ALEXANDER TOLMER (1815-1890)



Alexander Tolmer was born in London in 1815 of French parents,
and was educated in England. When he was 15 he ran away to sea.
However his career as a cabin boy was short lived,
and he returned home to England,
where he joined the British Cavalry, 16th Lancers and
served in Portugal with distinction.
His horsemanship saw him promoted to the rank of Corporal
at the age of 17. During this campaign he was wounded twice,
firstly at Campo Gronda, and again at Torres Novas.

After this campaign he returned to his family
where he was welcomed.However his father
returned him to school. Somewhat a let down
after his adventures as a Lancer.
He involved himself in a clandestine relationship with Mary Carter
When her father discovered this - the two eloped.
Alexander Tolmer rejoined the Lancers again in England
and shortly after was again promoted to the rank
of Corporal and then to Sergeant.

For family reasons he was encouraged to emigrate
to South Australia - the free colony of the great south land.
Tolmer, accompanied by his wife Mary Dunning nee CARTER,
their son Alexander Henry Dunning Tolmer, and her sister Eliza Carter
left Gravesend, England on September 4th, 1839
in the barque BRANKENMOOR.
En route, Tolmer got into a fight with some Portuguese while in port
and again had an altercation with the ships mate.
His reputation as a brawler was becoming entrenched.

They arrived on the barque BRANKENMOOR on February 4th, 1840.
Their luggage was "thrown promiscuously on to the muddy beach"
by cheerful sailors who carried the ladies and children ashore
from the boats. The men were usually obliged to wade through the mud.
British to the last, they carried parasols to protect themselves
from the sun. It took the immigrants two hours in a bullock dray
to reach Adelaide. The mosquitoes were so fierce that Tolmer's wife
begged him to light his pipe in an attempt to ward them off.

Police Commissioner Tolmer - Adelaide 1852
(His medal - the Tower and Sword
awarded to him by the Portuguese)

Alexander Tolmer's wife Mary was aged 53
when she died at Dingley Dell, County of Robe in 1867.
Alexander died in 1890 aged 74,
and was buried a pauper
at the Mitcham Cemetery in South Australia.

Alexander Tolmer's regimental colonel, Colonel Brotherton
gave him a letter of introduction to
the Lieutenant Governor of South Australia,
Colonel Gawler. Both of these gentlemen had served together
at Waterloo. Tolmer's introduction to Gawler was
to lead him on many adventures.

Arriving in South Australia on February 4th, 1840,
Tolmer presented his letter to Colonel Gawler,
where he was received kindly. Almost immediately
he was offered a commission as a sub-inspector of police.
However this occurred the wrath of Superintendent Henry Inman,
Officer in Charge of the police force as Inspector and Superintendent
from the formation of the Force in 1838 until 1840, and had already
noted Tolmer's brashness.

On February 19th 1940, at the age of just 25,
Tolmer's promotion took effect.
Alexander Tolmer, the dashing but ill-starred Inspector,
wrote in his 'Reminiscences' that "the state of crime
in the colony when I joined the police was appauling"
and claimed he was the scourge of bushrangers.
By the 1840s Adelaide authorities saw Kangaroo Island
as a dangerous place populated by sealers, whalers, ex-convicts
and runaways and considered it a threat to the security of the
State's legitimate settlers. Inspector Alexander Tolmer
was given the job of extending the long arm of the law
to Kangaroo Island and led several police raids on remote parts
of the coastline. In July 1840 Commissioner/Major O'Halloran,
Inspector Tolmer, 12 police and a Mr Pullen were sent
by Governor Gawler to investigate the massacre of the passengers
and crew off the MARIA on the Younghusband Peninsula.

In his 'Reminiscences' Alexander Tolmer claimed that he was
the founder of trotting races in Adelaide. He told some of
his tallest stories about his success in steeple chasing over
the foothills, and claimed to have tames a magnificent animal
with which he won a large wager by trotting the length of the
metropolitan beaches, despite many obstacles, within a set time.   

As the fledgling State progressed many appointments were made quickly
and without proper selection procedures. If you had been a military man
it would guarantee you a fine post in this new land.
In June 1840, Major Thomas Shouldham O'Halloran, one of the original
Board of Commissioners, was first to bear the title of Commissioner of Police
the first paid officer in that capacity - after which the old Board was dissolved.
The Commissioner of Police was the sole source of orders from the Government
to which he was responsible for the efficiency and discipline of the Police Force.
Two other men, Matthew Smith and William Field Porter, were appointed District
Commissioners for the Port Lincoln district at the same time, as because of its distance
from Adelaide, decentralisation of administration was necessary.

Governor Gawler was replaced by Sir George Grey who realised the province
was insolvent. In 1843 he considerably reduced the size of the Police Force,
and decided that the Police Commissioner, having reduced administrative
responsibilities, had time to hear charges of minor offences.
In May 1843, Major O'Halloran was directed by the Governor
to hear criminal cases. He refused and resigned.

Lt Colonel Boyle Travers Finnis (a career soldier, previously Deputy Surveyor General under Col. William Light) was appointed Police Commissioner and Police Magistrate in 1843. At first he heard only charges of minor offences under the several Police Acts but gradually, sitting with two Justices of the Peace, he undertook more and more of the Resident Magistrate's work. Subsequent Police Commissioners, Captain Dashwood
and Alexander Tolmer also acted as Police Magistrate.
Captain Dashwood also sat at Port Adelaide as Police Magistrate.
He was then appointed Stipendiary Magistrate at Port Adelaide
(and was there for a little over twelve months)
before returning to the post of Police Commissioner in October 1850.

Prior to 1841, troopers were quartered in public houses or private lodgings,
but in that year new barracks were prepared on the north side of North Terrace
near Kintore Avenue. The new barracks comprised two wings, each containing three small rooms, one of which was set apart as a guard room, cook house and mess room. Three were sleeping apartments. The other two in the west wing were especially made over for use by Alexander Tolmer when he was Inspector of Police. The stables extended from wing to wing and were built of broad palings, affording accommodation for about twenty horses, with a loft above for hay. At this time the first Police Station, which contained four cells and was officially described as a 'lock up house', was erected in the parklands near the site of the Aser Centre.
Tolmer was not a man to remain in an office either. He had in his charge
the mounted troopers and other police stationed throughout the country areas
of South Australia - and led his men on many excursions to recapture escaped convicts
from the penal colonies, who had travelled overland to the fledgling State.

By 1850 the colony of South Australia was in difficulty. Unemployment had risen to over 7,000.
Crime was rife as result, and the governor was desperate to resolve the impending disaster.
The situation was relieved with the discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851.
By early 1852, about 20,000 men, most of the male population had been lured over the border
to the booming Victorian Goldfields. There was a major crossing at Wellington on the River Murray.
From here there was an overland route through the 90 Mile Desert to Portland on the coast - west of Melbourne.
This was the only known route to the gold fields. A round trip of some 600 miles. A darn long way to walk
in any case, from Adelaide to Victoria. The problem was that the only route at the time was around the coast.

RR Torrens described the situation in 1852:
"Mining and other productive operations requiring numerous hands were suspended. Property of every description was suddenly depreciated, but especially fixed property. Houses, now tenantless, and fields, for the cultivation
of which farm labourers could no longer be procured, were offered for sale for sums equivalent to no more than two or three years' of the previous rental. Adelaide throughout the entire day resembled the cities of Southern Europe
at the hour of siesta. Grass did not spring up in her streets; drought prevented it."

Adelaide, the capital of the colony of South Australia was almost a ghost town. Everywhere shops were empty,
their windows boarded up. Brief signs were often seen hastily tacked to doors "Gone to the diggings," said it all.
No one remained to bring in the harvest or work the Kapunda and Burra mines, which closed as a result.
Even worse, the fledgling colony was drained of its currency, which men took with them in gold sovereigns
as they headed to the gold fields. The banks, having extended credit, were now having trouble with repayments.
The colony depended on its note issues, but legally required them to be matched by a gold coin reserve
which was close to depletion and would soon be withdrawn.

In an attempt to counter the rush to Victoria, the South Australian government offered a reward of 1000 for the discovery of a goldfield in the colony. Everyone from artists to actors tried their hand at finding a fortune for the southern colony. Unfortunately no one qualified for the reward which stipulated the field "must produce gold to the value of 10,000 within two months". After a short time a trickle of gold began to come back into South Australia. Thousands of families had no money to spend. They were relying on their men to provide them with an income and the gold was to provide that. An assay office was quickly set up in King William Street, and business was brisk from the day the office opened. However with this new found wealth and with the men sending their gold home to their families came the inevitable escapee and the odd bushranger who roamed the dusty bushland tracks and few escaped their depredations.   

ALEXANDER TOLMER, appointed Commissioner of Police in 1852, recognised that this new found wealth would need to be protected and wrote to Chief Secretary Finniss suggesting that a gold escort of mounted troopers accompany the Police cart to the Mount Alexander gold fields in Victoria to collect parcels of gold dust and transport them to Adelaide.

With the colony almost bankrupt Sir Henry Young, the newly appointed Governor, was obliged to make many cuts to Government spending. While Tolmer was moving to expand his force - Young was moving to decimate it. Young ordered Tolmer to dismiss 30 mounted and foot police at the end of the month. Both letters crossed and Tolmer was called to a meeting as a result. However Tolmer accepted that he would reduce his numbers but would also continue to form a Gold Escort for the wealth that lay across the border to be escorted home in safety, with approval. Fortunately the Governor agreed, and instructed the Surveyor General, Captain Freeling to prepare a party to find a quicker route to the Mount Alexander Gold Fields. The first escort, led by Commissioner Tolmer, left Adelaide in February 1852.

By drawing on the experience of those returned from the diggings, and on the knowledge of Aboriginals and squatters along the way, ALEXANDER TOLMER, then Commissioner of Police, quickly organised the appropriate troopers for the gold escort, and charted the best and quickest route between Adelaide and the Victorian gold fields.

The proposed route from Adelaide led to Wellington where the Murray River was crossed by ferry. It then progressed in a south-easterly direction, following closely what is now the Duke's Highway through Coonalpyn and Keith, entering Victoria at what is now Bordertown. The route continued in an easterly direction through Horsham to the Mount Alexander diggings near Bendigo. The distance of approximately 360 miles (579 kilometres) could be covered in ten days if the weather conditions were favourable and no mishaps occurred on the way.

Within a few days he was on his way with his entourage. Some references indicate he dashed off through the scrub with a "strong spring cart" and a police escort. They camped on the banks of the Murray River that night, and the next day set off to the south east into unchartered country. It was extremely hot and the going was tough. The party carried some water with them, and were relying on finding supplies of water as they progressed. Progress in the initial days was as slow as 16 miles or as fast as 32 miles. The terrain was flat - but the sand deep and it was hard going at times. Amazingly, the area was well settled and a number of sheep runs had been established right into the Tatiara, known by the local aborigines as "The Good Country".

It had rained overnight for the entire night on the second night out and that consequently guaranteed a good supply of water lay ahead of them. Each night as they progressed that camped where there was plentiful grass and water for the horses.

They reached the "Border Town" late in the afternoon of the 4th day. This was a staging area for bullock drays and teamsters. Water and grass was plentiful here. Bordertown (in South Eastern South Australia) was first settled in the 1840s when grazing leases were taken out by Loudon McLeod (Nalang Station), John and Charles Scott (Cannawigara Station) and John Binnie (Wirrega Station). Around this time the area was known as 'tatiara' which was supposedly a local Aboriginal name for 'good country'. Like its name (which is unambiguously descriptive although the town is 19 km from the border) Bordertown was a very conscious creation. In July 1852, 120 allotments were sold (the cost was 50 shillings for a quarter acre block) 'near Scott's wool shed

Note: Tolmer was apparently very upset when, even though the town was not on the border, the authorities still decided to call it Bordertown. He thought it should be called Tolmer. A Park at Bordertown, and a Rest Area at Serviceton (a tiny railway town on the South Australian border) have both established where the gold escort crossed the border in 1852 and 1853, and named after Alexander Tolmer.
Next morning they headed off towards the Little Desert and crossed that without incident, crossing the Wimmera River without incident, arriving at the small hamlet of Horsham. This was a small village with no more than 18 mean dwellings, and was again a staging station for teamsters and drovers.

On to the Pyrenees, where they were able to cross through a gap at Moonambel, and forded the Avoca River just north of the present town of Avoca. Near Bet Bet they crossed the Bullock Track that had been cut by Major Mitchell on his way north in 1836. To the east Mount Alexander towered before them. It stood out clearly and the party camped on the banks of the Loddon River that evening, just a few miles from their destination.

Next morning, after ten strenuous days Tolmer and his men rode into Campbell's Creek and Forest Creek. Here they were met by scores of welcoming diggers, eager to get their gold back home to their families. The arrival of Tolmer and his troopers on the Mount Alexander Gold Fields created quite a talking point among the diggers. Tolmer was well known in the colony of South Australia - and many recognised him immediately. Word spread quickly, and the local Gold Commissioner, Captain Wright invited Commissioner Tolmer to dinner at Castlemaine, to discuss the purpose of his presence with South Australian Mounted Troopers on the Victorian Gold Fields. Tolmer duly attended and was cordially entertained in the officer's mess by Captain Wright and other officials. Wright enquired the purpose of Tolmer's presence and Tolmer was frank and open with Wright. Explaining that the South Australian Colonial Secretary Lt Col Finniss had written to the Victorian Government advising of the purpose of the trip, Wright graciously accepted the word of a fellow officer.

There was of course some disquiet among some of the other officers, in particular one Captain Lonsdale, the newly appointed Colonial Treasurer of Victoria, who refused to recognise Tolmer's commission, and purpose. His pedantic behaviour was ignored by Tolmer, but it was noticed by Captain Wright and others.

Tolmer returned to the police camp at Mount Alexander the next day and issued instructions to place notices on trees throughout the diggings - notifying of the purpose of his presence - to convince the diggers to entrust their gold to him, offering 72/- an ounce for assayed gold - at least 12/- better than the Melbourne price. While waiting he visited several diggers from South Australia, and at one site was winched down to a level about 15 feet below the surface - where in less than 10 minutes he picked about ounce of gold from the side of the shaft. Then the owners of the shaft offered the claim to him for 5. Tolmer declined the offer. He spoke at several gatherings advising of the South Australian Government's intentions to provide escorts for the gold back "home". Usually mounting a dray he would stand as an imposing figure in his uniform as he addressed the diggers.

Within a few days, gold was being accepted at the police camp at Mount Alexander. There was a lot of gold that the South Australian "crow-eaters", as they were known even then, has taken from the ground. At the end of the first day of weighing and issuing receipts, the long line of diggers waiting patiently was still in place. They had taken gold from 276 diggers on that first day. At the end of the next day, Tolmer realised that he could not safely take more gold from the many that had lined up for hours.

The dray that he intended to transport the gold back to South Australia was light and the numbers of troopers limited. His decision not to accept any more gold was not well accepted, at least initially, until he promised to have another gold escort return within the month. He was known as a man of his word, and his word was accepted.

The evening before his departure he was again invited to the officers mess for dinner, by Captain Wright. During the evening Captain Lonsdale asked Tolmer just how much gold he had taken from the diggers. Tolmer said, "Is that question put officially?" Lonsdale replied, "Certainly." Tolmer retorted, "Sir, the other night you refused to acknowledge my position under the South Australian Government, so I must decline to give you that information." Lonsdale glared - but Wright and others grinned wryly and the moment dissipated.

Next morning Tolmer penned a note to Captain Lonsdale, advising him that the total amount of gold to be transported back to South Australia was 5,750 ounces. As the weekly gold escort to Melbourne was in the vicinity of 13,000 ounces, Tolmer knew that this would not cause alarm. On the 5th of March Tolmer and his armed party left for home carrying 5199 ounces of gold valued at eighteen thousand four hundred and fifty six pounds (18,356)

The gold escort was proceeding west through the diggings when Tolmer caught up to it the next morning. Three diggers had joined the entourage returning home with the escort for added protection. As they proceeded west to the foothills of the Pyrenees Ranges, towards the end of the second day, they made for the Four Posts Inn, at Glenorchy. Tolmer had been previously warned that this was a hang out for bushrangers, and this was the most likely place to expect trouble. He rode directly up to the front of the premises and as he arrived, six of the most unsavoury characters emerged from the front of the Inn and stood on the verandah.

Tolmer dismounted, approached them and casually asked which of them would attempt to take him and his escort. In fact he goaded them. Ordering a bottle of brandy, he walked outside and by military order, provided a nip for each of his officers - who dismounted by order and marched forward to accept the brandy. The six would-be villains watched this procedure in awe. At the conclusion Tolmer mounted his horse and the party rode off. The boldness shown had the desired effect and the "would-be robbers" were not seen.

The travelling was excellent throughout the Wimmera and the Tatiara, which he described as excellent country. There was plenty of water and feed throughout. The difficult country was the Little Sandy Desert, and the stretch from the Tatiara to the River Murray - due to the deep sand. They made it to the Murray River and the punt crossing at Wellington. From there it was through safe country home, with Tolmer took particular note of many things during this escort.

Just west of the Tatiara the party was approached by a lone rider, called Taylor. He had been sent by the South Australian Register, the daily Adelaide newspaper, to enquire as to the day Tolmer would arrive in Adelaide. Tolmer advised him that it would be the 19th March. Tolmer kept this appointment.

When the party reached Crafers, at the highest point crossing the Adelaide hills they were met by a large contingent of well wishers, riders and drays. They accompanied the escort into the city and with Tolmer riding triumphantly at the head of the party he stopped in King William Street at the Treasury Building, where a large group of dignitaries including Sir Henry Young, Finniss and Hanson were waiting. After the usual speeches - three cheers were called for with thunderous response.

The first deposits of gold were made on February 10, 1852, amounting to 2910 ounces. Monthly deposits were made from the Mt Alexander gold fields until the end of 1853. During the two years that the scheme was in operation, 18 escorts transported gold dust to the value of approximately 1.2 million pounds from the gold fields to South Australia. This first of eighteen successful escorts saved the infant colony from bankruptcy, carrying a total of 328502 ounces or about 12 tons of gold, worth at that time one million one hundred and eighty two thousand pounds. It also pioneered the most direct route from Victoria to South Australia and also carried the overland mail.

Thanks to the vision and bravery of ALEXANDER TOLMER in organising the gold escort - against the odds, certainly saved the city of Adelaide from bankruptcy in the nick of time. Before Tolmer arrived back with the first gold, discussions had been going on about abandoning the colony. Had he failed it was almost certain this decision would have been implemented. Tolmer's foresight helped the almost bankrupt colony to recover from its position. Struggling wives left behind by their men who went to the goldfields and sent home much needed gold that was readily converted into money, so long outstanding bills could be paid. Traders and bankers alike, were relieved by the actions of one man. A man who came from humble beginnings - but who held the respect of many of the simple settlers of the young colony.

In all, the first gold escort returned with hree hundred parcels of gold dust over worth 18,456, deposited by 318 diggers. Considering that Tolmer used the same horses for the entire trip was a unique feat in inself. His horsemanship and understanding of men and their limitations were exceptional. His recommendations were mostly accepted by the Government. These included the appointment of a resident South Australian Gold Commissioner to accept gold ready for the escorts so time would not be lost. Tolmer had opened up a significant route to the gold fields and to the eastern States in general. His contribution to the colony was inestimable.

Tolmer's life after this event was most eventful. After reading his 'Reminiscences' and weighing the possibilities, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he must have upset some influential members of the Establishment, and they decided to get rid of him. There's no shortage of candidates. Whilst Police Magistrate, he once threatened an Attorney General with gaol for contempt of Court. A member of the Legislative Council tried unsuccessfully to send sell him third-rate horses for the gold escort. Tolmer was an accomplished illustrationist and many of his drawings remain in archives and galleries, to this day. The Surveyor General's dignity was upset when his plan for a city bridge was passed over for Tolmer's cheaper more workable plan.

It is also possible there were those who had disagreed with Tolmer's appointment in the first place. Previous Police Commissioners had all come from the Old Boy network - the Establishment or those closely connected with it. Tomler was the first to be appointed from the ranks of serving police officers. True, he was an ex-Army officer, but a 'non-commissioned' officer. There may have been some who were simply envious of his popularity following the success of the gold escorts, or were fearful that it might interfere with their own chances of preferment. Tolmer's memoirs all point to a man who threw himself into the job at hand with tremendous enthusiasm, giving it all he had, to the extent of laying his life on the line if necessary. Bluntness and an inability to suffer fools gladly, would go naturally with such a temperament, and his career saw more downs than ups.

For all this, Tolmer received only a Testimonial.

Tolmer was promoted to Superintendent in early 1855. Unfortunately he and Commissioner P. Egerton Warburton did not get along very well and after only a year Tolmer was dismissed in March 1856. One of the possible reasons for the dismissal could have been Tolmer's quick temper. Having fallen foul of the authorities, Inspector Tolmer became inspired with John McDoull Stuart's success in explorating. Mr Hodder drily put it "Mr Tolmer started to cross the continent, but soon returned."

Mr Tolmer formed a Native Police 1853 Force, and was instrumental in saving the ailing economy of the State by organising the Gold Escorts. He visited Melbourne and returned to Adelaide on board the WHITE SWAN on August 20, 1856. Although dismissed, Alexander Tolmer remained a public servant. In October 1859 he was in the Northern Flinders Ranges at Mount Serle. One of his appointments was that of Crown Land Ranger on 4 April 1863.
In 1868 he was stationed at Robe.

He died on March 7 1890 at the age of 74 and was buried at the Mitcham Cemetery.
His son James Douglas TOLMER had the same problem and while droving cattle from Innamincka to Farina in 1893 killed an Aborigine after 'they had a few words'.
ALEXANDER TOLMER's brother-in-law, Mounted Constable John Dunning Carter 22, tumbled out of a bark canoe on the River Murray on May 7, 1847.