

The funeral took place on Wednesday morning, and was attended by a large number of civil servants, military officers and the general public. The Police Band played the ‘Dead March in Saul' as the procession wended its way to the North-Road Cemetery.

Police Band and Peterswald in 1895 (SLSA)

The Government issued instructions to allow all police inspectors, officers and men who could be spared from the suburbs and country to attend and take part in the cortege. A large number did and though it was not a state funeral it certainly looked like one and was the largest ever witnessed in the colony. The burial was conducted with police, military, and naval honours.

Later it was reported that the Government was in no hurry to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Peterswald. Several names were mentioned in connection with the selection of a successor. Some imagined that Colonel Gordon, the Commandant, would be asked to undertake the duties in conjunction with his military work, while the name of G. L. Reed, the Chief Clerk in the Commissioner's office, was also freely mentioned. Mr. B. P. Hunt, of Gladstone, was the senior Inspector in the force.

Emily May Peterswald died at her residence, Buxton Street, North Adelaide, on 19 April 1916, at the age of 83. The late Major Ernest Peterswald was her eldest son and spent his early life at sea in the merchant service, and to this fact no doubt was due his love for yachting, in which pastime he evinced great interest for many years, and he was extremely popular amongst yachtsmen.

Upon relinquishing a seafaring life, Ernest went to the Northern Territory, where he remained for some time before joining the Customs Department. Subsequently he was appointed to a responsible position in the Surveyor-General's Department, but on account of ill-health he had to retire.

Ernest, like his father, was a military enthusiast and he enjoyed great popularity amongst the officers and men associated with him in the company to which he belonged. He held the post of Major in the 3rd Battalion, which was formed under Lieutenant-Colonel Lovely. He died on 30 August 1897, leaving a widow, but no children. The other surviving members of the Peterswald family were: Mrs. W. B. Wilkinson, Mrs. Frank S Toms, Messrs. Arthur (English and Scottish Bank), John (New South Wales Mounted Police), and Frank Peterswald (H.M. Customs), and Miss Florence Peterswald, of North Adelaide.


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